Popsicle #6: Magic Hours & This is Water

url-2bA friend who works at McSweeny’s recently sent me a collection of essays called Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissell. In an essay entitled ‘The Theory and Practice of Not Giving a Shit,’ Bissell writes about visiting Jim Harrison in Montana. Harrison spins some charming, larger-than-life yarns. But the most poignant moment comes when Harrison mentions Bissell’s other literary hero, David Foster Wallace:

Harrison brought up Jonathan Franzen’s much discussed New Yorker piece about Wallace, in which Franzen revealed that he could never get Wallace interested in his passion of bird watching. “This is interesting,” Harrison said. “Of the 12 or 13 suicides I’ve known, none of them had any interest in nature. In other words, they had no interest in what Rimbaud called ‘the other.’ The otherness, say, of nature.” They could not make, Harrison said, “that jump out of themselves.”

In another essay in Magic Hours, Bissell writes about This Is Water, the posthumously published transcription of Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.

Wallace was often accused, even by his admirers, of having a weakness for what Nabokov once referred to as “the doubtful splendors of virtuosity.” Standing before the graduates of Kenyon College, Wallace opted for a tonal simplicity only occasionally evident in the hedge mazes of his fiction. He spoke about the difficulty of empathy (“Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of”), the importance of being well adjusted (“which I suggest to you is not an accidental term”) and the essential lonesomeness of adult life (“lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation”).

This issue of empathy and interest in ‘the other’ keeps swirling around everything I read lately. What I appreciated about Magic Hours was Bissell’s ability to gracefully reflect on his own experience while investigating other people’s creative lives. I’m  also grateful that it encouraged me to listen to Wallace’s commencement address – the best sermon I’ve ever heard:


4 Replies to “Popsicle #6: Magic Hours & This is Water”

  1. As a Minnesotan, I’m sure you’re aware of Robert Bly’s poetry and his penetrating gaze into nature and the companion source it serves in nourishing the “soul”, particularly a soul housed in a male body. In one of his recorded lectures “A Home in Dark Grass”, there is a statement I will never forget . . . “nature is there to pull us out.” I thought of this immediately when you mentioned Jim Harrison’s diagnosis of the interior-starved person. I thought it appropriate to share Bly’s poem “A Home in Dark Grass” here, particularly the last stanza.

    In the deep fall, the body awakes,
    And we find lions on the seashore—
    Nothing to fear.
    The wind rises, the water is born,
    Spreading white tomb-clothes on a rocky shore,
    Drawing us up
    From the bed of the land.

    We did not come to remain whole.
    We came to lose our leaves like the trees,
    The trees that are broken
    And start again, drawing up on great roots;
    Like mad poets captured by the Moors,
    Men who live out
    A second life.

    That we should learn of poverty and rags,
    That we should taste the weed of Dillinger,
    And swim in the sea,
    Not always walking on dry land,
    And, dancing, find in the trees a saviour,
    A home in the dark grass,
    And nourishment in death.

    You can find the audio tape to his lecture: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/091540835X/menwebA/

    I strongly encourage setting 90 minutes aside to listen to Bly speak of his journey to becoming a poet. The lecture changed my life, hearing it as a young adolescent, lost, in college, as did his poetry, which in turn had an enormous influence on many of the pictures I make. He is extraordinarily versed in poetry, psychology, various religions and mythology. We will be indebted to his research and the home he’s built and illustrated with his words.

    I certainly will pick up Tom Bissell’s collection of essays. Thanks for sharing, Alec.

    ~Michael Ast

    1. Thanks so much Michael. Would love to hear Bly’s lecture (though a hundred dollars for a cassette when I don’t have a cassette player probably won’t happen).

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