by Mary Azrael
“Angels, we hear, sometimes don’t know the living from the dead.”
— from Rilke’s first Duino Elegy
This time, in a country far from ours
I see my father on a bicycle, casually
pedaling across a flat bridge, wearing a common cap
and rough jacket – not remarkable, except that
these are the clothes of a living man
and he must be dead, having gone down years ago
into the redbrown cut in a hillside,
dressed in his best suit and tie and good socks
and no shoes. This can’t be, it mustn’t be
the same man – the father of all my ages, even these
he’s missing – there on the bridge over
a broad canal near one of the Dutch towns
in a landscape of wild skies that change with every breath;
a landscape of pastures built up by the stolid citizens
to outlast the floods, perhaps; where sailboats ride
stately or playful, white flashes of freedom, of joy,
beside the heavy-hearted cows grazing their lowlands
like geese who can’t fly.
He belongs to them, this man, now finished
crossing the bridge, now pedaling away, never having seen me,
carrying a loaf of bread home to dinner where his wife
and two children have laid out the plates and napkins
and forks and knives and spoons, assuming
he will be there with them any minute.
Copyright © 2012, Mary Azrael.
Mary Azrael has led poetry writing workshops in schools and colleges from the Eastern Shore to western Maryland, and now teaches in the Odyssey program at Johns Hopkins University. She’s the author of three books of poems and an opera libretto, Lost Childhood, based on the life of a Jewish boy who survived the Holocaust. She co-edits Passager journal, now in its 22nd year, and Passager Books, a press dedicated to older writers.
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Adapted from Paris Review: The Art of Theater No. 2
Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron
The first play I wrote was in Michigan in 1935. It was written on a spring vacation in six days. I was so young that I dared do such things, begin it and finish it in a week. I’d seen about two plays in my life, so I didn’t know how long an act was supposed to be, but across the hall there was a fellow who did the costumes for the University theater and he said, “Well, it’s roughly forty minutes.” . . . . As it turned out, the acts were longer than that, but the sense of the timing was in me even from the beginning, and the play had a form right from the start.
Being a playwright was always the maximum idea. I’d always felt that the theater was the most exciting and the most demanding form one could try to master. When I began to write, one assumed inevitably that one was in the mainstream that began with Aeschylus and went through about twenty-five hundred years of playwriting.
I think the young playwrights I’ve had any chance to talk to are either ignorant of the past or they feel the old forms are too square, or too cohesive. I may be wrong, but I don’t see that the whole tragic arc of the drama has had any effect on them.
I think that to make a direct or arithmetical comparison between any contemporary work and the classic tragedies is impossible because of the question of religion and power, which was taken for granted and is an a priori consideration in any classic tragedy. Like a religious ceremony, where they finally reached the objective by the sacrifice.
There’s no substitute for the impact on the mind of the spectacle of death. And there is no possibility, it seems to me, of speaking of tragedy without it.
When I was about twelve, I think it was, my mother took me to a theater one afternoon. We lived in Harlem and in Harlem there were two or three theaters that ran all the time, and many women would drop in for all or part of the afternoon performances. All I remember was that there were people in the hold of a ship, the stage was rocking—they actually rocked the stage—and some cannibal on the ship had a time bomb. And they were all looking for the cannibal: It was thrilling.
If I had ever thought that I was writing (Death of a Salesman) about my father, I suppose I never could have done it . . . . Willy is based on an individual whom I knew very little, who was a salesman; it was years later that I realized I had only seen that man about a total of four hours in twenty years. He gave one of those impressions that is basic, evidently. When I thought of him, he would simply be a mute man: he said no more than two hundred words to me . . . . I’ve always been aware of that kind of an agony, of someone who has some driving, implacable wish in him which never goes away, which he can never block out. And it broods over him, it makes him happy sometimes or it makes him suicidal, but it never leaves him. Any hero whom we even begin to think of as tragic is obsessed, whether it’s Lear or Hamlet or the women in the Greek plays.
This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more of what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (Arthur Miller On Playwriting part II will post next Wednesday.)
Adapted from: Sam Shepard’s Mythic Vision of the Family
By Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times, December 1, 1985
I don’t think it’s worth doing anything unless it’s personal. You’re not dealing with anything unless you’re dealing with the most deeply personal experiences. It’s empty otherwise. It doesn’t mean anything.
