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Going Into the Wild

Going Into the Wild
Joseph Aultman-Moore on Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild
(based on the true story of Christopher McCandless)
Interior Alaska

“Reason is the slave of passion” – David Hume

It’s been two days since my last ride. My right arm aches, thumb suffers from rigor mortis. The enormous backpack hangs on my shoulders like a toddler. The sun is sweltering; temperatures of 90 degrees are not uncommon in Interior Alaska. The two-lane road curves into the distance; spruce forest stretches to infinity around me, up to the snowcaps and dry tundra of Denali, a hundred miles distant.

I suck my water bottle dry and refill it with tea-colored creek water. The road is empty, which means another day of walking. A motor sounds behind me and I turn, stick out my thumb. Surprisingly, the clanky Range Rover stops in the dust ahead of me. Alaska plates, grimy windows. A middle-aged man is driving, belly brushing the wheel; a young woman sits silently in the passenger seat. They look nervous.

“You’re not a killer are you?” asks the man, whose name is Ken. I say no and try to laugh the tension away. They say nothing. The car rattles.
“Well then, get in.” I stuff into the backseat and we drive off.


When I first met Christopher McCandless, in Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, I had the joy of meeting a new friend. It was that rare emotion you feel when you click with someone. It would be a bittersweet friendship though, one that I knew ended in tragedy. Clearly, Krakauer felt something similar, as he writes in the introduction,

I was haunted by the particulars of the boy’s starvation and by vague, unsettling parallels between events in his life and those in my own.

I read Into the Wild when travel was peripheral to my suburban existence and books were central. Adventure books were a flash of excitement and I gulped them down, idolized the authors. National Geographic and Ernest Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hillary. I read Heyerdahl like Holy Scripture, Krakauer like the Koran. But Chris– Chris was someone like me. I never wanted to be him; I wanted to live with that same conviction, that lust for seeing and feeling and living. Chris’s death morphs him into a tragic figure; the story becomes more tantalizing. Could one do it right, make fewer mistakes and survive? Wasn’t it the ultimate dream of youth?


The first person to pick me up, Walter, is a man in his sixties. Horn-rimmed glasses and overalls. He is towering, thin, and so sinewy it looks like his bones are tied together with bass strings. The pickup truck is just as lanky. A handmade white canvas cover over the bed reminds me of a horseless Conestoga wagon. It feels like we are embarking on the Oregon Trail.

“What do you do, Walter?”

“I’m a contractor, looking to retire soon. Headed up to Anchorage for a new furnace–that’s why the bed’s empty, cheaper for me to drive up then have them ship . . . ” and he goes on. Walter is a good talker: soft, measured, and continuous. “. . . and I’ve been prospecting in these mountains for decades. There’s the creek! C’mon!”

He pulls the wagon to the side of the road and gets out. I watch, dumbfounded, as he plunges into the thick bush, then I jump out and follow. He steps over brush, mooselike; I whack through with my arms. There is a tiny stream, arched with alders and looking like it flowed out of a Sierra Club calendar. Walter wades in and inspects rocks, a clump of silt. He squints up at the mountain. “Yeah . . . yeah, there could be gold up there.”


When I decided to hitchhike around Alaska, I had been traveling seasonally for a couple years. Fresh out of college, no career, no girlfriend. It was my second summer in Alaska, and I wanted to see more of the Great Land before retreating from the wicked northern winters.

Why Alaska? What is it about this place? Alaska!–the word sounds like a mountain. Americans have been obsessed with the idea of the frontier since the days of westward movement and Alaska retains some of the mystique California held during the Gold Rush. Barry Lopez writes in Arctic Dreams: “This is a land where airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars. It is a region, like the desert, rich with metaphor, with adumbration.” It drew Chris and it drew me.

I was sharply aware of the storylike quality of my surroundings–everything was more Alaska-y. The animals were wilder, the mountains higher, the roads longer, the people more caricature than I anticipated. I wallowed in it. “I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road!” I belted into the woods. I read Kerouac’sOn the Road and listened to the soundtrack of the film Into the Wild. I wrote letters and put my return address as “Park’s Highway, AK.” Sometimes I felt like I was watching a movie about someone hitchhiking Alaska.

I noticed that Chris wrote in third person, using his alter ego, Alexander Supertramp. He scrawled on the headboard of the bus:

Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is The Road…. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the Wild.

Chris knew he was an idealist, a romantic. He knew he was young, naive, and inexperienced. That’s the thing about wanderlust, you can be fully aware of its insanity, its self-absorption, its sheer danger–and it doesn’t make a shred of difference.


The night is cold, black, and I’m a thousand miles from the people I love. Darkness lies like a damp shroud; my tiny campfire, a circle of flickering light, pushes back on it. Coyotes–what I hope are only coyotes–howl in the distance. I feel fear rising and suffocate it, drown it by singing. “Trailers for sale or rent, rooms to let fifty cents.”

I have never been so alone.

What am I seeking? Maybe nothing. Maybe just the romance itself, a story. But stories themselves, the stringing together and relating of events, exist only in our heads. The loneliness of solo travel is the realization that all of it– the pain and ecstasy and misery and hilarity and wonder–are yours alone.

In the most poignant moment of the book, a month before starving to death alone in the Alaskan wilderness, Chris scrawls in the margin of Doctor Zhivago,

HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.

Isn’t this why we tell stories– to try connecting the islands of human minds, to see the reflection of your face on another?


