Essays and Memoirs
On My Father's Business Print E-mail

MC_Escher_single_lizard_tile(Great River Review Number 22, April 1993)

Newly dead, an old lizard lies on a napkin on my desk, just as I found it in the yard, on its back. I don’t know why I spotted the pale underbelly in the brown grass. At rest, its tiny forelegs are slackened, and its miniature webbed fins, bent ninety degrees at the wrists, seem poised. The forelegs thus cocked suggest that the lizard held something to itself as it died.

Turning it over to its familiar scaly back and prehistoric skin, I see what helped it thrive in the canyon below our house—an armor, formed by evolution and drought, which guaranteed no one except its kindred species got close.

Resignation in this animal is frozen within. The bumptious eyes once eager to spot danger are gone to glass. Before this moment, I would not have ruminated on a skittish lizard, which darted away at the first sight of me. To gaze at anything requires of the object some acquiescence—shyness is especially nice. This lizard, though, never knew anyone’s nearness and received no advantage for having been seen, studied, or admired.

Goddess of the Sixties Print E-mail

Brigitte_Bardot_Swinging_Sixties_7897874(Cimarron Review Number 103, April 1993)

During the flowering of the sixties, in my suburban Kirkwood, Missouri, high school, I was carried away with lust and devotion for my female classmate, Jan Will. Blessed with an invitation for a name, Jan was a stunningly gorgeous girl whom I discovered the first week of tenth grade. For most of my high school years, an uncontrollable passion for her occupied my body as intently as that Beatles’ anthem to male fantasy, “I Saw Her Standing There,” rocked my boot heels, spread to my loins, and settled inside to gestate like Rosemary’s Baby. “She was just seventeen, if you know what I mean, and the way she looked was way beyond compare.” Elvis Presley, our other idol, once said of rock-and-roll music, “I don’t know how to explain it, but when I hear that beat, I just got-tah move. I can’t help it.” Like the King, I couldn’t help it either. I had to have her.

Autobiographies of the Present Print E-mail

frederick_douglass2(Boulevard Spring 1993)

If ever there was an autobiography whose focus is almost entirely given to the author’s past, it is Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of An American Slave. So irrevocable is the physical and psychological abuse he received as a slave that Douglass, writing as a free man, must continually describe that abuse as if his past were a nightmare from which he can never completely awaken. For example, in Chapter V, he writes of being kept, in summer and winter, "almost naked—no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees." On the coldest nights, he used a corn sack, stolen from the mill, to cover himself while he slept. He would crawl inside the sack and sleep, "with my head in and my feet out." But then, unexpectedly, his description seems to rouse another level of awareness: "My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes."

The Sacred Heart Print E-mail

sacredheart(Chicago Reader December 15, 1992)

I was ten years old the first time I protected my father from what had happened to him when he was a boy in his father’s house. Of course I know I wasn’t there to protect him during his boyhood as he was there to protect me during mine. But there was a time, and a place, when our separate, bitter lessons about growing up came together, when the pain he endured as a boy awakened a desire in me to save him from his past.

What happened takes me back, strangely, to the times my family was closest—the holidays. We were usually away from home on holidays, driving to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Easter, Thanksgiving, or Labor Day weekend. But those dates hardly compared to the biggest prize—one precious week when parents, grandparents, and children indulged each other and themselves at Christmas. Christmas for me was a long window onto a table of love dressed with gifts, darkness, surprises, ease; when the men stopped working and the women labored with few complaints.

The Hollow Boy Print E-mail

boy(Cream City Review Volume 16, Number 2, Fall 1992)

My mother is cracking an egg on the rim of a bowl. The egg falls in, and its yolk breaks, streaming a curl of yellow. A cup of milk, a stick of butter, and Betty Crocker cake mix follow.

The bowl is made of clear, thick glass. On its bottom there is a metal base in which the big bowl can be set, turned, and locked in place. Once locked, the elliptical steel prongs, attached to the arm of the mixer, descend into the batter. On its top is a dial with settings—slow (bread dough), medium (cake batter), fast (frosting or whipping cream).

The mixer whirls, and my mother says, “There. Now.” Her hands stroke down on her apron. The appliance is called a Mix­master, and it runs while she pulls open the silver-handled door of the refrigerator and puts the milk and butter back in.

The Lure and the Deep Print E-mail

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_1891(San Diego Writers' Monthly April 1992)

Eight floors up in a college dormitory conference room that overlooks the University of California campus and the dark blond beaches of the blue Pacific, I am finishing a long discussion with a writing student. Max. The one who waits. The one who ponders everything I say. Who wants me to tell him more about what’s really wrong with his work, the pained yielding behind those round glasses I can’t help but conjure in a young John Lennon. Behind him, through the sliding glass doors and beyond the railed ledge, is the water.

On the Poetry of James Wright Print E-mail

3305598771_2112eb333e(Poetry Flash Number 220, July 1991; revised March 2011)


My regard for James Wright’s poetry is something I have always found difficult to describe. It is made that much harder when before me I have his Above the River: The Complete Poems, holding potentially a new and unassimilated view of his work. To read and write about his entire opus will unloosen the spell, comfortable and known, which a few of his poems have had over me for decades. That spell was cast first in 1967 when I read his brilliant poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

Some ache lingers from that poem’s ending irony to the pastoral landscape Wright created: “a chicken hawk floats over, looking for home./ I have wasted my life.”

I have not wasted my life because I feel more sensitive to the world and the unconscious because of his poetry. I wonder, though, if this posthumous volume will not change my sense of the kind of poet Wright was.

The rest of this critical essay is available in eBook form from "On the Poetry of James Wright" $2.99.

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