Sunday, April 24, 2005

Memorial Reading: How It Was

Friends of Andrea got together Friday night, April 22, for three hours of remembering and paying their respects to her and her work. Here are some highlights.

The Setting: The memorial reading was held at the 621 Gallery in Tallahassee's Railroad Square. The gallery has a strong history of supporting not only the visual arts but the literary ones as well; they currently host the monthly Wednesday-night readings sponsored by Anhinga Press and Apalachee Review. It's a nice setting for an intimate reading: there's open floor space in the main gallery for 40-50 chairs or so, plus a table where they offer wine, soda, and bottled water for sale. There's a PA system on site, for use by the Anhinga/Apalachee readings. The lighting is good.

And the staff was great, both to work with in advance and on-site. Thanks especially to Chris Hampton and Julie Argue! (And thanks also to Mike Trammell and Rick Campbell, of Apalachee Review and Anhinga Press respectively, for reserving the space for us in the first place.)

Around 5:30-6:00, Toni and I were loading up the Jeep with various things we needed to take with us -- spare card table, food (fruit and cheese and crackers, like that) -- and it started to rain, hard. This lasted only about 15-20 minutes, though, and the rest of the evening was rain-free (even allowing a good view of the nearly full moon a little later).

The Program: Toni and I had worked on the schedule for a few weeks leading up to Friday night, and we wanted to formalize it in the form of a printed program. Toni did all the work on laying the program out, using some greeting-card-maker software she's got on her PC, and did a beautiful job of it. On Friday afternoon, Toni had to make a hectic couple of trips to a local UPS store which also provides inexpensive photocopying facilities, both color and black-and-white.

Here's the epigraph which Toni selected for printing on the inside front cover, from Andrea's poem "The Girls in the Cane":
It is what we have come to fear most:
the secret child has filled her bandana
with irreplaceable treasures,
and even now is disappearing...
The Readings: The schedule we came up with allowed for about a two-hour program, starting at 7:30 and including a 15-minute break around 8:30. The readers represented a good range of people who knew and worked with Andrea during her Tallahassee years; while Andrea was often embarrassed by public attention, she would have been really pleased to see all of them and to know that they'd be reading her work.
  • Rick Campbell is the director of Anhinga Press, has been for a good number of years, and is one of those names it's impossible not to think of when connecting the words "poetry" and "Tallahassee." Andrea did volunteer work for Anhinga many times during her FSU years, and during that time Rick became one of her favorite people. I seem to remember that he and Andrea went fishing together a couple of times; if the memory is correct, it says a lot about how she felt about Rick -- she took her fishing seriously! Rick read six of Andrea's poems:
    • One Night on the Apalachicola
    • Roulette
    • The Meaning of the Birds
    • In the Dark
    • Migrations
    • Alabama Is a Separate Country
    During the break, Rick favored us with an impromptu blues-harmonica solo. A real nice touch, which Andrea would have loved..
  • Michael Trammell is the editor of Apalachee Review (formerly Apalachee Quarterly). At Florida State in the early '90s, Mike was in many of Andrea's fiction and poetry writing workshops and seminars (including the workshop, run by Van, in which Toni first met Andrea). Mike read four poems:
    • When I Remember
    • Legacy of Cain
    • Placenta Previa
    • Tending the Holy
    (The latter, as far as we know, was Andrea's longest poem.)
  • Stephanie Sgouros -- like Rick, a long-time member of Anhinga Press's Board of Directors (she's the Press's treasurer) -- knew Andrea even longer than Toni did, sharing a poetry workshop with her as early as 1991. With numerous others, including Andrea, Stephanie took part in a regular poetry-and-gourmet group in the early '90s. She read six selections from Andrea's poetry:
    • Love Lessons
    • The Affair
    • Zipporah
    • Homecoming
    • Message in a Bottle
    • Orson Welles Week
  • Paul Shepherd shared with Andrea one of her favorite FSU classes -- a popular Wednesday-night workshop, taught by Jerry Stern, on writing the novel. (It was common for Paul, Andrea, Mac, and Toni to proceed from this class to the Jax/ABC liquor store on Thomasville Road, which in those days included pool tables, where they'd shoot pool and talk about writing well into the night.) With Andrea, Toni, Donna, Clark, Mac, and me -- the membership changed over time -- he also participated in a regularly scheduled poetry-and-fiction workshop for a few years in the mid- to late 1990s. Paul read "Perry," which Andrea had packaged as a short story but also intended to be a chapter in a novel.
  • John Simpson first got to know Andrea in 1993, when he moved to Tallahassee to be with Toni; Andrea was easily one of his best friends in Tallahassee and, he thinks, he was one of hers too. He started his turn at the microphone with a brief capsule report of highlights of the night in 1997 when Andrea, Toni, and he met, spent 2-3 hours with, and ultimately closed the Radisson Bar with Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and William Styron. Then he read three of Andrea's poems:
    • Abalone
    • Angel Baby (for David, 1957-1998)
    • Poem for Hitler
  • Valerie Anthony shared some writing classes at FSU with Andrea, including an essay course taught by Janet Burroway. Andrea (among others) always admired Val's writing, recognizing in it a kinship with her own -- not only in its power but also in the depth of the feeling and experiences behind it. She dubbed Val an "honest" writer. Val read Andrea's story "Strawberries," and also three poems:
  • Toni Shrewsbury Whitfield shared many classes with Andrea at FSU. More importantly she was, without question, Andrea's absolutely best friend in Tallahassee, sharing with her many hours off-campus as well as on (including many many hours of penny-ante poker at Toni's and my house). Andrea named Toni as her literary executor years ago. Toni closed the memorial reading with Andrea's Hemingway Prize-winning story, "Someplace in Between," and three poems:
    • Equinox (for Clell)
    • Father, Dancing
    • Letting Go
Other Notes: We had set up a photo display of about 20 or so pictures of Andrea provided by Clell, Stephanie, and Toni and me. We'll be posting on-line versions of these photographs here at the site.