Ken, the Texan driver of the Range Rover, who took me all the way to Denali and then picked me up again on my way back down, said, after a sidelong look, “Sometimes you just got to do something, logic and reasons be damned.”

Lyrics from “King of the Road,” recorded by Roger Miller, 1964

Joe Aultman-Moore lives in Morgantown, West Virginia. He is a recent college grad and therefore loves any way of traveling cheaply. He and his brother have recently worked on farms and hitchhiked all over Ireland. Joe’s writing has been published in Verge Magazine and on his college’s web site, which doesn’t really count. A video of the trip can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBe9AZmcic8.

Landscape of My Childhood

Landscape of my Childhood
Heather Luby on Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red
Missouri Ozarks

In the foreword of Tomato Red, Megan Abbott explained to me that the book would be a “tale of convenience stores and parking lots and mud-rut driveways and tiny homes with bail bondsmen’s phone numbers taped on every refrigerator door.”

But she warned me not to be fooled. That the book would conjure magic, that it would show me radical beauty and longing. She did not lie.

The magic is there, in Woodrell’s language, and it captivated me from the opening sentence. A book laced with lines such as, “Panic put wings on our feet” and other words rearranged in such a way so that they sparked bright and strange on the page.

But it wasn’t simply Woodrell’s language that seduced me. It was Jamalee, Tomato Red herself, speaking to me through the pages, saying, “You know, that big rotten gap between who I am, and who I want to be, never does quit hurtin’ to stare across.” And I wanted to say to her, or maybe I did say to her, speaking right through my Kindle, ain’t that the truth.

Jamalee dreams of leaving the Ozark Mountains, her home in West Table, Missouri, and finding that proverbial better life. But I found myself wanting to tell Jamalee to be careful what she wished for; to be careful that she didn’t run so far away that she wouldn’t be able to find her way back to herself someday, to the place that shaped her identity, twists and curves, sharp edges and all. I found myself wanting to say to her, Honey, never run so far from your past that you forget who you are and lose the benefit of your own history.

You know, that big rotten gap between who I am and who I want to be, never does quit hurtin’ to stare across.

Maybe I know a little something about that sort of thing. You see, the landscape in Tomato Red is also the landscape of my childhood. I am an Ozarks girl; I was raised in a place where much of nature remains untouched and a single sunset against the backdrop of the hills can conjure a deep reverence for God. Or in the words of Sammy in Tomato Red, “long finger bones of sunlight showed through and played the range of colors like a range of musical notes, making a tune of colors from pink to plum and back to yellow all across the rim of the world.”

In fact, visiting the birthplace of my identity in the pages of Woodrell’s work did work a bit of magic on me, conjuring memories as dark and ephemeral as dancing wisps of smoke. The exact shade of brown shag carpet in my single-wide trailer, the feel of clay-stained rocks in my front yard pushing into the bottom of my bare feet, the sounds heard from the bedroom window of my granny’s house late at night–sounds of train whistles and solitary cars humming around the corner and fading away. Fragments, momentary sensations, simple sensory ghosts, but nothing hearty is left of my roots. Not really. And not even Woodrell’s magic can change that now.

A passing train cast its spell, put us on hold where we stood, took time from our lives and ate it. The spell was long, loud, welcome.

I sometimes have this dream, this scenario, where I meet my childhood self and she doesn’t recognize me and I can’t convince her that I am who she will become. I don’t like this dream. I wanted to warn Jamalee of this kind of dream in her future.

But I should you warn you, dear reader, that there is something seductive and dangerous in consuming such hungry, desperate fiction. The kind that makes you wish you could talk to the characters inhabiting the page, guide them, scream at them, and weep with them. And Tomato Red is no exception. This rare breed of rich atmospheric fiction can lure you so deep into a fictive world, so completely and convincingly, that you will begin to not only sympathize with the characters but empathize with them as well. You begin to believe you are the character or the character is you. This immersion has a way of eating up your loneliness and giving your pain a framework.

Maybe I didn’t believe myself to be exactly like Jamalee during my time inside the book. But the fictive world made me believe too urgently that I could have been her growing up, or her best friend, or more likely in the Ozarks, her cousin. And to daydream that maybe Jamalee really did run away from West Table, Missouri, and maybe she is a stay-at-home mom somewhere in the suburbs right now, reading a book about a world that seems distantly familiar and unexplainably relevant.

Long finger bones of sunlight showed through and played the range of colors like a range of musical notes, making a tune of colors from pink to plum and back to yellow all across the rim of the world.

But if I am honest, I’m really nothing like Jamalee or her best friend or her cousin. Two weeks’ distance from the book and I’ve sufficiently recovered from the dream world created by Woodrell, and I can see that my empathy with Jamalee was false and self-serving. We share a setting, but not an outcome. I was poor growing up in the Ozarks, at least by some outsiders’ standards, but I was never called trash (not to my face anyhow). My mom and dad both had respect and a work ethic and I never knew the kind of desperation and longing that Woodrell’s characters so powerfully possess. I graduated high school, I moved, I began a life far enough away from home that I didn’t have to be defined by the roads and valleys traveled in my youth. What I have forgotten of my past, of my Ozarks roots, has more to do with time and distance than any motivation worthy of literary legacy. Though I might wish sometimes, as I’m sure many do, that I had such a legacy. I’m sure that many people, writers and readers alike, have been tempted by the fiction around them to create a mythology for their lives, a past to give them future purpose. Who wouldn’t make themselves the hero if they could rewrite their own story?

