Gary Lehmann - Author

Author's Publications and Upcoming Appearances

Monday, January 30, 2006

A Dangerous Mission

Gary Lehmann

It's a dangerous mission. You/could die out there. You /could go on forever.
Tess Gallagher from
Instructions to the Double

The act of writing poetry on a regular basis has some very profound outcomes which the writer does not always realize at the beginning of the adventure. A good poem tells a small truthful thing about the world the poet inhabits. A talented, persistent poet writes many such poems and tells many tiny truthful secrets about his or her inner existence. Taken in the main, this process finally develops a poetic voice. While the poet may write on all kinds of topics and cover any number of poetic techniques, eventually, one central theme or subject matter emerges that dominates that poet’s presence in the poetic world. It becomes that poet’s public persona.

We see this pattern over and over. Robert Frost was not all walks in the woods. He wrote love poems and sad poems. He wrote all sorts of poems, but what we remember of him are poems that seem to have been written while walking in the woods.

Mark Doty wrote all sorts of poems and probably thought he had a developed settled persona when his male lover died of AIDS in 1995. Ever since then, he has become the voice of the AIDS crisis in poetry. It will become his toe tag.

Tess Gallagher wrote thousands of poems over her lifetime, but the core, the heartland of those poems come back to that moment in 1988 when her third husband, the short story writer Raymond Carver, died. Her best books are books of poems about his death and her grief thereafter (Moon Crossing Bridge [1992]). She has occupied much of her time since then editing and seeing through publication Carver’s works. Even while she may have had an entirely different life in mind for herself when she was twenty, her poetic destiny has guided and directed what people will remember of her forever.

It is a strange thing that happens to poets who are talented, published, public and persistent. Out of that tiny habit of telling the truth in verse day after day emerges a central image as poet that takes over, becomes the “you” the public sees. It is your poetic destiny, your voice in poetry, your core being emerging into public view.

Tess Gallagher has a life aside from her two year marriage to Raymond Carver. She was born in 1943 in Port Angeles, Washington. She received a BA and an MA from the University of Washington. She studied creative writing under Theodore Roethke. Interestingly, Roethke wrote for a whole long life but is really only remembered for the poems he wrote about the years between 1920 to 1925 when he lived with is father and mother in Saginaw, Michigan operating a family greenhouse. Gallagher went on to get an MFA from the University of Iowa, to teach at a dozen well-known colleges, and to receive many grants and honors, but all these things pale into insignificance against the tidal wave that overtook her when she met and married Raymond Carver.

Her book Willingly (1984) consists of poems written to and about Carver. Carver included Gallagher as the “good woman” in his short story Gravy published in The New Yorker the year after his death. They even collaborated on two screenplays, Purple Lake and Dostoevsky.

Tess Gallagher has written many books on other topics, but her relationship with Raymond Carver has really come to define her career. In Moon Crossing Bridge [1992], she poured her heart into a book of poems that itemize in great detail the stations of her grief after his untimely loss.

Since his death, Gallagher has acted as his literary executor. She has written introductions to three books of his poetry and seen them through to posthumous publication. (Call if you Need Me [1989], A New Path to the Waterfall [1990], and All of Us [2000].) She collaborated with the film director Robert Altman to produce a film based on nine of Carver’s short stories. (Short Cuts [1993]). She has become as much the architect of Carver’s image as Donald Hall is in control of Jane Kenyon’s future in print or John Cheever’s future is in the control of his daughter, Susan. Tess Gallagher has even written a book of essays on the topic of her relationship with her lover, Soul Barnacles: On the Literature of a Relationship: Tess Gallagher and Raymond Carver [2003]. The book Cathedrals [2002] shows both of them on the cover and includes a history of a single encounter and the two short stories that resulted, one from each.

In 1997, The Atlantic Monthly interviewed Tess Gallagher. It was 9 years after Carver’s death. She could have spoken about any time in her life. Many women would have moved on to other matters, but for Tess the time that comes to her lips most easily is the time she spent with Raymond Carver. The Atlantic interview illustrates the electric pull that Carver has on her consciousness. The interviewer asks a question to set her up.

"In your essay "The Poem as a Reservoir for Grief" you contend that poems are the best and oldest forms we have for attending and absolving grief." Your Moon Crossing Bridge -- a book of poetry written in the wake of the death of your husband -- puts stock in this belief. When writing this book did you experience your grief as images and words, or as something even more abstract that you then struggled to pin down with language?"