During the break, Clell (who had made the trip from Panama City) approached me with an envelope in his hand, which had just come in the mail last week. The envelope was from The Comstock Review, a literary magazine based in Syracuse NY; its contents informed Andrea that one of her poems had been accepted for publication.

After the reading, after we'd talked to everyone present and helped clean up the gallery and close it down, Clell, Toni, and I went out to the Village Inn on Apalachee Parkway. We drank a couple pots of coffee, ate (most of) a huge night-time breakfast, and talked -- and talked, and talked -- about Andrea.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Rick Campbell:
Remembering Andrea

Rick Campbell, director of Anhinga Press, sent along these thoughts about Andrea.



When I met Andrea and came to know her (pretty well, I think, but certainly not as well as Toni and Donna and others) I was often impatient with her and the idea that someone as talented, creative, brilliant, and beautiful as she could not find her way out of the mess of her life. I wanted to think that being smart and talented meant that you/we/I could just find a way to make things work. Maybe I know better now and maybe I would have more patience, more sympathy. Years ago I was impatient and maybe even scared of depressed and destructive people. My mother tried to kill herself when I was young and then had spent some time in a mental institution. When she got out I had to take care of her. When she was better and I was grown up, I think I sort of promised myself not to have to do that again. Then, of course, most of my writer friends drank too much, did too many drugs, plummeted into dark places and seemed to single me out to talk them back to the light. By the time I met Andrea, I was getting tired of the troubles. Perhaps this is to say that I might not have cared for her as well as a good friend should have, but she had friends who did take exquisite care of her, and that too did not work. As Mac said, everyone loved Andrea but Andrea. It's easy to see how that is a problem none of us could have solved. If she could have lived as well as she wrote, what a life it would have been.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Memorial Reading: 621 Gallery, April 22, 2005

The memorial reading of Andrea's work will on Friday evening, April 22, 2005, at the 621 Gallery, at 621 Industrial Drive in Tallahassee . Our plans at this point are for about a dozen of Andrea's works to be read by noted area poets and friends of Andrea, with music, refreshments, and a photo slideshow. Admission will be free.

More details will soon be posted here at the Memorial Web site. If we have not already been in touch with you, and you would prefer to receive this information via e-mail, please contact us and we'll send it along when available.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Michael (Mac) McClelland:
Remembering Andrea

Toni and I received the recollection below from one of Andrea's (and our) dearest friends from the time Andrea spent in Tallahassee; with Mac's permission, we present it here unedited.



I was in a writers' workshop with Andrea for several years, along with Toni and John, Clark and Donna. It was a wonderful group - talented, obviously, but also inspiring, supportive, warm, and playful. We got a lot of really good work done, but we also managed to have a lot of fun.

One night, I came to that group with a writer's problem I just couldn't solve on my own. The two main characters in the story I was working on had met at last, and to their mutual surprise, quickly found themselves falling in love. I could write that from Harry Harper's point of view - after all, I have considerable experience at being a guy falling hard and fast for completely inappropriate women. But when I tried to tell Jane Ellen's side - well, how could I? I'd read hundreds of love scenes, seen scores of them in movies and on TV, but I'd never really experienced those first giddy moments from a woman's perspective.

So, I went to the source. We all sat on my living room couch one workshopping Saturday night, and I asked Andrea, Toni and Donna about what the first stirrings of love felt like to them. They laughed at first, and we told our jokes, but then we settled in and they told me that an infatuated woman will often focus on particular parts of a man - not the coarse T&A that simple-minded men like Harry and I would, but rather on the eyes, or the hands, even just a man's fingers. They told me that stomach butterflies are a universal warning sign, and that sometimes women literally do get weak in the knees at that first kiss. They told me a great many things I could not have known otherwise, and when we finished I knew exactly how Jane Ellen was going to fall in love.

Cody, Andrea, and Nick (as a puppy)I think of that story now not just because I dearly miss those workshops, and I deeply miss Andrea, but because so much of what I remember about her involved loving. I remember how she carried on animated, meaningful conversations with Kiki, her spoiled, ancient, much-beloved and "most precious" cat. I remember how she adopted Cody, a battered, abandoned shepherd-coyote mix so skittish he would not enter a room with people in it even when bribed with hamburger, and how after many weeks of Andrea's gentle, patient love Cody was turning into a dog who occasionally liked to frolic. I remember that when I returned to grad school after 10 years in the working world it was Andrea and Toni who befriended me and supported me and helped calm my fears. I remember one night shortly after her father passed away, when Andrea lay in my arms weeping and shaking so long and hard that I feared she would injure herself. And I remember the parade of people who showed up at her Rivers Road house when she decided to build a shed for her horse Mika, each of them carrying beer or tools or a bit of scavenged wood. Andrea gave out the love of her soul even when it hurt her, and she earned far more love than she would ever let herself believe.

It seems everyone who really knew Andrea loved her - except, of course, for Andrea herself. Just as she would never really let herself accept all the praise she got for her writing - her writing, poetry and prose, was simply dazzling - so it seemed to me that Andrea could never fully accept just how much other people admired and loved her. That always saddened me so. Andrea did have some bad breaks in life, far more than someone as sensitive and caring as she should have, but I always thought that burden would have been eased she had only let us love her a little bit more.

