Posts Tagged ‘Taylor Stoehr’

Taylor Stoehr

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Taylor Stoehr

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2013)

“In life, one must show character and kindness.” Pablo Casals

My good buddy Taylor Stoehr just died and I’ve been leafing through the bulging file of his letters to me, reading passages at random and marveling at the clarity of his prose and the generosity of his spirit. He was eighty-two when he died, and we only knew each other for four years, yet he was immensely important to me—a thoughtful person who took the time to read my books and plays and articles, and then write lengthy responses that made me glad I wrote them.

I never met Taylor in-person or spoke to him, our friendship based entirely upon handwritten letters sent between California and Massachusetts, our knowing each other the result of my sending him a letter of praise about his book I Hear My Gate Slam, a collection of excellent translations of ancient Chinese poetry.

Late Spring

In the evening swallows

appear at the window;

on my doorstep sparrows

flutter in the dust.

At sundown a breeze stirs

and I hear my gate slam;

a few petals fall silently

but no one has come.

—Yüan Chen

I sent my adulatory letter to Taylor in care of the University of Massachusetts, having learned from his biography at the back of I Hear My Gate Slam that he was a professor in the English department there. In addition to his translations of Chinese poets, he was a translator of the poetry of François Villon and Bertolt Brecht. He received my letter just a few weeks after he retired from professing and in the midst of moving with his new wife Teri from Boston to Otis, a small town in western Massachusetts. Much to my surprise and delight, he replied to my missive and our correspondence took off like a shot.

Because he enjoyed my essays, Taylor subscribed to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, but the small print was hard on his eyes, so when his subscription lapsed I began making large print, double-spaced copies of my articles for him and came to feel that my weekly essay was not quite finished until I had slipped the fat envelope bound for Otis Massachusetts through the Out Of Town mail slot.

Here is a favorite passage from one of Taylor’s letters.

“Dear Todd—I won’t be able to get all I want to say on this card, but here I am in Boston to see doctors and friends and do a few errands. I brought this card with me so that I could write to you, not knowing until I stopped at the post office on the way out of Otis how much I would have to say. I did know that I wanted to respond to your letter which seems to me to inaugurate a new era in our friendship—as perhaps my last letter to you also evidenced. However it may be, I’m grateful to the spirits, or the great atman, for the good fortune of our meeting. I am ever more convinced that it was meant to be.

“Learning of your Huge Transitions—your move to the North, meeting and marrying Marcia, your confrontation with mortality—all these have their correspondence, though not precisely in the same order, to my moving to the West, only just effected, meeting and marrying Teri, in the last four years, my own still unresolved encounter with mortality in the form of atrial fibrillation and perhaps other heart problems as yet not understood. In short, though I’m almost twenty years older than you, we seem to have arrived at the same moment in our development (I was always a slow learner). But I would say that you’ve apparently come a good deal farther in some respects.

“I’m currently struggling to let go of fears and desires and self-delusions that have been making life a roller coaster these last months, as Teri and I endeavor to live in the same space for the first time, away from our usual respites and rituals, without blaming each other for the difficulties we bring on ourselves, trying instead to learn from suffering and confusion. I speak for myself, of course. Teri has her own demons, but I can testify to mine. To accept them and not cling to them has proved more than I’m capable of, especially in a climate of inevitable physical decline that comes with being seventy-nine years old.

“I was still playing basketball at 64, when my knee failed to respond to surgery and I had to give it up. Before that, like you, I loved to play at the local Y, or on the beach court in Manhattan Beach (LA), or at the gym at UC Santa Cruz, or anywhere there was someone with a ball ready for one-on-one. I think we share all the same feelings about the game—my passion.”

When I learned that Taylor was the literary executor of Paul Goodman, the writer most famous for his treatise Growing Up Absurd, a daring critique of American education first published in 1960, I wrote to Taylor that my one personal connection to Paul Goodman was that I started a commune in Santa Cruz in 1972 with the widow of Paul Goodman’s son, a woman named Epi. Here is part of Taylor’s reply.

