Friday, December 26, 2014

Visiting Flannery

I visit Andalusia Farm often. I go mainly to visit Flannery, not that I am a believer in such things as ghosts or spirits or anything otherworldly like that: I am too rational a creature. Being able to solve the Sunday N.Y.Times crossword puzzle is miracle enough for me. But when I go to the farm, I always stand at her bedroom door, stare at that sorry little pillow to say hello and ask her how she is, and I always stand at that same door before I leave to say goodbye. Always. It seems we agree on so many things: the ugliness of her bedroom drapes that I hear her mother put up behind her back when she was out of town, her inability to suffer fools wisely, the driving ambition she had for her work. Flannery was a writer. I am a writer. We connect.

Of course, others might disagree on how close that connection really is. After all, I am Jewish; she was Catholic. She was a southerner with an accent so distinctive it could curl hair. I am a northerner from the heart of Manhattan who went to Brooklyn College—three hours a day on the subway. Be assured, you can't get more Yankee than that. But as I said, she was a writer. I am a writer. We connect.

Here's a poem I wrote about that connection. It was first published in Shenandoah, then anthologized twice and finally included in my latest book, The View from Saturn, LSU Press, 2014. I hope you enjoy it. I wrote the first draft while sitting on the bench across the pond, the bench you can see it from the front lawn. It was close to Easter, the middle of the day, and very hot. The floor of the surrounding forest was carpeted with trillium.

Visiting Flannery

Across the pond and up the hill
from where I sit, the lady’s house—
her room of crutches and ugly drapes,
the flat and sorry pillow. Her Royal
turned for concentration to a wall.

I come often, greet the orphaned space,
wave when I leave. But today, Good Friday,
I wonder what she’d think—this Yankee
heretic, two generations from steerage,
scribbling by her pond across from
the screened-in porch where afternoons
she’d rest, enjoying her peahens’
strut and feed. How old is too young
with so much left to do? Even the barn,
reliving her story of what happened there,
is buckled to its knees.

Suddenly, a flash from the water—
fish or frog—and I too late
to catch the shine. The Georgia sun
dizzies my head and I am no saint.
Nor was she, although there’s some
who’d unsalt the stew to make her one.
Still, I like to imagine—before the final
transfusions and the ACTH that
ballooned her face past recognition—
the two of us sitting here, watching the trees
sway upside down in sky-water, ecstatic
in the bright kingdom she refracted in a drop.

Funny how two pairs of eyes fifty years apart
make one in sight: a country pond
floats a heaven, and patches of trillium
spread their whites, laying a cloth for Easter.
She smirks. Easy imagery. We do not speak,
both knowing what won’t sustain when clouds
roar in like trouble, the trillium inching
toward water, fluttering like the unbaptized
lost, or the ghost pages of an unwritten book.

-- Poet, Alice Friman, is Professor Emerita of English and creative writing at the University of Indianapolis, and Poet-in-Residence at Georgia College & State University. She has published six full-length collections of poetry: The View from Saturn, Vinculum, The Book of the Rotten Daughter, Zoo, Inverted Fire, and Reporting from Corinth.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Equinox Inside and Out

In the last letter Flannery O’Connor mailed, she wrote these words to Janet Mc Kane on the 27th of July 1964,

The books & the burro came today and I do appreciate them. I’m not up to the books yet but I will be let us hope later on. I’m up to the burro. Equinox inside and out. (HOB 595)

The rest of the letter suggests Flannery O’Connor’s doctor was prone to heart attacks. He’d already had three. Maybe in a time before, the doctor had travelled out Highway 441 to Andalusia for house calls, but his patients had to start visiting him due to his heart. Flannery O’Connor then insinuates traveling to the doctor has her worn out, which just means tired here in Georgia.

July 27th fell on a Monday in 1964. A week later, on August 3rd, Mary Flannery O’Connor passed away. One last letter remained on the table beside her bed in an almost illegible scrawl (HOB 596). The letter was to Maryat Lee. That hand-written letter meant Flannery’s words were done, but her words were far from silenced. Her death left a literary legacy that becomes more pronounced with every passing year. The legacy resounds with, an artificial leg and an artificial statue, rapture and redemption, blinding light and the shining sun, sunglasses and sight, suits, hats, and an over-sized sweat shirt, rivers and fires, priests and pariahs, Baptists, Methodists and the occasional Catholic, buses, cars, trucks, and trains, freaks and monuments, grace and false prophets, God and Jesus, New Jesus, a mummy and a gorilla suit, a loving bull and the descending dove, The Holy Spirit in a water stain, cigarettes and raw milk, sons and daughters, New York and Georgia, East Tennessee and Florida, sometimes Alabama, black and white, rich and poor, tractors and transients, simple and smart and possibly demonic children, innocent ones, disfigured ones, grandfathers and grandchildren, and maps of the universe revealed in the patterns of peacock plumage.