One more story. I left Andrea's home late one night, probably after a workshop. She and I were flirting with becoming more than friends at that time, and as she walked me to my car, we stopped and I kissed her. Wonderful - cool night air, full moon overhead, the soft swoosh of pine trees swaying in the wind. And then something pushed up against my knee, gentle but insistent. It was Cody. He was unsure of my intentions, and was trying to put himself between Andrea and me. We laughed, Andrea reassured him, and we went back to our embrace. After a few moments, I felt a second nudge against my leg. This time it was Nick, Andrea's other dog. He wasn't worried, he just wanted attention. Andrea shooed him off, and once again we embraced. But a moment after that I heard heavy footsteps, and then felt a sudden rush of hot air right against my cheek. Mika the horse had come to join the party.

So we stood there, Andrea and I laughing in the clear cold night while two dogs and a horse looked on companionably. I'm not vain enough to think any of her four-legged friends critters were jealous of me, or were even very much interested in me. They just wanted to be close to Andrea.

Because after all, everyone who really knew Andrea loved her.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Andrea's Poetry - Migrations

Andrea changed the ending of this poem several times, mostly rearranging lines, trying to decide which should be the last. It appeared in the 1997 edition of the Chester H. Jones Foundation's National Poetry Competition Winners with a slightly different ending. I think this one is the latest version.

Migrations

Dark outside and morning, my father
and I in the yard sprinkle sunflower
seeds and cracked corn in slow,
generous arcs at the base of the big oak.
I uncoil the garden hose
to fill the dull aluminum tub:
"Just to here," he whispers, pointing,
"Dove won't bathe if the level is high."

He mixes sugar-water
for his hummingbirds,
the feeder a garnet sphere,
fragile as an heirloom.
We tie it gently to a low limb,
where it hangs suspended
like a Christmas globe,
delicate, translucent.

I pour cream for our coffee,
the mugs steaming in the cold kitchen.
When he holds his, I see how he trembles,
the skin on his hands, paper thin.
Though I feel the birds have migrated,
we sit on the porch and wait,
the quiet between us an easy silence
we have cultivated.

When the sun bobs and shimmers
through the red glass,
he goes to wake Mother.
I take our empty cups inside,
stare out the kitchen window
as if I could will the birds back
from the course of their seasons,
my breath a small patch of fog on the pane.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Eulogizing Andrea

Clell asked me, through Toni, to do the eulogy at Andrea's funeral service; "Maybe he can include some humor," he told Toni, "Andrea loved John's sense of humor." Of course it was not easy to be out-and-out slapstick on such an occasion. But then I started to think about the times that Andrea made us smile or outright laugh -- and the job became easier.

What follows is a slightly edited version of the eulogy I actually wrote. Given the audience, none of whom (except Clell) we had ever met, it's probably not the eulogy I would have prepared for her friends here in town. Unfortunate, that, because some of Andrea's funniest times weren't... how you say?... suitable for general audiences.
It feels extremely weird for me to be doing this. My wife Toni met Andrea in graduate school at FSU in the early 1990s. So I didn't know Andrea as long as many of you here did, and I didn't know her nearly as closely as Clell, Toni, and a select other few friends. But I love my wife, and we talk about everything, and through her I eventually came to understand Andrea in ways that I could not have done on my own.

To start, I'd like to share with you a couple of Bible verses that taken together, I think are appropriate. I apologize for doing this unconventionally. Both come from the King James Version of the Bible; one is from Chapter 21 of the Book of Genesis, and the other comes from one of the so-called Old Testament Apocrypha, Chapter 12 of the Book of Judith.
And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me... For, lo, it will be a shame for our person, if we shall let such a woman go, not having had her company.
Andrea wasn't always the easiest person to talk to. She could be stubborn and unreasonable, letting one or another fantasy view of the world rule her decisions despite the pleading of close friends. I remember one evening when she and Clell were staying with me and Toni; she'd made up her mind to do something which -- to anyone but her -- would make no sense at all. The three of us begged her, cajoled her, raged at her. Things got so crazy that at one especially melodramatic moment I actually fell to one knee and said Please, please don't do this.

Through the whole discussion, when she wasn't making her case about Why she had to do this and Why the other thing would just be impossible, Andrea sat there with this slightly puzzled look on her face, eyebrows raised, mouth slightly downturned at the corners. It was a look almost of disappointment, one which said What's up with the three of you all of a sudden? I thought you were all smart!

As Toni knows more than anyone, few things affect me more than the sound of a dear woman's voice. And that, I think, is one reason why even at such bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments, it was very difficult not to love Andrea.

We saw her do public readings of her poetry and short stories numerous times. She was one nervous damn insect on these occasions, her hands shaking and (she said) her pulse racing. And then she'd get up at the podium or the microphone, open her mouth, and out it would come -- the voice.

It was a musical voice, from which she had tried -- not 100% successfully -- to scrub all traces of Alabama accent. It was soft and it was sweet, and it had a slight strained quality to it, a heartbreaking tightness at the back of the throat which always made her sound like she was yearning for something. She was, you know, although I don't think anyone (least of all Andrea herself) ever knew what it was. Her voice sounded like it wanted to be home. And a voice, alas, that almost had come to believe it might never get there.

But the things she could do with that voice...

