Saturday, January 26, 2013

Eden's Womb: The formative years

The Seventh Shepherd: A doodle from 1969

'Eden's Womb' is my ‘pet novel’ – more than just a work of fiction, it’s been my companion for close to fifty years now—my life work, my ‘magnum opus.’

Early versions of Eden's Womb served as the venue where I learned how to write fiction—found my ‘voice,’ as they say.  Through uncountable rewrites I served a long apprenticeship, taught and inspired by a sequence of literary coaches, professional editors, and peer reviewers.

My early coaches were my teachers—from my first grade schoolmarm Mrs. Anderson who let me read to her from the adult books on her desk, through my 5th Grade Elementary school teacher, Mrs McMillan, who encouraged me to submit a short story to the school's creative writing contest--which I won--to college English and philosophy professors.  The most notable among these was Prof. Joseph L. Grucci (6/23/1911 – 10/30/1982).  Professor Grucci taught an undergraduate poetry writing course at Penn State.  I eagerly signed up for it as a college Junior in the spring of 1969.

The late ‘60’s was a time of polarization, cynicism, and a palpable appetite for rebellion.  I was no activist, but I was exquisitely tuned-in to the awakening ‘vibes.’  Like so many in my generation, I ached for a kind of change that would make these times meaningful.

But prose was not my primary interest.  I had written many short stories as a kid, but had turned to poetry by the time I was in High School.  So in 1969 I wanted to use poetry to distill the meaning of these turbulent times.

In the midst of Viet-Nam and Woodstock, of cold war and moon shots, of Charles Manson and Martin Luther King, I studied Dr. Grucci’s examples, tried to tailor his lessons to my style, and began work on ‘Becoming,’ where all my deepest sentiments could meld into an emotive symphony: no plot or character development necessary, no political commentary, just the kernel of my deepest reactions to the world—and how I hoped the story would end.

I wrote “It’s come: a dim awareness—churned and overwhelmed—rises, swelling with the ancient nimble ballet, when the wind-organ’s trembling pipes in thunderous discord fuses rocks and mind and water …

On March 6, 1969 I read the poem in class.  By Prof. Grucci’s rules I was not allowed to explain or expound on its meaning.  Yet the class reacted as if struck by a bludgeon – a response that was worlds beyond what I had expected. And in the end, Professor Grucci confirmed the sentiment.

Becoming’ won the A.J. Grucci Memorial Award.  I got a nice check, handed to me at a dinner at his home, and saw the poem published in Pivot, 1969: V.5 No. 20, p. 93; The Pennsylvania State University.

This poetry workshop taught me some critical writing skills, especially how to phrase a powerful image, and confirmed that I had learned the lessons well.  Maybe, just maybe, I could translate these lessons into prose—take this one-page poem and weave the overlying tale into its richly colored fabric – the tale of the young man who would become the leader I doodled on a piece of cardboard one evening that spring: a humble kid finding himself and his unexpected place within a hostile, indifferent world of tumult and change.

Portrait of the artist as a young man.  Me in 1969, at the time I won the award for the poem 'Becoming'.

For those interested, here’s the full text:


soon the twilight’s ashes
will filter from the audience of
dungeon mountains with the drone
of northern wind and settle here
where boulders churn the sea

their murmurs fade, the fugue of darkness swells
a somber one has left our balcony
oh, a more vacant universe for those behind
but ho!  The mind-hearse rumbles on
colossal glacier grinding forward
past the tiny witness —
and yet a timid sun ponders far
beyond the mist-veiled patrol of wooded islands
there a warmth, a thaw and trickle,
melt and flow

the soft cool shuffle through the leafy canopy
the rhythmic clamor, vacillating boughs
the flutter of butterflies of light . . .

the piercing mist annihilates
the time has come, the turbulence
of sweeping clouds, an endless drove
of torpid dirge-swept ghosts looms past
this barren face intensely southward

south the flop joints roar
and pungence oozes to the whizzing neon streets

it’s come, a soft awareness
churned and overwhelmed
dissolves, engulfed.
and rises, swelling with the ancient nimble ballet
when the wind organ’s trembling pipes
in thunderous discord fuses rocks and mind
and water, writhing through the stunning gloom
resounding from the cathedral mountain choir
the raging litany
the surging chant of conquest
the final chord, a quiet plunge, a drone …


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