Saturday, May 02, 2009

Death by Comet

Yesterday I was sorting through boxes in my mother's garage, and I came upon an issue of a literary journal in which the violent boyfriend (from Cedar Falls or Cedar Rapids, Iowa) had published an essay in art criticism. In the first paragraph he used the word "adventitious." His name was nestled on the table of contents page beside Julio Cortazar's and Ann Beattie's and Dana Gioia's. I imagined the essay slipping into the landfill or going to the city shredder. Ship it! I said and separated it for the trash.

I am realistic enough to know that I don't look like Audrey Hepburn. I am more likely to realize that I admire Katherine Hepburn -- as if the choice must be between two women of the same name or between a married couple: Paul or Jane Bowles, Leonard or Virginia Woolf, Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath.

Truman Capote got the idea for In Cold Blood from an article in the newspaper. I had wanted to model a book after it, based on an article I had read in the Minneapolis newspaper about a tornado. In the tornado one elderly man died. Tornadoes ought to be named as hurricanes are named, this one after its one casualty. I thought of researching the book about the man, as if unburying him from the rubble of the basement in what had been his house. We all have basements here. Even my St. Louis Park apartment has its own unfinished basement. I use it for storage and it's where I do the laundry, where the furnace and hot water heater are. If someone says "basement" in Texas or in New York, people are likely to imagine a torture chamber; the literati think of Kaspar Hauser, not of a whole state or region of basements where law-abiding citizens report for duty during severe storm warnings. If a single elderly man dies in a tornado, the newspaper readers sigh with relief: at least no children died. They don't think of the damage to houses, trees, roads, and businesses unless they live near that town, and they don't stop to imagine what it might be like to be him -- THE ONLY ONE to have blown out in a tornado -- at the end of a long and one presumes virtuous life. It's like being chosen by a lightening bolt or dying by COMET; it's like being the one candle on a cake to go out when the birthday child misses; but readers are just glad to read he'd been old. What if one of the man's grown children, plied with a little weed or tobacco or alcohol, were to say, "He got what he deserved" or "Couldn't have come at a better time"? Wouldn't that be a story?

It might have won the Minnesota Book Award for non-fiction, but I didn't do it.

I didn't call the police when the violent boyfriend (from Cedar Falls or Cedar Rapids, Iowa) "blew up the house."

Would Avery believe that my poetry was "glad to be female" if I draped each noun with a lacy little bra or tightened it in a string bikini? If I put a touch of black (not brown) mascara on every verb?

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