Take, for instance, the way she was with animals. Dr. Doolittle had nothing on Andrea, the original horse- and dog-whisperer. I here offer you some evidence: Toni and I have this grouchy overweight cat whose name, strangely, is Nameless. All human concerns are beneath her attention; you have to fight with her to move her gigantic torso from the stair step you need to walk on, and she hisses and bites at anyone who intrudes into her universe. But whenever Andrea came in the front door, Nameless would lumber into the living room like a chubby docile golden retriever. She'd sit there waiting patiently while Andrea gave Toni and me each one of her patented full-body hugs, and then Nameless would get her own reward: Andrea would bend at the waist, one hand on her knee and the other stretching out with a pointing index finger to touch Nameless on the nose. "Nameless kitty!" she'd say in that high-pitched talk-to-the-animals voice. And Nameless would instantly roll over onto her back, big belly exposed, and gaze adoringly up at Andrea. Hers was the only voice, I've long believed, that could have tamed the wild dog Cody -- like it tamed everybody else.

Don't kid yourself, either, that her magic extended just to beasts of the furry kind. For a few years, Toni and I had a mini-tradition of serving lobsters at Christmas dinner. The problem for Andrea, as it was for Toni, was how cruel it must seem to the lobsters to be plucked from their styrofoam boxes of ice and plunged into boiling water. Don't laugh; this was Toni and Andrea we're talking about here, this was a Big Issue.

Imagine their delight, then, when somebody passed on the unlikely story that lobsters could be hypnotized if you flipped them over on their backs and rubbed their bellies.

It sounded completely stupid to me. How could lobsters -- so recently immersed in freezing water -- feel anything at all through their hard-shelled bellies? The ladies would not be deterred though. And so the mini-mini-tradition began: Toni would pass Andrea the lobsters, one at a time. Andrea would turn them over, holding them on their backs in one hand, while with the fingers of the other hand she stroked their squirming bellies and murmured sweet words of comfort and prayer for them. And you know, it worked. The lobsters, writhing at first, would simply go limp. Only then, satisfied that they were asleep, would Andrea relinquish them to their fates.

Some of Toni's and my absolute most favorite memories of Andrea were the long -- and I mean looooong -- nights we spent playing poker at our house, sometimes with a few other friends but often just the three of us. The poker chips we used were, of course, blue (the dimes), red (the nickels), and white (the pennies), and they weren't hard plastic chips but some kind of soft heavy cardboard which didn't clatter but thunked when we tossed out our antes and bets. Through many hours of sharing the tabletop with smokers, the white chips were no longer really white. They were smudged and yellowed. They looked, in fact, like slices of some diseased vegetable; so Andrea -- her voice nearly breaking, as it always did, but also twisting in a way she knew would sound funny -- would lean back in her chair, toss a couple on the table, and announce, "I bet two sqwarsh." Just like that: sqwarsh. Then she'd laugh.

And what a great laugh she had, ranging from a hoarse stutter to a full-throttle gutbuster that made you wind up holding your own sides, wiping the tears from your own eyes. For a woman who'd experienced life's ups and downs so deeply and with such emotional intensity, she could -- strangely -- be moved to laugh at the goofiest little everyday bits of life…

We've got this other cat, Dilly, who after a couple of years started doing this strange thing, as if she were about to lose a hairball but never quite succeeding, kind of a Hoop-hup-hup thing. On another of those poker nights, a few weeks after Dilly had begun to hack periodically, there was a lull -- a rare lull -- in the conversation. I was looking down at my cards, puzzling over the odds of filling a straight or something, and asked Toni almost absent-mindedly, "Is Dilly still hairballing?" Whatever Andrea had in her mouth at the moment erupted and she ran from the table, laughing hysterically. I never did see what was so funny, but ever after, we'd just have to say "Is Dilly hairballing?" and Andrea would lose it all over again.

It made you want to make her laugh, see? Just to hear it.

Of course you never actually had to hear her to "hear" her, metaphorically. One special way she spoke was through the generosity of her gifts (and the grateful warmth with which she received gifts in turn).

I say "generosity" advisedly, because Andrea seldom had lots of cash bursting from her purse. (And if she did, it was probably misappropriated student-loan money.) But she obviously always selected gifts with great forethought, knowing exactly how best to please this recipient -- and this recipient alone, with a gift she could and would not have given to anyone else. Ask Toni about the antique jewelry, the red-glitter-heart brooch, the magical stone-encrusted incense burner; ask me about the carved wooden dragon and silver-glitter lava lamp: gifts that could have come only from Andrea, gifts that will always speak to us in her voice.

One side of Andrea you may or may not know about is that she was a hugely talented writer, not only in her friends' eyes but in the eyes of editors across the country. She wrote painstakingly, sometimes working on a single poem for months, a short story for years, packing every syllable and word with intensity of feeling and beauty. For it, she won dozens of awards for her poetry and fiction, competing and winning often against hundreds of writers from all over. Sometimes it seemed like all she had to do was mail out a piece of writing, and the acceptance would arrive before the submission had reached the post office. Unfortunately for Andrea, it was not the kind of writing which would enrich her lifestyle; fortunately for the rest of us, it was the kind of writing which would enrich our lives. What editors saw in her work was surely the same yearning, generous, feeling voice which we all knew.

Her voice, you see: it comes down again, finally, to her voice. You could not get her easily to admit she'd done something worth bragging about. You could quite easily get her to argue about politics -- she'd often argue as strenuously with people who agreed with her as with those who didn't. And with what heartbreaking grace she could speak of her mom and her dad, of her brother, of her sister and niece and nephew, of Clell, of her friends...

It flatly astounds me -- us -- that we will never hear that voice again. On a big issue or a small, laughing or angry, quiet or raucous: Lord, we'd love to hear her. It wouldn't have to be a big deal, you know, a long-winded conversation. It wouldn't even have to be in person. Just one more time we'd love to hear the music of her voice, just once more hear even those simple sweet soft not-quite-Alabama mundane sentences which if we in Tallahassee heard once, we heard a thousand times, two simple sentences stuck in memory forever now like a bone in the throat:
You have reached eight seven-seven, nine-five, nine-four. Please leave a message after the tone.
We may have reached your number, Andrea. But we hope, in some way, we reached you. Because God knows, you reached us.