I thought for years it was boring, uninteresting to write about the family . . . But the interesting thing about taking real blood-relationships is that the more you start to investigate those things as external characters, the more you see they’re also internal characters. The mythology has to come out of real life, not the other way around. Mythology wasn’t some trick someone invented to move us. It came out of the guts of man. And myths are related on an emotional level. They’re not strictly intellectual programs.
There was this big fight I had with my old man, and at that point I fled. And I thought, well, I’m just going to have to start over . . . Once there was a production of “Buried Child” in Santa Fe, and my Dad took it upon himself to go, and he was rolling drunk and started talking to the characters and stood up and made all this noise. He definitely struck up a relationship with the production.
Yeah, we had bouts of drinking. Strange . . . It (the fight) would always turn, inevitably, on this accusation that there was something wrong and it had to do with me . . . It hasn’t really clarified anything. You spend a lot of time trying to piece these things together and it still doesn’t make any sense. His death brought this whole thing to a head, this yearning for some kind of a resolution which could never be.
When you’re younger, that rage is completely misunderstood. It seems personal when you’re a kid . . . Then as you get older you see that it had nothing whatsoever to do with you. It had to do with a condition this man had to carry because of the circumstances of his life, those being World War II, the Depression, the poverty of the Midwest farm family. And all these things contributed to this kind of malaise. Then it becomes much more interesting, when you have some distance on it. Because then you can see here was a man who happened to be my father and yet he was more than just that.
My work has always come out almost like a miracle, some kind of strange accident. You stumble into a certain territory that starts to excite you in a way that’s got to be manifested. It comes out as a play or a character. But that kind of work cannot be formulated . . . Then it gets shot to hell. Because then it becomes a career. I’m not interested in a career . . . I want to do the work that fascinates me.
This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.
When my oldest son was five or six (he turned 49 on August 13), we left the women—his mother and grandmother—in the cave and went to forage for lunch meat and hard rolls at Muller’s delicatessen on Harford Road, in Northeast Baltimore. (Muller’s still has the best German cold cuts and sandwich breads in the city.) Next door to Muller’s is a bar called “Dead Freddie’s.” It’s been there for as long as Muller’s has, but the name has long intrigued me for several reasons. For one thing, I can’t remember if “Dead” was part of its name back in the day. Was it just “Freddie’s” then and, when Freddie (the owner?) died, rather than get rid of what is a fine example of a classic neon, the word “Dead” was added as a dark joke? Or was the word always part of the sign and I just didn’t notice? (If anyone out there knows the history of the bar and/or the sign, please set me straight in the comment section below.)
Anyway, to get to the point of my little story about that day of male bonding, either my son asked to go into the bar or I volunteered to take him. Either way, I thought it was a good idea, so in we went. Once inside I think I bought Shawn an orange soda, in much the same spirit my father used to buy them for me when he took me to bars to keep him company while he drank a few of his “Arrow” brand beers. (The sins of the father really are passed down.) And I clearly remember that I took the opportunity that day to demonstrate to Shawn how the pinball machine worked. In fact, I’m pretty sure he got to shoot a few balls himself. As you and I know, most boys love bright lights, fast-moving objects and noise, so of course he was delighted. And so was I, still being a kid at heart myself. That was it. We two happy guys finished our pinball game and headed back to the home cave with provisions for lunch.
But now comes the sad ending to my little narrative. (Here I feel it’s fair to speak for Shawn, too, because I remember how boys think and feel when it comes to neon and pinball machines.) When we got home, still very excited about our wee adventure, we couldn’t wait to share our delight and high spirits with my wife and her mother. Their reaction was not what we expected. Well, you know what comes next. My wife and her mother were shocked, shocked, that I had exposed the child to the dark and sordid interior of that bar. Their disapproval was clear in their words and the expressions on their faces. And here I won’t speak for Shawn, but personally I felt the morning’s fun feeling exit my soul in much the same way air instantly leaves a pricked balloon.
Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.
