SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
HELENA VIRAMONTES: My name is Helena Maria Viramontes, and I'm the director of the creative writing program here at Cornell University. Welcome all students, staff, and faculty to our fall 2016 Barbara and David Zalaznick Reading Series. We continue to be extremely grateful for their endowment, which has allowed us to bring in some of the most exciting and provocative poets and writers of our time. Not only will we have a very special event today in "Courting Memory, a 95th Birthday Celebration for James McConkey," but the semester will be filled with readings by Joy Harjo, Chris Harbani, David Madden, and our fabulous alumni, HG Carillo, Sally Mao, Adam Price, and Emily Rosko. So stay tuned.
I'd like to ask all of you to please silence your phones. And I remind you that after today's reading, there will be a reception upstairs in the English Department lounge. So please don't linger in the auditorium and go upstairs for tapas and good cheer.
Before I turn the microphone over to my colleague, Robert Morgan, who will be threading this very special event together, I'd like and extend our gratitude to Andrew Galloway and Roger Gilbert, Chairs of the Department of English, and Senior Associate Dean for Arts and Humanities Marilyn Migiel for their support and contribution to this event. And, of course, I'd like to thank my own creative writing colleagues who bring so much to the classroom, to the department, and to the campus, and then go home and take their own advice and write. Muchas gracias Michael Koch, editor of our superb small magazine Epoch. Aside from everything else he does, he continues to be an amazing mentor to MFA graduate editors.
Lastly, it breaks my heart to announce that two very, very important staff people will be leaving the Department of English for greater opportunities. As events coordinator for the past four years, Sarah Elizabeth Rice has organized all the Creative Writing and English Department events with great professionalism, skillful dedication, and full competence. From itineraries to posters, from transportations to receptions, Sarah has smiled through it all with grace. And I wouldn't be the friend that I think I am if I didn't support her decision to make her dreams come to fruition though I'll miss her deeply. The good news is her replacement is Miss Lynn Lauper, who has already been in motion at the events coordinator assistant.
And, after being in office director for 34 years, this will be the last semester for Ms. Marianne Marsh. She was the oil that kept the office machinery in full function 24/7. Incredibly brilliant and artistic, she proved herself to be a problem solver, a creative thinker, and continues to be strongly efficient in all that she does. Undoubtedly, she has been a remarkable ally to creative writing. And she will be sorely missed.
Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Marianne. Please, can you wave so we can see who you are? Thank you.
Your work has made our work so much easier. You two have been a major presence. We love you, and we wish you all the best.
Now over to Bob Morgan.
ROBERT MORGAN: Diane Ackerman is one of the most celebrated writers who ever studied at Cornell, where she received both her MFA and PhD degrees. Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Smithsonian, Parade, National Geographic. She's done research in Brazil, Patagonia, California, Japan, Texas, the Amazon rain forest, and the Antaractica.
Among her many books are The Human Age, The World Shaped by Us, Dawn Light, The Zookeeper's Wife An Alchemy of Mind, and Cultivating Delight. Diane's also published several acclaimed books of poetry, including The Planets-- A Cosmic Pastoral, and Jaguar of Sweet Laughter-- New and Selected Poems. I always love that title.
She has also authored a play, Reverse Thunder, about the life of the 17th century nun and poet Juana Inez de la Cruz. A film adaptation of Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife, starring Jessica Chastain, will be released this fall. In 1995, Diane hosted a five-part Nova mini-series based on a natural history of the senses. Her memoir, On Extended Wings, has been adapted for the stage.
Ackerman has received so many honors I don't have time to list them. But I will mention the Henry David Thoreau Award for Nature Writing, an Orion Book Award for The Zookeeper's Daughter, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the John Burroughs Nature Award, and the Lavin poetry prize. She's a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
I am in awe of Diane's infinite curiosity, her extraordinary dedication to the craft of writing, her relish for research and for experience in all its variety and challenges, and what she calls the great love affair of life. Often in my travels, people I meet ask when they find out I live in Ithaca, do you know Diane Ackerman? And I'm happy to say, yes, indeed, she is my neighbor and friend. Please welcome Diane Ackerman.
DIANE ACKERMAN: Thank you. Thank you so much for that. I am absolutely thrilled to be here. I was supremely lucky when I came to Cornell as a graduate student because Jim McConkey was my advisor. And I still remember sitting in his office on my first day. Jim was wearing a cornflower blue shirt with an open collar, not button-down. There was nothing button-down about him. I would soon learn from his books that he patrolled the skies through a telescope of his own devising, haunted the world of Chekhov's fiction, mucked out stalls, had sampled the heart of pre-war America, raised children among other animals, had been to war and understood the reality of not just physical, but moral injury.
In his books I found that wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny fleck of it stops time. He got me thinking about the sudden, poignant trip wires of memory, and also the fine mesh of faintly scored, dimly remembered encounters, mishaps, moments of pride or guilt or shame that nonetheless etch indelible traces in one's life and helped create that baggy ghost we call the self. I learned to notice how many small acts of mercy and heroism unfold between couples and between so-called ordinary people every day. They kept showing up in his books.