"'The Poem as a Reservoir for Grief' was written in 1984, eight years before Moon Crossing Bridge, and although I didn't know it at the time, much of what I was writing in that essay was preparatory to those poems. At this point, I don't think the word "absolving" grief is what my work is about in Moon Crossing Bridge. That book was written partly in order to sustain the grieving process long enough for me to absorb the loss. I think the word "attending" is more true to what I was doing. I was noticing all the different inflections in the process of grieving and how lively and varied that experience is, how it quickens everything around you. In the epigraph I say that I'm going to carry the grief, and you have to get hold of an amorphous entity before you can carry it. I would say the book is about discovering a form you can use to move with the experience on its terms, instead of merely constructing a container. "
"I don't think I was looking to pin anything down with my language. In fact I didn't have language at all as I'd once known it; what I had at first was silence. I was certainly unseated by this void. Those poems were just waiting for language as it would come. I had to stay open and leave time and try to be receptive. I was reforming my way of being in language, or it was reforming me. "

Can you feel its pull? There is a sort of tractor beam that draws her attention and her commentary into a line. While she is exploring all aspects of her life, there is at the same time a kind of central focus that is carving out of a mound of words a monumental image of which she is probably only partially aware. Invisible forces are drawing her to these conclusions, these topics, these answers, and this process happens to all poets who chose to tell the truth in print for any length of time. Gallagher continues,

"'She Who Is Untouched by Fire' is a story in my new collection that has also affected space and time. The action of the prose -- a woman having what amounts to an out-of-body experience -- is wave-like. Certain elements keep repeating only to come back slightly changed, which becomes more and more absorbing, until you are really inside her experience and have been lifted out of yourself in the same way that the most wonderful poems can lift you, almost physically, leaving you to hover above the earth. If I've told it right, by the end of that story you feel you're in an afterlife that is also life; it makes a flesh-and-blood ghost of you. Still, I don't know if I'm as inventive with tense in fiction as I might yet become."
In another interview, she said in answer to a question by Daniel Bourne,
"I think it was preparatory to my book, Moon Crossing Bridge, actually. I'm not sure exactly when that poem was written, whether my father had died at that point or not. But we're mortal, our death is inevitable. We're always going to have our nose to that window. Later, I went very, very deeply into the disappearance of my companion and love, Raymond Carver, in Moon Crossing Bridge. And in doing so, of course, you go into your own death space, too. "
There is something in our protoplasm that lines things up for us and makes sense out of the chaos of existence. It defines and refines certain central themes which we cannot release by any conscious act. Carl Jung said that the issues which remain unresolved in our lives return over and over demanding reinvestigation. As poets, who write down little moments of truth everyday, we are more susceptible to these invisible magnetic forces. We tend to emerge with more self-definition after a lifetime of self-examination. There’s no way around it.

1598 words

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Kenneth Rexroth: Radical Poet for the Modern Era

Kenneth Rexroth determined early that he wanted a life of adventure and ground-breaking independence. He was born in South Bend, Indiana in 1905, but moved to Chicago with his aunt when his parents both died within two years. His father was an alcoholic. His mother was chronically depressed, so it is no surprise that he was a rebellious youth, expelled from high school, always the iconoclast. He briefly attended the Art Institute of Chicago, but he ran into trouble when he was arrested and jailed after they raided a speakeasy and brothel he regularly attended. It was later alleged that he was part owner of the brothel.

The 1920s were a heady time to advance through your teenage years in Chicago. He worked odd jobs such as being a soda jerk, amateur wrestler, and reporter, all of which heightened his awareness of the underprivileged proletariat. In speakeasies with names like the Dill Pickle Club, the Cellar jazz club and the Wind Blew Inn and from soapboxes on street corners he recited poems of revolutionary socialism. He had little formal education. His real education came from conversations he had on the streets of West Side Chicago about politics, art, jazz and poetry. From his mother’s early home schooling in the classics, he wrote poems laden with classical references to the Greek gods and Roman myths. From his days in the streets, he learned to integrate poetry and jazz. He later wrote that jazz poetry "returns poetry to music and to public entertainment as it was in the days of Homer or the troubadours. It forces poetry to deal with aspects of life which it has tended to avoid in the recent past."

Left-wing politics captured his attention, and he traveled around the country giving soapboxes speeches in favor of the International Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies, supporting himself by temporary bits of labor as a horse-wrangler, sheep-herder, and pamphlet salesman for constipation cures. He was briefly a postulant in a monastery near Poughkeepsie where he learned meditation and the value of silence. Soon he took his knapsack to Mexico, South America, and Europe. In Paris, he met leading Surrealists, camped in the wilderness and learned several languages.

