MY WORLD HAS A SOUND. As they do. As any poetry must. It laughs. It giggles. It cries on occasion. It even sings. And in pitch. There are times it has no language at all. Or needs one. Just this quiet hum, one we hardly notice, that is, until it is absent. It suffers the occasional complaint, but very seldom, if at all, raises its voice.
I wish I could say I’ve always been aware, that I’ve always paid attention, but I cannot because I did not. I am not proud that it has taken so many years to “get it,” so to speak, to start paying attention, or at least the right kind of attention. And I can only blame so much on my youth. I’ve made public and private apologies on this wise, and yet will remain haunted.
Still, for all its lack of gloss here and there, all its foibles (I do love that word), the occasional sour note, my world has its graces too, its own peculiar highness, things that have matured, cultivated, as they have been, over a long period of time. A world that now includes a wife of 35 years, two sons, two daughters-in-law, five grandchildren (6 months to 14 years). And a dog. Always a dog. Not to mention the many characters, real or imagined, that live in my books. They too, have a stake in my world.
The sound it makes is a kind of dull sound, actually. Not dull in the sense of boring, sleepy, annoying, or something of little value. Far from it. The dullness I speak of is the dullness of normal. The poetry of the everyday, the quotidian, the commonplace. The clink of a plate, the opening of a refrigerator, the character, timbre, and pitch of a voice you hear every day, year in and year out, a voice you love . . . the running of a faucet, the ticking of a clock, footsteps, the soft murmur of conversation, a quiet music playing somewhere. We are tuned with precision to its many splendors. Thanksgiving. Christmas. The voices long absent—mothers, fathers, grandparents. Our three Dalmatians. All the beloved ghosts of our private little world. We are nurtured in them. They are never lost to us. The table is theirs too. It is all part of the music of the season, the general mood, the greens and reds, shades of blue, the sweet mellow sadness that attends it. The small sound of a child, the making of new memories, life renewed “by that dark miracle of chance,” as Thomas Wolfe wrote, “which makes new magic in a dusty world.”
The last image I have of my father was Christmas night, 2000, waving goodbye at the bottom of the driveway as we left their house that night. His last words to me, ever, were “I love you.” I can hear his voice now, as it was in that moment, preserved, as it is and will remain, in the quiet of my inmost thoughts. Like Keats, Wolfe, and others, he too had a presentiment about his own death, and those were the words he chose to leave behind. If I am haunted, and I am, as most of us are (if we’re . . . lucky), it is in a most wonderful way.
Something else. I’ve heard all my life about the next world, the life to come, the endless sermons, books, Sunday School lessons, or songs comparing this world with the next. So and so “has gone to a better place.” Or “there’s a better home a waitin’.” Forgive me. I don’t or . . . can’t see it that way anymore. Believe what you will about a world to come. The greater sin is not making a heaven of the world you have, of the time you have left.
And my word for it? For my world? Wonderful. For all my regret, all my bungled moments, things I could have done better, things I said or didn’t say . . . and for the things I did right, I can say that without the slightest tug of irony. Wonderful. And in the literal sense, as something full of wonder. That’s my world. Like the poem that it is, and the music it too will leave behind, it is something you can hear.
WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD
Just last week, in a phone conversation with a lady I have yet to meet, the subject of my soon-to-be-released novel came up. “Oh, so it’s autobiographical?” It sounded like a question. I wasn’t sure, and didn’t ask. “It has . . . autobiographical elements in it,” I said. And it does. It features a singer/songwriter/guitar-mystic who reads Proust, who suffers a kind of ambivalence toward his singing voice. Hamlet with a guitar. His wife is a Shakespeare zealot, who teaches and writes books, literary biographies. Her former assistant is a troubled young woman whose singing voice has, and I quote, “a . . . haunted quality, a smoky low-decibel sheen that gets in your blood like a potion . . . or strong drink,” who also has an attachment to John Keats, and develops a fondness for Shakespeare as well. I didn’t say all that to my new friend, but when I inventoried those elements, gender curiosities aside, I realized just how autobiographical this new novel actually is.
In my defense, Thomas Wolfe, speaking at the University of Colorado Writer’s Conference in 1935, said, “ it seems to me that every creative act is in one way or another—autobiographical.” I think St. Thomas has a point. In the preface of his first novel, LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL, he wrote:
But we are the sum of all the moments of our lives—all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it. If the writer has used the clay of life to make his book, he has only used what all men must, what none can keep from using. Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose.
