Poetry Feature: Nicole Cooley
Featuring the Poems:
- An Alphabet of Lessons for Girls
- John Winthrop, “Reasons to be Considered for…the Intended Plantation in England,” 1629
- Witness Tree
- Witch Research: The Essex County Museum
- Testimony: The Parris House
- Testimony: Escape, July 30, 1692
An Alphabet of Lessons for Girls
As long as there is a contrary seed, a seed of the Woman,
and a seed of the Serpent, there will be opposition,
more or less, open or secret.
-Reverend Samuel Parris, Sermon in Salem Village, January 3, 1692
A young girl should always be prepared to die.
Beware of a black man who would make you a handmaiden of the Devil.
Come to God willingly and quietly as if he were your husband.
Disagree with no man for men know the best and truest path.
Egg-in-a-glass will show your future husband’s calling, but this trick is witchcraft.
Fast to find the road of correction on the Sabbath.
Graveyards are a place to remember that the Lord takes all girls’ souls.
Houses where no women be are like deserts or untilled land.
Indians are evil men who will harm you, just as New England was once the Devil’s land.
Judge not a man’s deeds or thoughts, only let him judge you.
Keep silence when in the meetinghouse with men.
Look to your father, brother or master for guidance.
Milk will curdle and butter will turn to wool if you are a witch.
New Jerusalem is our paradise and no place for daughters of the Devil.
Obedience is a good wife’s finest virtue.
Pins mark the hems of dresses and must never be used to prick the skin of men.
Question the Lord’s good work and be cast out of Salem Village.
Reckless speech will lead you into temptation.
Satan is the prince of Lies and witches are his servants.
Tying a woman neck and heels will cure her of the sin of witchcraft.
Unknown to witches is the power and light of God.
Vengeance against witchcraft is justice.
Witches’ daughters must be witches themselves.
eXhort the Lord to save you by your confession of witchcraft.
Your name is blotted out of God’s Book because you are a witch.
Zion will not be our true paradise till we have purged the witches from our land.
John Winthrop, “Reasons to be Considered for…the Intended Plantation in England,” 1629*
Increase and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it
Who is the Author of Disaster?
For an answer, read
The Book of Nature or
a woman’s face.
the whole earth is the Lord’s garden
Who will guide us
out of Egypt, over the Red Sea
the color of shame
into the New Jerusalem?
this land grows weary of her inhabitants
England was the lover
you must leave behind,
the New World is your wife,
her body the City on the Hill.
the church hath no place left to fly but into the wildnerness
Split the trees at the root,
slash the salt grass to clear
a long road to the future.
Lock your wife in the house.
Keep yourself safe.
Remember that the Invisible World is full of women.
*In the original formatting for this poem, the four lines of each quatrain were set at the first four tab stops.
I never did hurt them in my life I never did see these persons before
I am as innocent as the child unborn.
-Bridget Bishop, April 19, 1692
Salem’s first false Spring: the tree
spikes the sky, a split tongue,
an emblem of Grief. Who has lost
a child? The village women whisper,
I saw her stand between the cradle and the bed.
I saw her red dress flash, a candle
flicker when I spoke her name.
Bridget. You, Bridget Bishop, killed my child.
I wait beside the tree; I will her to come back
yet I see nothing beyond the tree, trunk
honed to a point like an old tooth.
Who has never lost a child? Who has never
seen a graveyard bordered with the smallest stones?
Who has never chronicled the body’s
breaking open to reveal its secret?
Here, ice creaks, a whisper, Lies, Lies,
and the ailanthus blooms too soon,
red petals insuring its death. I stood
between the cradle and the bed: the child
was missing. The child was never there.
I covered my breasts with a square
of red, in mourning, pictured the trench
of earth where the men lowered each small coffin.
Snuff out the candle, say her name,
pretend my body is unfamiliar, swelling
beneath my hands, my dress. Of course it’s wrong:
I didn’t see but I imagine.
I want to ask her about the children
or who drove the tree into the earth or
which God could choose these afflictions?
Ice breaks, leaves snake from branches,
bright jade. Water pools in the grass.
She killed my child, the women say. I lean
against the trunk and the tree speaks back:
I remember her as the first body when
body after body was cut down
from me, laid flat in the dirt. No grave was dug.
No prayers were ever whispered.
I have no child. Everyone in this story is dead.
I am a knife cracking open this too blue sky.
Witch Research: The Essex County Museum
1. The Archive, The Bed
Here is a book, the pages
tied together with wire.
Here is a testimony:
how a man gripped his wife’s wrist
to search for teeth marks
or witch pins in her skin.
In the museum, I open
the bottle holding broken finger bones.
