I am standing in the window of the tower at an artist’s colony in upstate New York, and I am looking down at the fountain behind the mansion because I can think of nothing to write today. That’s why I’m here, I’m supposed to be writing.
The man is walking toward the fountain, and the sky is blue. He stops at the wall and looks at the sculpture of two nude nymphs and a satyr that lies against the woods under the mountain.
In his pressed white jacket the man leaves the fountain, and the sky is still blue. The man stops beneath me on the lawn. He is waiting. The wall stops as well and surrounds the white sculpture of two nude nymphs and the satyr who lie beside the woods under the mountain. In the other rooms of the mansion people are writing things, and in the studios on the grounds artists are painting and sculptors are sculpting.
No one is left to look at the fountain, and the sky is less blue. One nymph stands and yawns in the white sculpture of two nudes and a smiling satyr lying beside the woods under the mountain. The first nymph stretches her arms above the fountain, and now the sky is clouding. The other trails her fingers in the green hue of the pool where the nymphs and satyr lie beside the woods beneath the mountain.
Above, I stand in the tower window watching. I should be sitting before my laptop tapping on the keys, listening to the patter of words falling onto the virtual page, but the mist of the water in the fountain is a curtain, and the sky is clouding.
The man in the jacket returns to the sculpture where the two nude nymphs and the satyr lie still beside the woods beneath the mountain. The mist of the water is a curtain, and the sky is cloudy. Now a girl trails her fingers in the aquamarine of the pool where the nymphs and the satyr lie beside the woods by the still mountain, where the man stands looking at the sculpture and at the girl as I stand watching rather than writing in the tower window.
Bottom row: Sandra Kettelhut, Georgia Bradley, Frederick Flatow, Pierre Bennerup; second row: Unknown, Philip Ashton, Judith Nott, Arthur Von Au; third row: Bobby Robins, Dorothy Pearson, Paul Wiese; top row: Lewis Turco, Marie Delemarre, Dorcas Kimball.
PIERRE OF SUNNY BORDER
It was a Halloween party at Pierre's home in Kensington in the fall of 1950 that gave me the material for my first great literary success. I had gotten to know Pierre when he and his family lived on South Vine Street in Meriden, Connecticut. He attended Meriden High School during our sophomore year, 1949-50, but even then his father owned the Sunny Border Nursery a few miles down the Chamberlain Highway, which is where Pierre and his family moved before our junior year.
During the intervening summer, however, I got to know the nursery well, for I sometimes worked there with Pierre and Bent, a narrow immigrant Dane who was one of two or three full-time employees. I recall Bent as a simple, silent man whose unvarying lunch, on those steaming hot days in the barn and the fields, was a Hershey Bar sandwich.
Pierre's father was a Dane as well, but his mother was a full-blooded French woman. I liked them both. The father struck me as being the epitome of Danishness: slender, not talkative, but not unapproachable, either. He had blue eyes and light brown hair; he was intelligent and efficient. The mother, on the other hand, was sweet and excitable. She spoke in a rapid, heavily-accented English, and she seemed always in a flutter over something or other.
Lillian, Pierre's sister, was two or three years older than we and she was ravishingly beautiful, I thought. She turned me into a bashful and awkward preadolescent whenever she appeared, a feature of her presence that filled me with chagrin.
Pierre and I used to go out into the dark fields in the simmering evenings and play juvenile games like hide-and-seek. Another thing we liked to do was to sneak up on the cars of petting teen-agers parked along the dirt road that skirted the nursery. One dark night we slunk through the fringe of woods to within a few yards of such a car, close enough to eavesdrop on the conversation of the couple who occupied the front seat. The girl was saying, "What are you doing? Leave my buttons alone. Stop it!"
The boy replied, "Button, button, who's got the button?"
She kept protesting, but not very seriously, and he kept repeating his phrase until Pierre and I couldn't stand it anymore. My hand was resting on a large stone, so I lifted it, arose, heaved it and shouted, "Button, button, who's got the friggin' button?" The stone went crashing through the trees and so did Pierre and I, in the opposite direction, snirtling and giggling.
I was to turn sixteen on the second of May of 1950, and I had determined to buy a car, a 1940 Chevrolet, from one of my older co-workers at Kresge's Five and Ten Cent Store, where I had spent part of the school year as busboy at the fountain. I had been saving my money, and, in order to eke out these sums to reach the $350.00 I needed, I had decided to sell my tropical fish and equipment which stood on tables in the sunporch of the parsonage where I lived with my minister father and missionary mother.
