Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Space Needle, Tess Gallagher & Al's Ashes

Seattle, Tacoma, Port Angeles, and the Puget Sound: all these were names on a map until my first visit. With my devoted spouse, we went north by northwest with her father's ashes in a plastic bag. The trip had been arranged months before, as I was to deliver a talk at the American Conference of Irish Studies regional meeting on J. F. Powers and his wife, Betty Wahl, exploring their Hibernian residencies, their peripatetic careers as struggling writers, and their curious decision to live, in the 50s and 60s, more cheaply in semi-derelict fallen Georgian gentility in So County Dublin than they could in college town Minnesota.

Layne wished Al could have heard about our trip. I wished I could have compared my recollections of a city utterly transformed from the Depression-era when he grew up on its slick streets, and I wondered what he remembered from the hotel his family ran and the clothing store his uncle had in the gritty, faraway port two hours drive down and then up the other side of the great sound. We passed a sign for Discovery Bay, where in 1792 George Vancouver glimpsed what until then had been known only by the tribe at Jamestown-- who now were expanding along that same harbor their casino and soon to be opened "longhouse" with Chevron station, the sign over the plowed lot promised. A double rainbow momentarily spread over the bridge as I accidently pressed the video setting and caught a whirling few seconds of my roaming about in search of the colorful arch over the span of steel and water.

I drank in not only fine microbrews and the smell of salmon, but the fresh air that rain brought; after our measly record low three inches of rain the past season, the novelty of damp clear breezes cleansed my soul. It reminded me of the past summer, and three months earlier in Donegal. This picture was taken at the end of the Carbon River road at the border of Mt. Rainier National Park. Not the entrance that reveals the vista, but a northern secondary route. Still, this expanse of snow and heathery pine amidst a tree-blanketed slope reminded me of the passage in Betty Wahl's novel about the tweed's humble colors on the hills, and the beauty of the common panorama.

The Space Needle, as with so many such unnatural attractions, for we postmoderns schooled in Baudrillard and Barthes, has a sense of prefabrication that steals away your own ability to see the sights fresh from its 540-foot perch. At least, unlike the time my wife and I went up the Eiffel Tower on a cloudy, hazy evening, the view was clear. They say that the NY World's Fair of 1939, or is it 1964, was the last expression of confidence in progress. Seattle's 1962 Fair, seen from above, has a miniature football field, empty carousel and carnival rides, and two odd pairings that join too much money spent on Frank Gehry's fallen guitar roofed Science Fiction Hall of Fame joined to a music experience showpiece. These apparently are twin passions of Microsoft honcho and native Paul Allen, but we passed on the $15 to hear theremins in the former (already whining as we passed the outside speakers) and the latter (I imagined hordes of eight-year-olds banging on synthdrums and bells as they were amplified into the cathedral-high space inside). So, we walked on to the earlier, and equally silly structure. The icon's endearing in that way that any Babel-onian tower that pierces the clouds makes our folly of our wish to exceed our bounds and our dream of heavenly ascent into an enormous gift shop, a revolving restaurant with $30 burgers (so the driver of our Duck amphibean tour assured us earlier that day), and a 40-second elevator ride complete with tour guide condensed spiel.

Hearing Tess Gallagher, native of Port Angeles, talk about "Ray" and she going to Belfast in 1976, he for the first time, and of her own stay in the flat belonging to and at the moment vacant by Paul Muldoon and his girlfriend, who was Mary Farl Powers (the artist whose work I have featured in my blog reviews of her father's novels and stories) made me realize again how, in the Irish world of intellectuals and creators, small the networks are woven. Tess told me that she could understand how Betty felt, married to a full-time writer who had garnered the greater share of the acclaim. I had in my talk suggested that if Betty had been able to write more-- and care less for her five children-- that she could have become a writer deserving of her own fame. The obscurity into which Jim Powers had or has fallen (at least now his books are in print and I was happy to see at Elliot Bay Books, an enormous shop on the old "Skid Row," both JFP's story anthology and "Morte" on the abundantly stocked shelves; I bought Layne a copy of Tess' gathered poems on kisses with a great cover photo.) remains far shallower than that of Betty, whose only novel I stumbled across only when quite deep into my investigation of the limited critiques afforded her spouse.

She read from the collection of stories, speaking of collaborations between writers, that she composed out of the seanachie lore of her 83-year-old companion, Josie Gray. Blackstaff Press in Belfast, a fine firm, published this as "Barnacle Tales." I found her poetry, as recited, difficult to grasp. She declaimed it in a rather matter-of-fact tone, and I found this surprising, expecting more drama. Underplaying it made me figure that I had better look it up on the page first. I did notice in David Pierce's anthology of everybody worth mentioning who's Irish the past century that (he also includes J.F. Powers' title story from "The Prince of Darkness") he grants Tess two poems, both based on her Irish sojourns around Sligo in the 1970s.

My favorite was "Surrounded by Weasels," and I admit along with her it'd have been a fine title for the collection! This shaggy-dog or black-cat-crossed send-up expanded and kept delaying its end, building one punchline into a further boost of even more egregious energy. Sort of like a long sexual bout, if humor and orgasm could be both delayed and heightened. As with the Space Needle and the Tower of Babel and the ashes that Al's daughter surreptitiously tossed into the sky from the steel spire, our laughter at Tess and Josie's exaggerated narrative of schoolboy terror magnifying the mundane into the unspeakable mirrors our own urge to build stories and structures. We too fear being high up, facing the void, looking down and wondering how we got so high. Sex, death, love, loss, adventure, invention: the human ways we confront the urge that got God so angry in Mesopotamian millennia past: we dare to laugh at the universe that we face, full of frustration, rebellion, and restless curiosity.

1 comment:

Cassandra said...

Good afternoon,

Reading your post a few moments ago, I was shocked to see that you presented a paper on Betty Wahl last fall. I recently completed a master's in Editorial Studies on her short stories, and would be very curious to read your paper. I can be reached at

With good wishes,
Cassandra Nelson