I fall headlong into a three-foot deep pool in an oxbow of a small stream while trout fishing with my father in the Unita mountains of Utah. I am five years old. The pool is patterned with sunlight and the swift current forces me into the cut bank beneath a huge cottonwood tree. The sun through the bubbles and turbulent water is blue and green and white, and so surprising and beautiful that it doesn’t occur to me to be afraid. My father is suddenly beside me and hoisting me back into the air by the placket of my shirt. Only when I see his face, deep behind his beard, twisted into a wordless grimace, do I cry out.
My great aunt Justine never buys me anything but books. For birthdays, for Christmas, for no particular reason at all, she buys me books. She is sixty-six years my senior, and an English professor and my hero. She indulges my every intellectual enthusiasm and I still have the books that she bought me on mummification, paper airplanes and Native American mythology. When we are both older, she gives me her pencil-annotated personal copies of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and Bernard Malamud. Her copy of Life Along the Passaic River has William Carlos Williams’ autograph taped to the flyleaf.
Mine was a junior high school where the lines of class warfare were clearly drawn: if you had money, you were a Jock—whether or not you played sports; if you didn’t have money, you were a Redneck, and there was no question if you hunted, or if your family owned a truck, because you did and they did. I didn’t hunt or play sports or have money. My mother was an ER nurse, my father was a Biology professor, and I was way more interested in music and books than guns and cars. Socially, I was fucked.
One summer, while visiting with my Aunt Justine in San Francisco, I left my paperback copy of The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories on the coffee table in her living room. She picked it up by one corner and asked disdainfully, “Are you reading this?” When I admitted that I was, she told me that she had known Hemingway a little during the summer of 1924 when she lived in Paris after graduate school. “Ernie,” she told the seventeen-year-old me, “was an asshole.”
When I encountered the poems of James Wright in an Intro to Creative Writing class at the University of Utah, I was thunderstruck. I was sitting on a sofa in the student union with the doorstop of The Norton Anthology bent open across my knee, when I first read “Northern Pike.” While the biographical note called Wright, “Midwestern,” I knew that was dead wrong. He was as Appalachian as me. Until that moment, I didn’t know that you could make art out of cattails and muskrats and crawdads (even if they required an explanatory footnote), or that a life anything like mine could be worthy of poetry. “There must be something very beautiful in my body, / I am so happy.”
I have a remarkably sticky brain. Lines of dialog, stanzas of poems, the melodies of songs—they all get stuck in my head like moths on flypaper. Once, I had “The Spanish Flea” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass on repeat in the jukebox of my skull for fourteen months.
In an attempt to fulfill the obligation that came with the gift of an old violin, I asked around for someone to help me learn a tune or two—“Twinkle Twinkle,” “Three Blind Mice”—anything. A friend directed me to Mose Coffman. Mose was born in 1905 and learned to play the fiddle before he had ever heard a radio. The man who taught him to fiddle was a Civil War veteran; the woman who taught him the banjo was a freed slave. Almost every Wednesday for over a year, I visited him in the nursing home where he lived. Whenever I would scratch out anything even remotely resembling the tune he’d played for me, he’d tilt his head in my direction and say, “You can’t learn this music all in one day.”
In graduate school, Nora Mitchell suggested that I might like the poems of Eamon Grennan. In his work I found so much of what I love in poetry: ekphrasis, nature, kindness, bewilderment, and music. Grennan’s poems are as lyrical as any out there, and the boldness with which he pursues the music in a line emboldened me. When I met him years later, I was surprised to discover that he himself is not a musician. Given the ear that he brings to the page, I had just assumed.
In one of my classes this semester, a student blushed and shook her head when I praised a particularly wonderful essay that she had written. “Whenever I write something that I think might be good, I’m afraid that it might be the last good thing I ever write,” she said. Shouldn’t there be a badge or a sash or a medallion we can present to people like her whenever they finally recognize that they belong to our tribe?