The feathers might reveal mysteries of the universe if I could read them, but I cannot read them right. I’ve tried, yet many mysteries remain to me. Peacock feathers adorn book covers and fill vases at Andalusia. Old curtain patterns at Andalusia suggest their feathers. In the world of Flannery O’Connor, they’re almost synonymous with her. Sometimes, fresh sheds from Manley Pointer’s tail decorate the green grass at Andalusia under the tall cedars behind the house. Feathers are available in Andalusia’s gift shop for a small price. Often, feathers, along with pennies and pictures of saints, are offerings or alms left on Flannery’s grave in homage, in remembrance, of her at Memory Hill Cemetery in downtown Milledgeville. But, rarely, if ever, does anyone leave a jackass or mule or a burro, which is another mystery because burros should be at least as synonymous with Flannery O’Connor as peacocks.

I do not know what Janet Mc Kane sent to Flannery, but she didn’t send Equinox through post; I doubt. I do not know what book along with what token or representation of a mule came through Milledgeville’s post office to Andalusia, but Equinox was on Flannery’s mind in the last week of her life. Flannery did thank Janet Mc Kane for whatever it was, and Equinox inside and out suggests to me that Flannery either thought the token resembled Equinox inside and out or Flannery, herself, had become Equinox inside and out, for she was up to the burro.

Burros live a long time even if Flannery O’Connor wrote that it’d be the peafowl that’d have the last word. She writes in “The King of the Birds,” I intend to stand firm and let the peacocks multiply, for I am sure that, in the end, the last word will be theirs (MM 21); however, some of Flannery’s original peafowl went to Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta, Georgia. Others went to other places, but the burros remained. Equinox and Flossie roamed Andalusia’s woods together until Equinox died in 1998. Flossie lived alone until 2010 often climbing the hill behind the horse barn to the place where Equinox was buried. I have been told that Flossie worshipped Equinox. She would follow him wherever he’d go. Although the replacements of Flannery’s peafowl, Manley and Hulga/Joy and Mary Grace, have the last words, often screaming a mysterious language at Andalusia, other voices are heard at Andalusia too. Peafowl are not the only animals speaking the last words. The other voices are more faint, but, in a way, the voices are louder in their animal sounds, and their animal words are clearer. Equinox was more than a mule or a jackass just as Ernest, Marquita and then Flossie were more than animals. Their bloodline lived at Andalusia until 2010, and, though they’re gone, like all things O’Connor, a mystery remains. It’s been reported many times by visitors of Andalusia that they hear the baying of burros, but there are no burros.

Flannery’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, named Equinox because he was sired by Ernest, carried by Marquita and born near, or on, the Autumnal Equinox during the month of September in 1963. Equinox was less than a year old when Flannery passed away. Equinox was still growing when Flannery was alive, and I imagine watching Equinox grow was, both, joy and comfort to Flannery during the last year of her life when she was in so much pain. Equinox inside and out. Even from her side bedroom window, Flannery could see Equinox graze in the green pasture that’s at its widest at the horse barn near the house until it tapers to a point behind the tool shed. Even at that far distance, Flannery could see Equinox from her bedroom if only a tan blur on the field of green, for in Flannery’s time, there were fewer trees.

For Mother’s Day in 1962, Flannery gave her mother Ernest who was Equinox’s sire. I have no idea how Flannery arranged the delivery of a donkey to Andalusia, but it’d be fascinating to know the details of the transaction. In an excerpt of a letter that I cannot find in The Habit of Being, Flannery wrote to a friend named Rebekah on June 16th of 1962,

I am through with my traveling and hope to do nothing this summer but set and write. I gave my mother a jackass for Mother’s Day. His name is Ernest. Somebody said, “oh, for the mother who has everything?”