I touch the sampler’s edge,
thread spelling Bridget
in a girl’s shaking stitches.
I hold the box of evidence
in my hands. Here is the world
without us. I call to the past,
come back, teach me,
and the voices knock together
like our bodies turning in this room
below The Pilgrim Diner.
The sheets smell like cold dirt.
I want to drop down below
the motel floor, below the ground,
where a death warrant’s red seals
the future of a marriage
like the print of a wax kiss.
predicts the future, all girls know.
Here is how we choose our husbands:
crack the egg against the edge
of the looking glass, spill the white over the mirror.
You’ll see your future husband’s face.
Or the shape of a coffin. Or the body
of a woman whose glance can kill a man,
curdle milk inside a cow,
turn churned butter into a sheet of wool.
3. Spectral Evidence: The Testimony of Samuel Gray, May 30, 1692
I woke to light and a woman
who stood beside my bed.
She was not my wife.
Outside was winter I’d locked
my door against, planked it tight and shut
to keep the wind out.
She Afflicted me.
The Devil brought her in.
Her kiss belonged to him,
her breath cold blistering my mouth.
In the name of God what do you come for?
The baby saw her and screamed in the cradle.
Within three months, my child had died.
The visitor was Bridget Bishop.
Testimony: The Parris House
I press my mouth between
The boards, the floor’s single
Planks above the parlor ceiling,
Watch Father pray
For the safety of the village below.
Our Lord Jesus Christ knows how many Devils there are in his church and who they are.
Fire blooms in the brick chimney
In the room where Mama sleeps
All day, where I am not allowed.
I play clothespin dolls in the doorway.
I line up the little girls
For church, force their bodies
Face down. I make them pray.
Come this day to the Lord’s table, lest Satan enter more powerfully into you-lest while
the bread be between your teeth the wrath of the Lord come pouring down upon you.
The middle of winter-I am not allowed
To leave the house.
In secret, I’ve touched my tongue
To a clot of ice,
Swallowed snow from the frozen field
Behind the parsonage.
The church consists of good and bad: as a garden that has weeds as well as flowers.
I am not allowed to leave
The house, but I know
How to twist an egg’s split shell
To reveal the future in a glass:
A husband, a man in Black
Who opens his arms
And carries me to the Golden City.
Pray we also that not one true saint may suffer as a devil either in name or body.
In the Golden City, in summer,
All the girls are dolls. Cornstalk
Child. Apple doll. Cloth poppet stuck
With pins. I am the clothespin girl.
I run through the fields all night.
We are either saints or devils: The Scripture gives us no medium.
Strings of egg white swirl
Into the shape of a man’s face.
Mama will sleep all day. Father
Will kneel forever on the parlor floor.
The clothespin girl will run away.
Yea, and in our land-in this and some neighboring places-how many, what multitudes
of witches and wizards, has the devil instigated with utmost violence to attempt the
overthrow of religion?
Testimony: Escape, July 30, 1692
The minister begins with prayer.
The Afflicted sit
together-two of the girls
cannot be more than ten.
Beside me, Elizabeth is still,
her fingers twisted into mine,
into a single fist.
We are here to see
if the Afflicted know her.
The minister begins with prayer.
You woke in the night to describe
the other country
where you’d gone without me:
not England, not the New Jerusalem,
but a world of women
in the wilderness, a family
of mothers, daughters, wives
who belonged to no one.
Then you turned away from me.
3. At the Ordinary
On either side of the pine table we wait.
When the girls enter the alehouse
they tumble on the floor
like swine, they cry out
The name’s sound fills the room,
floats through the roof, out
into Salem Village like smoke,
settles on the fields like ash.
4. The Lord’s Prayer
Forced to stand, her arms stretched out,
she is not allowed to lean
against me. I am forbidden
to hold her hands.
She had strength enough
to torment those persons,
and she should have strength enough
Our Father, Who Art in Heaven.
Hallowed be Thy Name.
Her voice shakes like a tree in the wind.
I cannot touch her.
Outside the meetinghouse I watch the men
huddle together in late-afternoon sun
as they tell their story-
I woke up and the woman
had pressed herself against my chest.
She held me down. She sucked
my breath out of my throat.
I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t move.
She was not my wife. She was a witch.
6. Cambridge Jail
As if the body weighed down is safe.
As if she could rise from the dirt floor
to afflict the sleeping town.
As if leg irons eight pounds each
could stop panic, cure the girls.
I am allowed to visit once.
I cannot touch her.
but to speak of their usage of the Prisoners, and their Inhumanity shewn to them, at the
time of their Execution, no sober Christian could bear; they had also tryals of cruel
mockings; which is the more considering what a People for Religion, I mean the profession
of it, we have been.
