Once upon an empty plate, while I pondered, long and late Over many a quaint and curious cookbook of delicious delight, While I simmered the onions and butter, suddenly there came a flutter As of a gobble gobble at my door, a quiet gobbling at my door, ‘Tis my imagination, thought I, playing tricks at this dark hour. Only this, and nothing more.
Ah, distinctly I remember, it was late in a cold November, When all the pilgrims gave much praise for plenty of meat and stores of maize, And the natives, too, had gathered round to celebrate with joyful sound; From far away they made the trip, on ol’ Mayflower, their only ship. And then I heard the noise once more and looked about the kitchen door. Nothing there, just the floor.
And the onions cooking, sizzling slow, the celery sliced and diced so nice, Thrilled me—filled me with disastrous memories of Thanksgivings past So that now I thought, to quiet my heart, I stood repeating ‘Tis only a visitor I hear out there come to have a taste, ‘Tis only a visitor I hear out there, too soon, of course, For tomorrow I baste”
But in then strolled a fattened fowl, the biggest baddest turkey of all, Not a feather flew or dropped he; no, this big bird he never stopped, ‘Til up he popped upon the top of the stainless steel refrigerator. Much I marveled this Tom turkey that you might think that I’d gone crazy, No, I hadn’t even uncorked the wine, and the bird spoke, too, so clear and fine, These three words, “Why not ham?”
And then he said, I’ll never forget, “Hey, tomorrow’s not here yet. And you’ll have cranberry sauce and green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, Maybe butternut squash and muffins, and, of course, that wonderful splendid stuffing, Maybe some creamed corn on the side, and for dessert, there’s plenty of pies. Man, I can’t barely wait for all these plates, but tell me, please, it’s not too late,” Quoth the turkey, “Why not ham?”
Last week, a friend sent along a message about November 14, noting that this day marked the publication of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. That would have been back in 1851, making the book 168 years old. He also said that makes November 14, White Whale Day, too, so I thought I’d take some time to reflect upon a few things related to my blog.
I launched The White Whale in January with a post about “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” another story written by Melville, and its connection to a recent trip to NYC. Since then I have published fifteen blog posts, and I’ve done a tremendous amount of personal writing, I’d venture to say more than I’ve done at any other point in my life. My audience has grown over the course of the year, and as of today, there are 204 likes on my Facebook page, which may not seem like much, but I’m content, especially when I compare that figure with other blogs. My most popular blog post, so far, has been about the first Fourth of July in Montrose, Pennsylvania, the small town where I have lived for over fifteen years.
Along with the theme here of celebrating the birthday of Melville’s Moby-Dick, I’d like to say that I intended to reread the novel in the past year, tackling at least a page a day, but that fell by the wayside. I really do enjoy Melville’s writing, though, and in the past few years, I’ve stuck by my decision to have my students read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” but I couldn’t get beyond the first few chapters of Moby-Dick. I was in graduate school the last time I read through the novel, and the book was on the oral exam list for my master’s degree. They asked me about the “shark sermon” delivered by the cook, Fleece, in Chapter 64, and I believe that at some point during my response, they decided he’s wriggled enough with an attempt to answer this question, let’s move on to something else. They had found my Achilles’s heel.
For those of you interested in reading Moby-Dick, or anyone that might also need a refresher, I’ve discovered that The New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts stages an annual marathon reading of the novel in January. For those who can’t make the trip, there’s a live stream available. This year the event is scheduled for the first weekend in January, and according to their website, the reading takes 25 hours. I’m hoping to hear the shark sermon, once again, as I continue to wrestle with that demon from my past.
I’d also like to say a few words about the thumbnail image I’ve been using for the past year. The illustration of Moby Dick rising out of the water, clutching a rowboat with panicked sailors, is well-known, as any internet search quickly reveals. The image appears on page 510 of the 1896 edition of Moby-Dick. From what I’ve gathered from a blog post about Moby-Dick’s artwork at Apollo, there had been several illustrated editions of Melville’s novels by this point, but it wasn’t until this edition that Moby-Dick had been published with illustrations, probably because of its mediocre sales. Enter Augustus Burnham Shute, who completed four illustrations for this edition.
Intrigued by his work, I’ve been ever slow to discover much information about A. Burnham Shute, as he signed his illustrations. According to another website, Shute is also credited with illustrations for Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. Two illustrators were hired at first, but as the publishers worried about meeting the book’s deadline, they brought on Shute to complete drawings for some of the chapters at the end of the book. What’s interesting, however, is that looking through copies of this book, Shute doesn’t sign his name to any of these illustrations whereas signatures of the other two illustrators are clearly identified with their pieces. I’m left wondering if the publishers wanted to disguise that Shute had been hired to ensure the project’s finish. Nevertheless, Shute is given recognition in modern editions, at least in the book’s credits, even if his name doesn’t appear alongside the artwork.
As I’m wont to do here at The White Whale, though, I started chasing something deeper about A. Burnham Shute, but there’s really very little to be found about him. No Wikipedia page. No biographies. Even my Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick includes no information on Shute’s biography or drawings. Many of his drawings are collected at the Wikimedia Commons, but in terms of biographical information, I couldn’t find anything.
It wasn’t until I searched newspapers for his obituary that I found anything specific about his life. According to the notice in The Boston Globe, which only runs a few paragraphs, Shute worked right up to his death on March 16, 1906, which lately had included book illustrations. The article states, however, that Shute first gained recognition as a newspaper artist, suggesting that Shute may have been the first artist to have his drawings published in The Boston Globe. Beyond his professional life, there’s almost nothing mentioned, so that remains a mystery, something to be chased on another day. Maybe the next time November 14 comes around I’ll have more to share about his life.