This is true for nonfiction as well. When doing research for my books on King James and William Tyndale, I think subconsciously, or perhaps consciously, I was looking for resonance . . . some spark of life between me and James Stuart, between me and William Tyndale, some reflection of myself, however remote. And I was not disappointed. It was my way “in.” They both held up a mirror of a kind. James with his wide and magnificent contradictions, William Tyndale with his lifelong love affair with the English language. To maintain the integrity of these biographies I remained as aloof as I could, what Wolfe calls the “middle distance.” But an investment of self is not only inevitable, it makes for a better book.
That said, I am going to read the first few pages of O DEATH, ROCK ME ASLEEP, my new novel that will released [TBA--as of this reading, O DEATH is still awaiting publication. However, I RIDDE MY SOULE OF THEE AT LASTE, an extract from the novel, will release April 23 as an audiobook from Budding Grove Audio ]. The story takes place in two time periods, modern Nashville, Tennessee, and 1608 London, in the court of James I. Two narratives. One novel. Not to confuse anyone, but the 1608 part has a title of its own. It can actually be read independently of the whole. An audiobook version will be available soon. Mimicking a playbill from the era, the title of the 1608 narrative is I RIDDE MY SOULE OF THEE AT LASTE. The true account of Shakespeare’s secret commission in the creation of his Majesties old and new testaments. The final days of William Shakespeare including the account of his cruel and pitiless murder by friend, fellow poet, and rival, Master Ben Jonson.
I just hope I can get all that on a cover. But now, O DEATH, ROCK ME ASLEEP: A Novel by David Teems.
Chapter One of O DEATH, ROCK ME ASLEEP
I am sorrow
Touch has a memory.
Until she saw him play that night at Twelfth and Porter, she never gave the instrument much thought. It wasn’t the song he sang or the hush that fell over the room as he played. It was his hands. There was piety in his touch, a tenderness between him and the old guitar that moved her in a private way. He can’t play or go near that guitar now without thinking about her. And in spite of an old love of metaphor, he is smothering in it. Death puts its strong dark glaze on everything—the trails she walked, the prints she left, the cups she favored, the precision of her handwriting, her movement through a song.
Though he never met Brook Allen, Ellis Vaughn always suspected his daughter would marry a poet. He used the word “affliction” whenever he spoke of it, and in a manner that curiously resembled pride. He named his only child after the opening line of The Canterbury Tales. Ah-pril.’ That’s how he said it. It thrilled her when he rolled his Rs. Small, inquiring, and fair, she was so accustomed to her father’s pronunciation it felt strange to hear it any other way.
Ellis Vaughn was a Chaucer scholar. There was hardly a meal or an evening at home the two of them weren’t reading or reciting from The Tales, and in the original text. The bawdy parts made her laugh. His one book, The English Homer, a dry, though scholastically sound biography of Geoffrey Chaucer, released when April was in the seventh grade. He hoped his daughter might share his fascination, and she did her best to comply, but in her junior year at Auburn, a guest lecturer from Cambridge spoke at a Shakespeare symposium she was required to attend. The title of his lecture was Boundless as the Sea: Eros in Shakespeare.
Poor Chaucer was forsaken.
Brook had read all of Proust before they met, a curiosity that both amused and bewildered April. Fascination. Attraction. Alarm. Combustion was immediate, without caution or repent. Her words smiled whenever she spoke of him. “Brook Allen hears guitar the way Shakespeare hears English.” Her use of present tense was intentional. She couldn’t imagine a higher compliment. Shakespeare was bible. “He has a musician’s understanding of arithmetic,” she told a poet friend of hers, “of movement in a line,” feeling, as she was, even as she spoke, the unsettling effects of that arithmetic. That’s how she talked, how she punctuated her world.
She started keeping notes on his comments, many of which inspired new lines of inquiry into her research. He became a kind of literature to her, in many ways her very own Hamlet. “Shakespeare was first a musician,” she was quoted saying in the Kenyon Review, at the release of her first book. “He played lute and had a ‘melodious sweet’ singing voice, as the locals were quoted saying. His instincts were musical.”