Jim began as my advisor, taught me creative writing and literature, and then became a member of my MFA and PhD committees. Then I took his Mind and Memory class, which warmed the cockles of my interdisciplinary heart. Then I team-taught the course with him during which we were briefly office spouses. And then I've been really honored to embrace him as a beloved friend.
Through all the stages of my writerly life, I felt privileged to know someone so keenly nourished by books, unswayed by literary vogues and labels. Thank you, Jim, for always being an -ist among the -isms. Sublimely creative, full of sacred relish and curiosity about the world, and endowed with a social and environmental conscience, wickedly smart, but immoderately humble. Down to Earth, and to use a very old fashioned word and concept, decent, Jim is someone in whose hands I think the planet would be safe. And there are precious few people you can say that about.
In that sense, he's always reminded me a little of Jimmy Carter-- not a saint, by far, but just maybe one of the 36 just men. According to ancient theology, these few alone, through their good hearts and good deeds, keep the too wicked world from being destroyed. There needs to be at least 36 of them in each generation, though bear in mind this was ancient days and the population was a lot smaller. But if that's so, for their sake, God spares all of humanity.
The legend tells that they are ordinary people. They're not flawless. They're not magical. And that they remain completely unrecognized even by themselves throughout their lives. It's simply that they choose to perpetuate goodness, sometimes even in the midst of inferno.
Jim, heartfelt happy birthday wishes to you and resounding thanks. In so many ways, you continue to make my life richer through your influence, your abundant kindness, your glorious books, and your cherished friendship.
I'm going to read a little bit of prose about bicycling around Otsego Lake at dawn with my friend Sheila. I was trying to see if I could capture the landscape and the sensations in one memory. I don't know that I necessarily achieved that, but I thought that the attempt might appeal to you. Oh, I should warn you probably that it's all one sentence.
"In the lavender hours after daybreak, before the sun lept onto the blue stage of the sky to begin its light opera of soul-searing heat, we set out on our bikes to circumnavigate Otsego Lake, which, encircled by dense forest, lay flat as pounded metal, thickly gray-purple with a light mist rising, yet wavering clear like an ancient mirror, the lake the Indians named glimmerglass. And we peddled hard up a long, steep incline as the temperature of our bodies and the day rose together. And within the aubergine drapery of the forest, twigs crackled, a confetti of light fell through the leaves, small quick beings darted among the tree trunks, and an occasional loud crunch or scuffling led our eyes back a million years through several tunnels of instinct to violet shadows we automatically interrogated for bear or mountain lion or highway man or warrior as a mixed chorus of insects and birds sang out oblivious to our cycles but mystified, perhaps, by our talk and laughter, or by the sight of a woman with blond hair riding a teal bike wearing black shorts with purple chevrons the exact color of a mallard duck's underfeathers, and behind her, the same thing, but different-- a woman with black hair riding a purple bike-- both following a road dusted with loose gravel spread in winters past and weaving along undulating mountains.
While shadows staggered like eighth notes through the woods, the lake grew calm as cold wax. But the sun purpled and swelled, and sweat began to seep from our faces. So we drank long gulps of clear, warm water from bottles-- not the lake water deepening to black orchid whenever a castle-sized cloud drifted over, not the mirage of water shivering on baked Macadam up ahead, not the saltwater plumping up our cells that gives us shape and flow and spirits the mind through soul journeys, but water captured at a spring in Vermont we had never seen, water filtered by rocks as we are filtered by the sights we see, especially the majestic indigo of the lake, the lavender air, and the night purple convalescing in the forest as we pedaled into the open where rich growing fields surrender to the sky their perfectly ordered rows of corn with leaves like iron green collars and tassels shaking glitter in the uproaring sun-- sights we sometimes savored with little comment and a few delicate sips of mind, and yet, at other times, we wolfed down whole vistas.
But we both knew the tonic value of the journey that fell somewhere between pleasure and hardship, though we are not the sort of people who picnic on pain or calibrate fun, but we reveled in working ourselves through the landscape which we discovered tree by tree, farm mile by farm mile, with chicory and Queen Anne's lace bunching in the culverts, pedaling hard though we were steeped in pure exhaustion, pure exhilaration, leading us through these hinterlands where all emotional battles meet and become one tenderness, knowing that far away behind us in the village of Cooperstown, shops would soon be lifting their awnings, museum doors yawning wide, and the great ladle of enterprise slowly stirring as the sun rose high and the town thrummed with a million colorful intrigues.
But we were panting and pushing and pedaling, and steadily pulling the day up behind us, changing gears as sun balls of blinding neon raced over the lake. And we biked toward noon, not thinking of future showers or rest or the grilled orange roughy served on a lakeside veranda where we might later stare in amazement at the lake we'd circled, stretching bright as a spill of mercury under the steadfast sun, instead just lost in a long serenade of mauve water and the what will be somewhere around the bend."