I acquainted her with her danger.
8. The Lord’s Prayer
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive
those who have trespassed against us.
I close my eyes and she unfolds her body over mine.
Beyond my life without you will be our escape.
Past the thin frame walls of the jail, past
the meetinghouse, the tavern, another world-
Rhode Island wilderness, a house to hold us
made of latched pine branches, bed of leaves
where we will lie down alone together.
Our Father will be nothing but a fist
knocking in the chest of a girl who invents
a terrible story to make herself safe.
The full text of this story is not currently available online.
Rebucca Tull her name was when she moved here. She was the daughter of a preacher from the Shenandoah Valley, from a town and a church more refined than what she had to face on this back-of-beyond North Carolina mountain. I was about eleven or twelve. I was at the house-raising for the family, which was just Rebecca, her Virginia preacher father, and her mother.
An Interview with Annie Proulx
Interviewer: Your stories and novels cover a lot of ground, historically and geographically. Accordion Crimes, for example, is set all over the United States and spans much of the twentieth century.Postcards concerns World War II and post-World War II America. Can you talk about that?
Proulx: Place and history are central to the fiction I write, both in the broad, general sense and in detailed particulars. Rural North America, regional cultures in critical economic flux, the images of an ideal and seemingly attainable world the characters cherish in their long views despite the rigid and difficult circumstances of their place and time. Those things interest me and are what I write about. I watch for the historical skew between what people have hoped for and who they thought they were and what befell them.
Interviewer: Even your novels and stories that aren’t strictly historical all have a sense of history and place somehow going together and being at the center.
Proulx: Much of what I write is set in contemporary North America, but the stories are informed by the past; I like stories with three generations visible. Geography, geology, climate, weather, the deep past, immediate events, shape the characters and partly determine what happens to them, although the random event counts for much, as it does in life. I long ago fell into the habit of seeing the world in terms of shifting circumstances overlaid upon natural surroundings. I try to define periods when regional society and culture, rooted in location and natural resources, start to experience the erosion of traditional ways, and attempt to master contemporary, large-world values. The characters in my novels pick their way through the chaos of change. The present is always pasted on layers of the past.
Interviewer: You studied history at the University of Vermont and Sir George Williams University, now Concordia University, in Montreal. Was there a particular approach to history that most interested you?
Proulx: I was attracted to the French Annales school, which pioneered minute examination of the lives of ordinary people through account books, wills, marriage and death records, farming and crafts techniques, the development of technologies. My fiction reflects this attraction.
Interviewer: Had you already decided to write fiction during your university years?
Proulx: No, while I was studying history I had no thought of writing fiction and no desire to do so.
Interviewer: Was there any pivotal moment that propelled you toward writing fiction?
Proulx: The pivotal moment was not a moment but a slow, slow turning. I left graduate school and the study of history to live in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom with a friend. We were in a remote area with limited job possibilities; I started writing nonfiction, mostly magazine journalism and how-to books, for income. At the same time I began to write short fiction, mostly stories about hunting and fishing and rural life in northern New England, subjects that interested me intensely at the time. Almost all of these stories were published inGray’s Sporting Journal, then a new and strikingly beautiful quarterly concerned with the outdoor world in the same way Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories are about the outdoor world—the primary weight on literature, not sport. There was an intense camaraderie and shared literary excitement among the writers whose fiction appeared inGray’s, something I have never encountered since. It may have been that the struggles to get paid by Gray’s created a bond of shared adversity among the writers; it may have been the genuine pleasure in being part of this unusual publication that valued serious outdoor writing in contrast to the hook-and-bullet mags. It is hard to overestimate how important Gray’s was for many of us. Without it I would probably never have tried to write fiction.I continued writing short stories in a desultory way for the next five or six years. When my youngest son left home for school in the late 1980s, for the first time in my life I enjoyed long periods of unbroken time suited to concentrated work and began my first novel, Postcards.
Interviewer: In your latest book, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, you have returned to the short story. Can you talk about the differences between that form and the novel?
Proulx: The construction of short stories calls for a markedly different set of mind than work on a novel, and for me short stories are at once more interesting and more difficult to write than longer work. The comparative brevity of the story dictates more economical and accurate use of words and images, a limited palette of events, fewer characters, tighter dialogue, strong title and punctuation that works to move the story forward. If the writer is trying to illustrate a particular period or place, a collection of short stories is a good way to take the reader inside a house of windows, each opening onto different but related views—a kind of flip book of place, time and manners.
Interviewer: Interesting analogy. Speaking of which, your fiction sometimes seems to ride on a magic carpet of metaphor. How do you do it?
