Ted Enslin, by Ted Wojtasik

Ted Enslin (1925-2011)
by Ted Wojtasik

I knew Ted Enslin for one decade, and in that time he became one of my most memorable and important friends. Each time a good friend or a family member dies, an emptiness opens up within me—no more. With Ted it is no more laughter, no more letters, no more talks, no more poetry. His death is a profound loss.

I first met Ted in the spring of 2000 in a terminal at the Fayetteville, North Carolina, Regional Airport when he flew down to St. Andrews the first time to do a reading for the Writers’ Forum, a weekly event at our university. Whit Griffin and I had gone to pick him up. (Whit was an undergraduate student at St. Andrews at the time and actively involved in the creative writing program.)

Ted had a rather formidable reputation. He had published over 100 books and chapbooks when I first met him and I knew that he was considered an avant-garde poet who wrote highly musical poems. In fact, he had studied musical composition with Nadia Boulanger who recognized his talent for writing and encouraged him to pursue poetry. Ted often said that he considered himself “a composer who happens to use words instead of notes.”

Waiting in the terminal I did not know what to expect that evening. His flight had been seriously delayed; Alison, his wife, had called a colleague worried about him and the delayed flight; and then Ted walked through the gate wearing a pair of jeans, his long gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, a walking stick in hand, a pierced ear, a broad smile, a pair of eyeglasses low on his nose, and a beard—a grand Fireside Poet’s white whiskers. Despite the delayed flight, Ted was in fine mettle and pleased to meet us. That evening the three of us became instantaneous friends.

On the drive back to campus, the conversation ricocheted from magic realism and Alejo Carpentier to mythology in The White Goddess, by Robert Graves, and firewood (Maine winters). Ted was quite impressed that Whit knew that Osage Orange is some of the hottest burning wood in the world. Ted and I also talked about Isak Dinesen. Ted had recently re-read the short story “Sorrow-Acre” and had been musing deeply over it. Fortunately, I had read most of Dinesen’s short stories, the magnificent memoir Out of Africa and a biography about her, so I was familiar with her work and her life. On that 45-minute drive what I remember most is that Dinesen was the most salient topic of conversation. Later, that fall, the St. Andrews Press would publish a chapbook titled Ring, by Ted Enslin, which is a long poem he wrote in response to Dinesen’s “Sorrow-Acre.” The poem had been brewing in his mind on the flight down from Maine and in his conversation on the drive back to campus.

Whit became close friends with Ted and had formally studied with him for one week one summer at his home in Maine. Ever since then Whit would visit him in Maine each year, sometimes twice a year. I also became close friends with Ted and spent numerous memorable occasions with him in Laurinburg, North Carolina; Milbridge, Maine; and the Outer Banks.

One such memorable occasion occurred on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Ted and Denver Butson, another poet and through whom I met Ted, were both at St. Andrews for the week to meet with students to discuss their poetry, to teach a few classes, and to read at the Thursday night Writers’ Forum. I had an 11:00 a.m. class, which was an introduction to creative writing. Ted and Denver were going to be guest lecturers that morning.

Between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. I heard about the airplane attacks on the Twin Towers. At 10:30 a.m. I heard that the North Tower had collapsed. I had lived in New York City, in Chelsea, while getting my MFA at Columbia University, and I used to wake up each morning to the Twin Towers. I kept thinking and saying, “The North Tower collapsed? It collapsed? How is that possible?” I had imagined it plunging sideways over lower Manhattan, not imploding. Then the Pentagon attack. The South Tower collapsing. The crash into the Pennsylvania field. It was sheer pandemonium. Radio. Internet. Television. Telephone. Cell phone. President Bush on Air Force One. All flights canceled and all active flights grounded. Denver lived in Brooklyn with Rhonda (then his girlfriend, now his wife). No one knew if there were going to be more attacks. No one knew what was going on. Denver couldn’t reach Rhonda by cell phone or landline, because the systems were all overwhelmed.

Dazed the three of us walked into my classroom. Some students had not yet heard anything. Ted and Denver talked briefly about poetry and about the tragedy unfolding. And then I canceled class. The president of the university also canceled all classes for the rest of the day.

The three of us went to the Pine Acres Lodge where Ted and Denver were staying. All the rest of the day we sat in Ted’s motel room and watched television while Denver kept trying to reach Rhonda. Eventually, he did, and she was fine but frightened. We really didn’t do anything except stare disbelievingly at the television screen all afternoon and all evening. At one point, for dinner, I drove to Kentucky Fried Chicken to buy a bucket of fried chicken. Part of my life history is that on the day of 9/11 I was with Ted Enslin and Denver Butson in a hotel room in Laurinburg, North Carolina, watching television and eating KFC.

