Long ago. Pete LaSalle—his prematurely gray hair swept in a thick wave over his head—taught a creative writing course in which I was enrolled. His first book—its cover of gray cloth the color and texture of a weathered, old tombstone—had just been published. The title was The Graves of Famous Writers. In the title story—as I remember it—a young man found resolution by travelling to Ireland to seek-out the grave of William Butler Yeats. I adopted the idea—visiting the graves of famous writers—not because I sought resolution; instead, I sought connection.
It might seem easier to connect with writers and literature by hanging-out in the right cafes. There weren’t, however, too many writers available when I was taking creative writing courses, and a writer in the classroom is not like a writer in the grave.* Those graves of famous writers were far away, requiring the experience of travel and reading their work in their places.
I descended on Swissair to the grave of the first famous writer whom I visited. The flight from Athens banked and rushed suddenly with the acceleration that precedes landing. We descended in cloud suffused with yellow, and below the cloud Zurich was bright. The fall air of the September day in Zurich was cool and clean; it contrasted sharply with the hot, dirty air of Athens. I dropped my luggage in my flat and took a #6 tram away from the city, then walked uphill to Friedhof Fluntern, the cemetery where James Joyce is buried. The large rectangular gravestone of the Joyce family lay flush with the trimmed grass. Yellow brown leaves dotted the inscribed surface of the stone. Here was Joyce reduced to dates – Geboren in Dublin and Gestorben in Zurich. The German on the stone fit the exiled James. A statue of Joyce stood beyond the head of the grave. Slightly hunched, the statue Joyce sat with legs crossed. A perpetual cigarette was held elegantly in cocked arm and hand by his cheek. The other arm—elbow on one knee—held an open book. He looked away—as if he could—from the book and the grave—his stone gray glasses betrayed no eyes.
In a conversation with a statue, you hear only the ring of your own voice. The bronze Joyce reflected my words rather than offering his. A conversation with a statue makes a mockery of connection with a dead writer.
At Joyce’s grave in the summer I was thinking about snow. I was thinking about snow falling faintly in Fluntern – on the grave of James Joyce – and falling generally over the whole of Europe. It was the last paragraph of Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” which stays with me, that I was transporting to the graveyard that summer. That kind of “transportation” in which read experience arrives in a new form – from the addition of one’s own vision – in the course of travels to a writer’s place, even if it is his or her grave, becomes part of the connection.
Another form of connection springs forward. I had read little of Emily Dickinson when last summer I visited her place – Amherst, her family home, the Homestead, and her grave – but my travel created the desire to know more about Dickinson as a person. I wanted to understand how she had lived in her place and the sources of creativity in her tightly lived life. I wanted, I suppose, to see her life and place in her poetry – travelling to Emily Dickinson’s grave provided discovery. In the days that followed, I read a biography of Dickinson and began working my way through her poems. Dickinson’s grave, lying enclosed in a small family plot with her stone tight against a black iron fence, became a metaphor for my understanding of her life; it would stand as a physical expression of the constraints in a life that contrasted exceptionally with the exuberance of her poetry. Visiting Dickinson’s grave amplified what I could understand of her life and works by reading.
That Henry David Thoreau’s small, tea-colored headstone was adorned only with his adopted name – Henry – felt appropriate. We hear Henry in death calling, “Simplify.” Visitors had left offerings – pine cones, small stones, and a feather – at his grave. These materials were evidence of union – as if visitors had said, ‘Henry Thoreau helped me to see the world in pine cones, the pleasures of found feathers, and the utter nature of stones’ – as if visitors had said, ‘I commemorate Henry Thoreau with emblems of the world he led me to share.’
Coins had also been left on Henry Thoreau’s headstone. They seemed incongruous. What would Spartan Henry Thoreau have made of these proffered coins? Can we purchase connection with a dead writer by leaving a few coins? We make various transactions at graves; but I had never thought of mine as economic. Were these coins the same as those tossed with prayers and wishes by religious pilgrims at idols and shrines. I thought about my travel in the hills above Kyoto where pilgrims at Shinto shrines tossed coins into pools, quickly clapping their hands to capture a deity’s attention as the coins and prayers flew. Did those visitors who left spare change for Henry Thoreau clap their hands to capture the dead writer’s attention? Had Thoreau become a god to be placated – or supplicated – by a few coins? Surely not. The grave tips must be coins of belief that chance can be bought to bring luck. But why this place? What variety does a simple grave hold?
