Thursday, December 20, 2018

'Let Them Have Gravel'

“How does one become what one is? Not, surely, by way of childhood, in spite of what genetics, psychology, and economics may suggest. I find it difficult to believe that experienced adults can regard childhood as sufficiently interesting to describe as happy or unhappy, The temptation for me is to deal with it as Mrs. Wharton dealt with divorce (hers; not others’)—to treat it as something hardly worthy of mention.”

Is any bore more boring than the bore who recalls endlessly and in detail the purported delights or torments of his or her (in my experience, most often his) younger years? I know, there are “foodies,” reciters of sitcom plots, aficionados of PowerPoint, sports fans with photographic memories, and transcribers of medical woes, but the bore who confuses childish and childlike, and treats casual conversations as impromptu psychiatric sessions, has earned eternal perdition. The man who wrote the passage quoted above, the opening sentences in his apparently unpublished memoir, possesses perfect pitch for temps perdu. In his second paragraph, he continues:

“I did the things most small boys do, but I suspect I found them less satisfying than most small boys do. If you ask what was lacking all I can say is that Forest, Mississippi, population 2500, had no architecture as I understood architecture from futuristic comics and the covers of Popular Mechanics. Nor was the landscape in any way satisfactory. To an eye conditioned by the other planets of the airbrush, the low hills and the forests of second-growth pine appeared featureless. I may add they do still. Scenery begins at Shreveport.”

If you’re going to write about the raptures and desolations of childhood, be amusing about it, as Turner Cassity (1929-2009) can’t help but be. Like his poetry, Cassity’s prose is tart, campy, learned, precise and very funny, filled with details about a Mississippi sawmill and life in apartheid-era South Africa. There’s no morbid introspection. He’s forever looking outward at the bigger, more interesting world, one amenable to the workings of the imagination. The Kentucky poet and publisher R.L. Barth is Cassity’s literary executor, and Bob has loaned me the typescript of the 106-page autobiographical essay Cassity wrote in 1988 for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Here is Cassity’s third paragraph:

“Fortunately, there were gravel pits in the area, and these were settings of more appeal, having the glamour of deserts without their alarming distances, and the mystery of caverns without the darkness and the claustrophobia. My contemporaries and I would have thought it an absolute failure of imagination to play in a park, let alone a playground. As a matter of principle I vote against bond issues for the construction of these instruments of regimentation. Let them have gravel.”

Cassity must have been that rarest of creatures, an interesting child. I intend to write more about his memoir. Bob also gave me the copy of Cassity’s 1991 collection Between the Chains (University of Chicago Press) inscribed to the poet’s mother, Dorothy Cassity, of Ridgeland, Miss. In a poem included in the collection, “Fin de Siècle,” he writes:

“The way of presentism is to whore the past
For passions of the moment. That is pestilence


Thomas Parker said...

As Samuel Butler says somewhere, "Sensible people get the greater part of their own dying done during their own lifetime. A man at five and thirty should no more regret not having had a happier childhood than he should regret not having been born a prince of the blood."

Montez Bush said...

I think this must be one of favorite posts.