And, finally, a silly little something from Dawn Light. I was trying to find a way to convey information about owls in a slightly different way-- so a little natural history writing.
"I would be an owl if I could-- owl, a creature named after its sound. So I would be a howl if I could, sweet cheat of the night who slices open the air with soft serrated wings so silently it doesn't warn dozy prey. How far can it see? An owl could read the bottom line on an eye chart from a mile off or hear a mouse stepping on a twig 75 feet away. Tuning and retuning, I would be an owl with ears-- twin radar dishes, eyes-- winged binoculars. A screech owl, because though baby screechers do screech, the adults make the most enchanting soft, whinnying howl [HOWL], owl of the stethoscope ears.
I swallow meals whole head first, tumbling soft and furry down my throat to the fiery plant that compacts all the in edibles into a hard pellet. Twice a day, growing bloated and queasy, I'd stretch my neck up and forward, squeeze my stomach hard, and vomit up a hairy bony nugget. Oh, I'd vomit gently, all things considered, not thrash and shake the pellet free for five minutes like other inversely constipated owls. I'd eagerly coax these dainty pukes, not like the giant sea cucumber that hurls up its whole stomach and tosses it literally at the missing feet of a walleyed fish, then while the distracted fish feasts steals away, a gutless wonder, but alive, soon to grow another stomach.
I'd sing of owl puke, the pellets that pave my days with dense nuggets that offer home to fungi, beetles, and other tramps. Would it sound nicer as a fur ball? I suppose so, but a little cat fur swallowed while grooming can't compare to a stony, wadded up girdle of rodent, shrew, mole, gecko, and snake skeleton mixed with beetle crackle and songbird wings and oily fur, as if for a jigsaw puzzle of a chimera-- part mammal, part bird, part reptile, part insect, all tasty.
Yes, all things considered, I would be an owl with a ukulele call, a cowl of gray feathers cupping my feathered jowls, talons sharp and strong as ice hooks, parachute wings, a demi suit of down, and ingenue eyes-- voodoo eyes. I would be possessed of the ultimate head swivel, upside down and around back and front again and over the other shoulder. Hunting among oaks and cottonwoods and old shady maples with broad wings outstretched and head tucked in tight, I'd flap hard and fast, rarely gliding or hovering while listening and watching for scuffling prey in the leaf litter and lawns. I'd sing duets with my mate during the day and be calmed by a male chorus at night, a parliament of owls.
When frightened, I'd blend in with tree trunk or foliage, stretching my frame long, closing my eyes to slits, tightening my feathers, and standing still as old bark. In winter, I'd gobble hot meals of warm-blooded prey, and in summer, cool, crisp lizards, snakes, and bugs. And it goes without saying that I would marry for life, a long life of a score or two, lengthened by living in the suburbs and devouring the race.
I would be an owl with wide feather skirts to curtsy with when courted by bowing suitors. Oh, the formal dances of courtship, ceremonial and piquantly oriental. First, a springtime male calls, robust as all get out. And I reply. We flirt like this several times. Then I see him flying in, watch him perch nearby, and begin head-bobbing and bowing deeply repeatedly, now and then winking one eye. Ignore him, and he just chases harder. Accept, and the bill kissing and mutual preening begins with the preened one uttering soft whimperings of delight, both fine feathered friends amused and enthused.
Yes, all things considered, I would be an owl with owl-bright eyes, creature comforts, and wide wings with down fur below to wrap my chicks in owl love."
ROBERT MORGAN: Gil Allen was my first PhD student at Cornell way back in-- well, let's just say a few years ago. He wrote a dissertation on the poetry of Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. Then he was given a tenure track job at Furman University. I worried about how this native New Yorker and his wife Barbara would adapt to living in upstate South Carolina, close to where I had grown up in North Carolina. As it turned out, they love Travelers Rest and Furman and have been loved there in turn.
Gil has published six collections of poetry, most recently Catma. He receivd the Robert Penn Warren prize from The Southern Review in 2007. He was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 2014. Now he is the Bennette E. Geer Professor of Literature Emeritus at Furman University.
In 2016, Gil published a book of linked short stories called The Final Days of Great American Shopping, a splendid book at once realistic and fantasy. Of the stories, Ron Rash wrote "Allen has a wicked sense of the absurdity of modern life, but there's a poignancy in these pages as well which makes the book all the more exceptional." My own comment on the book was "these stories present a world at once and dislocated and familiar of marriage, family, and an interconnected community across generations, exposing our culture of consumption and the retail sublime as no one else has."
The same wicked wit and poignancy inform Gil's poems as well. Reading his poems, I've often laughed out loud and then shook my head with wonder at his craft and insight. Please welcome Gil Allen back to Cornell.
GILBERT ALLEN: Thank you, Bob, for those very generous words. I don't know what I can add to Diane's catalog of Jim's virtues except for an anecdote, my first Jim McConkey story.