Proulx: Metaphors—a complex subject. What is involved in constructing them seems not so much a matter of seeking similitude or trying for explanation or description as multilevel word and image play. Metaphors set up echoes and reflections, not only of tone and color but of meaning in the story. The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded. For me, metaphors come in sheets of three or four at once, in floods, and so metaphor use often concerns selection rather than construction. There are private layers of meaning in metaphor that may be obscure to the reader but which have—beyond the general accepted meanings of the words—resonance for the writer through personal associations of language, ideas, impressions. So the writer may be using metaphor to guide the reader and deepen the story, for subtle effects but also for sheer personal pleasure in word play.
Interviewer: It sounds like it’s a natural mode of thought for you.
Proulx: I was very young, about three years old, when introduced to metaphor, and I remember the first sharp pleasure I felt in playing what seemed a kind of game. I was with my mother in the kitchen of our small house. Classical music came out of the radio, I have no idea what, some sweeping and lofty orchestral statement. I was not consciously listening until my mother, who was a skilled watercolorist, said, “What does this music make you think about, what do you see?” Immediately I translated the music I heard into an image. “A bishop running through the woods,” I answered. I had no idea what a bishop was but liked the word for its conjunction of hiss and hiccup. What the music made me see in my mind’s eye was a tall, glassy, salt-cellar figure—the bishop—gliding through a dark forest dappled with round spots of light. The connections of perception between the sounds of the music and the image of trees / slipping figure / broken light had been made. Thereafter, and forever more, I found myself constantly involved in metaphoric observation.
Interviewer: Do you have a standard operating procedure in the way you work? Do you start with place, or history, or character and story, or is it different with each book?
Proulx: Where a story begins in the mind I am not sure—a memory of haystacks, maybe, or wheel ruts in the ruined stone, the ironies that fall out of the friction between past and present, some casual phrase overheard. But something kicks in, some powerful juxtaposition, and the whole book shapes itself up in the mind. I spend a year or two on the research and I begin with the place and what happened therebefore I fill notebooks with drawings and descriptions of rocks, water, people, names. I study photographs. From place come the characters, the way things happen, the story itself. For the sake of architecture, of balance, I write the ending first and then go to the beginning.
Interviewer: What’s your approach to research?
Proulx: The research is ongoing and my great pleasure. Since geography and climate are intensely interesting to me, much time goes into the close examination of specific regions—natural features of the landscape, human marks on it, earlier and prevailing economics based on raw materials, ethnic background of settlers.
Interviewer: Where do you go for that kind of information?
Proulx: I read manuals of work and repair, books of manners, dictionaries of slang, city directories, lists of occupational titles, geology, regional weather, botanists’ plant guides, local histories, newspapers. I visit graveyards, collapsing cotton gins, photograph barns and houses, roadways. I listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats. I read bulletin boards, scraps of paper I pick up from the ground. I paint landscapes because staring very hard at a place for twenty to thirty minutes and putting it on paper burns detail into the mind as no amount of scribbling can do.
Interviewer: Have you ever fallen in love with one of your characters?
Proulx: I have never fallen in love with one of my characters. The notion is repugnant. Characters are made to carry a particular story; that is their work. The only reason one shapes a character to look as he or she does, behave and speak in a certain way, suffer particular events, is to move the story forward in a particular direction. I do not indulge characters nor give them their heads and “see where they go,” and I don’t understand writers who drift downriver in company with unformed characters. The character, who may seem to hold center stage in a novel, and in a limited sense does, actually exists to support the story. This is not to say that writing a character is like building a model airplane. The thoughtful and long work of inventing a believable and fictionally “true” person on paper is exhilarating, particularly as one knowingly skates near the thin ice of caricature.
Interviewer: I’m curious about Loyal Blood in Postcards. What was his germ?
Proulx: The character Loyal Blood leaped complete and wholly formed from a 1930s Vermont state prison mug shot. A friend gave me a small stack of postcards sent out by the Windsor Prison warden’s office in the 1930s to alert various sheriffs around the state to escapees. I knew nothing of the man on my postcard, but his face was arresting and the character jumped forward at once. The story’s genesis was sparked by a small stack of state fire marshal’s reports during the Depression. There were a number of dismal accounts of farmers burning down their houses and barns for the meager insurance money. They had nothing else. From this desperate arson, with its roots in the global economic slump, emerged the story.
Interviewer: Economic desperation is a common theme in your work.