“I don’t know which is the greater marvel, to find your new book Under the Table Books on my doorstep just when I was beginning to pine for it (having read Buddha In A Teacup more than once), or to find that you knew Epi! Indeed, it’s possible that you and I have met, not in a past life but in this one, back in 1971, for I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971. When I rode my 450 Honda back to Buffalo in 1970 (June) I carried one provision for the road, a big bag I made of Epi’s granola recipe.”

As it happened, I was absent from Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971, so Taylor and I did not tangle on the basketball court or eat vegetables and tofu with Epi or embark on our friendship forty years sooner.

“Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Henry James

Taylor began many of his letters to me with a response to my latest article or story, and I will sorely miss his insights and encouragement, as well as his matter-of-fact comparison of my stories and novels to the works of literary giants.

“I have to write again to tell you how much your story Balance affected me, and Teri, to whom I read it aloud. As you are well aware, it’s a kind of answer to Kafka—or, perhaps even more, to Camus, whose work I’ve gone back to recently. Of course Camus was not so despairing as Kafka, but I find him sometimes even more grim. Well, that’s neither here nor there, except to say that your story touches very deep themes of our times. What you add that Kafka and Camus seem never to have found is the way out of the maze. For all your hero’s abject acceptance off his meaningless life, he trusts the universe, and he surrenders to it. We see that happening—for his suffering and his discovery of meaning when all his anodynes are stripped away, activate what has been buried in him, call it his soul.”

“There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning, and yearning.” Christopher Morley

It was Taylor’s practice for many years to begin each day by writing an eight-line poem. Then at the end of the year he would select a handful of these morning musings to make into a volume of Morning Prayers to give as gifts to his many friends and family, including his five children and many grandchildren, each a joy to Taylor.

Some of my friends are sane

as a hammer, but they’re like me

and choose for their lovers someone

wild, solitary, plain crazy.

Why do we love these tortoises

and mountain deer bound to leave

us mad with grief sooner or later?

They’re the only ones still alive.

—Taylor Stoehr from Morning Prayers 2009

That poem proved prophetic, for Teri left Taylor when life in Otis proved too difficult for her, after which Taylor entered a time of profound grief and ill health that continued until his death. Yet despite his sorrow and anger about Teri leaving him when he most needed a loving helpmate, he continued to write letters full of insight and hope. Here is the end of one of the last letters I received from him.

“I continue to use my morning poems as lifeboat, and I got a boost from watching Groundhog Day on your recommendation. It was surprisingly inspiriting—I don’t quite know why. I think something about the rhythmic repetition rather than either plot or theme. Interesting how a form can get under one’s skin. I think that’s part of the power of your own writing—both Buddha and Under the Table. If I were going to write anything but poems the rest of my life, I’d imitate you in form. And maybe if I move to Maine I will do that. I wish I were already there!

“Meanwhile, I’ve returned to Joseph Campbell (Pathways to Bliss) and thinking about his effort to bring Eastern thought into some kind of alignment with both Christian thought and modern cultural eclecticism—our cultureless steam table. Here’s one result, today:

Despair is the other face of hope;

the loss of what might be

races ahead of what I want,

snatches it away from me.

Shall I therefore renounce desire

and settle for what is?

No! Let my heart burn in the fire,

I and hot be the ashes!

Love Taylor”

Sources of Wonder

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)

“Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature necessity, and can believe nothing else.” Blaise Pascal

Marcia and I watched the movie Source Code last night and I loved it. I very rarely watch American movies and almost never watch films containing more than a suggestion of violence, and this movie was made by Americans and is full of violence; yet I did not feel I was watching a violent movie, nor did the film seem remotely American. I will not spoil the show by telling you the plot, but I will say that for me Source Code beautifully and skillfully explicates the Buddhist notion of karma and how through our actions and intentions we create our future.

I was thinking about Source Code this morning while walking on Big River Beach, amazed by how vivid everything looked and felt to me, as if the movie had somehow altered my perceptions. And then I realized I was in a state of wonder, that my personal cares and woes were no longer holding sway as they so often do these days, and I was inseparable from the wind and the roaring of the waves and the ravens gliding through the air and the sand underfoot. I was only there, it seemed, because all these other things were enlivening me, and in their absence I would disappear.

When I got home from the beach, I sat down at the piano and played with such ease and fluidity I was in heaven, and I knew the movie was working in me, though I couldn’t say how. I played and played, riding the waves of sound and marveling at the multitudes of harmonies—the entire escapade improvised yet sounding entirely composed—my hands and fingers guided by muscle memory and forty years of learning to be open to what wants to come through.

