In Which We Pretend We Do Not Know The Man

Burn Mark

by RENA LATIMER-CROSS

 after Fanny Howe

George, a biographer of W.H. Auden, was the first one to introduce me to him. He gave me Ted’s book Climbing the Mythic and after I had finished it, he gave me Ted’s phone number so I could call him and tell him what I thought of it. I had never done anything like that. It was 2003, and I was twenty-two.

Ted answered the phone right away and for the next couple of years I would receive phone calls from him that were understanding and encouraging, if somewhat patriarchal. These phone calls changed the direction of my life.

Ted, who was said to be the originator of the idea that sequential logic was only one of many possible systems of literary thought, was not much of a writer unless you call relentless musings about a sex life that took place entirely in the past, memoir. I call Climbing the Mythic a novel only because I know how much of it was utter bullshit. Then again, the word novel is a term of respect in that context.

Ted left a burn mark on whomever he met; he branded his disciples and partners and then dropped them like his father, who had given him away to nuns until reclaiming him at the age of fifteen. His father informed Ted that they had both improved during their time apart, which Ted knew to be a lie.

He broke off with C.D. Wright over the importance of Marianne Moore, who Ted described as a “the old woman who lived in the shoe.” Moore was perhaps too close an influence.

Ted grew up in western Massachusetts, largely on his own. In order to get an idea of the man you must read lines like these, describing his first orphanage:

A god approaches his subjects with a maudlin gaze, sighing with disappointment like a deer rejected by the hunt. Everyone watches a boy-god until they can no linger see with any other eyes but those they have been given. I yearn to find those little ones.

Ted talked and wrote like this. Unlike C.D. Wright, who he had a crush on for the better part of a decade, Ted identified with the proletarian underground since the early 1990s. After writing Climbing the Mythic, he went into eight years of withdrawal in order to study such texts as he could procure. After he emerged from this dark period, much like his father, he renounced the man he was, along with everyone he knew.

In an e-mail written to me in December, 2006, he wrote,

Now you can’t admire Tolstoy along with Joyce, Jane Austen and Henry James. That’s the usual academic pother of the day. Should you have understood Tolstoy you won’t be able to read the famous rubbish of James, Joyce and Austen. You must learn how to expurge what is foolish, bad garbage; otherwise you’ll never find these values you long for and should possess.

We met at a particular bookstore in Providence where the proprietor, for some reason, let Ted borrow whatever he wanted. Sometimes we met at a restaurant. It was never the same place twice, and he always disliked whatever he ordered. I was proud to be with him, my secret teacher, and only George shared my interest, my desire to please him.

He sent me a list of writers I was instructed to read by July, 2009. This is that list, verbatim:

Osiris by Wallis Budge
Egypt by Maspero
The Book of Job by Morris Jastrow
The Song of Songs
The Gentle Cynic
The Voyage of the Beagle by Darwin
L’Amour by Stendhal
Physiology of Marriage by Balzac
Enquires Into Plants by Theophrastes
The History of Greece
Greek Poets by John Addington Symonss
Lives of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius
Last Essays by Eric Gill
Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion by Jane Harrison
Amiel’s Journal
The Goncourt Journals
Imaginary Conversations by Landor

And later he handed me a further list:

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy
Sir Thomas Browne
Twelve Caesars by Suetonius
Animals and Birds by Buffon
Les Characteres by Lydell
Love of the Nymphs by Porphyry
Gil Blas by Le Sage

At that time Ted had no interest in religious thinking as we might conceive of it today, He was not an atheist whatsoever; he simply put god in the head of the men he most respected. These were scientists and also sociologists, who were to his mind as much inventors and adventurers as any. I managed most of the list, but concealed from him my other readings (Acker, Thalia Field, Cole Swensen, Armantrout, Fanny Howe). He would have been disgusted by my secret books. I loved misogynists. I debated them, even married them, but I never begged or let it go on too long.

My friendship with Ted ended sadly. He hated my then-husband, Rafi, and kicked out the man’s leg. He chased Rafi down the street screaming that he had no idea to what do with something as wonderful as myself. I felt, on one level, flattered. On another, deeply disturbed. My last e-mail from him was a critique of how much he hated Moby Dick and a confession of his true feelings for me. I couldn’t bear to write back.

What I got from Ted before his implosion was the sense of the writer always investigating the parameters of whatever world she had entered. You had to protect yourself from the politics of ideologues, and read what he called “ethical” writing. Ted told me to take a vow of poverty if I was serious about my work. This is his politics, he who is a proud supporter of Bernie Sanders, and to this day I wonder if he is right.

Going back to read Ted’s writing is no longer any fun for me, or anyone. We have surgically repaired everything he did to us. There is no use pretending the pain did not happen, or that the man understood his country or the people in it. It was not the time for Ted, but maybe in some other epoch.

I received an e-mail from George the other day. I was surprised the man even knew how to use a computer. He told me he didn’t get along with Ted much anymore either. “I suppose there is no use pretending we didn’t know him the best,” George wrote. Yeah.

Rena Latimer-Cross is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Illinois. This is her first appearance in these pages.

“Don’t Let Them In” – Perfume Genius (mp3)

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