He married the painter Andree Shafer and moved back to San Francisco. He viewed marriage as a sacred mystical union. He was married four times. Two of these marriages overlapped. In Rexroth’s view, none of these three statements contradict.

He found publication for his early poems in small journals while pursuing an interest in eastern mysticism. Instead of writing about Greek mythology and philosophy, he now found poetic subject matter in camping, fly fishing, and love affairs. He helped found the San Francisco Poetry Center.

He rejected the formal poetry of his time and supported poets who were reaching for a new kind of freedom in verse. In the 1930s, he corresponded with Ezra Pound and was introduced to the founder of New Directions Press, James Laughlin, who included his work in his 1937 annual. In 1940, New Directions published Rexroth’s first solo volume, In What Hour, which outlines his concern for the fragile ecology of the earth.

His 1944 volume, The Phoenix and the Tortoise, contains poems that outline Rexroth’s objections to war and his fervent affirmation of love and nature. During the Second World War, he may have been involved in helping Japanese-Americans escape from internment camps. By the end of the 1940s, Rexroth had gathered a number of poets of like mind around him in San Francisco. He organized many of the poets who later became known as Beat poets into a weekly salon that featured their emerging works.

The highlight of these readings took place in the fall of 1955 at the Six Gallery when Allen Ginsberg unveiled the first of his poems from Howl, his signature poetry volume. Rexroth and other poets later appeared in court for the defense at Ginsberg’s trial for obscenity. In the 1960s, Rexroth brought a great deal of attention to classically based poetry in his Saturday Review column entitled the “Classics Revisited.” He also focused renewed attention on the Eastern classics when he published translations of ancient poetry from Japan and China.

In 1968, he moved to Santa Barbara where he taught for 6 years before accepting a Fulbright fellowship to study in Japan. At UCSB, Rexroth offended many administrators by speaking out against anti-intellectualism on campus. He saw universities as a false society joined together by the illusion of intellectualism for the purpose of exploitation and dominance. He attacked others as well. Rexroth spent his entire life speaking out against the East Coast literary establishment which, he felt, was stifling fresh social thought. He was a prime mover in establishing a two coast context for modern American poetry.

Of the more than fifty books of poetry and criticism he published in his lifetime, the best known are The Signature of All Things (1950), and Saucy Limericks and Christmas Cheer (1980). The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth did not appear until 2002, twenty years after his death.

Kenneth Rexroth said, "I've never understood why I'm [considered] a member of the avant-garde... I [just] try to say, as simply as I can, the simplest and most profound experiences of my life." Kenneth Rexroth, a West Coast anarchist poet to the end, died in 1982 in Montecito. He is buried in Santa Barbara overlooking the sea.

Runaway by Kenneth Rexroth

There are sparkles of rain on the bright
Hair over your forehead;
Your eyes are wet and your lips
Wet and cold, your cheek rigid with cold.
Why have you stayedAway so long, why have you only
Come to me late at night
After walking for hours in wind and rain?
Take off your dress and stockings;
Sit in the deep chair before the fire.
I will warm your feet in my hands;
I will warm your breasts and thighs with kisses.
I wish I could build a fireIn you that would never go out.
I wish I could be sure that deep in you
Was a magnet to draw you always home.
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,

Gic to Har by Kenneth Rexroth

It is late at night, cold and damp
The air is filled with tobacco smoke.
My brain is worried and tired.I pick up the encyclopedia,
The volume GIC to HAR,
It seems I have read everything in it,
So many other nights like this.
I sit staring empty-headed at the article Grosbeak,
Listening to the long rattle and pound
Of freight cars and switch engines in the distance.
Suddenly I rememberComing home from swimming
In Ten Mile Creek,
Over the long moraine in the early summer evening,
My hair wet, smelling of waterweeds and mud.
I remember a sycamore in front of a ruined farmhouse,
And instantly and clearly the revelation
Of a song of incredible purity and joy,
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,
Facing the low sun, his body
Suffused with light.
I was motionless and cold in the hot evening
Until he flew away, and I went on knowing
In my twelfth year one of the great things
Of my life had happened.
Thirty factories empty their refuse in the creek.
On the parched lawns are starlings, alien and aggressive.
And I am on the other side of the continent
Ten years in an unfriendly city.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

My Health Care Worker Stole My Jewelry

GEVA Theater, Rochester's only professional repertory theater, has announced that my short play, My Health Care Worker Stole My Jewelry has been selected for professional production January 18th at 8 pm at Writers and Books [740 University Ave]. The performance will include nine other winners of the 2-Pages-2-Characters Playwriting Contest. The show is free and open to the public, but will probably be very well attended. So, come early. Hope to see you there.

