Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Painting of You*

The Painting of You
By William Michaelian
Author’s Press Series Volume 1; $10.00, paper
ISBN 978-0-557-12874-7
Ordering Information

Long before we knew the term “Alzheimer’s Disease” we knew the signs. We called it senility, dementia, forgetfulness. I remember going to see my great-grandmother, then in her eighties, and finding half-eaten hamburgers in her cupboards with the clean plates. I remember another great-grandparent who spent all of her time in a single twin bed, staring at the ceiling, her lips gently moving as if speaking to someone up there. Her eyes were twin vacant holes, the pupils large and black, nearly blotting out the colored iris. Sometimes she would turn her head and stare directly into my six year old face, and it scared me, the emptiness, the lack of anything there, the body still animated, but the mind vanished, or vanquished by an invisible disease.

Alois Alzheimer gave us the technical name for how we lose our loved ones, piece by piece, to a disintegrating mind. He was a German neurologist who lived 1864-1915, and it is for him the disease was named in 1907. But names and pathologies do not help us when faced with loss. They do not mitigate the grief of the family, and the stress and crushing weight of caring for one whose mind has fragmented and floated away.

William Michaelian, in his new book, The Painting of You, takes us on a journey as he cares for his mother who suffers from the disease. His mixture of poetry and prose is rich and evocative, the kind of writing that does not lose itself in sentimentality but nevertheless inspires a deeply emotional response in the reader.

The book is organized chronologically, like a journal, and begins as Michaelian must spend more and more time each day at his mother’s home, amongst family heirlooms, photographs, and artifacts of his history. It is a poignant irony that even as she remembers less, Michaelian must remember more, realizing that memory can be handed down from one generation to another, and that part of his responsibility is not only to care for his parent, but become the guardian of her memories.

“Now she is eighty-three,” he writes in the opening entry, “and the sunlight on her face remembers me. / It remembers the boy I have been and will never be again, caresses the lines / and fences with eyes blind to my disgrace, inscribes a message on the wind, / seeks, blesses, grieves, attends, ceaseless in its toil, eager to begin…” The light is fading on her, and the son finds he must bear witness to the decline and watch over her gradual dissolution.

Mixed in with his poetic ruminations, Michaelian includes memories and reflections on his own half century on earth. He describes his origins as a writer, his days in the fertile soil of central California, the powerful symbolism of the vineyard, the farmlands, the heat and dust. We see “pumpkins and a field of corn, / Melons, apples, gourds, an ancient wooden trailer / With buckets of bright chrysanthemums.”

Entries include poetry, journal writing, dream reflection, and much of it has appeared in the writer’s other books, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, and on his websites and Recently Banned Literature. (I have written previously about his work on this blog.)

Michaelian brings us to new realizations and revelations, often about the commonplace and ordinary, but he makes us see the world differently. This is a writer who always makes even the mundane poetic. His writing is haunting and sensory, addressing simple things in a profound way.

One such entry in this book is “From Common Objects, Hidden Dreams: A Daily Journal,” where he writes of his mother’s dish towels that were a gift from Michaelian’s grandmother to her daughter just after his parents’ marriage in 1943. “In other words,” he writes, “my mother is using sixty-two-year-old towels.” He goes on to catalogue the other things she has from that time: measuring cups, bread pans, clocks, canning implements, tea sets, tables, and pictures. He calls her house a museum, and his mother, in more lucid moments, asks him if she has too many pictures on the walls. When he suggests she remove some and asks which he should take down, she smiles. “None of them, of course,” he writes. “None of them, forever and ever, as long as the two of us shall live.” This launches Michaelian into the poetry of reflection: “Generations watch and listen from their places on the wall. Armenians, Swedes, lunatics. Farmers, poets, revolutionaries. Angry, happy, surprised, proud. In the dark of night, their remembered spirits leave the frames and drift about the rooms.”