But as much as he tried, or may have tried but didn’t, other than an appreciation for the art of words, and the curious spasms of warmth it inspired in April, Brook never found the connection between himself and William Shakespeare, whom April most often referred to as the Poet. She was certain the charm would work on him. It did not.
Together they made a paradise of glass and old timber above the rest of the world, on the summit of a high hill in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee—forty-five acres of hills, woods, creek, of lush nature, much of it manicured, much of it not. From a distance, the house was a twinkle among the trees.
They often read together in bed. Or he played his guitar softly. But his patience for a book or a song or most anything else under most night skies was difficult to manage. In those moments it wasn’t about music, about dead writers or living ones. It wasn’t about the fluid movement of a line or some pearl blue prose that matched his eyes. It was the small seizures, the slow thaw, the way she would lose concentration, the kiss that lasted forever, with all the diplomacy, command, and precision of one long meandering sentence of Marcel Proust or Thomas Wolfe. With the exception of her last months, she never offered resistance however engaged her attentions had been moments before.
She is everywhere and nowhere now. There is no medication, and the alcohol doesn’t help in spite of the conviction he puts into it. One Nashville newspaper that had been rather cruel to him in the past, less of a friend to Brook Allen in his achievement, expressed sympathy in his loss. The article was called “Thoughts of April.”
It was difficult to watch. Nashville hitmaker Brook Allen was escorted out of the Bluebird Café in Green Hills last night. Crazy with grief and Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, Allen disrupted the Bird’s usual pindrop quiet. Tripp Weatherley, Wynn Meeders, and J Melo-Caspian, all notable names among Nashville songwriters, presented an evening of tribute to Brook’s wife, the recently deceased April Allen.
Wynn Meeders was in the middle of Brook’s first Grammy winning song, “Her Love Rolls In Me,” when Allen became so loud and truculent, Meeders had to stop. Though the audience was sympathetic, they wished him elsewhere. With very little struggle, a wash of superbly foul language, and against a mild spring night, his songwriter pals got Mr. Allen into his Jeep. Tripp Weatherley got behind the wheel and drove his friend to his home in Leiper’s Fork.
Brook’s wife, April, passed away eight months earlier after a battle with ovarian cancer. I met April Allen at the Grammy’s the year before she died. I can understand Brook’s madness last night. Noted author and professor of Shakespeare Studies at Vanderbilt, April would have turned thirty-eight later this month.
I have to confess my journalistic crimes against Brook Allen in the past. I have attended the Bluebird and other listening rooms and have seen the best of our wordsmiths, the finest stock this singer-songwriter town has to offer—the Rodney Crowells and Hugh Prestwoods of our community, the Kathy Matteas and Beth Nielsen Chapmans. But I witnessed something last night I am not sure I have ever seen before or would wish to see again. It was a classic country song, the whole sad narrative—the alcohol, the lost love, the wild sorrow, the fight in a man’s soul.
Brook Allen, though invisible as our best songwriters sometimes are, is a credit to this town, to its long history of great craftsmen. And in spite of what fools like me might say at times to sell a paper or two, I will not forget last night. And Brook, I don’t think anyone holds such a thing against you. Our poets make us feel deep things. A town grieves with you.
—Whit Jacobs [Music Critic—The Tennessean].
Jacobs wasn’t sure what his superiors might think. Transparency, as courageous as it is, has questionable marketability. The spectacle was raw and ugly, and yet it summoned up rare things in him. That particular day’s newsprint sold more copy, its web presence had more responses than any edition they could remember in recent history. It is doubtful that Brook Allen was even aware of it.
Granted, that was a small taste, but with it you now have the setting, the tone, and an introduction to the stormy, grief-stricken, once-wonderful-now-broken world of Brook Allen. I will continue to read from this book until its release, but here, again, the twin muses love and death have labored to produce.