 “One never knows how one’s gifts to the world may brighten it for others and contribute to the ever-changing mystery.” Taylor Stoehr

I correspond regularly with three men, and each is a source of wonder to me. Max is about ten years younger than I, Bob is exactly my age, and Taylor is eighteen years my senior. Max is an artist and musician, Bob a former video producer turned Special Ed teacher, and Taylor is a retired English professor, poet, and translator. I am very interested in these guys and what they think and do, and they are interested in me. I have never met Taylor in-person, only met Max in-person a couple times thirty years ago, and only see Bob once a year, though for fifteen years we lived a few blocks apart and we saw each other every day.

These three men are my best friends, other than Marcia, and when I think about the truth of that I am both amazed and grateful—amazed that we have such rich connections through the words we write, and grateful that these sweet souls care enough about me to stay in touch over so much time and space. Their letters always induce in me a state of wonder in which I become for a time inseparable from their thoughts and feelings—a holiday from inhabiting this separate solitary self.

“‘I consider in my own mind whether thou art a spirit, sometimes, or sometimes an evil imp,’” said the lama, smiling slowly.” Rudyard Kipling

When I was in my early forties, I met a British fellow at a party and we got talking about our favorite authors, and he was wildly effusive about Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and the novels of Russell Hoban. I had never heard of Hoban and had only read a short story or two of Kipling’s in my childhood. Because I was ever in search of great writing, I went to my favorite used bookstore in Sacramento, Time Tested Books, and got Hoban’s first three novels, The Lion of Boaz Jachin and Jachin Boaz, Turtle Diary, and Kleinzeit, along with a beat up paperback of Kim.

You may have heard of Turtle Diary, which was made into a charming movie in 1985 starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Each of Hoban’s first three novels is quite short, with chapters only a page or two in length. I gobbled those books and liked them pretty well, though the greatest gift I got from them was to be on the lookout for Hoban’s next novel, Riddley Walker, which is Hoban’s masterpiece, though not an easy read. Written in the imagined vernacular of a twelve-year old boy two thousand years after nuclear war has laid waste to the earth and the English language, I needed three determined tries at the book before my brain was able to translate Hoban’s disintegrated English into something I could understand—but I was glad I made the effort.

Reading Kim, on the other hand, was a complete life changer for me. I have now read Kim ten times in the last twenty years, having consumed it most recently a year ago. When I read Kim, I lose myself entirely in the language and the story, and always emerge from the experience deeply inspired to continue my creative pursuits, to amplify my spiritual investigations, and to relish every moment of life I am given.

For some years I urged everyone I knew (and even people I barely knew) to read Kim, but few of those who read the book on my recommendation found it to be the holy book it is to me. And more than a few women said the book was a male fantasy and not for them, and more than a few people said they thought the story dated and the writing florid, and some said Kipling was a racist and a sexist; and so I have ceased to recommend the book to anyone without massive disclaimers. Still, I read Kim every two years and the grand saga never fails to be a fabulous source of wonder and rejuvenation for me.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

In 1979 I was living in Santa Cruz and frequently attended concerts at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, a small joint in those days where jazz people with weekend gigs in the Bay Area would come down to give Monday night performances. One Monday evening I got to the venue early so I could sit close and watch Roland Hanna play. I had seen Roland when he was the pianist for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, and I loved his playing on Jim Hall’s Concierto album, but I had never heard him play solo.

Roland Hanna was sometimes called Sir Elf because he was short and because he’d been given an honorary knighthood by the king of Liberia. But he became a giant to me that night, playing so melodically, so thoughtfully, so spontaneously, and with such groovy swing, that I walked out of Kuumbwa feeling blessed and more determined than ever to keep pursuing my own piano explorations.

My favorite Roland Hanna album was Swing Me No Waltzes, solo piano recorded in Sweden in 1979 on a Bösendorfer grand piano. I wore that record out; my favorite tune Roses Not Mums. Fast-forward several years to a jazz joint in San Francisco, Roland Hanna to play solo piano. Once again, I was there early so I could sit close, except there was some snafu with the club manager who didn’t know anything about anything and was insisting Hanna get a trio together because that’s what had been advertised. So Hanna’s manager got on the phone, and while the maestro sat in a booth sipping wine and waiting for a bass player and drummer to show up, I got up my nerve and went over to tell him how much I loved his music.

