The howling wind

There’s a girl I once loved who lived in New England. Through the years I’ve thought of her whenever I’ve heard the Dylan song “Girl from the North Country,” especially the part about wondering whether she remembered me at all and the line about hoping she had a coat so warm to keep her from the howling wind.

I was in New England on New Year’s Day, as it happens, dealing with the howling wind and incredible cold on a mountainside outside of Weston, Vermont, walking across the grounds of the Benedictine priory there, and thinking three things: 1) I’ve never been so goddamned cold in my life; 2) I notice that the goddamned monks aren’t walking around in this weather — they’re in that building over there, all snug around their fireplace while they chant their goddamned Gregorian chant; and 3) There’s a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons — That oppresses, like the Heft of Cathedral Tunes.

Here’s a photo of the Weston Priory grounds in winter, looking deceptively calm and peaceful:

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve felt the urge to seek shelter in a church. So wasn’t it ironic — and practical — that I found myself  praying….Oh, my God, please let the door of that chapel or at least the visitor’s center be unlocked, even through it’s New Year’s Day, and, God, if the door’s unlocked and I manage to get inside, please, God, let there be heat….Amen.

The door was open.  There was heat. There was a comfortable sofa. I sat there contently for an hour, thawing out and reading a copy of The Catholic Worker, the legendary newspaper started by social activist Dorothy Day, who was a friend of both my old friend, the great gentle poet Robert Lax, and Lax’s best friend, the great peacemaker Thomas Merton.

At last I got up my courage, put on my coat, wrapped my scarf around my neck, put on my wool hat and gloves, opened the door, and stepped out into the swirling snow. Three riders were approaching, the wind began to howl, and I found myself thinking that it should be the other way around, that heaven should bathe us in divine warmth and that hell should be, well, as cold as hell, and don’t the winds hit heavy on the borderline between faith and doubt, between past and present, between love and the memory of love.


My favorite Martian

I caught a glimpse of Ray Bradbury a few weeks ago on some cable TV movies channel. It brought back some memories. And it set me to thinking a little about Bradbury’s literary legacy. Maybe it’s not necessary to say this, but I think some people still need to be told that he was far more than a writer of science fiction. Ask me to list my top 100 favorite books and it just might include three by Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine.

Bradbury’s early writing, especially in those three books, combines emotional, crisp, almost poetic writing with extraordinary flights of the imagination and a unique gift for telling even the most unbelievable tales in a way that suspends belief with an ease that’s beyond belief. The Martian Chronicles populated and injected poetics into our dreams of the cosmos. Dandelion Wine, which I assume was inspired by Bradbury’s own memories of growing up in a small town in simpler times, perfectly captured the  joys and magic of childhood. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a dark, rumbling, ominous summer thunderstorm somehow captured within the covers of a book.

But something happened to Ray Bradbury. Look at his writing of, say, the last forty years, and for the most part it’s derivative and just plain uninspired. What happened? My theory? Bright lights, big city. Bradbury went Hollywood, which is a place that was way too far away from his boyhood home in a small town in Illinois.

Those three books I listed are works of genius. Throw in some of the other short-story collections and novels — Fahrenheit 451, Golden Apples of the Sun, The Illustrated Man, A Medicine for Melancholy, R Is for Rocket, S Is for Space — and you’re not going to hear me denying that Bradbury deserved the special National Book Award citation he received for Distinguished Contributions to American Literature.

But for a long time he’s come across like he thinks he’s one of the greatest writers ever — like all he has to do is set his pen to paper and yet another masterpiece will appear.  And when that didn’t happen, he apparently still thought it did, and still came across like he was 20th century American literature’s equivalent of a rich and hearty Melville-Hawthorne-Poe stew with a dash of Verne and a sprinkling of Lovecraft, served up with a side dish of (Edgar) Rice (Burroughs).

Speaking of which, when I was in college I wrote a thesis in which I compared the “sense of the numinous” in Something Wicked This Way Comes and a few of Bradbury’s short stories with Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and House of the Seven Gables, as well as the short story “Young Goodman Brown.”

Somehow I got hold of Bradbury’s mailing address in L.A., and he was kind enough to write back. Not only that, he applauded my observations of this hard-to-define sense of looming evil and vague foreboding found in his work and in Hawthorne. Not only that, as I remember it, Bradbury also commented that no one had ever really mentioned his affinity with Hawthorne and told me that Hawthorne was one of his favorite authors when he was young.

