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Posts Tagged ‘death’

Very Trustworthy Witnesses

October 17, 2014 | by

The many deaths of Ambrose Bierce.

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A portrait of Bierce by John Herbert Evelyn Partington.

Ambrose Bierce’s old house in St. Helena, California, surrounded by the vineyards of Napa Valley, is in good repair. Eight stout sequoia trunks flair outward from a fused base in the front yard. An hour and a half drive to the south, in San Francisco, is a short knife-thrust of an alley in North Beach named Ambrose Bierce. It runs behind the old San Francisco Examiner building, where Bierce worked as a columnist for the young William Randolph Hearst.

This year marks the centennial of the presumed death of Bierce, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author of The Devil’s Dictionary, a wickedly witty book of social commentary disguised as definitions. He’s still best known for his fiction: his fastidiously plotted horror tales and the dark, vivid stories—including the often anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—that drew from his early war experiences at Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was wounded. In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, the famous writer saddled up a horse and rode into Mexico, not speaking any Spanish, in order to cover the Mexican Revolutionary War, perhaps to participate in it, perhaps to interview Pancho Villa. As newspaper accounts of his time reported, he disappeared without a trace.

More accurately, there were too many traces to follow and World War I soon broke out, so a thorough search for Bierce was postponed. In his disappearing act—and some thought it was an act meant to cloak his suicide or his removal to a sanitorium—Bierce becomes a bit like one of the ghostly characters in Mexico’s most celebrated novel, Pedro Paramo, which is narrated by a man who doesn’t realize he’s dead. Or like the protagonist in Bierce’s own story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” who stumbles across his own tombstone. According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico. There is even a cenotaph for him in the sleepy mining town of Sierra Mojada, in the Chihuahua Desert. Curiously, although his body doesn’t lie under it, it is the most distinguished marker for any of Bierce’s immediate family. Back in St. Helena, his two sons and his wife are buried in unmarked graves. Read More »

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Carolyn Kizer, 1924–2014

October 13, 2014 | by

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I’ve been enormously fortunate. People say, How do you feel about your reputation? My real belief is that I have exactly the reputation I deserve … on the whole I feel comfortable with myself. You know I’ve always always loved that line from Chaucer’s Criseyde, “I am meyne own woman wel at ease.” That’s the way I feel. Of course, there are always disasters looming, both cosmic and domestic. But even if it should all end tomorrow I would just hope I’ve burned enough bad drafts and old love letters!
—Carolyn Kizer, the Art of Poetry No. 81, Spring 2000

Carolyn Kizer died last Thursday at eighty-nine, the New York Times reports. Her poems are immaculately crafted and very smart, often with a steely feminism; she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for her collection Yin. As the Times says, “She was writing as early as the 1950s about the conflict for women between the creative imperative and social expectations—but it was far different in character from that of her contemporary Adrienne Rich. Where the poems of Ms. Rich, who died in 2012, landed like bombs flung from the barricades, those of Ms. Kizer felt more like a stiletto slipped between the ribs.”

Ursula K. Le Guin called Kizer’s poetry “intensely, splendidly oral, wanting to be read aloud, best of all to be read or roared by the lion herself.” Kizer, born in Washington, was known for her long, careful periods of revision, as evidenced in the manuscript above. (She was an honest self-critic, too; note that “Re-write this LOUSY couplet” scrawled in the margin.) She took more than thirty years to edit the sequence “Pro Femina,” which contains one of her most famous lines: “We are the custodians of the world’s best-kept secret: Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity.”

In addition to her Writers at Work interview, The Paris Review published many of Kizer’s poems, including “Twelve O’Clock,” in our Winter 1990 issue; and “Gerda,” which opens with an old Swedish children’s prayer, from Spring 1987. To celebrate her life, we’ve made them both available online. Read More »

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Nevermore

October 3, 2014 | by

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The frontispiece from Edgar Allan Poe: A Centenary Tribute, 1910.

On October 3, 1849, a delirious Edgar Allan Poe was found in a Baltimore ditch dressed in clothes that were, reportedly, not his own. He died four days later at Washington Medical College. There are numerous theories, but the exact cause of death remains a mystery, as does his presence in the ditch.

If Poe interests you, you wish to commemorate him, and you happen to be in New York, be sure to go to the Grolier Club and catch the public exhibition “Evermore: The Persistence of Poe,” which consists of the extensive Edgar Allan Poe Collection of Susan Jaffe Tane. In addition to manuscripts, first editions, personal effects, and letters belonging to the writer, the show has a section devoted to Poe’s portrayals in pop culture, which include everything from John Cusack’s unfortunate turn in 2012’s The Raven to the Unemployed Philosophers Guild’s ubiquitous Poe doll. Particularly arresting is a poster for 1944’s The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, a film that was unknown to me. But I rushed home to remedy that at once, and, luckily for all of us, the whole thing’s available on YouTube: Read More »

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From the Land of Pleasant Living, and Other News

October 3, 2014 | by

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A Baltimore icon slips into Russian hands.