While I wonder about our responses to – and expectations at –Henry Thoreau’s grave, my visit was less about transaction than transportation. My visit to Henry Thoreau’s grave sent me to his death. After I returned home from Concord, I sought-out Henry’s last days in the journals and letters of his contemporaries – Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcotts, Ellery Channing, and especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. I wanted to understand how the living had thought about Henry Thoreau’s death, and through reading and writing it was possible to imagine myself in their community during those days. My response, posted here a few months ago, was “Henry Dies.”
Travelling and reading, which I find so similar, converge at the graves of famous writers. A conceit of connection allows my steps to turn pages while my imagination slips into text and lives.
* * *
*I want to thank all of those living writers who, in recent years, have been willing to hang-out with me in cafes and even to have dinner with me. The community of living writers is now as rich a place as can be found at the graves of famous writers.
Peter LaSalle’s book of short stories The Graves of Famous Writers was published by the University of Missouri Press in 1980.
“That’s amore,” a speaker sings-out in Pallino’s, a pizza place at Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle. The Tuscan barbeque chicken pizza I’ve ordered has just been slid from the oven. A young woman squirts a zig-zag trail of barbeque sauce over the pizza’s top. As I carry my boxed pizza to a table in the semi-domed enclave of the airport’s food court, I think about Dante. Every American airport seems these days to be its own special realm of Hell but none is interesting enough to match any part of Dante’s Inferno. Airports are perhaps only Purgatory, where everyone is waiting anxiously, anticipating travel to a better place.
Barbeque sauce drips on my fingers as I lift a drooping slice of pizza to my mouth. The sticky sauce causes my fingers to cohere. Home, the best place, is like sticky barbeque sauce – it holds us together. Home, in the best sense, is a place of coherence. I wonder about Dante’s sense of home. He had lived in Florence when he travelled in 1302 to Rome to negotiate with Pope Boniface VIII on troubles in his hometown. Rather than negotiate, the Pope sought a quicker end and threatened Dante with death. That threat sent Dante afield – he left Rome and was exiled from Florence. Was ‘displacement’ Dante’s Hell? To lose the coherence and refuge of home must force hell. Dante’s Inferno begins with that loss:
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
Dante, The Inferno, Canto I (translated by Robert Pinsky)
Dante’s exile – his loss, fear, and bitterness – seems initially irremediable, but he reconciles exile by travelling through its hell. It is hard to see exile as travel, although travel is a gentle, temporary exile. Dante makes that transformation, turning from exile to traveller. We should thank Virgil.
“Follow me,” Virgil says. “And I followed where he led,” Dante tells us.
I look up from my pizza half wishing that I might see Virgil lingering near the secure side of the gates manned by those airport leopards the Transmogrification Security Administration. I don’t really expect to see Virgil because I don’t know what he looks like. Instead, I listen for him. Virgil, I expect, will sound like Alistair Cooke on the BBC reading one of his letters from America, although Virgil’s voice will be a little softer, lower, and slower than that of the British ex-patriot Cooke. I listen, but his voice is one never heard in the conflux of flight announcements, disembodied calls for one person and another, and the unceasing gab and garble of televisions in airports.
The dissonant tumult of airport noise sounds not like Virgil but like Wagner. I hear the music in my head. It’s Wagner's Flying Dutchman. In the opera, Wagner’s Dutchman is condemned by Satan to sail the seas forever unless he finds a woman to love him. There is, however, another catch: the woman must be absolutely faithful, her love must have constancy, for her to provide the power of redemption. In the opera, in tumultuous music that nearly matches that of the storm at the beginning, the Dutchman learns that Senta, the woman whose love he expected would offer redemption, had already promised her constant love to another man. The Dutchman cannot reconcile her inconstancy to another man with her promise of constancy to him. Her love deemed insufficient, the Dutchman flees for his ship and sets sail – we in the audience are blown about in the force of music, by hopeless expectation, by desire. We know the Dutchman’s exile at sea will now be permanent; he is hopeless; he will travel with desire.
Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman lies like a slant rhyme against Dante’s Commedia. In both, a man in exile travels with hope of redemption at the end. Redemption in both cases is offered by love brought by a woman. Unlike the Dutchman, Dante’s travels from Hell led to a woman’s heaven and redemption that ended the wandering. Dante fulfilled finds Paradise, Wagner’s Dutchman continues to travel a sea of desire.
Redemption or travel. I prop my feet on the wooden chair opposite me and slouch in mine. Both Dante and Wagner oppose travel with redemption. In each, redemption or its possibility can end travel. I don’t have hope of redemption. “Without hope we live in desire,” Dante’s Virgil tells us on the walk through Hell. I like the desire raised by travels. Even without redemption, without hope of faithful constancy, there may be love at the end of travels. I smile at the possibility and at the music in the confusion of the airport.
I can hear Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore,” and there dancing down the concourse is a middle-aged man, who, I think, could be Dante.