For now, I’d like to say thanks to my friend, John, for inspiring this post. Sometimes all it takes is a few words of encouragement, and I’ve found a new topic that interests me enough to do some research and writing. And likewise, thanks to all my readers over the past year as we continue to plumb the depths.
These past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, so much so, that I haven’t had time to really write proper posts for my blog, although I have been doing plenty of writing. Last weekend our local art gallery, The Butternut, opened the doors on its latest exhibit, The Making of Books: Illustrations, Installations, and Words, and after many years, my collection of poems about Montrose, Public Avenue, made its debut. I had about 25 copies on-hand for opening day, and I was happy to see people purchasing my self-published, hand-made books. Then, this past Saturday I gave a reading at the gallery to many friends, family, and supporters of my writing as I formally launched the book.
Having now made it through the past month of editing and assembling the book, I’d like to share some of my thoughts from the reading as well as a little background on this project. It’s amazing to me that the book is finally complete, and I’m especially grateful to everyone who helped along the way.
At the outset, I’d like to say that I’m indebted to Michael Czarnecki, a poet from upstate New York, for the design of my book. While still in college, I met Czarnecki at a little coffee shop where he read poems from a slim collection entitled Drinking Wine, Chanting Poems. That collection of poems has been treasured by me for many, many years, and ever since purchasing that book, I’ve wanted to create something similar. While in college, other small books of poetry also fascinated me, and I loved flipping through Allen Ginsberg’s Reality Sandwiches as well as Howl and Other Poems. Something about these books that were physically smaller just pleased me, so when I came across Czarnecki’s undersized, self-published book of original poems, I felt encouraged that some day I might produce my own book. And although Czarnecki and I have been Facebook friends for several years now, he probably has no idea how much that collection of poems has meant to me.
I needed the right subject matter, too. And as I summarized at the reading on Saturday, the sense of place has always intrigued me as a writer. I remember reading Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs and The Shipping News for the first time and quickly becoming a fan. Her stories seemed saturated in the details of a particular place. Later, when she began writing books about the Western United States such as Close Range and Bad Dirt, my fascination with the sense of place only increased. Barbara Kingsolver is another writer who also comes to mind. Her book, The Bean Trees, was the first title I added to my curriculum when I began teaching high school. Some of her other books such as The Poisonwood Bible, and especially, Prodigal Summer, have also stayed with me over the years. And certainly, Tim O’Brien’s novels about Vietnam such as The Things They Carried, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and Going After Cacciato continued my fascination with place as a central idea in my reading interests.
My non-fiction reading, too, often centers around place. This past summer I read Vermont River by W.D. Wetherell, which chronicles a year of fly-fishing in the author’s life. Now, I’m halfway through a book about fishing around Martha’s Vineyard called Blues by John Hersey. And of course, I’m reminded of some of my favorite books such as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. A more recent title on my reading list, however, has been Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which focuses on criminal relief in Alabama and a terrible miscarriage of justice in Harper Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, where the setting only serves to underscore the irony surrounding the wrongful conviction of a black man.
When I began to write short stories in earnest, hoping to send them off to literary magazines for publication, I wanted place to take a front seat in my writing. As I was living in the northern tier of Pennsylvania, I drew inspiration from my surroundings, including the people and places and traditions that made this region unique. For instance, one of my earliest stories dealt with an illiterate landlord renting to students in a small college town similar to Mansfield, Pennsylvania. Later, when I moved away to Columbus, Ohio, to attend graduate school, I continued to write stories focused on rural Pennsylvania with topics about hunting and fishing, the land often serving as an impetus to the conflicts of my characters.
When my wife and I moved back to Pennsylvania, finding jobs in the same county where my wife grew up, we purchased a house in her hometown, Montrose. I was still writing stories about this area, so I was thrilled to be in the thick of my subject matter. I wrote several short stories and flash fiction pieces, had a few published, but eventually found myself writing poetry, where I could more directly address the details of living in Montrose and Susquehanna County. Over time, I wrote a piece here or there, when inspiration struck me, until after a while I realized I had a collection of poems that might be brought together and published.
To discuss the specific poems briefly, I’ll just say that I wanted the collection to bridge the past and present, hoping to pay respect to our history but also include the right amount of details to locate our town in the present. I wrote several poems that address places such as the county courthouse and other notable landmarks, the places that people know with long memories, even if some of the features have continued to evolve. Likewise, I wanted to include people, some whose names are remembered in books about Montrose, like Isaac Post, who is considered a Founding Father of Montrose, as well as others, who remain alive in our more recent memories for what they have brought to our community such as Joe Welden. It’s been my hope, too, that these poems come together in a way that feels a little bit larger than the fourteen poems that comprise the book, and that taken as a whole, the poems communicate more than each poem by itself.
To that end, I fell upon Public Avenue as the title for the collection. I wanted something that could encompass both the theme and setting of the poems, and that title has been significant to me as I imagined these pieces. Indeed, I wanted the poetry I’ve collected in this book to reflect the public face of our town. The title, too, has helped me narrow the poems to include in the collection, for I’ve culled many of the poems from those I’ve written over the past years to make sure that these best embody the title of the book. Since several poems also reference street names, including Public Avenue, that also became just another piece in the puzzle.
It’s been difficult to put into words the excitement I’ve felt as this project has culminated in the past few weeks. The road has been long traveled to reach this point, but as everything came together, I’ve felt such gratitude. So many people—my wife, family, and friends—have supported me along the way. Being able to finally share these poems this past weekend with an audience, some people whom I’ve known for a long time and others that I’ve only met for the first time, has been such a gift.