To my amazement, Hanna gestured for me to sit opposite him in the booth, which I did, and after I blurted something about seeing him at Kuumbwa and loving Swing Me No Waltzes, he smiled and said, “You play?”

“Um…well…yeah, though…”

He shook his head. “No though, man. You play. Own it.”

“Okay,” I said, sudden tears in my eyes. “Okay. Yes, I play.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re here.” He sipped his wine. “I like to play for players. You know? Because you guys get what I’m doing in a deeper way, you know?”

He was talking to me as a fellow musician, miracle of miracles, though he knew nothing about me. And then I realized he did know something about me. He knew I loved his music, especially Swing Me No Waltzes, which was an esoteric and wholly original creation, and my naming that album must have told him many things about me, about my taste and my personality. Or so I decided to believe.

“What’s your favorite tune on that record?” he asked, reaching up to shake the hand of one of three bass players who’d showed up in hopes of gigging with him.

Roses Not Mums,” I said, nodding. “Such a great tune, such an amazing journey.”

“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” he said, nodding in time with me, “but I don’t play that tune anymore. Wrote it for my favorite bass player, and since he died I don’t play it now. But I will play something you’ll dig, I promise.”

I dug everything he played that night, and when he died ten years ago at the age of seventy, I played his music day and night for three days, thinking of him, loving him, hearing him say again and again, “No though, man. You play. Own it.”                        

The Presence of Absence

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the AVA June 2010)

Thursday in the village of Mendocino is the day the AVA (Anderson Valley Advertiser) arrives in our post office boxes and at the liquor store (should we need extra copies.) Now and then the AVA is delayed for a day and arrives on Friday. But this week, the AVA did not come at all. I inquired of my heroes at the post office, but they had not seen hide nor hair of the goodly rag. And though I knew the liquor store is supplied via the mails, too, I nevertheless went thither in the vain hope that a batch had been brought by pony express or valiant pickup from the inland empire to our coastal enclave.

The liquor store in our hamlet is a living foreign movie. No matter how many times I go in there, I have the feeling something important is missing. There is an empty feeling about the place, as if the proprietors are just moving in or just moving out. The lighting is strange and forlorn and bathes everything in a pale yellow light. My friendly greetings invariably fall into a bottomless chasm of ennui, and in thirty tries I have never once elicited a smile from the fellow at the cash register. Perhaps he is hardened by years of dealing with drunks. I don’t know. I don’t buy anything there except the AVA, and maybe this bugs him. In any case, they didn’t have any AVAs and I was apparently not the first person to inquire.

Certainly one of the great appeals of the AVA to me is that I often have something published therein. Discovering that I am once again in the goodly rag never fails to impart a momentary thrill, a sense of well-being, a revivifying and inspiring validation that I did not waste however many hours I spent writing whatever I wrote. I never know in advance if my pieces will run. The editors are not in the habit of telling me, possibly because they don’t know themselves until the very last minute before they put the paper to bed, and perhaps not even then.

No, the only way to find out if I’m in the AVA is to look through her pages. Now and then I will land an essay on the front page (mazel tov!) but more often than not my pieces are tucked away in the cozy confines of the middle. In truth, I don’t care where they land, just so they do. Land.

Those weeks when I do not appear (assuming I’ve submitted something before the deadline) I invariably experience a brief emotional downturn. I want to make it clear (to myself if no one else) that this downturn has much less to do with my absence from the pages of the AVA than it does with the absence of my books from the bookstores of America, the lack of reviews of my books in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and the towering indifference of the great big world to the creations of little old me. So when I am not in the AVA, it merely ignites a feeling, for just a moment or two, that I am truly nowhere, that there is no place for my words, that I am, metaphorically speaking, clinging to a leaking dinghy in a storm tossed sea, etc.