Confessions of a Photographer’s Daughter
By Jacquie Roland
My career as a child model was short-lived but intense, and I hated every minute. I was the oldest of too many brothers and sisters, a motley crew that today may generously be called “rug-rats.” When I was a child in the 1950’s, Shirley Temple was still the rage. You couldn’t open a magazine without seeing pictures of adorable, curly-headed moppets smiling out at you, usually with tiny kittens or fuzzy ducklings as props. My father wanted to be a photographer, but he didn’t particularly want to photograph children, especially his own somewhat scruffy brood. “Art ” photography (read “naked ladies”) held his interest, but having so many free mini-models close at hand finally developed some appeal—but only after my mother put her foot down. ( Or, in a manner of speaking, “up” a certain part of his anatomy.)
Before my father’s photographic mania struck in the ’50’s, our magazine rack held titles such as Modern Romance, Hot Rod—and, perhaps, a tattered EC comic book or two. After Popular Photography became his bible—or should I say his porn—the coffee table soon overflowed with expensive subscriptions to Modern Photography and Camera 35, among others. He began taking pictures with a plain box camera. You know the one, black imitation leather and metal strips, a leather handle and strap, which you always kept around your neck. But while his kids wore hand-me downs and had too little to eat, my father’s camera bag slowly filled with bigger and better equipment—more expensive cameras, the latest and biggest lenses, tripods, light meters and various other esoteric photographic gee-gaws. Unlike his children, these gadgets were meticulously cared for. Meanwhile, the front room/bedroom/living room/temporary photo studio was also filling up with the occasional young twit of a “model” behind the now-closed door. These bimbos were each determined to become the next Marilyn Monroe—willing and eager to strip, giggling as my father adjusted his lights and other equipment. During these “shoots” as he called them, my mother and I, and the rest of the kids, sat as quietly as possible—as ordered—in the back room/kitchen of our tiny three room apartment. During those sessions there was pain my mother’s eyes, and a “god only knows what is going on in there” look on her face.
Later, we all got to see what was going on when our only bathroom, which doubled as my father’s darkroom, exhibited 8×10’s and 16×20’s of the naked ladies, with occasional close-ups of their anatomical bits. WOW. ( We weren’t supposed to look, but of course we did.) Large format black and white photos were laid out to dry on shiny rectangular dryers, the wet prints rolled slightly and held in place with something like a bungee cord. The photos, on their heavy matte paper, dried with a slight curve. Other finished prints and fresh negatives were clipped to a “clothesline” sort of arrangement over the tub. Three pans, for developer, fixer and a plain water rinse, lined the tub bottom. ( We kids washed up in the kitchen, at the sink.) Toilet paper was moved to make room for large brown bottles of smelly chemicals, and stacked plastic trays. Red and yellow bulbs in metal clip-on lamps were attached to where the curtain rod used to be, timers and tongs sat on the back of the tub. Interesting glass measuring jars marked in red increments topped the sink. Our three toothbrushes (his, hers, and the one for us kids) were moved to a cup on the floor, sharing space with a tangle of extension cords which covered the linoleum. Our tiny linen closet held black and yellow boxes of photographic paper and other supplies. (The family towels were now kept in the hall, rough dried and unfolded, in a laundry basket outside the door.) This made room for his enlarger, big and gray with an interesting bellows that sat in a corner, on wheels, rolled out of the way.
My father spent a lot of time in his darkroom. Locked on the inside, it was the one place with absolute privacy in the apartment. Sometimes he took one of his models in with him. He claimed that the “oohs” and “aahs” we heard must have meant that she was just appreciative of his work. Even at my tender age, I didn’t believe that for a minute. And god forbid any of us had to go to the bathroom while he was “working.” You either had to hold it or use the enameled slop jar kept in the middle room/ kids bedroom/storage area. I was proud that I could hold mine, but the younger kids often wet their pants. The only thing my mother held was her rage, and—knowing her temper—she kept it in check far longer than I would have expected. When the models began hanging out with my father in the living room with a beer, relaxing merrily after their shoot, while the rest of us were still banished to the kitchen, my mother decided that “art be damned!” (My words—hers were a LOT more colorful.) She had finally had more than enough. Later, after weeks of sturm and drang (blood and fisticuffs) and broken glass and spilled chemicals in the darkroom, the enlarger was repaired with black electrical tape, and my father’s “focus” finally took a turn. The naked ladies went elsewhere. That was when we kids became his models.