I guess it goes without saying that my professor was suitably impressed and gave me a “A” on the thesis.

But wait. It gets better. I was 21 years old. I’d just got a personal letter from one of the greatest writers ever. Writer to writer, right? Wat did I do? Of course I sent him some on my poems and asked him what he thought of them.

Now I have to admit that I was young and foolish and wrote gloomy, indecipherable poems inspired at least in part by my reading of every single City Lights Pocket Poets book published by the Beat poets, including one book by Gregory Corso in which writes something about hanging from the Inevitable Meat Hook and in the margin next to that line 21-year-old Nicholas DiGiovanni wrote “YES!!!”

But my poems weren’t all that bad. Some of them later got published. Some of them were good enough that I got invited to read them — in public — in New York City.

How did Bradbury respond? He marked up my poems to highlight why they sucked. And he sent me copies of a few of his own poems, including one titled “When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” These were meant to show me how GOOD poets write poems.

So I wrote back to the esteemed Mr. Bradbury, in all my young and righteous rage, and told him that his clumsy, meant-to-be-funny riff on Whitman’s famous poem was actually stupid and trite. And that the rest of his poems sucked too!

Never heard from Bradbury again.

I still think he’s written more great books that a whole bunch of other American authors, including (painfully, obviously, inevitably) me. And I think it’s cool that he’s 89 years old and is still writing and has still never gotten a driver’s license.

But I also still suspect he sold his soul, maybe right around the time he got involved in the movies, working on the script of “Moby Dick” starring Gregory Peck.

More exactly, I think maybe Ray Bradbury, who looked up at the stars and had an extraordinary vision, sadly had that vision blurred when he got a different kind of stars in his eyes.

Do good things come to those who wait?

To get an answer to that question, I guess readers of these essays will have to wait and see.  Come to think of it, so will I.

November was frantic and December was chaotic and January so far has been…What’s a good word?….Ominous? Apocalyptic? Nostradamussy? Did I just invent a new word? The economy collapsing all around us…layoffs and a just-announced one-week furlough without pay at my own job…probably a big friggin’ meteor heading toward us from behind the blinding sun…wars and rumors of war…icebergs melting…Old Faithful no longer so faithful…publishing world still hasn’t recognized its obligation to publish “Half  Moon” and “Gloryville” and “The Dogs of Arroyo” by Nicholas DiGiovanni… it’s like Dylan sang back in the 1990s because he knew this was all gonna come down like a hard rain a-faillin’…ain’t no use jivin’…ain’t no use jokin’…everything is broken.

So that may explain why, much to my surprise and chagrin, I’ve paid only about a half-dozen visits to my very own World of Wonders in the last two months. But now that’s going to change.

Spring training’s right around the corner, maybe the meteor will miss us, Obama’s about to become president, and Dylan’s still touring, and things just have to get better, right? So here’s some of what I’m going to write about and I hope you’ll want to read about in coming days:

Poets Joe Weil,  Maria Gillan and Rita Dove. Dylan expert Michael Gray. My latest quests for arts-colony invitations and arts-foundation money (and why is it that I just now realized the similarity between “arts colony” and “ant colony).  Ray Bradbury. Niagara Falls. The future of newspapers. Puerto Rico. Louise Gluck and her recent great poem in the New Yorker. Extremely cold weather. New Year’s Eve in Vermont and a January 1st visit to the Weston Priory. A commentary on Thomas Merton’s relationship with his lady friend. More about my much-missed friend Robert Lax. More reasons why I want someone to offer me a job in Vermont. An account of a dinner conversation in which I explained to my wife why I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton. Musings (I’m being inspired by the Muse) on the nature and meaning of true friendship. A long overdue report on a bunch of fine writers I got to meet at the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival this past October. Some (I hope) catholic commentary about the Catholic Worker movement. Some talk about books I’ve read recently. Some thoughts on recent and upcoming books by writer pals Steven Hart. Christian Bauman and Bathsheba Monk. Further explanation of why I’d like to live forever, even if that meant outliving all of my friends and family. Thoughts on whether I really do remember being in my mother’s womb. Thoughts on whether my late father and other dead people I once loved really do speak to me in my dreams. And, most important, of all,  my thoughts on the Yankees’ acquisition of CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.

And much, much more! So stay tuned!