Sleep good, our sweet, sweet-voiced lady. We'll be seeing you.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Open Thread: March, 2005

Have comments, brief stories or memories to share, but they don't relate to any of the full postings on the site? Feel free to add a comment here, to this post.

(Note: If you have a longer story or reminiscence, worthy of a full posting in its own right, you may now contact us via e-mail. Also, we're looking for good photos of Andrea to use here and/or at the memorial reading; if you have any such photos -- digital form only, please! -- you may send them to the same e-mail address. Proper credit will be given and the original photographer will retain all rights.)

Monday, February 28, 2005

Andrea's Fiction - "...a cave so dark that even dreams will not sleep here"

Unlike Toni, Van, and the others likely to post here, I probably won't have much content to contribute. My personal experiences with Andrea overlap Toni's almost 100%, and I'm not a poet. Setting up and administering the site will probably be much of what I can contribute.

That said, Toni has suggested that we post Andrea's story "Someplace In Between" here. This was the work which first established Andrea as a writer of national stature, winning the 1992 Hemingway Prize for short fiction.



Someplace In Between

I never sleep that I know of, so I'm awake when Hattie slips into my room. She's black as the night outside and moves quick for an old woman, but they leave the lights in the corridor on all night here for the nurses to come in and take our vital signs. So I can see it's Hattie but I don't let on, and she creeps over by my bed, lifts up her hospital shift, and squats with her big gray bush inches off the floor and lets a huge puddle right there on the linoleum. She laughs without making a sound, but she does that a lot, her body rocking and her candy corn teeth barely hanging in there, ticking like bad nerves. I think about asking her if she knows who took my cigarettes. I had a secret stash in a BandAid box taped under the bathroom sink. But I don't want to spoil her fun so I keep quiet and she tiptoes out the door, her shoulders still shaking.

When I first came here, I was afraid of Hattie. I was afraid of all the other patients. I was confused about everything. I can't really say how it all came about. I had a love affair with a married man that ended badly, but at thirty-four that's not a singular experience. It's not like I slit my wrists or something, I just quit living. After he left me, I kept an apple in the refrigerator that he had taken a bite out of. The older it got, the clearer you could see where his teeth marks cut the flesh right down to the core. I kept it so long it shriveled up like an old man's balls. Except for the vodka, it was the only thing in the refrigerator when they came for me that day.

It wasn't at all like in the cartoons, with a van-load of starched orderlies wielding giant butterfly nets. Which reminds me of how much my father liked those cartoons with the chicken hawk. He would chase me around the house yelling, "Come to me my chickadee!" in his Foghorn-Leghorn voice. Anyway, two policeman entered my home at my family's request, fished me from my waterbed and placed me almost reverently in the back seat of a patrol car. I don't remember being very surprised or frightened, just embarrassed because I hadn't bathed or brushed my teeth in a long time. I had on my loud silk kimono which was flapping in the wind, so they probably saw that I hadn't shaved my legs in a while either. The strangest part was that my family was huddled in my back yard by the fig tree. When we drove away, they were all peeking through the holes in the chain link fence. All except my father.

Processing was tedious--a lot of paperwork and paper cups and violated veins. They took away the belt to my kimono, which was awkward because I had nothing on underneath. They gave me a pair of big blue pajamas. When I changed, I was pleased with my pointed pelvic bones, and my small breasts reminded me of the apple. I wondered if my mother would find it and throw it away, not knowing its significance. Later that day someone delivered an overnight bag with toilet items in it. It was dropped it off, so I never saw who brought it. An overnight bag. There's humor in that now. The nurse is coming. She always feels my breast when she wraps that pad around my arm, so I pretend I am asleep.

***

I am standing in the cold outside a big beautiful house in a fancy neighborhood. It is my lover's house, and he is inside with his wife and new baby. I can see through the bright windows that they are having a party. I am not dressed nice enough to go inside, but I want to very badly. So I pull a miniature Smirnoff from the pocket of my blue-jean jacket and stick the whole neck of the bottle in my mouth like a small gun. Armed with a warm rush of social composure, I slip through the door to the party in progress. My lover, ringed in the last of his red hair, offers me a cocktail as if he doesn't know me. I think this is a trick because he has said he will leave me if I drink, so I decline. No one seems to notice me except the dog, who singles me out and pushes his friendly greeting between my legs, making a spectacle of my gender. Women walk by in spiked heels that click like tongues. My lover looks intellectual with a pipe. He ignores me and sniffs his own smoke thoughtfully. I resist the urge to touch the hem of his jacket. An old man stands by a grandfather clock, his presence thin as crystal. I know him from my dreams. We are familiar. He toasts me with a cocktail and whispers, "This is my body, this is my blood." I am perched on the edge of an antique chair, balancing a plate of baby swiss and a small bundle of green fruit. The wife approaches, the Madonna and child. I am blushing like the Zinfandel, the grapes pale beads I count with my fingers. Closer now, and I slip through a hole in the cheese, stumble through the sober door. Outside, the crones of midnight wait. We whip the rats to frenzy.

***

Breakfast is fake eggs and tough pale toast. "Jake the Flake" runs down the hallway, clutching the excess handful of his hospital pajamas at the waistline yelling, "Cigarette break!" We all file out and take our places at the round table. The nurse unlocks a cabinet and rations cigarettes as though this took years of training. We stare at her big ring of keys. The old man beside me never wears his teeth and as always, asks me for one of my cigarettes, though he gets two just like the rest of us. I shake my head no, then look away so he can steal one. Across from me Hattie gets a kick out of this, laughing silently. It happens every day. There is a certain order to things here. Today there is a buzz of excitement around the table. Jake is being transferred to Chattahoochee. He has been there before. His wrists are manacled with scars. Jake is younger than I am and not bad looking except that his teeth are a little mossy. People in here tend to have bad teeth. Maybe they were bad before they came in. I don't know.