With that in mind, I want to turn again to the poet John Keats for a moment and read what may be my favorite Keats poem. Dark and otherworldly, it is a dance of a kind, a rapture, a meditation in death, a dream vision the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer. Keats, indeed, writes himself into the lines. But . . . before spoiling it with explanation, here is “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (The lovely lady without pity) A Ballad . . . by John Keats.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
There is something deliciously ghostly about this poem. Is our pale speaker dead already, and just doesn’t know it yet? Remember, Keats wrote to his friend Brown sometime after writing this poem that he felt he was already living a posthumous existence. My heart breaks for John Keats. I know how that must sound, being dead for 200 years. I can’t help it. Those are the investments I make. Poetry was all the redemption, all the justice he had. That, and a new love time would not allow him to consummate. I wept for James Stuart, the boy king. And Tyndale, confined at the end to a dungeon without light, warmth, or human company. Real tears.
Autobiographical to a fault, in his last novel, YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN, Thomas Wolfe prophesies his own early death. In the following passage, the last lines of his last novel, George Webber (the fictional version of Wolfe) is writing to his editor, Foxhall Edwards (the fictional Maxwell Perkins), saying their time together is over. Wolfe was 35 or so when he wrote these lines. He died at 37.
Dear Fox, old friend, thus we have come to the end of the road that we were to go together. My tale is finished—and so farewell. But before I go, I have just one more thing to tell you: Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth—— “—Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending—a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”
Death. Love. Beauty. Tragedy. Art. And . . . all its autobiographical elements, the ink we draw from our little worlds, wonderful or not.
I want to close by reading an excerpt from what I call my dog book. It features Oreo, our first Dalmatian. From champion stock, we eventually had three, Oreo and two pups from her first litter, Salem and Savannah. Even now, as I say their names, some sweet smiling thing rises up in me. A lapse in our judgment perhaps, Adam was asked to walk Oreo on occasion, a dog with more romp, fascination, and tug than a small boy could muster, leaving the poor child face down in the grass as the dog bolted its way to freedom. To this day, Adam, now a father of three, questions the wisdom of allowing a nine-year old such a charge. Even so, both my boys agree that those years with the dogs were our best years. The animation and color, the joy without restraints. I miss them. I miss my small boys. Together they put the wonder in wonderful.
In honor of the season, and because the dogs were a large part of our world at one time, Benita asked if I would read the story of Oreo and the Cheeseball. The following is from the opening of Chapter 9 of AND THEREBY HANGS A TALE, a chapter called If only I could love like that.
Oreo bounced when she ran. With her nose low to the ground, the rest of her seemed to be forced upward, as if by springs, her rear end rising and falling in happy cadence, as if loping about could have no other emotion. Life had no weight at all. The activity that engaged the front of her was as impassioned as the back of her seemed indifferent, oblivious. She did all this with a look of mindless delight. But it was more natural than that. For her, it was the normal business of living. She made exploration and wonder look fun, as if that’s how nature intended it to look. Pure joy, with all its buoyant life fully engaged. Boing, boing, boing! Happy, happy, happy!
We thought it might just be a Dalmatian thing, but it wasn’t as evident in the other two when they came along. It was exclusively an Oreo thing. They too had sufficient bounce, and they were “happy dogs,” as my wife liked to describe it, but it was of a different intensity and character than Oreo’s.
When she ran at full speed, it was quite a different event. There was nothing as fascinating as watching Oreo run. Her body seemed fluid, a creature at one with creation, life doing what it was intended to do, all stops removed. And like everything else she did, she put her full heart into it. It was raw nature on display. You could not help but feel the awe and true miracle of it.
We lived on five acres at the time, so the three of them could break into a run whenever they pleased, particularly if a rabbit or a squirrel was the object of interest. “Grace” is the applicable word—grace and deep desire. As close as the dogs were to us, as much as they inhabited our private spaces, it was moments like this, watching them run, that the mystery became evident. We were as much a mystery to them, I am sure, but the awe was mutual, a thing we shared that suspended beautifully between us, a joint fascination that love prospers in.
As energetic as they were, they could also be as lazy as dirt. They put as much into their naps as they did anything else.
Though the three of them shared certain breed characteristics, the bounce was pretty much Oreo’s. It was reserved for an easier pace, a pace more agreeable with the beat of life: the lope. That is the pace they all made: the lope. Groovin’ to the lazy ooze of time. Something else to envy about them. The lope . . . the lope . . . the lope . . .