  • Remembering John Berryman, whose centenary is later this month: “Berryman has not been forgotten, but his gnomic revelations have less force than they used to. His drinking and womanizing, his unsoothable anguish, seem less the stuff of heroism than of mutinous neurotransmitters. I can all too easily imagine him today, sitting at a seminar table in Palo Alto or Iowa City, buoyed by a decent dose of Wellbutrin, listening as some regular contributor to the Northwestern Maine Quarterly Review piously instructs impious John to simmer down, center himself, drop the unceasing allusions to Shakespeare, find his voice and tell us how he really feels.”
  • “As well as categorizing novels as well or poorly written, popular or unpopular, one could also, and perhaps more usefully, distinguish those that become part of the conversation, and those that do not. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections became part of the national conversation; Lydia Davis’s short stories, for all their brilliance, did not … John Updike’s Terrorist was arguably his least talked-about novel … But how does a book enter the conversation today?”
  • A good problem to have: “I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I am about to die and I don’t.”
  • An 1894 map by the New York Tenement-House Committee divides the city by nationality. But you won’t find Scotch, English, Welsh, Scandinavian, and Canadian New Yorkers on the map, because they were, according to its creator, “in small numbers and perhaps less foreign than the others.”
  • The Orioles are in the playoffs, which means Baltimoreans are swilling profligate amounts of Natty Boh, the greatest bad beer in the world and one of the city’s most cherished brands—it dates back to 1885. (At least one Baltimorean would drink a can right now, even though it’s nine-thirty A.M. and he’s in New York.) The only problem? “National Bohemian hasn’t been locally owned since the nineteen-seventies, and it hasn’t been brewed in Maryland in more than a decade … Last month, it was announced that the brand’s owner, Pabst, is being purchased by the Russian beverage company Oasis.” Say it ain’t Boh.

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The Art of the Obituary: An Interview with Margalit Fox

September 23, 2014 | by

Margalit Fox credit Ivan Farkas

Photo: Ivan Farkas

In nearly twenty years and twelve hundred obituaries, Margalit Fox, a senior writer at the New York Times, has chronicled the lives of such personages as the president of Estonia, an underwater cartographer, and the inventor of Stove Top Stuffing. An instrumental figure in pushing the obituary past Victorian-era formal constraints, Fox produces features-style write-ups of her subjects whether they’re ubiquitous public figures, comparatively unknown men and women whose inventions have changed the world, or suicidal poets. (More on those below.)

I caught up with Fox in the Upper West Side café where she’s written two books, Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind and The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, the latter of which was published in paperback earlier this year. She was remarkably jovial and eager to clarify what it’s like to write about the dead every day. We spoke about the history of the obituary, her love of English eccentrics, and how it feels to call a living person in preparation for his or her eventual death.

Does the work you do change the way you think about death?

This work does skew your worldview a bit. We all watch old movies with an eye toward who’s getting on in age. I watch the Oscars memorial presentation and sit there going, Did him, did her, didn’t do that one. For obit writers, the whole world is necessarily divided into the dead and the pre-dead. That’s all there is.

How did you end up in the obituaries department?

I’d never planned for a career in obits. The child has not yet been born that comes home from school clutching a composition that says, When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer. I started as an editor at the Times Book Review. It was wonderful to be around books and people that love books, but the job itself was copyediting. I was afraid that all they’d be able to put on my tombstone was “She Changed Fifty-Thousand Commas into Semicolons.” I started contributing freelance to the obituary section and ended up getting pulled in as a full-time writer.

How is your section different from other news sections at the paper?

Ninety-five percent of our job is writing daily obits on deadline. It’s impossible to have an advance written for all the pre-dead who we hope to cover, so we usually have to phone someone up to ask about a person or a subject we don’t know much about. Recently, one of my colleagues was heard running around the office going, Does anyone know anything about exotic chickens?! It’s that sort of thing. Read More »

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Going Dark

August 12, 2014 | by

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Detail from Vittorio Reggianini’s A Shocking Announcement

I have been trying for some time now to write this post, but it’s been very hard for me. Not emotionally, I mean—physically. My hands go funny, my vision blurs, my legs get weak, and I start to feel sick. In short, I get woozy. Allow me to explain.

Not that I really can explain; if I do, I’ll pass out. Just this morning, I started to read a review of a film that mentioned the protagonist’s “suicide attempt” and “bandaged wrists” and I felt shaky and had to immediately close the paper and, what is more, put it down the garbage chute so it couldn’t torment me. At least with books, you have some control over these things; to date I have fainted in The Virgin Suicides, Swing Kids, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sunset Boulevard. With The Three Faces of Eve, Harold and Maude, and Little Miss Sunshine, I managed to get out in time. I also got woozy once in a college history class; we were discussing the death of Seneca.

It sounds funny, until you see it in action. It is never fun to see reason give way to blind panic, nor to have a friend pass out at your feet. Sometimes, before they understand, people will tease me, exploit my weakness—as a result, I usually try not to mention it. (Also, if I talk or think about it, I will get faint.) Like someone with an allergy, I am ever vigilant, but the vigilance has become second nature. I tend to avoid anything that I know for a fact contains a suicide, just in case they do it that way. If I sense one might be coming, I will page ahead or ask a sympathetic friend for a warning. Sometimes, I have to reread or re-watch something because I realize after the fact that my tension and apprehension ruined the experience for me.

I can’t tell you when this started, or why it’s so very specific. There’s the time I spent in the ER waiting room seated across from a girl with bandaged arms, my eyes desperately glued to the television screen on the wall; she must have been okay, but to this day I can’t watch Charles in Charge (not that I’m so wild to). If you want to get mystical about it, there are the generations of family suicide to contend with. I can’t talk to a shrink or a hypnotist about it; I’d faint. Writing this alone has taken me four tries, and a large, sugary iced tea; I’m doing it as a sort of aversion therapy.

Do other people have these sorts of neuroses and aversions? Do they impact your quality of life—and, especially, your ability to enjoy books and movies? I’d love to know how to better cope. For now, I’m going to have to lie down—I’m feeling distinctly faint.

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