But we can’t rewrite our own histories. Even as writers, we cannot create for ourselves a different identity, different origins than the ones that have already been written in time. Truly good fiction can tempt us into such misbeliefs, and that is in part a source of their beautiful and mysterious magic.

In the words of Sammy Barlach, the doomed antihero of Tomato Red, “Everybody among us on earth has their own cherished horse–feathers that they try and try and try to believe in.”

 

This essay first appeared in these pages in 2010 as “Mud-rut Magic in the Ozarks.”

Heather Luby is really nothing other than than a girl from the Ozark Mountains who grew up with dreams of writing stories. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, LITnIMAGE, WIPs, Bartleby Snopes, Emerge Literary Journal, Halfway Down the Stairs, and other places. She holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and is the author of a novel, Laws of Motion. When not conversing with the characters of her imagination, she can be found wrangling two willful and beautiful daughters around the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri.

When the Leaves Are Falling

When the Leaves are Falling
Trish Falin on Finding William Butler Yeats
Vicenza, Italy

Three weeks of days growing shorter, warm afternoons with a cool breeze or occasional rain and gray mornings. . . . November is probably not the month most people choose to go to northern Italy’s Veneto region, but I found myself there among all the yellow leaves. The old city of Vicenza is a train stop between Venice and Verona and many in the region love the city for its shops, restaurants and cafes. If you hike up to the top of Monte Berico, you can take in a view of the whole city.

Out late in places like Art Café, known for its walls plastered with American cartoons and movie posters or listening to music in Bar Sartea’s dark interior lit by red lights, I usually made it back before dawn and picked a book off the shelf to read while watching the gray light grow into another misty morning. In the small hours, the book A Poet to His Beloved: The Early Love Poems of W.B. Yeats kept me company and was a nice salve for my heart, which needed to heal from a love that didn’t work out.

“Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,” begins the poem “The Falling of the Leaves.” Autumn feels like the season of loss, as everything is decaying. “Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us, / And yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves.” The end of the first stanza painted the world in yellow leaves, the same color of those lining walkways through Vicenza’s many parks. Upon arriving in Vicenza, walking from the train station, I came across an open park with tree-lined paths that were as yellow as the leaves that inspired Yeats when he wrote poems for Maud Gonne, the woman who refused to marry him no matter how many times he asked or how many years he waited. There are some loves that strike deep and are difficult to walk away from without a lingering desire to keep them alive, as Yeats has done in his poetry.

There is a reason people go to Italy after a breakup. It’s not because of the latest “When in Rome” film that makes one hopeful for new love, or the book Eat, Pray, Love and Elizabeth Gilbert’s great description of the language and food (not to mention the cute young tutor). It isn’t just because the men are flirtatious and lovely and the stracchino cheese on pizza at Pub Re Di Spagna in Vicenza is orgasmic. It has to do with the way the place can heal a heart. Whether you touch the left breast of Juliet’s statue (Romeo’s Juliet) at Casa di Giulietta in Verona for better luck in love or feel the bells toll inside your body in Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy has the powerful ability to make one forget about pain and replace the unfulfilled desire with new passion for everything.

Even surrounded by the yellow leaves of Yeat’s longing, I see Vicenza’s bright yellow chrysanthemums in pots along the bridge over the Bacchiglione River that meanders through the city like an afternoon inside Teatro Olimpico can meander back in time. Built in the 1580s, the stage in the old theater is a permanent set of the seven streets of Thebes, and the theater itself is the oldest surviving enclosed theater in the world.

“The hour of the waning of love has beset us, / And weary and worn are our sad souls now;” the second stanza of Yeats’s poem “The Falling of the Leaves” continues. Time means so much more when I am standing in the Piazza dei Signori on the hour and the bell tower doesn’t let me forget that another hour has passed. The heart of the city, where the piazza is located, is principale del centro storico di Vicenza, the site of the old Roman forum, where two columns remain from the Venetian period. The Basilica Palladiana, a Renaissance building designed by Andrea Palladio that is a World Heritage Site, is also there. The right foundation will make a building last forever.

People say time heals all wounds, but some wounds are deeper, and perhaps we learn how to move on and find joy with the dull ache sleeping inside. That seems clear when Yeats closes the poem “The Falling of the Leaves” with “Let us part, ere the season of passion forget us, / With a kiss and a tear on thy drooping brow.” Only in the small hours did I give in to the urge to feel the sadness of loss. Yeats’ early book of poems written for his lost love was a perfect match for a couple of dawns that brought home the gray light to the apartment off Piazza 20 Settembre, the piazza guarded by an angel high up on a column that overlooks the Ponte degli Angeli, the Bridge of Angels.

After a night of drinking some of the region’s wine, listening to music, and making new friends, and after the bar café Pitanta closed its door on the last soccer fan’s reverie, and after the garbage collector had taken the trash, and before the birds began the new day with happier sounds, I felt as if the book had been written in this place. “I bring you with reverent hands / The books of my numberless dreams,” begins the title poem of Yeats’s book.

In the introduction of A Poet to His Beloved, Richard Eberhart recommends reading this book of Yeats’s poems before the rest of his work. I recommend reading it some early morning in the fall, near a window overlooking a lonely street in the Veneto region of Northern Italy after a night of food, drink, and companionship, when your heart is still feeling tender from loss. Yeats wrote words filled with deep longing. Take the book with the intent Yeats had when he wrote for his beloved the poem “When You Are Old,” and begin healing:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once…

In addition to travel articles, Trish Falin is working on a collection of poems inspired by the four seasons in Italy, beginning with fall. The collection of poems moves to winter, spring, and summer with the taste, smell, and feel of Italy giving life to a year of transformation. A former news reporter and editor, Trish earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in Soundings, Askew, Penumbra, Dash, Welter, and other literary journals. Non-fiction publications include travel books and textbooks for carpenters in Las Vegas.