We attributed everything to that bounce, as if it were the essence of what made Oreo Oreo. The attachments she made among us were immediate, and they too were happy, springy. Her personality had bounce. Her love had bounce, as love should. There was a bright mischief in her eyes, a thing the other two never seemed to develop with as much verve and pure rascal fun as she did. Maybe we were wiser by the time they came along. Maybe her alpha standing gave her all the consent she needed to be her ultimate self, all restraints undone, all embargos lifted. Maybe it was just her way. She approached life as if it were truly interesting. It is hard not to attribute this condition to love, which seemed to be her true master.
The one thing Oreo could not do was hide her guilt when she had misbehaved. She knew her crimes and had little cunning in covering them up. She knew us well enough to know what pleased and what didn’t please us. And though she always wanted to please, she had lapses. Her devotion was strong, and it remains book-worthy, but she was nonetheless an enterprising dog. A great dog, a loving dog, a warm friendly devoted dog, but when something was amiss, or at the first sign of mischief, it was usually her.
Later, Salem seemed to follow her lead in household antics, but he didn’t have the savvy for it that she did. Then there’s Savannah at my feet, always at my feet—warm, rapt Savannah, hardly letting me out of her sight: obedient, fawning, soft Magdalene Savannah, protective, somewhat needier than the others, but beautiful, dedicated, intensely charming Savannah. Her need for me outweighed her need for mischief. More than the other two, she could quiet her instincts for the chance to be near me. Savannah and Oreo were two different girls.
One evening we were expecting company for dinner, maybe a week or so before Christmas. Our house was festive with the season, complete with that candlelit mysticism only Christmas can seem to make. All three of the dogs had bells attached to their collars. You could hear them all over the house as they loped about. They didn’t seem to mind the small indignity. They figured we liked it.
Benita had worked diligently preparing dinner. It was so long ago, I can’t remember what we had that night, but I know it included appetizers, one of which was a large, round, decorative cheeseball. It was about the size of a softball or a large grapefruit. Benita went to a lot of trouble to get it just right: the color, the shape, the texture, the appeal. It had the look of a large Christmas ornament. It was coated with crushed walnuts, and other curiosities, some red, some green. The crackers were carefully arranged and cascaded in a complete circle around its base. I almost didn’t want to eat it.
But the spell was broken when I heard Benita calling Oreo’s name in a loud exasperated voice. I recognized the tone. It wasn’t pretty. Plunder never is. Company had not yet arrived. Benita had stepped out of the kitchen to tend to something at some other part of the house, and in a lapse of judgment, Oreo saw her opportunity, and took it. She may have been spying, a form of canine stake-out from the side, as she was known to do, waiting for the moment of pounce and grab, stealing about, as hush as death. A sudden attack, with kamikaze boldness—a date that will live in infamy. I can see her now, her eyes on the spoil, her front paws on the table, inching her way forward, making siege upon the unsuspecting cheeseball in sidewise jabs.
Whether she consumed the entire thing in one take (which is my guess), or whether she took her time and savored the moment’s ecstasy, the one she knew would have a price, that bliss- filled solitude that predator enjoys over prey, is hard to know except by guesswork.
Benita didn’t notice the offense when she first returned to the dining room, but when she saw a trail of crumbs and an empty plate with a smear of green, she knew instinctively who the culprit was. Not a difficult bit of detection either. Other than the swelling of her tummy, the small bits of cheese and walnuts around her mouth, and the odd green stains against her white coat, her actions gave her away. They always did. The dog walked with extreme caution around Benita, even before she was found out. The bounce had receded. There was an overall suspicious droop, even in the sound of her bell. Benita knew the look, the slink, the dread in her steps. Something was up. It was also in Oreo’s eyes. Gotcha!
The other two just didn’t have the taste for exploit that she did.
When company came that night, the evidence had been swept clean. There was no cheeseball. There were just a few guests, a great dinner of traditional Christmas fare, and one bloated dog, making light and obsequious steps around us, particularly around Benita.
The dog courted her favor for quite some time after that. She even made little cries at times. She probably figured that if she couldn’t hold a grudge, why should Benita? The worst thing for a dog, particularly that dog, was to be out of favor, to hear impatience, or worse, in our voices. She could easily read our expressions. She knew us that well. I can’t remember any table offenses after that. And as the dog expected, Benita forgave the offense.
The bounce returned. But that’s what bounce does.
That’s it. I love you all. Really. Rediscover your bounce. Protect it. Be generous with love. A wind is rising, and the rivers flow.