Another memorable occasion happened the first time I visited Ted at his home in Milbridge, Maine, the summer of 2002. I also had the pleasure of meeting his wife Alison. On that visit, I saw and explored his eighteenth-century house. We then walked down the macadam road so many yards. At the start of a grassy lane, Ted pointed out Alison’s potting shed in the woods near the road. We strolled up the grassy lane through some woods and fields to Bloomside, a small A-frame cabin that is his writing studio.

I now had a vivid image of Ted at home in his poetic world in Maine. I could now see him ambling down the road each morning and hiking up the grassy lane to work in his studio. Ted moved to Maine in 1960 and had lived in Washington County ever since—it is difficult to separate Ted from Maine or Maine from Ted, so intertwined had the two become in his work and in his very existence. It is difficult for me to think that his fine intelligence, his poetic sensibility, and his generous nature are no longer part of this world. It is difficult for me to think that this good man is no longer walking up that grassy lane to his studio to write poetry.

Ted had always remained on the margins, literally and figuratively, away from the crowds and away from literary fashion. He was, as Herman Melville would say, an isolato, someone who remains isolated from the world to be able to function in the world. For decades Ted remained alone in his studio writing poetry, and he wrote book after book of poetry. Someone once said that he was the best-known unknown poet of his generation.

He not only wrote poems, but he also wrote letters in that studio. The summer of 2011 I knew something was wrong when I sent him some essays I had written with a brief note and did not receive a letter back from him within a few days. Ted was one of the most prolific letter writers I have ever known. If you sent him a letter, he would respond to it within a few days, and he corresponded with numerous writers, poets, and friends. In that studio he would write poetry, write letters, and listen to his beloved Mozart. That studio and those back fields and woods were his Walden.

In many ways he was similar to Henry David Thoreau in that he was a naturalist who loved the wildness of woods and fields and seas—and he had all three because Milbridge is a village on the Maine coastline. And that is one reason he loved the St. Andrews campus so much. On more than one occasion, he stayed in the Lake House. He enjoyed walking along the cypress swamp and Lake Ansley. He liked the geese, the ducks, the egret, the great blue heron. He could identify each tree and shrub and plant, common name and botanical name. As Thoreau writes in The Maine Woods:

“Is it the lumberman, then, who is the friend and lover of the pine, stands nearest to it, and understands its nature best? Is it the tanner who has barked it, or he who has boxed it for turpentine, whom posterity will fable to have been changed into a pine at last? No! no! it is the poet; he it is who makes the truest use of the pine—who does not fondle it with an axe, nor tickle it with a saw, nor stroke it with a plane—who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it—who has not bought the stumpage of the township on which it stands. All the pines shudder and heave a sigh when that man steps on the forest floor. No, it is the poet, who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand.”

For 51 years, from 1960 to 2011, the Maine woods have shuddered and heaved a sigh each morning as Ted Enslin stepped on the forest floor to walk to his studio to write poetry.

Author Bio: Dr. Ted Wojtasik, an award-winning writer, holds two terminal degrees: an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in twentieth-century American literature from the University of South Carolina. He is the author of two novels and numerous short stories. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, NC.

That’s the Story of, That’s the Glory of . . . , by Sarah Tucker

Sarah Tucker
“That’s the story of, that’s the glory of…”

I have come to realize that life contains very little of what I imagined it would. I never imagined I would have to sell a textbook back in the middle of a semester. I never imagined my gas light would scream up at me, daily, from a broken down dashboard. Who thought that at nineteen I would know sixty ways to prepare ramen noodles, and four ways to wear clothes before having to break down and use the last of my laundry detergent? I know this lifestyle is common for a college student, but this has been my lifestyle for as long as I can remember.

I have been poor my entire life, but I cannot bring myself to believe that any life has been more fulfilling. There is such a sense of accomplishment after rolling your smoking car down a street and into a parking spot. That sense of accomplishment is enough to cover the dread of having to ride the city bus for the next six months.

At six I found myself curled against my mother in the passenger seat of a Metro, at the edge of a Bi-Lo parking lot. To my six year old naivety it was little different from the trailer park we had just fled from; only here no one would lock me in a bedroom and force me to powerlessly listen to my mother’s screams.