I went to Cornell as both an undergraduate and a graduate student. And as an undergraduate, my academic advisor was Arthur Mizener. And one afternoon, I was in Professor Mizener's office. And I mentioned that I was interested in writing prose fiction. And he immediately said to me, you have to meet Jim McConkey.
And when I asked him how would I go about doing that, he said, well, just go downstairs and knock on his door. So that's what I did.
Jim answered the door. I introduced myself. And I extended a box of typing paper toward him. And I said, I've written a novel. Would you like to read it? And Jim said, of course, and suggested that we arrange a time the following week to get together and talk about it.
We had that conversation. Jim managed in words of the poet Philip Larkin to say things about my writing that were both not untrue and not unkind. And ever since that day, in my years at Cornell, I majored in Jim McConkey. I think he is the most remarkable man I have ever had the privilege of meeting. Jim's influence has been so deep and so widespread that today's program will barely make a dent in the alphabet of his former students, only three of the A's.
As Bob mentioned, I've lived in the South since 1977 just a few miles down the road from where he grew up. And during that time, I think I've discovered a new literary genre. I call it non-creative fiction. It can be either prose or verse. It's defining characteristic is stuff you see going on around you that you just couldn't make up.
Here's an example that chronicles one of the more memorable weddings in upstate South Carolina. It's called "Falling in Love."
"It wasn't as if they hadn't practiced, first on a nylon pad, then on a trampoline at the health club. And they'd had the good sense to pick a preacher with a pilot's license who could shout, 'you may kiss the bride' loud enough to be heard over any propeller.
So, after rinsing with Listerine, they perched on the step, stepped out, and smooched at two miles a minute straight down. Because at that speed, your body is its own brake. And after he'd said, 'I love you' at 11,000 feet, still hurtling toward the Earth, she later confessed she'd felt so romantic seeing his cheeks flap like that in the wind.
Which ones, I wonder?
The newspaper didn't say anything about their landing, about whether one of them had a second thought before pulling the other's rip cord. You had to assume, though, that they crashed safely into the ground, folded their silks up like Brobdingnagian lingerie and walked glove in glove into that future we all share, muttering like good Americans something like, 'totally awesome' or 'unreal.' And in their understandable haste, maybe they shucked their jumpsuits, tying them to the back of a black limo with "Just Fallen' whitewashed on the rear window while far above a man of God videotaped their departure, trying to convince himself everybody should try this once."
I sometimes wonder where that couple will be in 50 years. Maybe this next poem answers that question.
"Two become one flesh, with apologies to the Gospel of Mark. He can't either hand above his head. Her feet won't stand more than a dozen steps. He's too near-sighted for the DMV. Her fingers feel like she's got mittens on.
When did his legs get too long for his arms? When did her arms get too short for her eyes? He can't smell newsprint pressed against his nose. She can't hear 'thanks' while helping with his socks.
The kitchen bulb burns out for both and each. She drives the car. He strides into Best Buy.
Back home, he brings the stool. She stretches high. He shouts the recipe. She bakes the quiche. He listens for the ding. She finds the plates. He cuts. They eat. She tells him how it tastes."
Rather than read just a snippet of something that goes all the way across the page, I've decided to conclude with a poem about one of my early attempts at writing prose fiction. Its title is simply "The Story," and its dedication reads as follows-- "For Jim McConkey, who had to read it."
"I was 19, maybe 20, walking across Triphammer Bridge, new manuscript in hand, when I tripped, and a sudden gust carried the Corrasable bond between the guard rails into the open air. I got up just in time to watch those pages flutter 100 feet to decorate Fall Creek. No other copy, and no staircase down.
What would Ernest Hemmingway do now, I asked myself. Once on the other side, my sneakers backed me down from stone to slippery stone, moist autumn shale shellacked with leaves, through a semi-vertical scrub forest until I saw that metal bridge now from the bottom of the gorge. Amazingly, the pages lay like giant handkerchiefs scattered on either bank, six on a side, none in the room shed by the waterfall, all legible.
I put them back in order, then looked up for the way. I couldn't find the almost path I'd taken, so I chose the easiest from where I stood. Halfway, it turned into something harder, almost sheer, next to impossible. I thought of turning around, looked back with just my eyes, and felt my feet give way.
Then I saw everything-- two things, a solid sapling on my left and a spindlier one off to my right with half its roots exposed above the rocks. But those pages were cradled in my left arm. I didn't think. I didn't hesitate. I grabbed that naked unsuspecting twig with only my right hand. By God, it held. And so did I. Rebalanced on a ledge, hands shaking with what could have been the cold, I slid those pages underneath my shirt next to my undershirt to keep them safer.
These days, of course, it never could have happened. We back up everything. That story would have been safely on a hard drive, CD-ROM, the manuscript disposable confetti. I'd have cursed, then laughed, and then consoled myself. At least paper's biodegradable. Yet 40 years later, it amazes me that I could have thought-- no, felt-- within my deepest being that those words-- my words-- were worth my present and my future life.