The play was written about five years ago as a poem based on a conversation I had with my aging Aunt Dorothy. Some family members and friends will be having dinner at Edibles [704 University Ave.] before the performance starting about 6:15 pm. If you would like to join us, please call me [388-8695] so we can make appropriate reservations.

My Health Care Worker Stole My Jewelry
a two-page comedy by
Gary Lehmann

SETTING: the confined living room of a senior living center apartment
Mother and daughter sit across from each other in overstuffed chairs.
[Don’t rush delivery. Leave plenty of pauses between the lines.]

MOTHER: My health care worker stole my jewelry.

DAUGHTER: You need a safe.

MOTHER: Not any more.

DAUGHTER: I never see you wearing jewelry.

MOTHER: I don’t.

DAUGHTER: Why did you have it?

MOTHER: I just accumulated it over the years.

DAUGHTER: But if you don’t wear it....

MOTHER: [a little angrily] I might as well give it away. Is that what you mean?

DAUGHTER: Did you?

MOTHER: I can’t recall. [pause] I guess I did. My health care worker’s got it now.

DAUGHTER: Are you sure?

MOTHER: I haven’t seen her wearing it.

DAUGHTER: Does she ever wear jewelry?

MOTHER: Not that I know.

DAUGHTER: Still, if you don’t wear jewelry, and she doesn’t wear jewelry,
whoever has it, it’s in much the same place as it was before.

MOTHER: It’s not about wearing it; it’s about losing it.

DAUGHTER: Did you ever think about it when you had it?

MOTHER: No, not much, but I didn’t have to.

DAUGHTER: Still, now you think about it. Isn’t that better?

MOTHER: I suppose so. I don’t know.

DAUGHTER: Just forget about it then. [very long pause]


The Prospect from Bellevue House

Several years ago, my wife and I took a bicycle trip around Ontario Canada which included a stop in Kingston, Ontario. There we visited Bellevue House, a lovely mansion on the hill overlooking Kingston harbor. This story, newly re-edited, resulted.

The Prospect from Bellevue House
Gary Lehmann

John A. Macdonald, the future first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada, knew immediately that he wanted to rent Bellevue House as soon as he saw the advertisement in the Kingston Herald in August, 1848. The well-known land developer, Charles Hales, was down on his luck. The recent rebellions had sent some amongst the merchant community back to London in a panic, leaving Hales exposed to extended vacancies and over-development. He had to consolidate and trim back in order to go on.

Bellevue, Hales' personal residence, had been an extravagance from the first. It was a show piece, an example of all that could be done if money were no object. The house was situated so as to embrace the land. The house sat back on the lot and was built in an "L" shape with an imposing square tower in the middle, where Hales had a unique two-story study with a full view of the world around the house and yard. The pagoda-like roofs prompted the townsfolk down below to call Bellevue the "tea caddy castle." It was exuberant, Italianate, and perched on a rise of land overlooking Kingston harbor, vaguely Carribean in mood. Modest as it was in pure square footage, Bellevue possessed an undeniably baronial feel.

Beneath the flamboyant skin of the villa, lay the solid core of all the sedate Georgian houses Hales had built for others along the waterfront. Made of limestone blocks, locally quarried, the basement was deep and solid to withstand the thrust of repeated frosts. The body of the house was carefully crafted out of Canadian pine, dovetailed and lapped for strength enough to endure winter winds. Inside, painters and grainers covered every inch of the pine doors and window frames to make them look like oak. Such an accommodation was considered clever, not cheap, at the time. The trick was not to make pine look like oak, but rather to make the viewer look twice. It forced attention to detail.

Outside there was a large vegetable garden, an orchard, and some beautiful flower gardens, more for viewing than cutting. When Macdonald arrived in his handsome carriage, Hales was admiring his hollyhocks by the gate. The big blooms flashed all shades of purple and white in their fullness. Their exuberant gaudiness depressed Hales somewhat.

Hales was a smallish man with a large shock of curly red hair. The cane forced him to stoop over some, though most people in society still remembered him as straight and erect, if not over-tall. He exuded confidence and prosperty in his heyday, but just looking at him now convinced even the most casual observer that hard times were not a stranger to this man.

