Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Tribute To A Friend
Happy New Year! 2013! Wow! What a fine feeling! All those sweet old Christmas songs packed away to mellow for another year. All the New Year’s bells have rung and that ball successfully made its traditional descent in Times Square. The tree ornaments are back on the shelf. The new Christmas corduroys have been tailored to fit. The fruit cake just a dream and the now empty champagne jug in the waste can. All the thank you notes are written, and we have almost visited the scales to see how much weight all that good food has added. Well, I won’t go that far, but we are giving it some thought.
I have special reason to be thankful to see 2013. In the first place it’s been quite a stretch from 1923 when I first came to this party. And secondly each year about this time I come down with the flu. This year was no exception and for three weeks my doctor was treating me with the elixirs and magic potions that traditionally got me well again.
This time it didn’t work so he ordered a cat scan and discovered that I had been walking around with raging pneumonia! The next thing I knew I was in Room 1408 in the North Tower at Cedars of Lebanon being stuffed with antibiotics and steroids, having blood drawn, my wheezing chest listened to just about every time I drifted off to sleep, my vitals taken every six hours, and round the clock attention by some of the most attentive and considerate nurses I could imagine.
I am home now, a little out of breath, dizzy in the head and weak in the knees and more flighty than usual in the brain, but I am definitely on the mend.
All this has brought me to a realization that is long overdue; one I suppose more rational folks already live with at this advanced age. All these years I have gone merrily along my way, whistling in the dark, living as if there were no tomorrow, always assured that I am young in spirit, destined to live forever, and not subject to the wear and tear that go with "the golden years."
There in Room 1408 in the North Tower of Cedars of Lebanon the awful realization dawned on me that I am mortal, that in spite of the lies I keep telling mysef, it’s December at the party, not April any more. The reminder came in a line from a poem that kept repeating itself over and over in my mind.
"Then child, don heavy armor
Against the heart’s wild pain;
Try as I may, I cannot bring
Fair April back again."
Listen to him! Carrying on like he is about to put on his funeral suit, order the casket and call Forest Lawn! Actually it was a good thing! Forced him to slow down. Smell the roses, and enjoy that extra glass of chardonnay even though you aren’t supposed to take it along with cumadin.
The refrain that kept repeating itself in my mind was a stanza from a poem written by my late friend the poet, Muriel Miller Dressler and she will be the subject of this blog if I ever get around to it.
In the meantime I introduce the following medical bulletin to your attention because it gives me an opportunity to boast.
As you know from my previous blogs, last year I received a very high honor from the Library of Virginia. This year their generosity has brought another very great honor. On the 17th of January I was scheduled to attend a meeting of the Virginia Legislature where a proclamation was to have been read saying that I was a proud Virginia boy and that my writing had brought pleasure and pride to my fellow Virginians. There was then to have been a lunch at the Governor’s mansion and a reception that evening!
Even though I was recovering from the pneumonia I was tempted to make the trip, but my doctor said it would be foolhardy to risk another respiratory event this early by getting on a plane and trying to attend all those fabulous functions that were planned in Richmond.
As close to tears as a tough old rooster should come, I let the folks at the Library know. What incredible people! Somehow they have been able to reschedule most of the events and my family and I are already anticipating a visit home to Virginia on April 3rd! Some of these April events will be open to the public so if any of you in the Richmond area would be interested I will let you know as soon as I have all the facts.
So finally we come to the end of this long winded introduction to my new blog. It tells of how I came to know a woman I still revere, the gifted West Virginia poet, Muriel Miller Dressler.
When I was growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge during the great Depression of the Twenties and Thirties, the possibility that I might someday meet a real poet seemed remote, if not impossible. We were people of the back woods, and our daily lives were taken up with the business of living through harsh and hostile times.
Yet, poetry was at hand. I recognized it first in the King James version of The Bible. Sometimes it was a passage I was obliged to memorize in Sunday school in order to receive a Gold
Star. Sometimes it was shouted at me by revival preachers set on persuading me to give up my sinful ways and to be saved. No matter how it was presented, I recognized the poetry in The Bible And I WAS saved.