Insurgent Ferment

Insurgent Ferment
Tina Rubin on the Beat Writers
San Francisco

I grew up in a family of readers. Flying magazines and movie magazines littered the coffee table; bookshelves were crammed with hardcovers like War and Peace and Little Women. Nancy Drew mysteries, Bobbsey Twins adventures, and Superman and Archie comics were boxed away in our basement for rereading.

The names Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, and Ginsberg swirled around our universe, but they meant no more to me than the American Gothic wallpaper in our kitchen. It wasn’t until high school English that I learned the significance of those names, and with that came a whole new dimension. If the Beat writers could explode America’s cultural mores by celebrating the unencumbered life and hungering for spirituality, I wanted in.

Columbia University, New York, early forties: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady met and forged the friendships that would establish them as the core of the Beat writers. In the early fifties they arrived in San Francisco, where Lawrence Ferlinghetti had just opened City Lights Books, the first all-paperback bookstore in the nation. Within a year, Ferlinghetti, a Ph.D. and poet, used his profits to start publishing what he called “international, dissident, insurgent ferment.” He began with his own work. Pictures of a Gone World became the first in his City Lights Pocket Poets series. Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, Jerome Rothenberg, and Nicanor Parra were among the writers who followed Ferlinghetti into print in the series.

One rainy day in February, my son and I arrived in San Francisco to explore this insurgent ferment. The Beat Writers tour we booked didn’t materialize, so with a few tips from the cashier at City Lights Books (261 Columbus Ave. at Broadway, in North Beach), we created our own, starting right there.

Narrow, three-story City Lights has the kind of ambience you see in old European bookshops, but that’s becoming rare in the U.S. today: walls and stairs and corners jammed with bookshelves. But the books on those shelves are the kind you won’t find anywhere else. As Pico Iyer noted in a March 23, 2014 Los Angeles Times article, “City Lights is a little like that ideal, book-loving friend–imagine exacting literary critic James Wood filtered through the eclectic, all-American, hip omnivorousness of David Foster Wallace–who has impeccable taste but knows that the real classics are books you’ve never heard of.”

For me, walking through the real thing–the bookstore whose name alone had lit the darkness of my teenage angst–was like stepping into a dream. I wanted to stay. I wanted to spend the night roaming its corridors. But on we went.

Just across Jack Kerouac Alley from City Lights is Vesuvio (255 Columbus Ave.). The bar, around since 1948, is obviously one of the leading literary spots in the world–you can tell by this poem painted on an outside wall:

When the shadow of the grasshopper
Falls across the trail of the field mouse
On green and slimy grass as a red sun rises
Above the western horizon silhouetting
A gaunt and tautly muscled Indian warrior
Perched with bow and arrow cocked and aimed
Straight at you it’s time for another martini.

Another martini indeed. One night in October 1955, Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s breakthrough novel On the Road) stopped in for a drink at Vesuvio before heading over to a poetry reading at Six Gallery. From that night on, the bar was the spot where the intellectuals, artists, writers, and musicians of the Beat era let their hair down. Still a bar today, Vesuvio honors its heritage with poetry readings, art festivals, concerts in the alley, and more.

Across the street, the Beat Museum (540 Broadway at Columbus) displays a large chunk of the history we were searching for. The ground floor comprises a bookstore filled with works of the era and a theater that was showing an informative film about Jack Kerouac. But on the attic-like second floor, filled with typewriters and record players and memorabilia, I learned the stories I’d never heard in school. For starters, the derivation of the name Beat Generation.

Around 1948, the story goes, novelist John Clellon Holmes asked his buddy Kerouac for a description of their crowd so he could use it in a novel. Herbert Huncke, another writer, had referred to the group as beat while talking to Kerouac one day–(he meant beat in the sense of being reduced to the essentials, or “all the crap gone out of it,” the museum display explained)–so Kerouac told Holmes they were the Beat Generation. Holmes’s novel Go, the first book of the Beat era, was published in 1952, as was an article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine entitled “This Is the Beat Generation.” A legend was shaping up.

Five years later, San Francisco Chronicle Pulitzer PrizeÐwinning columnist Herb Caen took the hype up a notch. After the Russians launched Sputnik in October 1957, Caen wrote a snide paragraph about a Beat party in North Beach. He dubbed the party-goers “Beatniks”–alluding to Sputnik and implying that the Beats were in orbit too. He closed by saying, “They’re only beat, y’know, when it comes to work.” Kerouac hated that the nickname stuck. “You make us sound like jerks,” he told Caen.

Much as the Beats might have appeared the way Caen described them–drunk, drugged, sexed-crazed free-thinkers–they were college-educated intellectuals who worked hard at their art. On the Road, finally published six years after Kerouac wrote it in 1951, was infused with the rhythm and language of jazz, poetry, and surreal drug-induced experiences–but he worked on it up to seven hours a day for weeks at a time until he exhausted himself, and then he would begin again.

Like Kerouac and the others, Allen Ginsberg took his work seriously. A copy of his revolutionary poem, “Howl,” on display at the Beat Museum shows edits penciled in by his friends. He took his work to the clubs where they gathered and passed it around. Ginsberg railed against society’s ills with imagery from his own life–that of homosexuality, drugs, obscenity, suffering. But his friends were editing his poetry, which speaks to their work ethic.

