Monday, October 26, 2009

A Town Gone Wrong?

Wide-open hours on Sunday afternoon, I pick up Katherine Anne Porter's short stories and read "Maria Concepcion." This story features a young couple in Mexico, expecting their first child, a North American archaeologist, the "other woman," and a midwife. Over the course of the story, the husband runs away to fight the revolution with the other woman, the archeologist consistently condones the husbands infidelity and eventual desertion of the army, and on the return of the couple, the wife stabs to death the other woman, who has just given birth to the husband's child. The wife, having lost her own infant, takes this baby to raise; all involved conspire to thwart the police from arresting the wife, including the midwife who just delivered that infant. As Porter's supporters have often noted, there's a world of complexity in a short story, an economical and potent piece of fiction.

Here's my concern: what am I, the reader, meant to feel about these people? Not one of them earned my sympathy or respect. There was no remorse on anyone's part. I extrapolate the future for the couple and the child into one which will see the husband unfaithful again. Will the wife kill all her rivals? I know that a slice of life has to contain people who do bad things; much of our literature is an oblique morality tale about the dangers of human relationships. This tale is unrelenting. And written by a woman who knew Mexico as her "beloved second home." What was there to love, if we accept her story as emotionally valid? As a writer, Porter has lodged this one in my memory, a good thing. As a reader, I'm stymied, pondering, questioning, also a good thing. But I wish someone would tell me about Porter's view of justice, morality, compassion--all missing in her characters.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Getting Back in Gear

After a month away, I'm struggling to regain my writing posture, and find myself with an embarrassment of riches to share here. As many of you know, I went to Ireland, mostly the west coast, no big cities, lots of sheep and cows, and that wonderful vegetation--it really is as green as the postcards. What you cannot see in the postcards is the warmth of the people, and their love for their culture and their history. We all know about the Troubles and the Famine and the Celtic Tiger economy of recent years, but we cannot know the people as individuals from reading a book or watching a documentary. I'm thinking about Steve, a lobsterman from Donegal, and Orlagh, a bookdealer from Carrick-on-Shannon, Adelaide, the barkeep in Dowra, all the hospitality from the B&B owners in Galway, Bundoran, Bunratty and those towns already named. And I'm thinking about the audience at the All Ireland Poetry Day on October 1st. Thanks to Orlagh, I was invited to read at The Dock, a large gray stone building converted into a theater and art center.

By now, I've done a fair number of poetry readings, but this one will always stand out. The whole country was celebrating poetry. Little children had been in writing classes that morning, and now the adults would partake. Dermot Healy, the guest writer, started us off with a wonderful piece about swifts (birds) making love in the air. Eileen O'Toole performed her own poems with verve and grace, then while Gian Costello played guitar and dulcimer, Eileen (also our MC) read his poems. The rest of us tossed out whatever we had to offer, a poem found in a late mother's box of clippings, a couple of Yeats (I mean, what else!) poems, a wonderful and mysterious recitation in Irish. I was happy to contribute my own work, but I was happiest about the attention paid by those who came to hear poetry. We have all been to events where people read and leave, not much interested in what anyone else has to say. Not at The Dock. They listened, they commented, they engaged with the poetry. That was better than Guinness to me.