Winifred & Me

Young Winifred

Winifred Culliton Enright

My mother, Winifred Culliton Enright, was a painter. Her paintings hang on my walls. They have gone everywhere with me, to the South Seas and back. They have survived all the tropical cyclones I have. They are as part of my life as this tattoo, and like a tattoo I hardly see them anymore. They are her surrounding metaphor, she who is always with me but rarely in my thoughts.

Having an artist, an art teacher, for a mother took some of the mystery out of the profession. Her old studio—a room added onto a barn out back—was my play room when I became old enough to be trusted alone. In it were flat drawers and files of her art work from earlier years. I remember charcoal sketches of male art-school models, their jockstraps as well drawn as their muscle culture, always faceless or with their heads turned away.

The concept of careers wasn’t much pushed on kids of my generation. I don’t recall anyone ever asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. But if they had, I would have blithely said a painter. I was already trying my hand. My earliest memories of drawing are of sailing ships. I could draw you the difference between a bark and a brigantine and name every sail and spar on a clipper ship. Mind you, in inner-city Buffalo I had never seen a sail boat, much less been on one. They were mythical vessels from pictures in books. Later, I read every sea-going saga in the Fairfield branch of the Buffalo Public Library. I was Midshipman Horatio Hornblower. I painted water colors of our frigate foolishly under mainsails in a heavy sea. I had never seen the sea.

Winifred had been trained at the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, which was part of the city’s Albright Art Gallery. When I was sixteen I asked if I could take summer art classes at the now Albright-Knox Gallery. I had no idea what it cost—it never occurred to me—but she arranged it. I didn’t miss a class, even though I was playing baseball for several teams that summer. I would haul my catcher’s equipment bag with me to class with my uniform and all and then hide my art stuff in it from the guys I played with later in the day.

I don’t want to make too much of this, that my mother was an artist. By the time I knew her, she was mostly a mother. She’d had eight kids after marrying at thirty. I was the second to last. I remember once when I was a kid sneaking a look through vanity drawers and coming across her small box of jewelry, inside which was a fancy gold pin that said Art. At the time, I thought it referred to my dad, whose name was Art, and I thought that was neat, that she had a gold pin with his name on it. My oldest brother Joe became a painter for a while. I didn’t.

I never made it past semipro baseball either, though once I left home I have always needed to be near the sea. I was eighteen when I decided I would rather be a poet than a painter. Maybe I should have stuck with the brushes. For thirty years, Winifred was my most constant correspondent, and she carefully filed away every letter and postcard and poem and book of poetry I mailed her. And every time I brought a new wife to Buffalo to meet her, Win would treat them just like family. She was good at that. God bless her. She was good at a lot of things. She lived to be 94.

North Korean Soldiers

North Korean Soldiers

In the photo of the North Korean soldiers
can you zoom in on the woman marching
on the far left, the one with the fewest
medals on her chest and a mouth
like the petals of a baby flower,
the one holding her Kalashnikov
as if it were a Stradivarius?
God, she doesn’t want to be there.
Is that why she’s the prettiest?


Novel Talk


Saturday I gave a talk and reading at the Newport Public Library—a fine room, a lovely audience of sixteen. I sold two books, to old friends. (New Englanders are not into spontaneous purchases, a parsimonious crowd.) (Don’t forget that their Revolution was about not paying taxes.)  But listening to me was free. What I made on sales paid for drinks and a shared dish of fried calamari after at the Fastnet pub for Connie and me. I’m not complaining. Good squid, good Guinness, good company. A receptive audience at the reading as well. For those of you who missed the talk, here’s an excerpt, about writing novels.

I would like to read you some excerpts from the novels; but, given this opportunity, I would first like to throw in my tuppence about what makes novels work, whatever their pigeon-holed genre.

There is structure, of course. That’s a given. You’re telling a story, and in our Western tradition that means a beginning, a middle, and an end, however managed. That’s not a universal, by the way. It’s a requirement lacking in the folk tales of many cultures, and it is pretty much totally missing in the books of the Old Testament. But American readers are trained to have expectations they liked fulfilled. I think in three acts—set it up, fuck it up, resolve it.

For me, inside that structure there are three major areas of creative concern—character, place, and plot. In that order of importance. For me, novels are where I get to meet new and hopefully fascinating people—characters I want to hang out with or at least observe in true erratic human fashion, whose dialog both confirms and surprises. When I remember books, I remember characters.

Two, place. Real places, places closely observed and described. Places I can feel and see and smell. Nothing fantasy—no distant planets, please, no Narnias or Middle-earths or antiseptic Starships—but rooms I might sleep in, trails I would like to walk, real city streets that could not care less about me.

Plot is last, but you got to have one. By the way, plot is also not a universal in folk narratives, at least not plot as we think of it. I had a friend whose favorite put-down line was, “And your point is?” She watched a lot of television. Everything had to have a point, had to reach some previously hidden but predetermined dénouement. Every story was some sort of morality play.

The very popular success of the detective story has led to this. Those seemingly infinite hours of cop-show reruns on cable has pushed plot to the forefront—its twists and decoys, red mackerels and clever deductions. Plot has come to be synonymous with suspense, which is fine for a TV show that has to hold the viewer’s attention through multiple commercial breaks. (“Ask your doctor if this snake oil is right for you.”) But now that standard is being applied to novels as well, so that Grisham and King are the largest names on book covers—authors who admit the only way they can hold their readers’ attention is by scaring them or holding them hostage to the next secret. What was the name of that Dan Brown blockbuster, the one they made into a movie? I can never remember its name. The pacing of an international perils of Pauline. The language, the author’s voice has been drowned out by the suspenseful music on the soundtrack and the next staccato burst of automatic gunfire.

My Samoan mentor, the great playwright and screenwriter John Kneubuhl, who wrote episodes for many serial TV shows in the ‘50s and ‘60s, once pointed out to me that there are only four or five basic plots (which I have forgotten). “Boy meets girl; boy looses girl; boy gets girl back.” Think about it—are any of the novels in your personal pantheon there because of their plot? Reading a good novel should be more than finding out who done it. There is this garden of language and insight, character and place where a book can take you.

Plots are nice. Plots are necessary. So is popcorn at the movies, but you don’t judge the quality of your night at the flics by how fresh the popcorn was.