Proulx: The failure of the limited economic base for a region, often the very thing that gave the region its distinctive character and social ways, is interesting to me. I frequently focus on the period when everything—the traditional economic base, the culture, the family and the clan links—begins to unravel. I have taken a fictional look at this situation in northern New England, Newfoundland and Wyoming. InHeart Songs I began to examine the decline of the small dairy farms that had been the backbone of northern New England’s economy since the late eighteenth century, but which began to break down after the Second World War and finally collapsed in recent decades as moneyed outsiders poured into the state. Postcards continued and enlarged on this theme, taking as its landscape the sweep of country from New England to California. The character Loyal Blood denies his natural calling as a farmer. He picks up a dozen different regional occupations on his long journey westward, an ironic and miniature version of the American frontier expansion westward. There is a subtext on the tremendously important rural electrification program. The novel was concerned with what happens when a region has only one economic base and it goes under—the breakup and scattering of families, the subdivision of land, the outflow of old residents or the new position they adopt as service providers to the rich moving in. A population shift of moneyed second-home owners began to replace seventh-generation farm families.
Interviewer: We see a similar concern in The Shipping News, as well as in Close Range.
Proulx: If all you have is fishing and the fish stock begins to collapse from overfishing, destructive pressures, foreign and domestic policies, etc., what happens to the fishermen who have no other way to make a living? Relocation, government programs and the like. The Shipping News caught a Newfoundland fishing outport on the edge of the abyss. A few months after the novel was published, the Canadian government proclaimed a moratorium on cod fishing, and the traditional culture and economy quickly began to dissolve as thousands of out-of-work Newfoundlanders streamed onto the mainland, an exodus that continues. In Close Range, a collection of short stories set in Wyoming, the focus was again on rural landscape, low population density, people who feel remote and isolated, cut off from the rest of the world, where accident and suicide rates are high and aggressive behavior not uncommon. Fifty percent of the University of Wyoming’s graduation class must leave the state to find work. Again I was interested in looking at a limited economic structure—cattle ranching and extractive industries. What happens when the coal and oil run out, when the beef market falls away, when there are few chances outside the traditional ways of life? On a more intimate scale the stories explore human relationships and behavior, the individual caught in the whirlpool of change and chance.
Interviewer: In Accordion Crimes you add another layer to the issue of economic struggle by focusing on the immigrant experience in particular.
Proulx: I was interested in the American character, unlike that of any other country—aggressive, protean, identity-shifting, mutable, restless and mobile. I wondered if the American penchant for self-invention was somehow related to the seminal immigrant experience, in which one had to renounce the past, give up the old culture, language, history, religion, even one’s birth name, and replace the old self with American ideals, language, a new name and new ways. The novel looked at several generations of nine ethnic families through the medium of the immigrant’s instrument, the accordion.
Interviewer: Do you believe that the ethnic variety of our nation—despite the “melting pot” history—is somehow forgotten or underappreciated?
Proulx: A major aim in writing Accordion Crimes was to show the powerful government and social pressures on foreigners that forced them into the so-called melting pot. The social pressures were enormous, and the cost of assimilation was staggering for the immigrants—their lives were often untimely truncated. They did not belong, they were ridiculed outsiders, they worked at the most miserable and dangerous jobs. They gave up personal identification and respect. The successes went to their children, the first generation of American-born. These American children commonly rejected the values, clothing, language, religion, food, music of their parents in their zeal to be 100 percent American. Hence the widespread disdain in America (nowhere else) for the accordion. Canada allowed its immigrants a large measure of cultural autonomy, and ethnic enclaves and settlements grew up in many regions, the so-called ethnic mosaic that contrasts with the melting-pot symbolism. Ironically, it is Canada that is plagued now by a separatist movement.
Interviewer: Does that imply that although the melting pot was responsible for suffering in the first generation of immigrants, it was the best thing for the nation?
Proulx: My thinking does not sort out this way—”best,” “worst,” etc. The so-called melting pot is a vivid phrase that represented a dominant, narrow and forceful attitude in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That social and cultural attitude had no tolerance for ethnic, cultural or linguistic diversity. Immigrants had to become “American” in order to succeed here. Many of them did not and could not conform to the American ideal, and they lived their lives in sometimes dangerous backwaters. It isn’t a question of whether or not it was the best thing for the nation or no. It was what it was, an expression of the American national character in that period. It was different in Canada—not better or worse, but different.
Interviewer: I can’t resist asking you one question about your experience with Hollywood. I understand that your experience with making The Shipping News into a movie has been a little frustrating.
Proulx: I sold the film rights to The Shipping News several years ago and so have no influence on, connection with or input into the fate of the novel in Hollywood’s fumbling hands. It was important to me during the option negotiations to plead that the film be made in Newfoundland, and the studio signed a letter of intent to that end. The seesaw history of the work since then, the inaccurate reports, the gossip, the confusion, is best learned from other sources than me. I am out of the loop.