I know my father would have refused to sign the papers to put me in here. This is not even a private clinic. It is the mental health ward stashed in the basement of Bay Memorial Hospital. Even the staff who have to work here are offended. The huge nurses march around doing the Gestapo two-step with their breasts starched up under their chins and all that facial hair. I have sat with my father many nights while he fought the war over again with a bottle in his hand. I have been a prisoner with him, eating thin broth and bits of maggot bread. I cried with him over his dead friend, the two of them trapped in a foxhole and the body stinking and swelling up so tight the buttons burst off his uniform. I have held the green Tupperware bowl under his chin when he got sick and put damp cloths in the freezer for his head. That is how I know he would have had no part of this.

Dr. Peningroth is here. He looks like Quasimodo. The nurse brings him coffee and I think, "She brawt me wata!" and envision him swinging from the bells at Notre Dame. He asks why I am laughing, but knows I won't answer him because I don't talk out loud anymore. That started about the same time that my personal hygiene declined. At first, it was because I was just too tired. Too tired to get out of bed, go to work, answer the phone or the door. Then I just didn't have anything to say. They have a fancy name for it in here, but I call it fatigue. Besides, I know I can talk, that's why I could have asked Hattie about the cigarettes last night. I just didn't want to.

Peningroth is reading over what I have written for him and chain-smoking Virginia Slims, which is particularly hard on me because I am only allowed to smoke at designated times. I could probably quit under the circumstances, but I don't want to give up anything else. It was his idea that he assign me questions and then before our next session I write my response in the notebook he gave me. This is fine with me. The questions are personal, about my family and childhood, sex and death. I let him read what I have written, but I don't let him keep it. It's mine. He doesn't wear a lab coat. Today he has on a loud Hawaiian-type shirt and khaki pants that bag in the seat. He is a huge man, but I suspect he has a small penis. I know what he is reading right now. Maybe he has a large penis. I don't know.

Dr. P wants to know why I have never married. Why I have affairs with older men, married men. Men who aren't my own. I am actually getting angry while he steams up his Ben Franklin specs talking about my sexual fears and fantasies right out loud. It is all I can do to keep from yelling, "I bet you have a small penis!" when I realize that is probably just what he wants me to do. I do nothing, and he tells me again about this being an uphill climb and how I have to help him help me. Behind his glasses he looks like a big bird, all beady-eyed, and I wonder what would happen if I trusted him. Where is all this taking me? I don't know. I am too tired to think about it. I go back to my room and lie down, just to rest because I never sleep.

***

I walk through pine needles and purple berries, the wet soil dark as blood. It is an uphill climb. Vines like fat fingers grope the trunks of hardwood trees. There is a stream. On the sand bed, below the surface of the water, is a white stoned stained with algae. I wade into the stream and when my hand closes on the stone, a hawk circles above me. He settles on a nearby branch, his talons cracked and curled like an old arthritic. I know him from my dreams. We are familiar. I clean the green from the stone and it becomes a candle. In the company of the hawk, I move on. We have not gone far when I feel that we are near the nightmare, a cave so dark that even dreams will not sleep here. I offer the hawk my arm, and we enter. I hear the cracking of heads beneath my feet. Snakes of all species hiss and slide. Venom stalactites drip and rainbows of poison splash like arcs of oil on water. I walk by faith and the light of the stone. I am not bitten, but exit into a wet forest, the sound of something dripping magnified and everything too green. I think I am safe when a serpent's tongue licks the wick of my candle. It is dark again. The hawk's eyes are hollow. Wisdom falls like feathers.

***

It's T.V. time in the rec room, and everyone is arguing over what they want to watch. I rarely have an ally in this, but I give it my best shot, showing Hattie it's Orson Welles week on WTBS. She stares at where I'm pointing in the T.V. Guide, and it hits me that she can't read. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to her. So I wave the Guide in the air and kind of toss it toward the cheap coffee table like it doesn't matter anyway. I have to sit through "Hee-Haw," but Hattie is enjoying it, shaking and pointing her finger at the set. I wonder if Jake has a T.V. in Chattahoochee. I picture him watching this same show and laughing out loud with his green teeth.

Roy Clark is burning his fingers on his banjo, and the next thing I know I can hear my mother calling me. I see through some wire that she's on Uncle Brice's back porch. I'm hiding in the chicken coop. The hens are all flustered, and my black patent Sunday shoes are spattered with chicken shit. It is my uncle who finds me and takes my hand and leads me to the car, and we all get in and drive to a place called Little Flock. It is a country funeral, and these are my country relatives. Big bald men with speckled hands who wear their pants pulled up high and tight around their bellies like pot roasts wrapped with twine. The women stand like they're planted in orthopedic shoes. Their hair is pulled back tight; I can hear it screaming at the roots. My shoes are from last year, and they pinch my feet so bad I could cry but I don't. It's hot in the country, and everyone's waving these fans with Jesus on the cross. They have to close the lid on my father because the make-up is melting around the hole in his head.