Later, a dedicated teacher at our local school introduced me to Edgar Allen Poe, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant, Steven Vincent Benet, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. We were required to memorize great hunks of "Thanatopsis," "The First Snowfall," and "Song of Myself," and I still remember them today.
While their words became a part of my being, the poets themselves seemed remote. I fancied them to be God-like creatures, removed from the human race, quite possibly living in Grecian temples close by the Mediterranean where they wrote when inspiration moved them and subsisted on a little fruit and a lot of wine.
But the Great Depression passed, and my life changed. I won a scholarship to the University of Richmond, I went to Europe and fought in a war, I came home to Virginia and then to the University of Cincinnati and finally to make a career and a new life in New York City.
It was there I met my first "real" poet. I had written a book called "Fifty Roads to Town," and I desperately needed permission from a poet named Muriel Rukeyser to use two lines from a remarkable poem of hers called "Effort at Speech Between Two People." But how did one get in touch with a poet? I asked my editor at Random House, Belle Becker, and Belle replied, "Why don’t you look in the phone book?" I did and to my astonishment Miss Rukeyser lived only two blocks from my apartment, and most graciously consented to my using the lines I needed. I learned that poets were not only considerate, but that not all of them were off there by the Mediterranean sipping wine.
Miss Rukeyser’s gift prepared me for generosity and graciousness. What I had not been prepared for was the knowledge that a poet could spring from the same earth I knew. And on a visit to Morris Harvey College (Now The University of Charleston) I met Muriel Miller Dressler, a fellow citizen of Appalachia.
Muriel Dressler was born in Kanawha County, West Virginia on July 4th. 1918. Her family went back several generations in the area. She did not finish high school and her love of literature came, as she was fond of saying, "at the heels of my mother as we planted or hoed the garden."
I met her in 1975 and with her permission used one of her poems as the theme for an episode of my series "Morning Star, Evening Star."
William Plumley, the professor who introduced us, describes her as "Short, curvy, vain and hyperactive." Dressler remained a popular speaker on the college circuit until the mid-1980’s when she suffered a massive heart attack. She spent much of the rest of her life away from the public spotlight.
Using the same clay some of us have shaped into novels, Muriel made poems.
Muriel spoke with first hand knowledge of the land of our birth. She knew and articulated the sounds of whippoorwills at night, the thud of earth coming to rest on a miner’s coffin, the restless love that calls a widow from her bed for dialogue at Midnight with spirits that are less dead than they seem.
This is not to suggest that Muriel wrote of the macabre. On the contrary she could be witty and gay, raucous and gossipy, but always filled with the exaltation of living. Sometimes she would be wicked, as in her wry appraisal of "Old Iry Pleasants" who decided he was "jest retard" after "he’s been out of work his entire life."
Much of Muriel Dressler’s work is in dialect, a dangerous form of expression. In unskilled hands it could reach a comic strip level, but Muriel knew what she was doing, and the sounds of Appalachian speech fell on her ear with accuracy and recognition. She’d been there. She knew what she was doing.
Her signature work is a collection of poems titled "Appalachia." You can track it down on the Intenet and I recommend you look for it.
What it all boils down to, I think, is that Muriel Dressler had heard the same sounds we all hear, known the same pain we each feel, watched the same sun cross the sky and set beyond some hilly horizon, but out of her own genius she produced work that while regional in character, is universal in its appeal and meaning.
I know because one of her poems haunts me still.
ELEGY FOR JODY
O, wear a crimson shawl, my child
Put on a scarlet hood,
And make a point of being brave
When you explore the wood.
But when harsh winds denude the trees,
Fall leaves on cryptic ground
Will write your childhood’s prophecy
In syllables of brown.
When dark clouds scud against the sky
And greening trees are gone,
I’ll weave for you an ebon rug
For you to walk upon.
Then child, don heavy armor
Against the heart’s wild pain,
Try as I may, I cannot bring
Fair April back again.
Poem published with permission of Jacob Wither, Executor of the Estate of William Plumley.