Ginsberg’s legendary reading of part one of “Howl” on October 7, 1955, at Six Gallery (3119 Fillmore St.; now a store)–the reading Cassady was headed to when he stopped at Vesuvio–made the poet a household name. The admission-free event, Six Poets at Six Gallery, was organized and emceed by respected San Francisco Poetry Renaissance leader Kenneth Rexroth. It turned out to be the actual genesis of the Beat movement. At least 150 people came. Kerouac collected change from them–(did Ellen DeGeneres take a page from his playbook at the 2014 Academy Awards?)–and went out to buy jugs of red wine, which he then dispensed to everyone to warm them up. He immortalized the night in his 1958 novel,Dharma Bums:

Scores of people stood around in the darkened gallery straining to hear every word of the amazing poetry reading as I wandered from group to group . . . urging them to glug a slug from the jug, or wandered back and sat on the right side of the stage giving out little wows and yeses of approval and even whole sentences of comment with nobody’s invitation but in the general gaiety nobody’s disapproval either.

Ginsberg began reading around 11 p.m. He spewed out the words rhythmically, in one long breath at a time, his volume building, while Kerouac shouted “Go, go!” and the audience screamed and waved wine jugs in the air:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
   naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry
   dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the
   supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
   contemplating jazz . . . .

About a year later, when Ginsberg finished writing the second and third parts of “Howl,” Ferlinghetti sent the entire poem to England to be published, anticipating trouble with U.S. publishers because of the poem’s obscenity. When the books arrived in San Francisco, sure enough they were confiscated by U.S. Customs officials.

So Ferlinghetti published it himself as part of the City Lights Pocket Poets series, and was arrested in 1957 on obscenity charges. It was a landmark case for freedom of speech. Ferlinghetti’s attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union argued that it was not the poet who was obscene, but what he had observed. The way Ferlinghetti put it, it was “the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms.” After about a three-month trial, the judge ruled that the poem could not be suppressed as obscene, and Ferlinghetti was acquitted.

Our journey into San Francisco’s “dissident ferment” revealed a trail overgrown by half a century of love from the city’s artists, writers, musicians, publishers, bar owners, restaurateurs. San Francisco gave the Beats the freedom of expression that enabled them to reshape America’s literary landscape. Ferlinghetti’s own poem “I Am Waiting,” from his 1958 collection A Coney Island of the Mind, is still relevant, echoing the sentiments of disillusioned artists and thinkers throughout the country:

I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for the American Boy
to take off Beauty’s clothes
and get on top of her
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
for Aphrodite
 to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder. . . .

An earlier version of this essay appeared here in 2009 as “San Francisco: The Beat Goes On.”

Tina Rubin is a hopeless romantic with a fascination for the dark side. She has written at least a dozen coffee-table books on cities and states, and her articles, essays and poetry have appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Citron Review, and Annotation Nation. She holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and founded and produces this journal, Travel by the Books.

Not Lonely Now

Not Lonely Now
Tisha M. Reichle on Dorothy B. Hughes
Los Angeles

What if you could travel back in time? Borrow the DeLorean from Doc Brown, and when the flux capacitor is flowing neon green, set the year: 1943. You would have to wait until two or three in the morning to be able to drive down Santa Monica Boulevard fast enough to activate time travel, but it would be worth it. Unless you are a young, unsuspecting woman out walking your dog or waiting at a bus stop, because for you, it is no longer safe. Dix Steele has returned to Los Angeles.

In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes, begins with a sinister tone as the protagonist contemplates the Pacific Ocean:

The fog lifting itself like gauzy veils … the ocean rolling endlessly … the pale waste of sand and dark restless waters … darkness closed around him and he swooped his hand through the restless fog. [1]

The location mirrors Dix Steele’s own restlessness. Playing with darkness and light, Hughes follows the serial killer and his potential victim down the California Incline. Created in 1905, it extends approximately 1,400 feet from the intersection of Ocean and California avenues, at the top of the Pacific Palisades bluff, to Pacific Coast Highway (PCH/SR-1) at the base. It includes a 750 foot-long bridge that the City of Santa Monica and the California Department of Transportation are retrofitting in preparation for the next big earthquake; construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2013.

Steele walks the length of that incline focused intently on the sound of a young woman’s steps and his own increasing heart rate. Initially, killing is not his intent, but as her pace quickens, so does his desire. He wants to instill fear in her first, and then move to the fatal part of his plan. But his efforts are thwarted by passing cars. Their headlights anger him. She crosses the street. Frustrated, he boards a Santa Monica Blue Bus with no concern about its destination. It cost him only a nickel.

Traveling throughout Los Angeles has changed dramatically in the 70 years since the book opens. Bus fare has increased from fifty cents to one dollar in the past few years, and getting from the beach to his apartment in Beverly Hills would take Dix Steele twice as long now.

Steele must kill because he is not meant to live in Los Angeles; his East Coast sensibilities are more suited to gloomy days and busy streets. For him, Los Angeles is a lonely place. He occupies his time with trips to the dry cleaner on Olympic Boulevard and lunch at a diner on Beverly Boulevard. It is possible he enjoyed his smoked turkey at Nate ‘n Al’s. Built in 1945, the Beverly Hills delicatessen has been a favorite of many celebrities and is still owned by the Mendelson family.