In December of 1963, after Christmas on December 31st, Flannery wrote to Janet Mc Kane,

Ernest—that is Equinox’s pa—did the honors for the burros this Christmas and went both to the Christian manger and the Methodist pageant. He did very well in the Christian manger—in which there were also a cow a pig a Shetland pony & some sheep and he did all right at the Methodist dress rehearsal but when the big moment came and the church full of Methodists, he wouldn’t put his foot inside the door. Doesn’t care for “fellowship” I suppose. Balaam’s ass. (HOB 555)

It’s clear to me that Flannery O’Connor loved her mules. They’re stubborn, you know? They do not die easily and some say they’ll live as long as fifty years, but they could live forever. Legend has it that near Christmas, animals can talk in a language that humans can understand. At Christmas, animals and humans can understand one another. Look into the legend and listen on Christmas Eve, for it’s an old legend and maybe an old fact. Near Christmas especially, listen for the burros at Andalusia that are not there. Balaam could not see, or refused to see, the angel of God in his path, so God spoke through Balaam’s donkey.

Flossie, daughter of Marquita (and an unknown pony stallion).

O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1979.

---. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1969.

--Jim Owens is a nonfiction MFA candidate at Georgia College. He’s a graduate of Auburn University and The University of Alabama at Birmingham. These days, he spends time working at Andalusia on the tool shed that’s being rebuilt and oftentimes giving impromptu tours of Andalusia’s grounds. He’s proud to work closely with the land that Flannery O’Connor called home. Jim was fortunate to be an assistant to Bruce Gentry and Bob Donahoo during The National Endowment for the Humanities’ Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor in July where he met some of the world’s most awesome Flannery O’Connor scholars that exist.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

“Imbibing Atmosphere” and Interrogating Assumptions at Andalusia

I’m going to tell the truth. This summer, when I had the tremendous pleasure of being part of a group of scholars who got to go to Georgia to study Flannery O’Connor on the NEH’s dime, I was pretty nervous at first. Academics are often obsessive and awkward people who spend lots of time alone, scrutinizing things. Prolonged social interaction isn’t always our forte. In my case, I’ve grown so accustomed to the process of writing as a way of collecting my thoughts that sometimes I end up feeling flat-footed in live conversations. You can imagine how my anxieties were heightened then at a lovely picnic at Andalusia on the 4th of July where a two-person camera crew was set up to interview the institute participants about their experiences of studying O’Connor on her home turf.

I worried I would have to account for myself, explain why it makes sense for the Federal government to give me, an English professor, money to go study O’Connor in Georgia. Like someone bracing for an interview, I started interrogating myself: Do we really need to visit a writer’s home when the thing she chose to give us is her work? If we read O’Connor’s stories through the lens of Andalusia or of Milledgeville, do we risk substituting our own personal projections for interpretations based on plausible textual evidence? Then, like someone trained in criticism, I started interrogating my own questions: Isn’t the good of O’Connor’s work, like the good of a visit to Andalusia, self-evident? What makes me think I need to defend the value of these things?

Cunningly, I avoided the camera, and instead I started talking over these questions with my fellow institute participants. We discussed the risks of a hagiographic approach to Andalusia, one that would substitute shrine for home. Even as O’Connor insisted on the mysterious presence of the sacred in the material world, she also resisted the impulse to swap an “edifying” story for a true one. I think a brief example here will demonstrate what I mean. In the spring of 1959, O’Connor was invited by the Sister Superior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home to come visit Atlanta in order to write a biography of Mary Ann Long, a remarkable young girl whose short life and time as a patient at the Home was deeply meaningful to Mary Ann’s community. In her own account of the situation, O’Connor describes recoiling from the offer to visit and write the book. She states, “Stories of pious children tend to be false. This may be because they are told by adults, who see virtue where their subjects would see only a practical course of action; or it may be because such stories are written to edify and what is written to edify usually ends up amusing.” Borrowing the Sister Superior’s phrase, O’Connor writes, “I did not wish to imbibe Mary Ann’s atmosphere. I was not capable of writing her story.” [1]

In walking around the rooms, barns, and fields of Andalusia, it might seem possible to try to imbibe O’Connor’s atmosphere, and from that, to forge connections between the physical space where she spent much of her life and the work she created in that space. As my fellow scholar and new friend, Alison Staudinger, pointed out, that approach might be tempting, but it’s also risky if we don’t examine our own assumptions.

Here O’Connor’s awareness is useful, highlighting how sight is limited and how intentions can backfire. We can render in ultimately silly terms what we might intend as meaningful. By touring Andalusia with Alison and a bunch of other great partners in this conversation, we started to investigate the impulse readers might have to project themselves onto writers and the oddness of a capacity to forget that writers are real people to begin with. We spent hours discussing what we think about the relationship between humans and the material world and the nature of the value an object might retain because of who may have owned it previously.