I look over at Hattie still watching "Hee-Haw," and she starts me thinking about my mother who isn't black or nearly so old. I have this sort of premonition that she needs me or something, and I get a little frantic that I haven't known this before and maybe it's too late. It even crosses my mind that I might have died in my waterbed, and this is someplace in between. But Hattie is so real beside me that I am reassured. I think what's going to happen is that soon I'll find myself standing by those double doors with my overnight bag. When they buzz them open, I'll shoot out of here like a breech birth, and my mother will be there like before, counting my fingers and toes. It's good to think about this, and I feel as if Hattie is responsible. So I reach over and put my hand on one of her soft knees, and soon I'm laughing, too, at Buck and Roy and all these big-breasted women popping up out of this corn field.

There are many versions of Andrea

There are many versions of Andrea’s story. Toni spoke of how she always looked like a model, no matter how she was dressed. I recall that when she first came back to school as an older undergraduate her appearance put considerable distance between herself and other students and in a conference once she asked how she could make friends. “Wear jeans,” I said, and she did, and it seemed to work, though she still looked like an ad for Calvin Klein.

Toni mentions the workshops we had that included a group of enormously talented students and non-students. Besides Andrea and Toni, there were Rick Campbell, Donna Long, Lynne Knight, Catherine Reid, Mary Jane Ryals, Laura Sullivan, Michael Trammell, Helen Wallace—and others I know I am leaving out—all accomplished poets who have won deserved recognition for their work and have gone on to contribute importantly to writing and the literary community.

For the reading Toni mentioned where Andrea read, she had to have a prescription to calm her nerves, or else she said her knees would have been shaking so badly she could not have read. But it was that way with everything. Professors often assign far more work to a graduate student than it is possible to do, expecting the student to choose what is right for his or her needs. Andrea would stay up all night to try to do it all. But that was true in what others would consider mundane things. Andrea found she could make more money cleaning houses than any other way, and she was as thorough with that as with her graduate work and her writing. If her creativity was often off-set by her self-destructiveness, her perfectionist reaching in her studies and her writing were grounded by her never forgetting her humble beginnings and the love she carried for those who had loved her in early life, an eccentric aunt, and a black woman who became the voice in one of her best stories.

Altogether, Andrea won most of the prizes available for poetry in the Florida State University Writing Program. The Academy of American Poets Award for Undergraduates and later the same award for graduate students. Also, the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society Award for Poetry. Andrea was a member of the society, but the award was open to any poet, member or not, including faculty members. Then there was a poem she began as an undergraduate that I told her should probably be a story. Eventually she made it into a story that won the Ernest Hemingway Short Story Award. But it is not the awards she won, or even the works that won the awards, but the works that were not written that make Andrea’s loss irretrievable.

So many of the people that loved and were supportive and kind to Andrea had great difficulty with her not keeping faith with her ability and promise and with her friends. Between her pain treatments, attempts to heal, and pain killers substituted for treatments she couldn’t afford without health insurance, I spoke to Andrea only a few times during her last year and a half. Andrea felt her failure and the disappointment it caused those she loved who had loved her, those who like her had had to pull the antipodes together to achieve what they were achieving. She felt it to the end, I’m sure. And she understood, for she was always a severe critic of herself.

I recall my advice to her to wear jeans and my casual remark that a poem fragment might be the kernel of a story, because Andrea would remind me of them. Similarly, she was generous in the credit she gave to her friends, and many times they did deserve the credit. Enormously creative and enormously self-destructive is the way one of her friends and former lovers put it when I sent news of her death.

Of the many versions of Andrea’s story, the following reflects things she told about her life before leaving home to return to college. It may not be fair to the keeper of the wild zone. In the long run, it was not a free ride for him, as it would not have been for anyone. I tell it because it shows much about Andrea.
Van

The Keeper of the Wild Zone

He just brought his things one night and wouldn't leave.
I didn't want this, but though I said, "No, No,"
The house had been emptier than de Milo's sleeves.

He fixed leaky faucets, clogged drains, fired the coals,
charred red meat brown, and told me: how to dress
to look my best--in skin-tight clothes,

when my thinking wasn't straight, like his,
why the job that gave me nothing was good.
It had something to do with the pay. So with his

unflagging help, I fled to my mom's and woke up in bed,
from which, dutifully, at last, he brought me home,
and prescribed, as cure, himself. I split, instead,

this time, to another town, books and jeans, and left
the teddies he bought with him, his low red road machine
my furniture, house, flowers, everything except

the wild one behind the mirror, he never knew
we kept, so tuned was he to the marble skin-tight dreams
of his Galatea, polished, made up, always askew,

with his stringents and insults, caresses and screams.
The truth? He was sweet, lonely, sad, like a stray,
or a child who wanted a toy that knew his name,

who wanted a home and keeper, without bills to pay,
otherwise, he'd rather live on a boat in the bay.
And sure, basically, we all want to have our way.

Van K. Brock

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Toni's Story: Andrea and Me (Part 1)

Queen of Cups

Andrea and I met in a Van Brock Poetry Seminar, January 1992. My divorce had been finalized in August, and this was my first semester in graduate school. I planned to major in Creative Writing, Fiction, but I’d always loved reading poetry so signed up for what I thought was a poetry discussion group. Imagine my surprise (and panic) when I discovered we were expected to write poetry.

What a group that was! Andrea, Donna Long, Helen Wallace, Michael Trammell and many other gifted writers. I was so over my head that I could barely breathe when it was time for class. My first efforts were so bad I still don’t know how the group managed to read them with straight faces. But read them they did, and how kindly they responded. If I had to describe my progress that semester, it would be something like “pulled gently forward,” and Andrea was one of the gentlest. To their credit, they “pulled” me far enough that I was able to report my first poetry acceptance before the semester’s end. The whole class shared my excitement.