Now my father’s problem was—well, it was me. I was no Shirley Temple. And try as he might, threaten me as he did, he couldn’t turn me into her. The photo shown here, dated 1950, was taken just after he actually beat the bejesus out of me because I wouldn’t smile, and was wasting his film. The more he yelled, the more morose I became. Twisting my arm only got more of the same, plus tears. The cheap blue nylon party dress I was wearing rapidly lost it’s crispness as he just as rapidly lost his temper. My mother matched his nasty mood and in the fracas my dress got yanked out of shape and I lost one of the bows in my hair. My mother had to iron another dress, the one you see here ( it was in the basket with the towels) so that my father could finish out the roll with me wearing something, at least. She also ironed my hair because my long “sausage curls” had to be fixed. Because I wouldn’t hold still, she pushed the tip of the hot iron into my back and said, “NOW you’ll smile, won’t you?” Still I didn’t. Or couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. She finally gave up and wiped the tear stains off my face as I sat there in my ratty little homemade green dress with the stupid rick-rack, hating them both. But I despised the “photographer” most of all because he had made me wet myself. We finished the rest of the roll, damp little me sitting on a towel to keep from staining the sofa. My mother helpfully said that I was beginning to look like a zombie. The photo you see here was the best of the bunch, and ended up being my “before” shot. You wouldn’t have wanted to see the “after” one, or the smile from hell I learned to perform on cue. Later on that night, while I was on the floor, I found my missing hair bow, pee-stained, under the sofa with the dust bunnies.
My father entered photographs of my younger brothers and sisters in every contest he could find, and I had become old and ‘useless’ as a model at age seven. After a while—as much as I still hate to admit it—his photos got to be pretty good. Several were excellent. But as far as I know, my father didn’t win any contests, or make any earnings with his photography. Money was his criteria for success. But as I’ve learned, art has its own criteria, and the work itself is what drives us. Often, it’s the only reward. Some how—in spite of the fact he didn’t deserve to—the miserable bastard actually became a photographer. Here I’m remembering an incident where he beat me with his fists and a belt. No wonder I thought then that he didn’t deserve to live, let alone be successful at the one thing he loved. But he did live and was successful—at least in a creative way—and life isn’t fair. So just shoot me.
Copyright © 2010 Jacquie Roland.
By Regina Wirtanen Buker
My dad’s most prized possession, a Kentucky rifle, held a place of honor over the living room fireplace. When I was young, the rifle was longer than I was tall: four and a half feet long, ten pounds of steel, wood and brass, a real beauty. Growing up, every important family photograph was shot in front of the fireplace with the rifle hanging above us. When it was time for me to marry and rain forced the wedding from my parents’ garden into the living room, of course my husband and I would pose in front of the Kentucky rifle.
As a child, I had thought every family had weapons hanging on their walls. The collection began when my dad sent home a variety of German and Italian pistols from Europe in WWII. Dueling pistols, Derringers, and Dragoons were among the hundred weapons that were mounted on the den walls. (The guns and swords that confronted my dates may explain why I had few second dates in my teens.) But in 1972, a handsome Marine stood up to the power of my dad’s arsenal. And, one year later, as the rain poured, our guests gathered around us in the small living room and some peeked in from the porch windows; we exchanged our vows before the fireplace. The rain and packed rooms didn’t bother me. I had a perfect wedding day. Only when I got the photographs did I complain. The fault was not a crooked smile or red-eye in the photos. No. The Kentucky rifle was missing. I asked my new husband what had happened. “Your maid of honor said the rifle suggested a ‘shotgun’ wedding. Your mom agreed.”
In 1995, my father gave me the Kentucky rifle. Not the typical rite of passage between father and daughter, I’ll admit. But, for me, the last treasure of my dad’s gun collection carries my dearest memories. We were sitting at his table at the Maryland Antique Arms Show, an annual tradition for 35 years. He was 78, and downsizing. Sadness filled his eyes as he sealed the deals that liquidated his collection. Only one item remained on the table all weekend, without a price tag. Then, on Sunday, he handed the rifle to me. “Take it home,” he said, and smiled.
By giving me the Kentucky rifle my dad affirmed all our cherished times together. Even so, when I look at it hanging in our home now, I still want a redo of our wedding photo.
Copyright © 2009 Reginia Wirtanen Buker.
Regina Wirtanen Buker resides in Northeast Baltimore and directs a non-profit homeownership program. A member of the Deepdene Writers, she is currently writing The Skytrain Pilot, a book about her father’s WWII service as a C-47 pilot.