The two-person camera crew, Ben and Chelsea, caught up with me and Alison eventually, and they joined right in the conversation, welcoming our inquiries, adding their observations, giving us space to process how our visit to Andalusia shaped our thinking, and laying my camera shyness to rest by using our taped interview for in-house purposes only. Haha.

You may not have the good fortune of touring Andalusia at a time that corresponds with a visit from Alison, Ben, and Chelsea, but I highly recommend rounding up your best conversation partners, touring its sitting rooms and milking rooms, and examining your own impressions of what this space does and doesn’t mean for how we read and reread O’Connor. You might find, as I do, that the value of her work, and of Andalusia, are self-evident.   

Alison Arant is assistant professor of English at Wagner College on Staten Island in New York City, where she teaches classes in Southern Literature, African American Literature, and World Literature. She was one of 24 scholars who spent a month at Georgia College and State University attending the NEH Summer Institute “Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor." She lives in Brooklyn, parts of which seem to have at least a crush on southern foodways. She can’t blame them.

[1] “Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann.”  Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works. (New York: Library of America, 1988): 822-3.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Learn by Living

“First-grade schoolchildren, who learn by living”[1]

My two daughters, ages three and seven, refer to Andalusia simply as “the farm.” They visited for the first time this summer, while I was staying in Milledgeville, and the peacocks were, of course, the big draw. They filled multiple pages of the then-new easel with their drawings, enjoyed a picnic under the trees, and braved the dark to venture into the barn. They entered the house under duress, to visit the restroom, although they were suitably intrigued by the art in the back room and the magnets in the gift shop.

Flannery O’Connor’s writing desk, with her crutches propped alongside? The seven-year-old gave it a cursory glance before wandering out to the porch in the middle of my informative speech. She doesn’t know anything about Flannery O’Connor, and how would she, really? During those occasions when she has peeked over my shoulder while I’m reading O’Connor, I have quietly closed the book before she can read someone being shot, or choked, or shoved through a  banister, or abandoned in a cafĂ©. So out to the pleasant porch she goes.

In a 1963 letter to Janet McKane, the New York grade school teacher with whom she corresponded, O’Connor described the local schoolchildren’s visits to Andalusia: “The children go all over the yard and see the ponies and the peacocks and the swan and the geese and the ducks and then they come by my window and I stick my head out and the teacher says, ‘And this is Miss Flannery. Miss Flannery is an author.’ So they go home having seen a peacock and donkey and a duck and a goose and an author….” (HB 545).

I always had the impression that O’Connor disliked children, so much so that she wouldn’t hang around with them even when she was one. The stories of her childhood are often funny: how she ordered her playmates into the bathtub of the Savannah house, where she forced them to listen to her read aloud, thereby ensuring they would never return for a second visit. That image of a tiny O’Connor presiding over a bathroom lecture fits, I think, with our image of her as an adult: well documented sense of humor, but no apparent patience with silliness, and no willingness to waste time with company that couldn’t hold their own in an intelligent conversation.

When I teach O’Connor’s short stories, my students often latch on to the portrayals of Wesley and June Starr in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and they comment on how awful those children are. But in contrast to June Starr, who is sassy and obnoxious even as she is led off into the woods to be shot, O’Connor writes a character like Mary Fortune in “A View of the Woods.” Mary Fortune’s world looks an awful lot like Andalusia, and although she is her grandfather’s one favored heir, she rejects his love when he sells off a parcel of land, obliterating her view of the woods across the front lawn from the house. She proves to be irritating and sullen in her grandfather’s presence, but as a reader, I am with her all the way.

It is characters like Mary Fortune who make me believe that O’Connor had some respect for those “exceptional” (and O’Connor informs McKane that “around here [exceptional] means the defective ones”) first graders bumbling about on a farm ogling peacocks, ponies, and writers alike. Maybe she appreciated their refusal—or unwillingness—to have more awe for the author than they have for the goose.

I’m tickled to see that Andalusia’s wish list includes a donkey and a goat, and that Dr. Bruce Gentry is reporting on middle school students visiting the farm. They might not (yet) understand the importance of that front bedroom, but the lilies and the barn have quite a bit to offer, too. 

[1] From O’Connor’s essay “The Kind of the Birds,” reprinted in Mystery and Manners, 9.

Andalusia's summer lilies served as inspiration for Rhonda's daughters.
Rhonda Armstrong is an Associate Professor of English at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, where she will teach a course on Flannery O’Connor in Spring 2015. This past summer, she was one of 24 scholars who spent a month at Georgia College and State University attending the NEH Summer Institute “Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor." She lives in Augusta with her husband, Brian, and two daughters.