A Strange Complicated Girl

November 5, 2012 § 1 Comment

“Love must be learned, and learned again and again; there is no end to it.”

Yesterday, Katherine Anne Porter was inducted into the Poets Corner of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Tonight there will be an evening of talks and readings from and about Porter from friends and scholars, as well as music. It will be an intimate, inspiring event: if you read this in time and can attend, please do!

I was very pleased when I found out Porter was the new inductee. Before this summer, I hadn’t read her in decades, but her work was still vivid in my mind. Her very name brings back an entire year of my life–my freshman year in college–when I was discovering writers and learning how they did what they did, how stories were constructed: I can still feel the thrill of that. I took a course called “The Short Story”: the syllabus included Porter’s Old Mortality; Blackberry Winter, by Robert Penn Warren; A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor; Why I live at the P.O, Eurdora Welty; A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote and a couple of others I don’t remember. Old Mortality was my favorite of all these great stories.

At the Induction, Rosanna Warren, daughter of Robert Penn Warren (and Porter’s goddaughter), read the last sentences of Old Mortality. The protagonist, Miranda, who has grown up immersed and enchanted by family stories, especially one about her romantic Aunt Amy, is now a young adult.

I don’t want any promises, I won’t have false hopes, I won’t be romantic about myself. I can’t live in their world any longer, she told herself, listening to the voices back of her. Let them tell their stories to each other. Let them go on explaining how things happened. I don’t care. At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself silently, making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance.

I remember my professor, John Yount, who was in his early forties then, talking about that ending. His awareness that all of us, his students, believed as Miranda does, that we could know the truth about ourselves stuck like a burr in my brain: what people today would call a known unknown.

There was a lot I didn’t know about myself in 1973. I think of that girl in her big, striped Mexican sweater-jacket, hiking boots and notebooks—how close she was to the glittering sleeves of ice on the tight branches, the deep blue New Hampshire sky, the smell of pine and ocean. The stunningly beautiful world pouring in with so much less obstruction—that’s what she knew. Mind like a salmon leaping: wild energy, the pull of instinct. Not much consciousness of bears and fishermen.

The title of this post comes from a description of Porter by Elizabeth Anderson, Sherwood Anderson’s wife. The sentence continues, “…who could be perfectly charming or perfectly horrible with no apparent reason for either extreme.”

A Catholic nun, Kathleen Feeley, who met Porter toward the end of her life, recounts many kindnesses the writer showed to the nuns and their students.

One year Sister Maura and I visited her the day before Ash Wednesday, and she made pancakes and poured champagne for us. We had these beautiful glasses of champagne and very thin French pancakes rolled up with honey on top of them. It was a festive dinner at her table, and she herself cooked for us.

I remember so well one time when I was with her and the nurse came in to do something for her, and I walked out into her study, which was next to her bed- room. I was just standing there staring at the bookcases as you do in a famous writer’s study. I pulled out the Confessions of Saint Augustine. She had her name on the flyleaf. Written on the flyleaf in her handwriting was one sentence from the Confessions, which I’ve used many times as I lecture with our young people. The sentence she picked out of St. Augustine was, “It doth make a difference whence cometh a man’s joy. ” I always thought about that in respect to her declining years, because her joy was really in herself, and in her work, and in her accomplishments. Even though she was suffering what Teilhard de Chardin calls “passive diminishment,” at the close of her life, she never experienced any bitterness. She was definitely still her dear self. One time, she took her paralyzed right hand from under the cover, and she held it, saying, “My writing hand. It served me well. I still love it.”

Here’s more from Katherine Anne, who fiercely protested the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti.

I remember small, slender Mrs. Sacco with her fine copper-colored hair and dark brown, soft, dazed eyes moving from face to face but still smiling uncertainly, surrounded in our offices by women pitying and cuddling her, sympathetic with her as if she were a pretty little girl; they spoke to her as if she were five years old or did not understand — this Italian peasant wife who, for seven long years, had shown moral stamina and emotional stability enough to furnish half a dozen women amply. I was humiliated for them, for their apparent insensibility. But I was mistaken in my anxiety — their wish to help, to show her their concern, was real, their feelings were true and lasting, no matter how awkwardly expressed; their love and tenderness and wish to help were from the heart. All through those last days in Boston, those strangely innocent women enlisted their altar societies, their card clubs their literary round tables, their music circles and their various charities in the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti. On their rounds, they came now and then to the office of my outfit in their smart thin frocks, stylish hats, and their indefinable air of eager sweetness and light, bringing money they had collected in the endless, wittily devious ways of women’s organizations. They would talk among themselves and to her about how they felt, with tears in their eyes, promising to come again soon with more help. They were known as “sob sisters” by the cynics and the hangers-on of the committee I belonged to who took their money and described their activities as “sentimental orgies,” of course with sexual overtones, and they jeered at “bourgeois morality.” “Morality” was a word along with “charitable” and “humanitarian” and “liberal,” all, at one time, in the odor of sanctity but now despoiled and rotting in the gutter where suddenly it seemed they belonged. I found myself on the side of the women; I resented the nasty things said about them by these self-appointed world reformers and I thought again, as I had more than once in Mexico, that yes, the world was a frightening enough place as it was, but think what a hell it would be if such people really got the power to do the things they planned.

And a later passage from her book

In the morning when we began straggling out in small parties on our way to the trial, several of us went down in the elevator with three entirely correct old gentlemen looking much alike in their sleekness, pinkness, baldness, glossiness of grooming, such stereotypes as no proletarian novelist of the time would have dared to use as the example of a capitalist monster in his novel. We were pale and tightfaced; our eyelids were swollen; no doubt in spite of hot coffee and cold baths, we looked rumpled, unkempt, disreputable, discredited, vaguely guilty, pretty well frayed out by then. The gentlemen regarded us glossily, then turned to each other. As we descended the many floors in silence, one of them said to the others in a cream-cheese voice, “It is very pleasant to know we may expect things to settle down properly again,” and the others nodded with wise, smug, complacent faces.

To this day, I can feel again my violent desire just to slap his whole slick face all over at once, hard, with the flat of my hand, or better, some kind of washing bat or any useful domestic appliance being applied where it would really make an impression — a butter paddle — something he would feel through that smug layer of too-well-fed fat.

Finally a poem by Porter’s dear friend, Robert Penn Warren

Tell Me a Story

[ A ]
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart.

It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.

The sound was passing northward.

[ B ]
Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

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