The film rights of the short story “Brokeback Mountain,” the closing story in the new collection Close Range, were optioned by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who wrote an exceptionally fine screenplay. What happens next with it remains to be seen.
Interviewer: You have won numerous literary prizes, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. How has all the recognition affected your work?
Proulx: I don’t think prizes have affected me as much as they have my publisher. It is pleasant to have one’s work recognized and praised, and prizes certainly have an effect on the way the body of work is perceived, and on one’s income, but for me, when the manuscript of a story or novel is completed I am done with it and on to new work. I have a feeling of detachment for awards, perhaps because they come a year or more after publication, perhaps because it is difficult to believe that the work is considered prizeworthy. I am critical of my writing and tend to see the flaws and weaknesses. The best time for an award would be the instant one finally makes a stubborn paragraph or sentence lift its own weight off the page.
Interviewer: How important to you are the responses of your readers?
Proulx: Response of readers . . . depends on which readers you mean. Readers come in a highly variable assortment—critics, other writers, old friends, fans, reading groups, adversaries, error-chasers, punctuation mavens, clever scholars, those who deeply understand the territory of the book or story, those who don’t get any of it. Probably I value the response of fellow writers most highly because they under-stand the work of making fiction. But fine letters have come from every kind of reader, and I am grateful for them.
Interviewer: What, above all else, do you want your readers to take away with them after reading your works?
Proulx: The novel should take us, as readers, to a vantage point from which we can confront our human condition, where we can glimpse something of what we are. A novel should somehow enlarge our capacity to see ourselves as living entities in the jammed and complex contemporary world.
Interviewer: You have been criticized by some for overemphasizing the bad luck and failure of you characters—for not finding the mitigating factor in their lives, if only in the way you frame their stories.
Proulx: It is difficult to take this as a serious criticism. America is a violent, gun-handling country. Americans feed on a steady diet of bloody movies, television programs, murder mysteries. Road rage, highway killings, beatings and murder of those who are different abound; school shootings—almost all of them in rural areas—make headline news over and over. Most of the ends suffered by characters in my books are drawn from true accounts of public record: newspapers, accident reports, local histories, labor statistics for the period and place under examination. The point of writing in layers of bitter deaths and misadventures that befall characters is to illustrate American violence, which is real, deep and vast.
Interviewer: The rural farmers of Heart Songs, the unlucky owners of the accordion in Accordion Crimes, the fatalistic westerners in Close Range: they’re on the ragged edge, and often—too often, some critics would say—they fall off.
Proulx: Immigrants to this country suffered unbelievable damage, both psychological and physical. Rural life, too, is high in accident and, for many, suffused with a trapped feeling, a besetting sense of circumstances beyond individual control. Real rural life, enlivened with clear air, beautiful scenery, close-knit communities and cooperative neighbors, builds self-reliant, competent, fact-facing people; but it is also riddled with economic failure, natural disaster, poor health care, accidental death, few cultural opportunities, narrow worldviews, a feeling of being separated from the larger society. Literary critics who live and work in urban and suburban milieus characterized by middle-class gentility and progressive liberalism are rarely familiar with the raw exigencies and pressures of rural life.
I am reminded of the uproar of disapproval over historian Michael Lesy’s 1973 Wisconsin Death Trip, the author’s gathering of newspaper accounts of nineteenth-century economic failure, madness, hoboes, suicide and murder in company with the extraordinary photographs by Charley Van Schaick. Real lives, real events, which displeased the many critics who denounced the book’s darkness as distortion of history. One protesting group got out a rival collection of photographs entitled Wisconsin Life Trip, showing happy families, picnics, affection and peace. There is something in us that wants to believe in sweet harmony against all evidence.
Since I am often accused of writing darkly, I might add that although I am not immune to the flashes of humor and intense moments of joy that illuminate our lives, I am in deep sympathy with Paul Fussell when he describes seeing his first dead in Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, ” . . . and suddenly I knew that I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just.”
Interviewer: Do you think that serious fiction, by definition, ends unhappily?