The book builds to a breaking point: Michaelian finds himself exhausted with the demands of caring for her. His sleep-deprived body aches, his family suffers, the stress begins to threaten his health. His mother is aware of the progression of her disease, and one morning at breakfast tells him: “You know, I just realized something. It dawned on me that I’m never going to get better, and that I’m really just dying—and too slowly.” It is a heart-rending moment between mother and son. “Such sudden logic,” he writes, “from someone who almost always has difficulty telling the time.”

So the ending is inevitable, and Michaelian must seek care for his mother in a facility that can deal with her degenerative state. “I’ll never forget my mother’s face / at the window as I drove away / from the nursing home.” After all the days, we reach the end, and nothing can soothe the departure. From his final entries in The Painting of You, we see that this decision and his eventual taking-over of his mother’s home as his own were difficult days for the writer. He is the keeper of the museum now until the day comes when he must pass the torch to his children and grandchildren.

In The Painting of You, he speaks of what is lost, the joy of living, the pain of regret, the desperation of fading memories. Michaelian describes how memory is a fluid thing, passed from parent to child. It is in this transmission, this thread that runs through the ages, that we discover who we are, what led to this moment, and life is reduced to its most important elements: family, love, the joy and heartbreak of being alive. This is the moment we hear the whispers of history, when the ghosts sit down with us and tell us stories. In the immense darkness of a winter’s night, he evokes the disappearing world of his mother, memories of life and family, the delicate smoke of dreams. His words are profound, rich, elemental, the poetry of history, the sepia-toned mystery of who we are, what we have lost, and what we must never forget.


Addendum: Thanks to sanjeev for adding on as a follower to The Teacher's View.


*Update: William Michaelian's second book in the Author's Press Series has now been released. You can order the book here. The specifics are as follows:

No Time To Cut My Hair
By: William Michaelian
Author's Press Series Volume 2; $12.00, paper
ISBN: 978-0-557-20222-5
Also available as an e-book

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Goodbye, Darkness

Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University

Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War
By William Manchester
Little, Brown/Back Bay Books; $16.95, paper
ISBN 978-0-316-50111-5

Late in William Manchester’s superb memoir of soldiering in the Pacific during World War II, he clarifies why no other generation since could do what they did. “To fight World War II,” he writes, “you had to have been tempered and strengthened in the 1930s Depression by a struggle for survival…And you had to know that your whole generation, unlike the Vietnam generation, was in this together…You needed nationalism, the absolute conviction that the United States was the envy of all other nations, a country which had never done anything infamous, in which nothing was insuperable, whose ingenuity could solve anything by inventing something. You felt sure that all lands, given our democracy and our know-how, could shine as radiantly as we did.”

Do we long for those days of absolute evil on our doorstep? No, we long for that fortitude, lost forever to the ages.

When I was in high school, we were required to read Manchester’s excellent narrative history of the United States, The Glory and the Dream, a history book like none I had ever read in school. Years later, while combing through someone’s junk at a garage sale, I found a perfectly good cloth first edition of that book. I purchased it, and thus began a mania for Manchester. I have since found almost every thing the man wrote, most of it, unfortunately out of print. He died in 2004.

Goodbye, Darkness is simply the most poetic memoir I have ever read. Part history, part recollection of a Marine’s life in the Pacific, the book reads like a novel. I finished it on Veterans’ Day, and I do not think I fully understood that holiday until I read this book.

Manchester begins with the first man he killed in war, a Japanese sniper, who was shooting down Marines and G.I.s alike. A man diametrically opposed to violence all his life who suffered greatly at the hands of bullies, Manchester finds himself pinned down by this enemy. If he remains in his foxhole, the sniper will eventually kill him, of that he is certain. He has one opportunity to rush the fisherman’s shack where the sniper is hidden. He takes his .45 and rushes up the hill, boots in the door, and finds an empty room. Another door awaits within, and he realizes that the sniper now knows he is coming. He smashes through the second door expecting to be killed in his tracks, except the sniper is tangled in his gun harness. Manchester squeezes off a round, missing the soldier. His second shot finds its target, shredding the enemy’s thigh and mutilating the femoral artery. “A wave of blood gushed from the wound,” he writes. “Then another boiled out, sheeting across his legs, pooling on the earthen floor.” The soldier sinks down, bleeding to death in minutes. Manchester vomits his C-ration beans and urinates on himself. He has killed a man and wonders: “Is this what they mean by ‘conspicuous gallantry?’”