The story? I can't recall even its title, try as I might, or a single character. It was 12 pages, pitifully unique. I probably destroyed it in shame or grief a few years later. At best, I tossed them out with the reams of others when I moved to where I'm living now, a mountain where words matter, but not so much."
Jim, your life and your work have been my best touchstone for many, many years. Thank you so very much.
ROBERT MORGAN: A. Manette Ansay graduated from the MFA program at Cornell in 1991. Her first novel, Vinegar Hill, was published to great acclaim in 1994, and, in 1999, was chosen for the Oprah Book Club, making her even more famous and perhaps a little richer. She has also published six other novels, including Read This and Tell Me What It Says, Sister, River Angel, Midnight Champagne, Blue Water, and Good Things I Wish You. She's also published a nonfiction book called Limbo.
Since leaving Cornell, Manette has served as writer in residence at the Phillips Exeter Academy, taught for several years at Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Miami University for the past several years. Among many honors, she's been awarded a residency by the Ragsdale Foundation. Her novel Midnight Champagne was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. And her novel Vinegar Hill was a New York Times best seller.
Of Good Things I Wish You, Booklist said "spare, yet sumptuous, precise, yet lavish. Ansay nimbly sifts historical fact through an admittedly autobiographical filter to deliver a richly textured studying." And Diana Abu Jaber called that novel, quote, "a lyrical, haunting exploration of love's past and present. Witty, sprightly, surprising, this deeply original and utterly captivating novel beguiles the senses, dazzles the heart, a beautiful book." Please join me in welcoming Manette Ansay.
A. MANETTE ANSAY: Thank you. Wow. Jim, it's such an honor to be here. I don't want to be the one who gets up here and cries. So I'm just really, really happy to be here and happy to see you again.
In Court of Memory, there's a quote where Jim writes, introducing the book, "memory is, I believe, the human sou." And when I read that, something was so deeply comforted inside of me. I was raised in a very rigidly religious environment. And for me to grow and change as a person, that rigidity and that faith had to be released. And, of course, when one goes through that, one loses the people who are attached to that faith and attached to that life and attached to that way of living. So reading that quote just transformed me, not only as a person, but as a writer, and has remained with me through my life.
It's funny because the people that I think of every day, but that I never or rarely see, one is my grandmother who was deeply religious and who had such faith in me. And though she's not been with us for over 20 years, it's amazing. I really think of her if not every day, every week. And it's a good and a warm feeling despite the ways in which I disappointed her.
And then the other person I really do you think of if not every day, every week, is you, Jim. Because I remember when I came here in [AUDIO OUT], I mean, I was angry. I was just an angry young person. And the angrier I was, the kinder you were to me.
And I use that all the time in my teaching. I use that constantly. And instead of trying to change or combat or transform a student who has so much to say and can't get it all through that tiny little portal, I do what Jim did. Over and over again, he didn't tell me what to do. He just opened doors.
And it's like, here's another door. And I'd be like, I won't go through. And he'd show me another door.
And over time, I started going through doors. I went through many doors. So many of those doorways were books that you gave me and then would sometimes give to me again later when I could read them. And some of those doorways were quotes. Some of those doorways were music, things you recommended I listened to. Some of those doorways were just food, a meal, a cup of coffee in that basement office with all those books and that very special smell that-- I have to go downstairs in Goldwin Smith and see if it still smells the way it did.
But it was such a transformative experience to go through this program, to have you as a mentor, to read that line "memory is, I think, the human soul," and to have that line strike me as it did-- and then to be written by someone I knew. And it has shaped me as I go through the world. And you continue to shape me. And I hope that I have such a kind and calming and releasing effect on the students I work with today. And I'm just so grateful. So thank you.
I want to read something that I wrote recently, meaning in my 50s. In my 20s and 30s, I wrote so easily. People always said writing is so hard. And I was just like, yeah, let me write. And then my 40s, it became difficult. And in my 50s, it's really, really hard for me. And I'm not sure why. In my youth, I would have treated myself with anger. But I treat myself now with kindness because that is the best way to deal with frustration, other people's or your own.
But this is something I have written. It has Jim's fingerprints all over it. It's a short, autobiographical piece about my grandmother. And here it is.
"My grandmother believed in God the way one believes in color and light, in the sky above, in the Earth underfoot, in the changing of the seasons. Hers was a faith based on offerings, a new word found in the dictionary, swallows nesting over the barn door, a warm meal served on the scarred oil cloth that covered her kitchen table.
From the front porch of her house, she could see, poking up beyond the slope of the fields, the steeple of the church in Decatur, Wisconsin, where she'd been baptized in 1899. There, she'd been married, and her own nine children baptized. There, her husband had been buried when my mother, the youngest of those children, was two.
Summers, my grandmother tended his stone, planting nasturtiums and impatience, wiping the dust away from his name and her own etched beside it with Windex and a green scrap of towel. My brother and I liked to go with her to the cemetery where we played vigorous games of tag around the graves, leaping the low ones, perching like crows on the high ones we called base. I recalled my grandmother telling someone she thought the dead must enjoy it, the sight of young children at play. The dead were with her always, the way God was with her always, like gravity or air, like faith.