Proulx: No, of course not. I would like to get beyond this happy / unhappy-ending discussion, which seems to me to have more the character of trap than open door. It is very difficult to know what is “happy” or “unhappy.” I wrote The Shipping News in direct response to the oft-repeated criticism that Postcards was “too dark.” Ah, I said to myself, a happy ending is wanted, is it? Let us see what we can do. The “happy” ending of Shipping News is constructed on a negative definition—here happiness is simply the absence of pain, and so, the illusion of pleasure. I was quite surprised when readers and critics alike rejoiced in what they perceived as a joyful upbeat. The label “happy” is comparative, subjective, sometimes deliberately illusory, sometimes—as in Shipping News—ironic or not what it seems. In working endings for stories and novels I try simply for a natural cessation of story. Most of my writing focuses on a life or lives set against a particular time and place. This is the nature of things, and, though it sounds simplistic, this is what shapes my view of the past and present, both as related to my personal life and the lives of characters. One is born, one lives in one’s time, one dies. I try to understand place and time through the events in a character’s life, and the end is the end. The person, the character, is one speck of life among many, many. The ending, then, should reflect for the reader some element of value or importance in the telling of this ending among the possible myriad of stories that might have been told.
A Doctor’s Story
The full text of this story is not currently available online.
Dr. Buchner sits on a white bench in a well-kept garden in the town of Dimmsdorf, on the grounds of the nursing home where he has lived for the past four years, since the heart attack that nearly killed him in 1980.
Up on the Yuba
The full text of this story is not currently available online.
He kept to himself on the ferry, going up the Sacramento from San Francisco. A lot of the other men on board had partners or were striking up friendships. He’d volunteered his name and home state, Hy Hopgoode, Iowa, to a couple of men from Florida who sat next to him on the top deck, but he let it drop after that. He didn’t mention that he’d been here in California before. When the ferry docked the next day at Sacramento City, most of the passengers headed toward the outfitters for supplies, buying so much it seemed they were expecting the diggings to be right at hand, like they’d only have to carry their heavy packs a couple of miles. He knew better but still overloaded himself with food and equipment before heading up the road.
Poetry Feature: Adrian C. Louis
Featuring the following poems:
- Song of Arrows
- Jungle Jim
- Valentine from Indian Country
On the Sea (A Sailor’s Story)
(Translated by Peter Sekirin.)
The full text of this story is not currently available online.
I could only see the dim lights of the harbor we had just left, and the black sky above us, darker than pitch. A cold wind was blowing in the dark sky above; it was about to rain. We felt suffocated, despite the wind and the cold. By “we” I mean we sailors who stood in the hold.
The full text of this story is not currently available online.
Poetry Feature: Henry Taylor
Featuring the following poems:
- A Little Respect
The first time I heard one adult call another a genius,
my father was speaking of a man whose face I don’t recall.
All I have is the memory of an old Black man, climbing
with difficulty the few stairs to the porch of Janney’s store.
A bush of gray hair billowed from under the back of his cap.
I can also see the front of his unpainted house, the worn stoop
and the door not quite straight, a few yards from the edge
of the road. The road has been moved in years since,
and the house made over.
the word “genius” meant; I was at the age
of comic books, and had begun to daydream
about the kid with the big head and thick glasses
who always had all the answers.
Well, Ed Harrington had come here from southwest Virginia,
the youthful employee of one Robert Gray,
called Colonel Bob, who bought the Glebe in the teens
and ran cattle there that he bought from all over the country.
They would be shipped to him on freight cars, arriving
just on the north side of the Potomac, at Brunswick,
or over in Winchester, across the Shenandoah. Colonel Gray
would drive his buggy to the depot, do paperwork
and take possession, and turn to this young Black man
and say, “All right, Ed. Bring ’em home.” With the help
of a little old dog he actually called “Spot,” he would do it.
In that pause I was trying to think of a way
to make clear the incredible difficulty
with which you or I would have contended
with that simple command. These creatures
knew nothing of where they were. It might be
thirty-five miles by the roads Ed would take,
one man on foot with a small herd of cattle
who would see every lane opening along the road
as the way in to something they wanted. Somehow,
Ed knew what the cattle would think before
they’d had time to think it, and could take
or three days he’d arrive, the herd quite intact,
even calm, set free to rove over the Glebe,
the five hundred acres once deeded, in 1773,
to the Shelburne Parish of the Episcopal Church.
Its meadows embanked the North Fork of Goose Creek
a few hundred yards downstream from where
Crooked Runs water drops into it.
was a saddle-horse man, kept his horses to the flat,
bred and trained to show in five gaits—walk, trot,
canter, slow gait, and rack. He had the money
and knowledge to start with horses whose natural gifts
were abundant, but still, in that business,
brilliance is a matter of drawing out of the beast
an aura, a sense that the horse willingly restrains
coiled-spring energy enough to fly, or even explode,
of bit, buckle, and stirrup agleam. Colonel Gray
had what it took, and he knew it. There was the time
he walked off with some championship or other,
and his nearest competitor, second to him all day,
said something sour about having the judge in your pocket,
and Colonel Gray stopped, turned, and stood before him
like a man about to fling down his glove and say
coldly, “My seconds will be attending upon you, sir.”