After breakfast there, I wandered the surrounding streets–Dayton to Rexford–towards the Beverly Hills Police Station and City Hall. New, elaborate curved ramps and staircases connect the Beverly Hills Library to BHPD Headquarters on the second floor. The neon turquoise and block turrets are reminiscent of the 1940s art deco style, but the technology used behind the glass doors would have processed trace DNA evidence from the crime scenes, and BHPD would have captured Dix Steele before his second victim surfaced. According to historian Marc Wannamaker, “As the 1930s were coming to an end, the Beverly Hills Police Department were without equal in the country” (Images in America: Beverly Hills 1930-2005, 19). Still, the string of murders reported in the daily paper should have made all women reconsider walking alone at night or waiting alone at any bus stop. Today in Los Angeles, most women are savvier than that, better equipped to avoid treacherous possibilities.

Historically, Dorothy B. Hughes and other feminist fiction writers were not given the same literary respect as the men who dominated the genre; they had to boldly enter the male realm of detective noir. At the same time that Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep and The Lady in the Lake, writers like Hughes, Valerie Taylor, and Vera Caspery were venturing into the sinister darkness where previously women could only be victims. Hughes takes control of the crime and twists each scene so that eventually, femme fatale Laurel Gray helps detectives confront the killer.

Until Dix meets Laurel Gray, his self-imposed solitude is driving him mad. She unnerves him. When he sees her enter his apartment complex,

He was stimulated by merely talking with her; she was a lure, even with that ghostly blue light coating her face. [56]

When she rings his doorbell later, “He didn’t hurry. He walked with caution. The breath he took before setting his hand to the knob wasn’t deliberate. Not until he flung open the door and heard the breath expelled did he realize he’d been holding it.” [57] Their non-traditional courtship begins, and he fills her with lies about why he is living in a “friend’s” apartment. He gains confidence as she feigns interest. He wants to parade her around the city and introduce her to his friends. He relishes her moments of jealousy until they interfere with his plans. His tension is exacerbated by a lack of funds. Laurel needs a man who can shower her with expensive gifts, and this enrages Dix further. His only solace, albeit temporary, is sitting at the beach. ÒHe was there for a long time. Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn far at sea. Lost in a lonely place.” [170-171] But to truly find some inner peace, he must kill again. For the first time, he does not take all the necessary precautions to cover his crime.

Nonetheless, once his fury is satiated, he can enjoy the California sun and venture to the beach during daylight.

Relief bathed him, relief flowed gently, excitingly, over him and through him. … He didn’t have to hurry, there was no hurry now, no hurry at all. [175]

He drives his nondescript coupe, still careful to avoid places where he might run into Brub Nicolai, his friend and police detective.

Today the spirit of Los Angeles Noir is kept alive by author Denise Hamilton’s collections, as well as poetry and prose by famed L.A. authors Susan Straight, Gary Phillips, Hector Tobar, Suzanne Lummis, Naomi Hirahara, and Marsha de la O. Reading their work can help readers travel to an earlier Los Angeles without leaving home.


For this book and others like it, visit http://www.feministpress.org/books/fp-series/femmes-fatales. The Feminist Press at the City University of New York has reprinted the femme fatales–the best of women’s writing in the classic pulp genres of the mid-20th century!

For 14 years, Tisha Marie Reichle has been teaching reading and writing to 150+ not-always-willing teenagers and struggles to find time for her own work. For 10 years, she has been writing and revising a novel about the Chicana/o Student Movement at UCLA. Her stories utilize the desert landscape of her childhood and the urban chaos of her adulthood. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Some of her writing has been published at Annotation Nation, The Splinter Generation, 34th Parallel, and Inlandia Journal.

In the Arms of an Angel

In the Arms of an Angel
W. Ruth Kozak on Lord Byron
Greece

At the corner of Lysikrates and Vironos streets, in Athens’ Plaka, stands a choragic monument awarded during a Festival of Dionysus in ancient Athens. Next to this monument was once a French Capuchin convent where the English Romantic poet Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron, 1788-1824) stayed when he was in the city. The panels between the columns of the monument had, by Byron’s time, been removed, so he used the space as his study. He composed part of his autobiographical narrative poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, there in 1810-11.

In Greek, “Vironos” means Byron–Byron’s Street. I used to live in Athens and often spent time at the little milk shop, now a posh coffee shop, at that same corner. The convent was destroyed in a fire, but a monument to Byron was erected on the spot where it stood.

While in Athens, Bryon sometimes lodged with a widow, Tarcia Macri, whose daughter Teresa is celebrated in his poem “The Maid of Athens.”

Maid of Athens, ere we part/Give, oh give me back my heart!/Or, since that has left my breast,/ Keep it now, and take the rest!/Hear my vow before I go,/greek

The house, in the district of Psiri at Odos Agias Theklas, is marked with a plaque. There are traces of Byron in various other locations throughout the city, too. If you visit the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, you will see his name carved in the marble steps that he wrote of in “The Isles of Greece.”

Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,/ Where nothing, save the waves and I,/ May hear our mutual murmurs sweep.

Byron first visited Greece in 1809, landing in the town of Parga. From there he went north to Ioannina, where the infamous Ali Pasha, who had an even shadier reputation with women than the poet, held sway. Like Bryon, Ali Pasha also appreciated beautiful young men. He was enchanted by Byron, noting his delicate small ears, considered a mark of good breeding. It was during his stay in Ioannina that Byron began Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to commemorate his meeting with Ali Pasha, who had lavished hospitality on him. Byron knew that behind Ali’s deceptively friendly countenance were “deeds that lurk” and “stain him with disgrace.”