I shared the room with my father, who had a private sanctum behind some bookcases there. I would sometimes spend an evening dreaming into the murky light seeping out of the thick glass of a tank full of angel fish or gouramis, the night outdoors lapping at the windows like dark water. To passers-by perhaps I looked like an aquarian myself. I could hear my father nearby working on the sermons he would deliver on Sunday in the pulpit of the white-clapboarded First Italian Baptist Church that stood next door. A green, glass-shaded lamp on one of the bookcases dropped its liquid glow onto his head and mine, though we couldn't see each other. The light seemed filtered through decaying vegetation. Later, when I left home, I would dream of that room.
In the dream I would be seated before the aquaria. It would be night. The fish would be swimming in their dark waters, and as I watched, they would swim up into the air of the room and maneuver about me. There was no boundary between surface and fathom. I would look into the largest aquarium, trace the leaves of the rust-colored sword plant to its root, and there I would see my father's skull half-buried in the gravel, the stalk of the plant growing out of his eyesocket. It wasn't a pleasant dream, nor was it a nightmare. The emotions I felt were those of nostalgia and ruefulness, of some sort of vague longing and regret. Still, I didn't enjoy the dream's recurrence, and at last I exorcised it unwittingly by writing a poem about it.
To prepare for my purchasing the car Pierre would sometimes let me practice driving the stick-shift truck that belonged to the nursery. I remember our sitting on the front seat the first time, Pierre beside me, and his telling me, "Now, shift into low, and let out the clutch at the same time that you press down on the accelerator." The resulting series of lurches and bumps tossed the truck along the dirt road and our bodies into the air of the cab and from side to side.
"Slow! Slow! Let it out slow!" Pierre yelled, gasping. At last we came to rest. Eventually, after many hazards were passed, I learned how to shift.
My birthday came; another friend, Curt, the baritone in our high school barbershop quartet, The Sportlanders, let me borrow his mother's car to take the road test in — I don't recall why the Chevy wasn't available that day. Curt's car was a '46 Ford with lots more oomph than mine had. The moment I slid in to take the examination was actually the first time I'd been behind the car's wheel, and its responses were so much greater than expected that I had to apologize to the driving inspector and explain why I was roaring backward into my parallel-parking slot and burning rubber when I took off. To my amazement, and to Curt's, I passed the test on first try. That same week I bought the Chevy, the only automobile my family had while I lived at home, and I was born into freedom even though the engine burned nearly as much oil as it did gas.
It must have been that same summer of 1950 when Pierre and his family moved permanently out to Kensington from Meriden, but that didn't sever the ties he had with his friends. By no means. He was around almost as much after the move as he had been before it, for he owned a car as well. There were many, many days when I traveled to Kensington, alone or with a load of Fantaseers — our high school "science-fiction reading club," or Pierre came to Meriden. Pierre was one of the original Fantaseers which, with its women's auxiliary, the Reesatnafs, made up the famous Fantatnafs. It was the Fantatnafs who filled the Sunny Border Nurseries barn that Halloween.
Paul hung on the rafters and made noises like a monkey while he scratched under his arms. I tasted black coffee with sugar for the first time that night, drinking it with fresh doughnuts made by Pierre's mother, and became an addict. We sang songs and bobbed for apples, swilled cider, played games, ate candy, and raised Hob.
Halloween was on a Tuesday that year, so the next day was a school day. I spent it writhing in bed, however, for I had the most tremendous bellyache. "You ate too much candy last night," my mother said. "Let me give you an enema." It was her standard cure for stomach troubles.
"It's not an ordinary stomach ache," I said. "Please, take me to the doctor." It was an amazing thing for me to request, but for some reason she'd have no part of it. I'd merely overeaten.
On the other hand, I'd have no part of an enema. By mid-afternoon my father was beginning to think that perhaps I had something more than merely a gut gripe after all. At last he helped me out to a taxi. I was nearly doubled in half.
When the doctor saw me he prodded me a bit on the right side and I groaned in anguish. He looked at my father and said, "Acute appendicitis. He'll have to be operated on immediately." I can recollect the look of astonishment and anger — at my mother, probably — in Daddy's eyes. And so I was rushed off to the hospital.
When I came out of the anesthetic I was sicker than when I'd gone under it. I vomited green bile, and with every heave my new stitches strained and an agony of excruciating pain bloomed in my abdomen, but at long last things calmed down and I no longer wished to die.
In those days one had to remain in hospital for a week after an appendectomy, and one wasn't allowed to walk for two or three days, so I was given a wheelchair. At once I was a traffic menace to my floor. I sailed down the halls at a great rate, turning in and out of doors, around corners, visiting everyone, nearly knocking a doctor down on one occasion, but he stepped aside at the last moment as I rounded a bend and cried, "Whoa! Sorry." No one seemed to get angry with me. I asked all the young nurses to marry me.