As she moved from her 70s into her 80s, she began quite matter-of-factly to give her belongings away-- porcelain figures of saints, her wedding band, her engagement ring, the rosary she received for her first communion. She joked about not buying green bananas anymore. She no longer spent the night away from home because, she said without inflection, she wanted to die in her own bed. Year after year, she made her preparations. Her proverbial bags were packed. She was ready to go. And when I'd said something once about not knowing what I'd do if something should ever happen to her, she replied, for once with some impatience, well, you better figure that out.
Just before her 90th birthday, she drove to the cemetery with her Windex and her scissors, fresh plantings in their potting soil molds, a day like any other day. On her hands and knees, snipping at the grass, she heard someone calling her name-- not Margaret, the name she was known by, but Margie.
(CALLING IN A HIGHER VOICE) "Margie." My grandfather's pet name for her.
She put down her scissors, sat back on her heels, something she could still do with the same sudden ease that she could jackknife at the waist, touch her fingers to the floor. But her short-term memory was leaving her. There were days she skipped breakfast, skipped lunch, too-- and still she wasn't hungry. Abdominal pains. Sores on her legs she kept hidden beneath her dresses.
(CALLING IN A HIGHER VOICE) "Margie."
Again, that high call. Once again, my grandfather was waiting for her, just as he'd waited at the door of the one-room schoolhouse 80 years earlier to walk her home. From the start, they'd been meant for each other. On the day she'd been born, her parents nearest neighbors had walked over with my grandfather, a wriggling toddler in their arms.
We made the boy, they announced, and now you've made the girl. No one ever doubted they would fall in love and marry. 18 years later, their wedding portrait shows them biting back grins, my grandfather's eyes bright with mischief. Her faith in him was absolute.
Once he'd come in from the fields to find her at the kitchen table grinding corn with a heavy wooden pestle. Here, he'd said, let me take a turn. She sat gratefully as he pounded, pounded, the pestle falling, falling again.
Put your finger under there, he said. She did. He pounded it flat, split the nail like a hoof. The rest of her life, she would show off the flattened finger tip like a ring. I was sure he wouldn't really do it, she said, and he was just sure I'd have the sense not to.
(CALLING IN A HIGHER VOICE) "Margie."
Even now, 25 years after her slow fade into death which would occur over the course of the next nine years, I can see her standing up in that cemetery, brushing the dirt from her knees, stepping forward with such joy toward the voice that was calling her name. But it wasn't the voice of a welcoming angel. It was only the woman across the street calling her little girl home. How ruefully my grandmother laughed at herself whenever she told that story, as if God could be understood that way, as if faith had anything to do with getting the thing you most wanted.
ROBERT MORGAN: A few years ago, I wrote a lecture called "James McConkey and the Quest for the Sacred." In that lecture, I recounted Jim's story of deciding in 1960 that he would write no more fiction and devote his considerable literary gifts to examining and accounting for his own life. Though he has not been completely prevented by that vow from writing fiction, he's given the greater part of his writing life to a long, many parts and many faceted narrative work Court of Memory.
Court of Memory is one of the outstanding memoirs published in the past half century. Chapter after chapter, many published in The New Yorker, has examined memories of childhood in the Great Depression when Jim's family was broken up and he had to live with relatives. McConkey writes with an extraordinary candor and poignancy at his mother's strength and loyalty during those desperate times. Equally moving are stories of his being wounded during the closing days of World War II and his long love affair with Gladys, his wife of seven decades.
One of my favorite sections and in Court of Memory is the account of visiting Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, with Gladys on Christmas, 1944, just before he was shipped overseas. After the war, Jim and Gladys moved to Iowa City for graduate school. And he wrote a lively narrative of their winter living in a trailer out in the country, listening to the radio in the evenings as someone read Francis Parkman's LaSalle and the Discovery of the Great West.
James Rodney McConkey was born September 1, 1921, in Lakewood, Ohio. His father Clayton, a salesman and businessman, moved the family again and again as he followed jobs and business opportunities all over the Midwest and to Long Island and Arkansas during the 1930s. Jim's parents divorced, and he lived ultimately with relatives, with his father and his second wife, and with his mother and brother.
McConkey began his career as a journalist with the Cleveland Press and graduated from Western Reserve University, met and married Gladys, and served in World War II. Wounded in a jeep wreck on April 13, 1945, he returned to the United States and entered graduate school.
His first teaching post was at Morehead State College in Kentucky, and his first book was a study of the novels of EM Forster. In 1956, the McConkey's with their three sons moved to Ithaca, and he joined the English department at Cornell. Here, Jim continued writing his distinguished short stories. But, as I mentioned earlier, he decided in 1960 that instead of writing fictional narrative, which seemed beside the point as the Cold War heated up and nuclear war loomed as a distinct possibility, he would write about his own life, things he knew firsthand. The result was the books for which he's best known-- Nightstand, Crossroads, Court of Memory, To a Distant Island, Rowan's Progress, My Life with Other Animals, and Telescope in the Parlor. In addition, he's published several related fictional narratives, including The Journey to Sahalin, The Tree House Confessions, and Kayo.