Germaine to this sense of not being anywhere, I’ve been enjoying of late a marvelous book of poems entitled I Hear My Gate Slam, Chinese Poets Meeting and Parting, translated by Taylor Stoehr. These poems, written by a handful of poets thirteen centuries ago, have survived because they are very good poems and because they speak compellingly of human emotions immune to the so-called advance of culture and technology: love, loss, longing, death. And there are two wonderful little essays at the end of the volume written by the author, one on the art of translation, the other about how the friendship among these poets inspired many of their poems. Stoehr writes, “They often wrote poems borrowing, imitating, or otherwise reflecting each other’s work.”

So as I was sitting at the kitchen table sipping black tea and stewing about the absence of the AVA, and therefore not knowing if I was absent or present therein, I came across this passage from Stoehr’s Afterword: Translating Classical Chinese Poetry that seemed to be reflecting my very thoughts. “The bereft poet is constantly in the presence of absence—an empty place at the family table, an empty bed—so that the ache of loss seems never to go away. I want to call this ‘the presence of the absence’—absent friends and loved ones hovering in the imagination.”

Now there is a grandiloquent expression. The presence of absence. And that is how it feels when there is no AVA in our post office box, no AVA at the liquor store, no AVA on the kitchen table, no fresh gossip to chew on, no fellow writers to jiggle our cognitive synapses in ways the electronic digits will never jiggle them. There is an unexpected vacancy of that certain sensibility that is the sum of Bruce and Mark and their collective writing and winnowing of the incoming verbiage of latter day exiled poets. For all poets are exiles inhabiting a terrain defined by a perpetual presence of all manner and variety of absences. That is why poets write their poems, and why we prose writers toil to put our thoughts and feelings into words. To bring light and sound and feeling to the void or the chaos or the darkness or the presence of the absence.

Then, too, the presence of absence begs to be modified to the presents of absence, presents suggesting gifts. The gifts of absence. And what might those gifts be? Well…

I am currently reading The Autobiography of Mark Twain, his brief and famous preface concluding, “It has seemed to me that I could be as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter if I knew that what I was writing could be exposed to no eye until I was dead, and unaware and indifferent.” Despite Twain’s disclaimer, there are many moments in the course of his narrative when he is clearly constraining himself because he is, in fact, not yet dead as he dictates this last great work.

The most shocking to me of Twain’s constrained moments comes when he declares his direct responsibility for the death of his firstborn child, his only son. Though verbose about every other matter, large and small, Twain speaks of his most terrible crime for but one terse paragraph.

“Our first child, Langdon Clemens, was born the 7th of November, 1870, and lived twenty-two months. I was the cause of the child’s illness. His mother trusted him to my care and I took him for a long drive in an open barouche for an airing. It was a raw, cold morning but he was well wrapped about with furs and, in the hands of a careful person, no harm would have come to him. But I soon dropped into a reverie and forgot all about my charge. The furs fell away and exposed his bare legs. By and by the coachman noticed this and I arranged the wraps again, but it was too late. The child was almost frozen. I hurried home with him. I was aghast at what I had done and I feared the consequences. I have always felt shame for that treacherous morning’s work and have not allowed myself to think of it when I could help it. I doubt if I had the courage to make confession at that time. I think it most likely that I have never confessed until now.”

Twain never makes another mention of this event or of this child, though he later goes on for dozens of pages attacking and excoriating Brett Harte for what Twain describes as hideous amoral narcissism and monstrous neglect of wife and children. Yet for my entire reading of this powerful memoir, I could not get Twain’s confession of murdering his son out of my mind. Indeed, it strikes me as the truest paragraph in the entire book, constrained as it may be, for it is free of the artifice of cleverness. And I can’t help thinking that the death of his son informed everything he ever wrote thereafter; indeed, that Twain’s greatness, his profound sympathy for the poor and downtrodden that illuminates his finest works, that powerful presence of absence, sprang from his terrible trial that would never end until his own death.

Which brings me back to the presence of the absence of the AVA, which I think of as a very Twainian sort of paper, the kind of paper Twain first wrote for, the kind of paper that is not constrained by anything but the whims of her editors, both of whom strike me as having little fear of death, which the Buddha said is the fear that underlies all fears. And in the absence of the presence of fear, these editors are free to improvise, which is the mother of originality. And the present of her absence in my life this week is this essay, which may or may not make it into her pages. I’ll have to wait until next week to find out.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.