Andrea always swore that she remembered what I wore the first night of class -- a bright red pullover sweater with matching nail polish (it was during the good old days of alimony when I could still afford professional manicures). I have no reason to doubt this, and I only wish I'd been as observant. I don't remember what she wore, but I must have noticed her beautiful smile, her slim-to-the-point-of-fragile frame, and her impossibly erect carriage. She always carried herself like a model and wore her clothes just as gracefully.

We hit it off right away. I don’t remember why we felt we could become friends, but we both acknowledged an immediate connection. One night after class, we went to Finale’s for a beer and ended up talking for hours. That was probably our beginning. Until then, we’d lived widely disparate lives, Andrea having experienced so much more than 22 years in a sheltered marriage had allowed me.

Andrea was scheduled to read at Finale’s a few weeks later, and she invited me to the reading. I’d never been to one, but it sounded so “writerly” I couldn’t pass it up. When I arrived, Andrea waved me over to a front table where she and Van were sitting. I remember feeling so important, sitting there with my professor and the star of the show.

Donna Long and Andrea were already acquainted at that time, and in addition to the poetry seminar, Donna and I were both in Karen Cunningham’s Theory course. We all also began participating in one of Van’s off-campus workshops, this one held in his apartment near Lake Ella.

Andrea, Donna and I spent many happy, late-night hours with Van over that spring and summer, drinking beer, playing dice poker, reading Tarot cards, listening to Bob Dylan’s No Mercy (I requested it so often that Van finally dubbed me a copy), and talking about writing, always about writing. It was the beginning of the creative journey I’d longed for, and these new friends were fated to be my guides and closest companions.

Andrea's Poetry - The Girls in the Cane

I first remember Andrea working on this poem in one of Van Brock's poetry workshops. We were at Van's apartment on Call Street, I think, and I couldn't get over the image of the girls' hands "like brown doves cooing." The poem received an Honorable Mention in the Chester H. Jones Foundation's National Poetry Competition 1995, and was also published a year later in Rosebud.

From Andrea's comments published in Rosebud: "In retrospect, I think this is my mid-life crisis poem, the one we write when we realize we are too old for Never Never Land; when we've outgrown the Lost Boys, or in this case, the lost girls. While the meaning of the poem may have eluded me during the writing, it came to me mercilessly in the end, as an epiphany of irretrievable loss."

The Girls in the Cane

At ten, we were Father McKennon's demons,
wild skinny girls with skin stitched over our hearts
like drums. We smacked gum in catechism, pelted
the young priest with spitballs ripped from the scriptures.
By twelve, we were collectively in love. Plump and holy,
we pretended our bellies were tight with his children.
That summer in the secret patch of sugarcane, we played
at conception, parting each other's sun-parched knees.

So when our mothers call from Alabama
to tell us in Florida, New Hampshire, Colorado,
that Father McKennon is dead, I see us
holding phones like empty Campbell's Soup cans
strung together with kite string, mothers repeating
"Are you there?" And we excuse ourselves
to tend lovers, husbands, children, who,
for once, don't need us at that moment.

It is what we have come
to fear most: the secret child
has filled her bandana
with irreplaceable treasures,
and even now is disappearing
down Hillcrest Drive, past Mrs. Strozier's
Dance School to the sugarcane field
by the old Confederate cannon.

This is not a sweet loss like virginity.
The girls have gone into the cane
without us. They have taken summer
with them and left us suspended
by this deep baptism. Slight and tan,
they suck on the sugary reeds, their lips
soft as vespers, and their hands, their hands,
like brown doves cooing.

Andrea's Poetry - Red Moon

Andrea was so pleased when this poem won Glimmer Train's First Poetry Open. It appeared in Issue 31, Summer 1999. From Andrea's comments published in Glimmer Train: "I have had an inordinate number of deaths in my life, which is why a good deal of my work is centered around this subject. 'Red Moon' was written for a friend and colleague who died at thirty-nine of a heart attack. He was the kind of man I am sure inspired many eulogies, and would be quite pleased that this one has received such recognition."

Red Moon

It is the night of the lunar eclipse
and a man I am planning to love
drops dead of a heart attack,
though I won’t know this
until tomorrow. Actually,
he is driving, and slumps
dead, his heart popping softly
like a bad firecracker.

My sorrel gelding is old
and has colic this night.
The book says, “Walk the horse
unceasingly; take heart
at peristaltic sounds.”
We circle the lawn in perfect
syncopation; when I press my ear
to his side, his belly is tight and silent.

In the house next door
the windows are open;
my neighbors are making love.
Is there anything
more lonely than this?
Watch your heart, I whisper.
What we say aloud
ascends to Heaven.

How God orchestrates these moments:
frozen in the arc of the stable light,
a red fox plays possum,
her heart tripping in her chest;
the red horse, deciding not to die,
shifts his weight off my shoulder
as suddenly as the sky turns red
in the middle of the night.

Across town,
at a lazy intersection,
the man puts his hand to his heart.
He is puzzled by how his life
leaves him; there is nothing
of the past, and the light he sees
at the end of the tunnel
is not white, but red.

He is dreaming, instead,
of a copper fox, a sorrel horse,
a woman whose heart
he can hear
as she opens her arms
to the luminous sky
and swears, This
is how I will love you.

Andrea King Kelly: August 18, 1953-February 17, 2005

This blog has been established as a memorial to Andrea King Kelly, who died February 17, 2005.

Andrea was a hugely gifted poet and fiction writer, a sweet-tempered and lovely woman who was also, unfortunately, haunted by many demons during the course of her fifty-one years. At this site we hope to honor her memory honestly with anecdotes, samples of her writing, photographs, and other such elements as the posters deem important. While the number of "official" posters is limited, we welcome all comments.