At Cornell, McConkey taught classes in writing and literature, especially the modern novel. And he directed the creative writing program as well as serving on many college and university committees. In the late 1970s, he organized the two-year Chekhov festival, still the most exciting literary event I have witnessed in my 45 years at Cornell, bringing such luminaries as Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, John Cheever, and Denise Levertov to read, lecture, and interact with students and faculty. I am one of the few writers of my generation who got to meet Walker Percy thanks to Jim's Chekhov festival. As an editor at Epoch, he helped make it one of the nation's preeminent literary journals.
A theme runs throughout McConkey's writing-- a search for human connection, for brotherhood. He has a special affinity for the poor and struggling, but isn't tiring in his examination of himself, his motives, and actions. Like his great master, Saint Augustine, he is relentless in his ongoing self-critique. And like his other master, Anton Chekhov, there is something at once deeply satisfying and deeply unsettling about McConkey's essays. He shares with the great Anton Pavlovitch a concern with complexity, paradox, the surprise that suddenly shifts the paradigm. Like the Russian master, he is rarely judgemental except about himself.
What is unsettling about McConkey's writing, I think, is the intensity of his quest for the spiritual, colliding with the toughness of his honesty and skeptical self-examination. So much of his writing is what would be called in the Baptist churches I attended when young a testimonial. A testimonial could be either a confession of failure or a victory. On page 21 of Court of Memory, he describes sitting on a tin roof with Gladys at night watching a display of northern lights.
"My wife held my hand. I don't think I've ever been so happy, she said. I'm happy enough to die. And so was I. At that moment, I thought myself capable of soaring off the tin roof to impale myself without regret on my neighbor's white-painted and most proper picket fence 10 feet below."
A truly modern as well as classical writer, McConkey offers no sure answers beyond the power of narrative and shared experience, human connection, and the miracle of being. Rather than preach, he is a witness to his own quest and failures, connections and recognitions. He's unsettling because he peels the layers of experience deeper and deeper. He's satisfying because he proves by example that the sacredness will always be found in the journeying, in the struggle, in the quest itself.
Many of us here know Jim as a good neighbor, concerned about local issues of energy, environment, and governance. Some know him to be the most loyal attender of lectures and readings at Cornell. Some of us know him best as a wise master who teaches by example and in direction.
We are all grateful that he has lived for 95 years, and that he is one of us. Please welcome Jim McConkey.
JAMES MCCONKEY: Can you hear me all right? Too bad.
In listening to the three people read, I realized how important details are. A good writer really observes things and puts them in his or her work. And all three of the readers, I think, excel in presenting the right detail. And I appreciate it very much.
This affair, the present celebration of my 95th birthday, originated in the creative mind of Helena Maria Viramontes. And I'm grateful to her as well as those who worked with her to bring it into fruition, especially Sarah Elizabeth Rice, Stephanie Vaughn, and [? Lynn ?] [? B. ?] [? Lauder. ?] And I'm certainly honored that Diane Ackerman and Gilbert Allen and Manette Mansay, three of my favorite writers, have given the readings they have. It's really an honor for me, and I'm very grateful to you. I'm grateful to all the students I've had over the years, a number of which-- a number of whom, not which-- [LAUGHTER] --are in the audience.
I'm going to read, if I can, a section from stories from My Life with the Other Animals. It's a section called "Anthropormorphism." I could talk about it, but I don't know. I think my voice may not hold out.
"Some months back, my local newspaper, the Ithaca Journal, carried a feature story about a Cornell veterinarian who specialized in animal behavior. According to that article, she often finds the key to a pet's behavior problem in its owner. While animals share with humans such emotions as, quote, 'fear, courage, trust, love, hatred, and aggression,' end quote, humans and their pets have different responses to any given situation. She was quoted as saying that 'veterinarians in their animal behavior clinic at Cornell try to look at the way an animal interacts with its owner,' end quote, and frequently discover that owners are, quote, 'anthropormorphic,' meaning they try to give their animals the same values they have.
The observation seems unexceptionable. You need to find out the reasons that a cat pisses on the rug instead of getting angry at it for doing something you don't. You shouldn't expect a cat-- as an owner of pets for more than 60 years, though, I think the comment implies too sweeping an indictment of anthropomorphism. Perhaps because of an early incident that led to a bonding between animal and owner, some pets seem to want to be considered human.
Animals and humans have the same biological drives. Animals are simply more transparent in demonstrating them. Scoldings, threats, strong ropes, and even locked doors failed to keep Ben, an Irish Setter my family once owned, from consummation of a sexual desire. On one occasion, he dug out a large foundation stone to reach a neighbor's bitch locked in the basement. At another, he leaped with virile abandon through an expensive stained glass window of a house a mile from his own when an official of the SPCA recommended castration. I felt a pain in my own testicles.