Byron traveled the country extensively, often visiting the islands. His surroundings appeared in his poems. On Lefkada (Levkas), for example, “Childe Harold” saw the hovering star above Leucadia’s far projecting rock of woe. This was at the site of ancient Leukadas, a precipitous cliff where a temple to Apollo once stood. Legend has it that the lyric poet Sappho jumped off the cliff here, killing herself, in 570 B.C. Today the spot is known as Sappho’s Leap.

During his travels, Byron not only grew to love the country but also was impressed with the moral tolerance of the people. He became involved in the War of Independence against the Turks. The struggle was supported by many intellectuals and poets who, like Lord Byron, volunteered to fight and become leaders of the revolution. When Byron arrived in Messolonghi (a port on the Gulf of Corinth), the western outpost of the resistance movement against the Ottomans, he was greeted with a 21-gun salute. In spite of despairing “in this realm of mud and discord,” he donated 4,000 pounds of his own money to prepare the Greek fleet for sea service, employed a fire master to prepare artillery, and paid the Souliot soldiers, who were reputed to be the bravest of the Greek resistance fighters.

On Suli’s rock, and Parga’s shore,/ Exists the remnant of a line/ Such as the Doric mothers bore:/And there, perhaps, some seed is sown,/ The Heracleidan blood might own./ Trust not for freedom to the Franks-/ They have a king who buys and sells;/ In native sword and native ranks,/ The only hope of courage dwells:/ But Turkish force and Latin fraud/ Would break your shield, however broad.

– “The Isles of Greece”

During the spring of 1824 Byron became ill and, during his recovery, contracted a severe cold. The common treatment of the day, bleeding, aggravated his body and may have caused sepsis. He died on April 19, 1824, at the age of 37.

The Greeks considered Byron a hero. A beautiful monument depicting him in the arms of an angel stands at the edge of the National Garden of Athens. Each time I’m there I visit it and think of the life and poetic words of this exceptional and intriguing man of literature.

W. Ruth Kozak is an ardent traveler who has lived in, and often visits, Greece, where she spends time browsing archaeological sites and doing research. She is fond of the Greek writers and poets, both ancient and modern. Ruth edits and publishes her own online travel magazine, Travel Thru History(www.travelthruhistory.com). She is a published travel writer and writing instructor. Find her atwww.ruthkozak.com.

Heartbreak and Hope

Heartbreak and Hope
Diane Sherlock on Jung Chang
China

Jung Chang’s Wild Swans is the story of three extraordinary women, and the story of China over the last hundred years. It reveals the secrets of one family, from the sale of Chang’s grandmother to an aging warlord in 1924 to that of her daughter, Xia De-hong (“wild swan”), who became a Communist during the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-Shek, and on to Jung Chang’s own experiences as a Red Guard and a peasant “bare-foot” doctor before she left China in 1978 to study in Britain.

– HarperCollins Publishers Australia


A combination of insightful memoir and descriptive chronicle of China from 1909-78 through the experience of Chang, her mother, and her grandmother, Wild Swans is an excellent introduction to visiting that country. It is also a fascinating account of how war affected three generations, from the concubine with her bound feet . . .

[A] woman teetering on bound feet was supposed to have an erotic effect on men, partly because vulnerability induced a feeling of protectiveness in the onlooker [24]

to one of Mao’s party members to the author herself. The book is still banned in China, but on our trip, we found that a number of Chinese had read it.

Our visit included Beijing, Xi’an, five days down the Yangtze River, and ended in Shanghai. We went to palaces and rural farms, to modern buildings and ancient tombs. It is a testament to her narrative skill that Chang weaves into the story so many experiences and areas of China, a vast and diverse country, and gives the reader an understanding of some of the history and culture during the early to mid-20th century. Throughout our trip, we saw echoes of that old China, of Maoist China, along with rural China, bustling modern cities, old villages and brand-new towns created after similar villages were submerged by the Three Gorges Dam. It’s been said that whatever you say about China, the opposite is also true. Even after a short trip of two weeks, that makes a lot of sense.

Chang’s father was born in Yibin and moved to nearby Chongqing in 1935 to find a job. We visited Chongqing. With a population of less than a million in the 1930s, it is now one of the world’s largest cities, with nearly 30 million people. It’s difficult to describe the scale; cities in China give new meaning to the word crowded. As with Chang’s father, the father of our guide was a staunch Maoist, despite the tens of millions who died from torture, forced labor, purges, assassinations, ethnic massacres and class genocide under Mao’s rule, including the 20-40 million who starved during the Great Leap Forward (both of which Chang documents in her exhaustive biography, Mao: The Unknown Story). Even now, the occasional joke or mild criticism we heard about Mao was followed by a quick look over the shoulder.

Through the haze of pollution that’s everywhere in Beijing, we saw Mao’s picture still prominently displayed and a long line to view his tomb. In the middle of Tiananmen Square, we were treated like rock stars by locals who wanted our picture. We began to wonder how many photo albums around China we ended up in. We also had the opportunity to visit a private home in the hutongs [narrow streets] outside of the Forbidden City and stroll the walkways of the Summer Palace, as well as the Great Wall, with some appreciation of the history, thanks to Wild Swans and our guide.

Throughout China, it was repeatedly called to our attention how much was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Fortunately, aesthetics have returned to China. Many of the new buildings are beautiful, and there are artists and artisans at work. We attended the Peking Opera, site of one of the more heart-rending scenes in the book:

There was a performance of the Peking Opera that night in another part of the city, with one of China’s most famous stars in the lead. My mother inherited her mother’s passion for the Peking Opera and was looking forward eagerly to the performance.

