it is also viewable on the new PhilipDeaver site here
This poem by Philip F Deaver was also read by NPR’s Garrison Keillor on Writer’s Almanac
it is also viewable on the new PhilipDeaver site here
This happened I believe in the Fall of 2010 in Louisville at the residency. There was at the time a restaurant called, I believe, the Third Street Cafe, and my guess is it was close to a mile south of the Spalding campus. At least once a residency I would abscond to this place because I needed the quiet — it might be Monday and I’d be stressed or just needing a good airing out that an autumn walk would provide. On this day I was in a torment because of a dream I’d had the previous night about turning 65, a marker I was approaching with my next birthday. I think I have this right. (It’s all in a notebook somewhere but I never can find the old ones.) I remember it was fall because I was really striding down the broad sidewalk, which is very urban and slightly blighted on the Spalding end but gradually becomes old Louisville, stately protestant churches, shaded avenues, graceful Victorian houses that had once been residences and now were mostly boarding houses and B&Bs. I remember the leaves on the ground, particularly the striking yellow leaves of ginkgos among the bigger oak, maple and chestnut leaves all brown and red. Turning 65 was easy to deal with at home, but on the road, alone a lot, the ghosts would whisper and the old Catholic guilt would intrude, and James Wright’s haunted line would finally hit me like my epitaph: “I have wasted my life.”
You’ve been there. It was in this mood, or trying to kick it, that I long-strided my way down the long, flat, shady street, and once I got into the neighborhood, among the boarding houses, I saw, far ahead of me, an old woman coming down the front stairs from one of these old houses, what appeared to be her apartment house. She from a distance looked like a bag lady, a scarf on her head and what appeared to be a blanket around her shoulders. There was an autumn chill in the wind, though it was high noon under bright sun. She began making her way probably toward the grocery store — anyway she was coming my direction, and she meandered as she came, used the whole wide sidewalk as though, in the most generous likelihood, she weren’t really concentrating. I gave her a wide berth as I approached, tried to take her in in a glance without meeting her eyes, then tried to stride past her fast. I was ten minutes into the lunch hour, had to get where I was going. But as I passed I accidentally did get eye-contact with the woman. I estimate she was 75 or 80, with long silver hair peeping out from her scarf. I estimated then from looking at her, and now from remembering, that she might have been just a little crazy. I quick averted my eyes and breezed by her. But as I passed, she spoke these exact words. “Well, you really are a young man, aren’t you?” She spoke it clearly.
Though I couldn’t believe what she said, I did hear it very well. I stopped and turned to look at her and saw that she had already stopped, turned completely around, and was looking at me with great intent to communicate. “Young?” I said. “Not really!” I tried to gently laugh it off. “Oh but you are,” she said. “Yes, you are a young man, aren’t you.” This was not a question. Having said what God sent her to say, she turned again and headed north in her wobbly meandering way. I watched her go. She had a cane, and occasionally she pulled the blanket tighter around her like a shawl. Never looked back.
I am not much of a believer I am sorry to say, but I do notice when I’m being visited or sent a message, and I can’t find another interpretation for this “coincidence.” There are ghosts on the streets of Louisville, generations having passed their days there on those sidewalks and in those old houses with their swinging-open cupboard doors and creaking floors, their broad stairs to the upper regions, and their dappled shadows in the basements. It isn’t like Savannah except when it comes to ghosts, and is nothing like Cincinnati down by the warehouses on the river and its ghosts of the drowned or St. Louis which hears voices or Cairo and Memphis, except all of them are still channeling the shades of the old people who built them and who lived and gossiped there. Louisville is nothing like those other places — they each have their own special ghosts and their own angels who easily see into passersby on their particular streets, good bright-eyed old dead people with all of the old wisdom still on their minds and who care to stop you when you’re walking by on some blind trivial mission fueled by some relatively small worry and deliver a message that is haunting because she’s a stranger having come out of nowhere and her words are tailored precisely to you and they are good words.
Over the last six months, I’ve been writing a long short story called “Healing,” a project that came from my trip a year ago to the Indonesian island of Bali. The story, as usual, went a different direction than I expected. I resurrected Jerome Slater, an oil painter, who first appeared in an unpublished novel, Chapter 6 of which became “Geneseo,” a short story in my collection, Silent Retreats. The story, “Healing,” runs 15,000 words, and is an attempt to “place” the reader in Ubud and environs without overtly writing a travel piece. Jerome has aged a number of years and is down there hanging out and painting in the compound of a lifelong friend of his. I’ve never read the recent Bali memoir nor seen the famous movie made from it; I intentionally deprived myself of all that so my memory and the writing tied straight to my own experience. I set the story among (fictional) expats living there, so that I didn’t accidentally appropriate or seem to.
I had considerable help finalizing the story. I ran it by my friends who were on the Bali trip with me, and several writer friends, all of whom rolled up their sleeves and waded in. It’s much better than it was because of that. It isn’t my style to solicit so much feedback while a piece is enroute, because I don’t like showing work when I know it isn’t ready to be shown. It might be addictive, however; the help stretched me and I wasn’t even, I discovered in the process, humiliated too much.
Why pretend. In a way, we’re beginners with each new story we write, especially the big ones. The craft humbles even the veterans.
And also, it is a good thing to not show a work until it is finished, but who the hell knows when a thing is finished. For me, it’s alive and fluid until it’s accept and the ink’s dry. But anyway. It’s very close now. I’ve begun to envision the interconnected next story, this one set in Buenos Aires where I visited last year with the Summer residency of the Spalding brief residency MFA program.
Meantime, Garrison Keillor read a poem from my poetry book How Men Pray on Saturday, June 18. Here’s the link to Writer’s Almanac for that day.
Keillor has read my poems four times on this program, actually three different poems and one of them twice two years apart.
Odd how the actual intensity of grinding out the Bali story, and the passive wonder and luck of sudden renewed exposure on Writer’s Almanac, all of it coming it has as I begin the sabbatical, has fueled my energy for getting after it in the coming months.