Furthermore, I believe that an animal and a human sometimes do share identical attitudes toward an experience, that an animal can communicate such attitudes to a person through intimate eye contact as well as through body language, and that once expressed, those attitudes can form the basis of a lifetime of understanding between the pair. As best I can describe in words or communication that is wholly visual, the intelligence that passes from animal to human is based on humor--" can music be played while I'm looking? [LAUGHTER] "It's based on humor as well as tolerance. It is as if the animal understands that he and his human companion are engaged in a friendly conspiracy.
Until Tammy, his beloved stalemate, died of old age, Smokey, walleyed the horses are, frequently communicated that sort of message to me. As a mischievous young horse, Smokey acted as if he intended to bite my arm whenever I slipped a rubber pail of grain under the bottom rail of a stall. To outwit him, I would pretend to put it in the stall. And as he came for the grain"-- I think I better put on my glasses.
"As he came for the grain or my flesh, I would quickly place the bucket in the space outside the stall. My strategy became part of a game we played together. He would warily wait between the two possible positions while I made a fit with the bucket toward one or the other. But would he really bite me if I left my arm exposed as he rushed toward the bucket, bearing his great teeth?
I left my arm in a vulnerable position just above the bucket. He bared his teeth. And after delicately nipping my skim, nuzzled my arm and then licked it with his leathery tongue. Before bending his head into the grain bucket, he gave me for the first time that friendly and conspiratorial look.
Tammy died in the neighboring stall one day. She weighed a half a ton. It took a couple of pulleys attached to the barn beams and a winch-equipped truck to remove the body. Gene and I managed to entice a nervous Smokey into the pasture, shutting the gate connecting it with a paddock and barn and covering the fence with blankets. in a vain attempt to keep him from seeing the body being slowly dragged toward the truck.
Despite such tactics, Smokey held me accountable for the loss. Before the death, he would whinny when I approached the paddock with a carrot or apple. After Tammy's body was trucked away, he not only didn't whinny, he refused to take the food. He even turned his head away. He simply would not look at me.
A year passed before he would accept anything from my hand, but our games belong wholly to the past, and his eyes now tell me nothing at all. Were Smokey and I to have a consultation with the animal behaviorist at the Cornell clinic because of my complaint that my old horse no longer communicates with me, she might consider me an egregious example of anthropomorphism. Is it possible that all along I only imagined an intelligent if purely visual understanding between Smokey and me that had formed the basis of a relationship? Had I only imagined that now and then I had seen the same look of conspiratorial friendship in nearly all the animals I've known since childhood?
Like a trust in God or the unity underlying everything in the phenomenal universe, one's belief in such a matter resists conclusive proof. I can only say that whenever I see that look, my memory carries me back to an incident in my childhood that, at least for me, validates its truth. In this memory, I am 11 years old, lying on my stomach outside the side door of a marvelous house in a new edition called Normandy by its developers of Little Rock. Recently my father, a traveling salesman, has deserted my mother, my brother, and me for a widow in San Antonio.
It is a sunny day of a long summer during one of the years of the Great Depression. And my father has sent us too little money. Soon the three of us and my dog, a black German shepherd named Bruin by my mother since as a puppy resembled a bear cub, will have to leave that house which is being repossessed to drive 1,000 miles north of where we will arrive without advance warning at the home of some relatives. Bruin was my father's last gift to me before his betrayal of his family.
The ground is pleasantly warm on my belly on this day. Bruin is standing above me, ready for a little game we play that always makes my mother angry at both of us for it often ends up with a rip in my pants that she'll have to mend. It's not much of a game, really. I give a little ass wiggle, and Bruin, already an unusually large and strong dog, even for a German shepherd, attempts to lift me by the seat of my pants.
On this occasion, I give the customary sign, and he immediately tugs at my pants. Suddenly, though, he lets me drop and assumes an innocent sitting posture at my side. I look up to see my mother's face above us at the kitchen window. Apparently, sharp-eyed Bruin has seen her before she has noticed what we have been up to. Instead of scolding us, she smiles and waves.
I sit up, facing Bruin. His eyes are friendly and intelligent, full of the knowledge of our conspiracy. To share such a secret with a loyal companion gives me great happiness. It is the happiness of a sort I imagine I would feel if, waking in the middle of the night, I heard my father's car once more turning into the driveway. Whatever anthropomorphism I can be accused of has its source in this moment.
And thank you.
If I were running for president, I would be very grateful. I am grateful, anyway.
SPEAKER 2: You would probably win.
JAMES MCCONKEY: Thank you. Thank you all very much. And I do appreciate everything you've done.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University on the web at cornell.edu.
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The Fall 2016 Zalaznick Reading Series kicked off Sept. 1 with a celebration of Prof. Emeritus James McConkey on the occasion of his 95th birthday. McConkey read from his book, "Stories from My Life with the Other Animals." Three of McConkey's award-winning former students—Diane Ackerman '78, Gilbert Allen '77 and A. Manette Ansay '91—also read from their own works in his honor.