Tuesday, March 11, 2014


March 11, 2014:

          One aspect of being a writer is that you tend to wind up knowing other writers and forming many of your friendships among them. That's especially true here in Sag Harbor, which has attracted writers since John Steinbeck ended his days here, in a house and writing shed overlooking the water. As far as writers, editors and the like are concerned, Sag Harbor is Manhattan East. I suppose it's a clannish thing. We share the experience of struggling with language trying to make it come out right, we have all failed at that, and tried again, and again, and we know how humbling that can be; and we also know how it feels when we do get something right and the world acknowledges it by publishing what you've written. Then, if you're really lucky, you make some money. Usually not much. Mostly you live for that feeling.

          So I'm here today to celebrate the victories in this struggle of two of my friends, Kathryn Levy and Jim McMullan, who have recently, after years of work, each published a book, an exceptional book in both cases, breakthrough books that won't necessarily make a lot of money but that represent for each of them a victory of sorts, a culmination, and a new direction.

          Kathryn is a poet and that alone more or less guarantees that there's no money in what she does, but she has always written poetry, she identifies herself as a poet, she basically has no choice in the matter. It's her calling, her vocation; she was born to it. She doesn't make a fuss about how deeply her life is entwined with poetry but if you quote a line or two of Keats, or Wallace Stevens, or Zbigniew Herbert or almost any poet to her, she's likely to complete the quote. She belongs to a reading group devoted entirely to Shakespeare; the group meets once a month, has done that for many years, and has gone through the complete works four or five times. She has taught poetry to young disadvantaged children in the New York City public schools in a program designed to free their imaginations. She also worked for a long time at the New York City Ballet, running the volunteer department, managing fund-raising benefits, and running a poetry program there, too, for public school students. She knew Balanchine, who's buried in Sag Harbor, and knows his work from the inside out. But she's not a dancer herself. Her real passion has always been writing poetry, and she has been doing that for a very long time.

          But not publishing it. Out of a certain diffidence, out of shyness, perhaps out of fear of failure, she did not go through the process of trying to make her work public. It is, in fact, a miserable process. The poetry world is small, intensely political, cliquish, and often quite nasty. I stopped writing poems myself for this reason; it just didn't seem worth the effort. Her friends have been urging her for years to just do it, take her chances. But poetry often grows out of pain, out of the darkness of early experience, out of bad dreams, losses of all kinds, your world at three o'clock in the morning. Working those parts of yourself into poems, and then exposing them to an indifferent world, is no easy thing.

          A few years ago, however, she finally published her first book, Losing the Moon, with Sag Harbor's occasional publisher Canio's Books. It meant very limited distribution, but it was at least a book, she could hold it in her hand, people could see her work. And now her second book, Reports, is out from New Rivers Press, she is actively publicizing it, it has gathered considerable praise from established figures in the poetry world, and not only that--IT'S REALLY GOOD. The pain, the distilled despair, the darkness at the core of her world is still there in the poems, but now she has turned it into small works of very powerful art, words like drills, words that take unexpectedly subversive directions in your mind. Just a few lines from "Driving All Night":
               You can say I feel free, here
               up in the mountains.
               This air is thin, breathing is hard.
               But I'm free, I feel free.
               Shout it, sing it--
               the air won't mind. It
               has you and it's not
               letting go.

          You have to read whole poems to get the full effect and I don't have the space in my little blog to put them in. But trust me, this is impressive work, written by a poet I'm proud to know. What is a black tulip but a victory in the night? The night has not gone away; but it has produced a flower.

          Jim McMullan is a whole other story, a world-class illustrator who for many years has done the posters for the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, who has illustrated children's books for years as well, many of them written by his wife, Kate McMullan, and is also well-known for doing the illustrations in New York Magazine for the story that morphed into the film Saturday Night Fever. Lorraine and I have known the McMullans since 2002. A few years ago I interviewed him for a show on LTV, the local TV channel here in the Hamptons where I occasionally talk to writers and artists about their work. We filmed it in Jim's studio and I was startled by his early work in magazines when he pulled examples of it out of storage. It was edgy and it was dark. Figures loomed out of uneasy backgrounds, smiles were rare, objects, events, portraits did not aim to be pretty. I was not expecting it, but as we got to know him better and he talked about his childhood we began to see where, in a literal sense, he was coming from. He was born in China in the mid-1930s to a British father and a Canadian mother. The family had lived in China for several generations, first as Christian missionaries, then as business people. They had attained a comfort level that included servants and Western luxuries, and the family had founded a prosperous business that gave employment to young girls who had been abandoned as infants--a not uncommon custom in China. But it was the 1930s. Japan was already at war with China. Eventually the war reached Cheefoo, where they were living, and their life changed radically. Jim's father went undercover as a British agent. Jim's mother took him to Canada, to her family, on the next to last boat allowed to leave, then, as the war wound down, to India, where they could see Jim's father, who, shortly after the war was over, was killed when the airplane he was flying in crashed in the Himalayas. Through all of this Jim was growing up, learning firsthand what it means to have your life intersect violently with history, before you're ten years old. To make it that much harder he was a sensitive kid, loved to draw, didn't play sports, wasn't macho, was small, timid, easily bullied. His mother, who descended from time to time into alcoholism, wasn't much help.

          This is the source, as he himself will tell you, of the dark vision coming from the brush of this kind, sensitive, brilliant artist. Catch the tragic sense of life when you're very young and it marks you. It leaves a message on the heart nothing can erase. A few years ago, going through old papers, he found his father's letters to his mother and himself and he decided to address it, to do a book, an illustrated memoir of his childhood, and it is just out now: Leaving China, from Algonquin Books. Brilliant indeed. The chapters are short, one page, and each one is faced by an illustration, and they work like a team. The illustrations are understated, subtle, and all the stronger for that. The text is straightforward, honest and open, and totally unsentimental. This is how it was; this is what happened. But these are dark events, awful to have lived through, terrible in what they tell us about human nature. To be able to back off from the tragedy of his early life, to see it and make art out of it like this--I don't want to deaden such an achievement with a trite phrase, but the phrase is accurate: a triumph of the spirit. This is what gives all his work its strength. It doesn't blink  at the way things are.

          Yes, they're personal friends, very good friends, and you can dismiss this praise if you want. But I was a book columnist for eighteen years, I have read and written reviews of more than 300 books, I've written about the visual arts, I've written published poetry, and I don't write about books written by friends if I don't like them. This is not about friendship, this is about brilliance and power and dark victories won over experience. All of which are rare. Find these books, read them. They are extraordinary.