But in fact said only, “If you doubt, sir,
that the judge knows his business, take my horse
into the ring, while I ride yours. For five hundred dollars,
sir, I’ll beat you again.” Nothing doing, of course;
the story ends there, or goes bad.
meanwhile, squired over the vicinity the Colonel’s
stud horse, Lincoln Chief, available for a reasonable fee
to impregnate local mares, and so in time came
himself to be known as Chief. And in time, too, tried
his skills elsewhere, left Gray’s employ and went to work
for my great-uncle W. T. Smith, dairy farmer.
In the sphere of common farm labor, Ed was known
as a poor judge of the strength of materials.
In his care tug straps, trace chains, the handles of pitchforks,
to say nothing of more delicate mechanisms,
simply came apart, and gradually his labors
were chosen accordingly, though a colleague once said
that one day, having broken every piece of the harness
involved in dragging a log to the sawmill, Ed turned
in frustration and just up and busted that saw-log.
Yet Uncle Will managed to be pleased with his work,
and so a year passed, and one day Colonel Bob
came in the lane at a rack on his saddle horse, drew up,
and said, “Willie, Ed tells me he wants to come home.”
“Well, Colonel, he’s been a good hand, and I’ll miss him,
but I don’t see how I can stand in his way.”
“Very well, and I thank you. He was all right, was he?”
“Oh, yes, just fine. Knows his cows, that’s certain.”
“Yes. Hm. Tell me this. Did he break up much stuff?”
“Oh, a little, at first. Here lately, I’ve had him at work
with a double-shovel plow. Not much damage to be done there.”
In agreement Colonel Gray and Uncle Will laughed, but Tom Chinn,
who had stood by not speaking, now said, “Uh, Boss,
I reckon you better go round there and look at that plow.”
A Little Respect
From the farm next door, long after midnight, there came
one dark morning last year the bray of a jackass, a sound
I had not heard for years; by now it is nearly as much
a part of the air around me as the sound of my own breathing,
but that first note set me off, down the hill and across
the meadow and up the road, then one farm north,
where old Foster was still working when I was a boy.
He assembled for haying a crew young and old, Black and white,
in an era when some men might have sent separate
and possibly equal water cans to the field, but Foster
had one can, one dipper, with which each man took his turn,
swirling the last swallow, not taken, into a jeweled
arc as he passed the dipper on and let out a breath
through his cooled throat like a velvet shout, and turned to work.
Down toward the edge of the bottom, then back into the hill,
two-thirds of the load on already, and the mules balked.
It is a term rarely used in connection with horses,
for instance, whose methods of subverting human wishes
might be called stopping, quitting, refusing, or pulling back.
They shift about, under duress, to avoid moving on.
Mules balk. They put all four hoofs in touch with a force
below the earth’s surface, and enter into a state
of patient remoteness not unlike prayer, or trance;
their apparent indifference to shouts, jerks, and blows
can lead their oppressors to an unexamined belief
that what they are doing is no more cruel than beating a rug.
So with Foster and his men. As usual, they tired first,
stepped back to take breath and wipe brow, and the air
settled, in nearly noon sunlight, toward perfect stillness,
a transparency dense enough to suspend a fleck of chaff
or the odd wisp of hay, drooping weightlessly from the load
like a fern in a glass paperweight. Decreasingly labored
the sound of their breathing, and abrupt the halted buzz
of a fly landing somewhere. On the off side, the slight creak
of a strap under strain.
of the county, sent out to this farm to be learning to work.
“Let me try,” he said, and these grown white men looked down
on this half-grown Black boy, then back at the team,
whose roots in the field were perceptibly deepening.
“What the hell,” one of the men said, “he can’t do no worse
than we done.” So Foster stepped toward him, held out the lines.
The boy took them, made them right in his hands, stood
just to the near side of the rear of the team, and spoke
to the blindered heads. “Come up there, Mr. Mule.”
First stillness, then a calm, slow lean into the collars,
a hoof lifted, and another, and they walked off
up the windrow as if bound for their hearts’ desire.
The boy glanced back as he walked with them, and grinned.
“Call ’em Mister. It help sometime to talk to mules that way.”
A Fish Tale
The full text of this essay is not currently available online.
It was a long time ago, just a few years after the end of World War II, and there I was, a bride in the mist-wrapped, sodden-aired, graying and bombed-out Vicenza in the north of Italy.
The Equinox Wrapper
The full text of this story is not currently available online.
I was there at the death of your dead boy Clinch and though I did not see his killing, me and your dead boy killed for 2 days here in Nth Georgia, but your Clinch lived only 1 and 1 half days of it, him denouncing the while till he met his end.