That evening she walked with her comrades in file to the opera, which was about five miles away. My father went in his car. On the way, my mother felt more pain in her abdomen, and contemplated turning back, but decided against it. Halfway through the performance the pain became unbearable. She went over to where my father was sitting and asked him to take her home in his car. . . . “How can I interrupt (the driver’s) enjoyment just because my wife wants to leave?” [145]

And so her mother walks back the five miles to her barracks and loses her first child with no one around.

As with China, there is much in the book to break one’s heart, but also reasons for hope. Wild Swans ends in the years 1976-78, which include Chang’s re-education assignment on the outskirts of Chengdu and from there to Xi’an (now known for the Terracotta Warriors), where she took the exams that enabled her to go to London and ultimately to write this book. China has come a long way since the days under Mao, when,

The whole nation slid into doublespeak. Words became divorced from reality, responsibility, and people’s real thoughts. Lies were told with ease because words had lost their meanings-and had ceased to be taken seriously by others. [225]

There is still much to make the case that for Old Hundred Names (the peasants), not much has changed since the time of the emperors, and yet China is modernizing at a staggering pace. In many ways, China is on the cusp, with a myriad of factors that could tip its future. Whatever conclusions one draws about China, the opposite is also sure to be true.

Diane Sherlock is the author of four novels, Dead Weight, Willful Ignorance, Growing Chocolate, and the upcoming Wrestling Alligators. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, scissors and spackle, The Citron Review, Mo+th (Bombshelter), and Bird in the Hand: Risk & Flight (Outrider). She co-founded and edits AnnotationNation.com and maintains a blog on the craft of fiction writing. Diane holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Born in La Jolla, California, she currently lives in Los Angeles. Twitter: @Diane_Sherlock.

The Gibraltar of Greece

The Gibraltar of Greece
W. Ruth Kozak on the poet Yannis Ritsos
Monemvasia, Greece

I know that each one of us travels to love alone,
Alone to faith and to death.
I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
Let me come with you.

– “Moonlight Sonata”


The towering rock of Monemvasia rises from the sea on the southeastern coast of the Peloponnese. Known as the Gibraltar of Greece, it has been a fortified settlement since ancient times. Its name, which dates to the sixth century, means “sole entrance”–so named because the only access is through a fortified tunnel.

The scenery is as harsh as silence.

Lying on an important trade route, Monemvasia was repeatedly besieged. The Franks occupied it until 1200, when they were expelled by Byzantine troops and the town became a naval station for the Byzantine Empire. It was later occupied by the Venetians when inhabitants asked for their help against pirates. When Venetian power began to wane, Monemvasia fell to the Turks. The city was recaptured by the Venetians, but it wasn’t until the Greek War of Independence in 1821 that the town was liberated.

Ritsos was born here in 1909. An aristocrat by birth and renowned in Greece as an actor and director, he was one of the country’s most beloved poets. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, Russia’s highest literary honor, in 1956, and he was named a Golden Wreath laureate, the most prestigious award of the international Struga Poetry Evenings festival, in 1985.

I arrived in Monemvasia early one morning by bus from Athens. At first it seemed not much more than a quiet coastal town dominated by the steep rock offshore, which is connected to the town by a long causeway. Boats crowded the harbor and small shops and tavernas lined the shore. I found a pleasant pension overlooking the sea and set out to explore.

I took the causeway out to the rock to find the walled, medieval old town, which is invisible from the shore. As I approached through the vaulted stone gateway, I found myself in another age. The narrow cobbled streets wind up the side of the rock, which is topped by a castle fortress. Many of the old buildings are restored and house boutiques, bed and breakfasts, and small bistros. A relative of Ritsos owns one of the tavernas. Many of the old buildings still have the crests of Venetian noble families on the old wooden doors.

Monemvasia truly is a step back into the glorious age of Byzantine Greece. I lost myself in the past as I edged my way down the narrow cobbled streets or rested in a shaded courtyard. It was easy to imagine what life was like here, hidden away on the rocky slope of the mountain, with the teal-colored sea churning below. Although much of the old “lower” town is in ruins, the family home of Yannis Ritsos has been restored and turned into a museum. A monument to the poet stands outside the house.

Misfortune visited Ritsos’s life. He experienced the death of his mother and oldest brother from tuberculosis when he was young, and his father was committed to a mental institution. He too contracted tuberculosis and spent four years, from 1927 to 1931, in a sanitarium. In later years, because of his leftist politics, he was imprisoned and exiled and his poetry banned in Greece. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, his suffering, he poured his heart into his work, writing more than 100 books over his lifetime.

The sun finally reaches the backroom window. / Someone shouts outside in the street. / These things seem different to the loveless.

During the 1980s, Ritsos wrote nine novels, compiled under the title Iconostase of the Anonymous Saints. Written in his poetic style, they are filled with a sense of sadness and loss. Ritsos died in Athens on November 11, 1990. He is buried in the cemetery outside the walls of Monemvasia.

W. Ruth Kozak is an ardent traveler who has lived in, and often visits, Greece, where she spends time browsing archaeological sites and doing research. She is fond of the Greek writers and poets, both ancient and modern. Ruth edits and publishes her own online travel magazine, Travel Thru History (www.travelthruhistory.com). She is a published travel writer and writing instructor. Find her at www.ruthkozak.com.