He carried a cane, more as a symbol of his down-trodden status than an actual medical necessity. Mr. Charles Hale, though a developer by trade and therefore an optimist by constitution, wore his deepest apprehensions on his sleeve, if you knew how to read him. His cane was his acknowledgment of weakness.

"Good day to you, sir," he called out in a forced, cheerful voice. To have had to move out of Bellevue was a recognized fall in a business world that depended upon the look of prosperity for half of its commerce.

The man who descended from the carriage was strong and large framed, a lawyer by trade and politician by preference. John A. Macdonald was an outspoken royalist who had recently been cast out of his seat in government into a party of hopeless opposition. Yet, stepping out of his carriage, he looked about himself with the aire of a conquorer. Though the two men had much in common, which they would never acknowledge to one another, the contrast in their physical features could not have been greater.

Macdonald and Hales did not know each other well. Kingston society was small in the 1840's, and so they had naturally met many times before and socialized at a variety of gatherings, but they had had no earlier occasion to become personally acquainted. They met as nominal equals and friends, although in their current circumstances neither of these descriptions was very apt.

While Hales was struggling to regain his position, Macdonald's star was on the rise, though the Draper government of which he had become a major feature, had been rejected at the poles. The people of the province were beset by British laws and taxes and tired of being loyal to a king who used them badly. There was no easy answer. The future was murky.

Macdonald was particularly attracted to Bellevue by the view of the harbor and the fact that the house was both large and roomy, quiet and secluded. The house had a morning room on the ground floor that could be converted into a bedroom for his ailing wife, Isabella. Her debilitating bouts with both hysteria and lethargy made her physical condition unpredictable. Sometimes MacDonald secretly wished she would die so he could marry a more lustrous and useful wife.

"Isa might soon need a wheelchair to get around," he thought to himself as he rode out to meet Hales to discuss terms, "and this design might make a graceful environment for her to enjoy life on a single floor, regardless of her condition."

"A garden, Mr. Macdonald," Hales observed feigning affablity as they shook hands at the gate, "is like a business. You can exert whatever philosophy you wish upon it, but nature shall take it wherever it wills." Macdonald was embarrassed by this opening remark, and walked in silence along the gravel pathway beside Hales toward the main entrance to the house.

"One requires, of course, a good gardner," he replied uncomfortably aware of the dual level of their conversation. Macdonald's awkwardness suggested to Hales that his comment might have revealed more about himself than it did about gardening. He sought to recover himself.

"At my age," he said, "I seek only to keep the day and the night separate. I want my nights uncluttered by the alarums and excursions of the days, and my days unfogged by the need for sleep." Hales' life had been uncluttered by philosophy heretofore, but global reversals in fortune have a way of creating philosophers of the least amongst us. "Well, here is the house," he said waving his hand at the lovely villa, trying to signal to his guest that it was time to move on.

The two men ascended the front steps, surrounded by wisteria, and swiftly reviewed the drawing room, dining room, morning room, and maid's room. They were each wainscoted in fine pine and trimmed out to the finest specifications. The kitchen and wash rooms were small, but would suffice for a home not intended for large format entertaining, and the bedrooms were more than adequate. Only Macdonald himself would sleep above stairs.

"You get good air up here for an invalid," Hales observed as he opened the drawing room windows to demonstrate. A chill, but gentle, breeze enlivened the room. The house was empty now except for these few pieces in the drawing room which had been left for this exact conversation. "One of the reasons I built this house with so many windows was to capture the breezes which waft up the hill from the water and provide natural cooling during the summer."

MacDonald unbuttoned his coat to quietly admire his new gold brocade vest in the peer mirror on the wall. Hales pointed to a pair of heavily carved chairs on either side of the marble fireplace. "Sherry?" Hales offered, trying to maneuver Macdonald into a position from which he could broach the delicate subject of price and terms.

Macdonald nodded but remained standing at the window looking out over the large garden. Perhaps, he thought, this pleasant garden will off-set my political gloom. Hales placed the sherry on the table behind Macdonald, and then turned back to the fireplace. Picking up a large poker, he stirred the fire in the grate to generate a little warmth in the room, but he did not move to close the windows. Even August can have its chilly days.

"I suppose death itself is no more than the completion of nature's way," observed Hales, suddenly fearing the prospect that he never would recover from this slump, "like a garden in winter, I suppose, or the embers of a fire in the grate."

Macdonald turned decidedly from the window, took his assigned seat by the fire and raised his sherry glass for a taste of its sweet liquid. "And what will you require for rent, sir?"