From here, Manchester takes us through his life and history, but also the history of America and the great wars of the twentieth century. We see his father in the Great War, badly wounded by an exploding shell that kills a comrade instantly. On All Souls’ Day, the elder Manchester is carried on a litter into a tent “reserved for the doomed” and left there to die, a hopeless case. Gangrene infects his shoulder, and “He lay there in his blood and corrupt flesh for five days, unattended, his death certificate already signed.” He survives. His right arm becomes useless, “a rigid length of bone scarcely covered by flesh, with a claw of clenched fingers at the end.” He cannot sign his name to his discharge papers because of this injury, so he makes an X, “like an illiterate.”

We see the younger Manchester growing up in New England, a somewhat sickly child who takes early to books, and writes his own stories “derivative of Poe, on the Underwood” typewriter his father uses in his job as a social worker. “I cannot remember a time in my life,” he writes, “when I was not deep in a book.” His calling is clear, even though he is not a stellar student. His is an intellectual life, one that leads on naturally to his oeuvre of a few novels and a great number of history books, all written in a fluid and engrossing style that defies conventional history textbook writing.

Goodbye, Darkness becomes a journey. Manchester retraces the battles and skirmishes in which he participated during the war in the Pacific. The book jumps back and forth between his late 1970s return to the fields and atolls of the Pacific theater and the days of the war. He details the fighting and dying that went on, and then shows us the decaying monuments and rusting junk on the field upon his return. Many of the memorials are damaged by time, or worse, by vandals. We learn about the costs of war, the impact on one man’s life, and the heartbreaking moment when he realizes that all of it will one day be forgotten. There is bitterness and thanksgiving, the grace of a good death and the turning point of a young man’ life exposed.

The book ends as it begins, with Manchester killing a man, again a sniper, this time behind a boulder. The writer takes an action that is now second nature: he prepares to die to save lives. For one who has been bullied all his life, the Marine Manchester is a crack shot, and he puts his skill to the test by diving into the open, sighting in on the enemy, and preparing to fire. A mortar explodes in front of him, and he is showered with debris, but as the dust clears, he sees his target and fires, striking the man in the face. He pumps several more rounds into the body, and the soldier is down. He returns to his partner nearby to find his comrade’s face blown away. Another soldier dies. Manchester continues on, and as he passes the dead Japanese sniper, he gives the head a swift kick.

The war officially ends for Manchester when he is badly injured by a mortar round that vaporizes two fellow soldiers and leaves pieces of their bones inside Manchester’s body as shrapnel. He suffers a brain injury. He is sent to a series of hospitals, and in San Francisco, the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima reaches him. The days of war are done. Japan surrenders shortly thereafter, and Manchester returns to civilian life. He lists the men he knew before the war who accompanied him into battle. Many are dead, and Manchester gives a litany of names and their fates. It is a literal lost generation.

I found a picture of William Manchester from the archives of Wesleyan University where he was a writer-in-residence, teacher, and scholar for most of his career. It is the desktop background on my home and classroom computers. I greet him each morning. He stares at me, pipe in mouth, as if wondering why I have disturbed him at his work. I gaze back at him, thinking about that long ago senior history class at my high school. I kept my paperback copy of The Glory and the Dream all these years, bound in duct tape, the pages torn, highlighted, annotated.

Could we today ever accomplish what the men and women of Manchester’s generation did? I think not. The world has changed, the concept of war has changed, and America is no longer the country of right and good. Guantanamo, water-boarding, Dick Cheney, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have changed all that.

Manchester wrote his book to say goodbye to the darkness, the nightmarish days of war where smoke obliterated the sun, and blood ran into the sea. It is a different world today. Manchester has gone, but the darkness remains.

Addendum: I would like to thank Gabriel for joining The Teacher's View as a follower.