My chastened mother came to visit every day with my rueful father. The Fantaseers and the Reesatnafs came to see me after school. Eventually I was allowed to go home. When I got back to class I discovered that Doc Michele, our junior-year English teacher, had given the class an assignment to write an essay on a personal experience. I had plenty of material, so I sat down at my father's old Underwood Standard typewriter in the sunporch behind the bookcases, and I hunted-and-pecked off a piece I titled "Appendix Excitis."
Life went on. I commissioned Pierre, an artist whose medium, in those days, was oils, to paint me a scene of horror, the details of which I specified, for I was nothing if not addicted to tales of terror and the supernatural as well as science fiction. I recall that one feature of the painting was a disgusting pool of slime out of which a clawed arm was reaching toward the corpse of a hanged man that dangled above the tarn. I hung it on the wall of my bedroom and was thoroughly delighted with it. My mother hated it and threatened all kinds of destruction, which I didn't take seriously. She wouldn't dare touch anything of mine.
At least, she wouldn't while I was at home, but time passed and I graduated from high school. Pierre did as well, from Kensington High, and he attended Princeton where he became an English major which surprised me, for I thought he had some talent as an artist. I am writing this in September of 1991, and yesterday I had a request from a publisher to send some family photographs to use as illustrations in a forthcoming collection of my poems. I found one picture, from the early 1960s, not that I wanted to send but to contemplate. It is of my dear old friend and mentor, the late Loring Williams. He is sitting on a couch in our apartment in Cleveland. My two-year-old daughter Melora is standing next to him on the couch. Her mouth is open — she is talking, he is listening. Above his head, hanging on the wall, I notice today, are two pictures. One is a stylized picture of "Blue Dogs" by the tenor in the Sportlanders, Tony, who went to Pratt institute and became an advertising executive. The other is a roofscape in sunlit white by Pierre. I haven't seen that picture in years, but I'm sure we still have it hidden away somewhere, and I still like it.
One day a decade or so earlier I had come back from the Navy on leave or liberty, and I noticed that Pierre's depiction of the hanging man was missing from its wonted space on my wall. I asked my mother what had happened to it, and she replied that she'd carried out her threat and thrown it away. At first I couldn't believe she'd done so, and I searched through the house, but I never found it. I know it was a stupid painting, but I would like to have it, and I never forgave my mother for the only act of censorship she ever carried out against her son's taste in art or literature.
Pierre worked for several years in New York and then when his father died he came back to Connecticut and took over the nursery. He is still there, so far as I know, but we've not seen each other or had contact with one another for a quarter-century. My wife Jean and I seldom get back to Meriden anymore, but one of those times many years ago I heard, perhaps from my brother Gene who followed my tracks into the hallowed halls of Meriden High which now no longer exists, that for years Doc Michele read "Appendix Excitis" to her English classes. It was, I understand, the only essay by a former student that she ever read to any of them. She never told me she was doing it, but I must say I couldn't have been more pleased when I heard what she'd been up to, for I respected her immensely. I wish I still owned a copy of that ancient paper, but I must not have made a carbon as I usually did. I'd really like to see what all the excitement was about. And I wish I still had Pierre’s genre painting.
The poetry reading by contributors to Obsession:Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Carolyn Beard Whitlow and Marilyn Krysl, with an Afterword by Lewis Putnam Turco, Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2014, took place at Bestsellers Cafe in Medford, MA, at 2:00 p.m. on 19 July 2014. Above, left to right: Barbara J. Orton, organizer of the session, Alfred Nicol, Lewis Turco, Ada J. Schneider, Michael Cantor, Jeffrey Harrison, Rhina P. Espaillat, and Ruth Foley. Lewis Turco opened the program:
INTRODUCTION TO OBSESSION
By Lewis Turco
Although I knew neither Carolyn Beard Whitlow nor Marilyn Krysl, when they wrote to ask for my help in organizing and publishing their anthology, Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century, I was inclined to agree because it was fairly obvious that my sestina, “The Obsession,” had had some sort of influence on the book to begin with. In any case, I have seldom said “no” to anyone who had a poetry project that looked interesting.
Therefore, I accepted, and the editors sent me their typescript. When we three had finished diddling with it I suggested they send it to the publisher of my text The Book of Forms, a boutique organization called the University Press of New England which has as its base the Dartmouth College Press. Dartmouth gave it a publishing grant, and the book was accepted and published under the Dartmouth imprint.
That, in a nutshell, is why we are gathered here today to publicize this beautiful volume. The poems gathered in it are some of the best sestinas ever assembled anywhere, and the indices and various reading aids included are extraordinary.
But what is a sestina? This is the description of the verse form from my The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Fourth Edition, the various manifestations of which have been called “the poet’s bible” for the decades since 1968:
The SESTINA is a verse form of Medieval French origin, attributed to Arnaut Daniel in the late 12th century and used by other Gallic poets and by Italians including Petrarch and Dante (from whom it received its Italian name). The popularity of the poem in English is primarily a 20th century phenomenon, however, particularly in the United States. The six end-words or teleutons of the lines of the first stanza are repeated in a specific order as end-words in the five succeeding sestet stanzas. In English the sestina is generally written in iambic pentameter or, sometimes, in decasyllabic meters. Its thirty-nine lines are divided into six sestet stanzas and a final triplet envoy (or envoi), In the envoy the six teleutons are also picked up, one of them being buried in, and one finishing each line.
The order in which the end-words are repeated appears to have its roots in numerology, but what the significance of the pattern was originally is now unknown. The sequence of numbers is 6-1-5-2-4-3. Obviously, the series is just 1-2-3-4-5-6 with the last three numbers reversed and inserted ahead of the first three: 6-1-5-2-4-3. If the end-words of stanza one are designated ABCDEF (the capital letters signifying repetitions) and the sequence 615243 is applied to it, the order of repetitions in the second stanza will be FAEBDC. Apply the sequence to the second stanza, and the third stanza will be CFDABE. Continuing the process will give us ECBFAD in the fourth stanza, DEACFB in the fifth, and BDFECA in the sixth sestet. The order of repetition in the three lines of the envoy is BE / DC / FA.
I will end by welcoming you all to this reading by some of the finest poets in the nation, including members of the Powwow River Poets organization; thank you for coming. Now let me step back and turn the reading over to Barbara Orton who organized it.
As soon as he woke up he remembered the last thing that had happened before he lost consciousness. He had been sitting in his favorite chair in front of the television set watching the evening news. His wife had been sitting on the sofa watching as well in the parlor of their second-floor flat in the house that they had bought late in their lives and marriage. The news wasn’t good — was it ever? — but he and his wife were comfortable for the first time in their lives, and had been for several years of his retirement as pastor of the First Italian Baptist Church. They had lived in this small Connecticut city since 1939; their children had grown up and gone, gotten married themselves, one lived nearby — a toolmaker for Pratt & Whitney, the other in upstate New York — a college professor. The professor, the older boy, was the one he’d wanted to be a minister too, but that was not to be.
He remembered the sudden sharp pain in his chest, falling forward out of his chair, hitting the floor and then nothing until he had awakened.
No, that wasn’t right. He awoke, and still there was nothing.
There was no light, if he had eyes, only darkness. He saw nothing, he felt nothing, if he had fingers to feel with; he heard nothing — there was nothing to hear or, apparently, with which to hear. He could not breathe, nor did he need to even had there been something to breathe. He did not understand how he was able to think, if he were, indeed, thinking.
He lay awhile (was he “lying”?) attempting to do the things he remembered he used to do. He tried to shout, but he could make no sound, couldn’t have heard it if he had made one, had no mouth with which to utter anything. All he could do was recollect, feel as though he were going mad, experience despair and frustration for — how long?
The conclusion he reached was inevitable and inescapable: he had died in his parlor while watching the evening news on NBC. Until that moment he had been certain that when he died something would happen. He would awaken to the Life Beyond. He would be ushered into the Presence of his Maker. Glory would abound. Something certainly would happen, not nothing. It was impossible for Nothing to happen! Or, if it did, it would be impossible for him to experience it. He would simply be nothing.
Or had the ancient Greeks gotten it right? Was this Erebus? Was this the pure darkness of Tartarus, of the Underworld where the lost souls go to “live” in emptiness, without hope? When he was a boy living in Sicily, which the Greeks had colonized centuries before his own people, the Turks, had conquered that island, he had from time to time heard snippets and shards of Greek mythology. He had heard about Erebus and wondered about it.
And as a member of an unobserving Roman Catholic family, long before his conversion to Waldensian Protestantism, he had wondered about Purgatory. Had the Church adopted the Greeks’ Erebus, as they had adopted so many other things from paganism, like holidays and saints? Was this, then, Purgatory, which would prove that his concept of the afterlife had been erroneous, and his life, consequently, had been useless? What there was left of him, here, in this all-consuming darkness, despaired.
Would there be no end to this nothingness? Would there be no union with the Godhead, no reunions with those he had left behind, those who had preceded him? He tried to put out feelers, tentacles from his mind to test the blankness engulfing him. He felt that he would go mad, that he would like to go mad because he could not bear this soulless emptiness any longer. And how long had it been? It felt as though it had been eternal.
He could not believe it when he woke up again. But had he awakened? What was all this light?
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.