I think innocence is what makes this lifestyle bearable; I think it was innocence that saved me. I saw my mother being dragged across the floor by her hair once, and I had no clue that my home life was any different than the average six year old’s; I only knew that it made my mother cry.

At eleven when my power was disconnected, my mother’s optimism towards roasting stale marshmallows over tea candles was the shield that kept me from losing the idea that I was no different from anyone else. I was thirteen before I realized to a definite extent that my lifestyle was in fact a bit different from most. I was living in a leased townhome with my mother. We had no carpet and could not afford to turn on the gas; we spent two winters on concrete floors with no heat or hot water. It was the January after my thirteenth birthday that it hit me. I was boiling water on my (thank God!) electric stove and carrying it to the tub in order to take a bath when out of nowhere the searing, angry epiphany hit me. “Why am I living this life? What anomaly of the universe placed me in this cold, tungsten lit apartment?”

That anger stayed with me for a long time before it faded to something bittersweet. It stayed with me long enough to kill my grades and ruin relationships; it stayed with me long enough to stain me. I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror and realized that the anger was no longer just inside of me; it had made its way through and discolored the very image of me. That anger essentially turned me into the person I am today. The only difference between then and now being that the stain did finally fade from anger to bitterness; from bitterness to acceptance.

I won’t ever say that this life isn’t trying, that I don’t wake up some mornings worried about how my mother and I will make the eighty seven dollar payment arrangement with the power company. Days like those are the most exhausting; however, it’s an exhaustion that drives me. I’m already so tired, but I know once we get the bill paid, the obstacle overcome, I will be permitted to sleep. Being poor brings out the strongest in people, at least in me. It gives me the determination to survive and the ability to accept the moments when the stuff hits the fan.

My mother and I have been evicted four times in my lifetime. Nothing will ever match the anxiety I felt each time I saw the sheriff arrive to hand over the notice, or came home to find the yellow beacon of bad news taped to my front door. At eleven, at thirteen, at fourteen, and at seventeen, I cried. The idea of having nowhere to go never became easier to live with. Somehow, each time, at the end of ten days my mother and I would have somewhere to call home, for however long.

New Years eve of 2005 I was sitting on the front stoop of my apartment building when I saw a tow truck pull into our parking lot and park behind my mother’s car. I didn’t have to ask any questions; I just knew. I held a finger up to the driver and motioned for him to wait. I stood on the tired legs of my thirteen year old body, and walked in to face my mother, “Their taking our car today, Mom.” I couldn’t help but to cry at that moment too. My mother’s eyes said “I’m sorry” in a million different ways, but no more words were spoken. My mother grabbed my hand, picked up her keys, and together we walked out and handed them over, and together we watched the man drive away with what felt like our only lifeline. We lost two more cars after that, and each time there was nothing to say. I could have been angry, but I couldn’t place blame on my mother. My mother, who worked an all-consuming job, simply to make ends meet.

In August of 2008 we miraculously signed a lease for a two bedroom, one and one half bathroom, carpeted, all electric, townhome. After putting out the money for the deposit and first month’s rent we were broke. My mother sold our car for seventy five dollars to pay for a U-Haul, and we moved our belongings within a matter of three hours. We pulled up outside of our new place and I was home. We moved in two bookshelves, two end tables, one queen sized bed, and a second hand fichus tree. It was everything we owned besides clothing and toiletries. My mother set up the end tables as if they were placed on the two ends of a couch. The bookshelves were placed in our otherwise bare dining room, and the queen size bed in the biggest master bedroom I had ever seen. At fifteen I shared a bed with my mother and a half bald stray cat we had adopted; it was unorthodox, but it was home.

By December we had enough money to buy a cheap futon for the living room. The purchase was made at Big Lots, and I can never forget how happy we were when we brought it home. We devoured the assembly instructions as if they were the first signs of life on a deserted island. We tightened the final bolts and pushed it into place between the two end tables, right where it belonged. Four months later we laughed till we cried as we carried the broken piece of shit to the dumpster.

I am a nineteen year old college student that sold my most important text books in the middle of a semester, simply to put gas in my car. I won’t say that I’m as bad off as I have been. The bills are more commonly paid on time, Christmas exists again, and I sleep in the comfort of a heated apartment instead of a passenger seat. We have long since been evicted from the townhouse I called home, and I now live in a one story matchbox. I haven’t watched a car get repossessed since I was 14, and our current car is in fact, paid off and breaks down consistently every four to six months. My mother and I finally furnished our house in 2009 with secondhand furniture bought at an estate sale for a total of forty dollars, and I can now say that we are sitting pretty, but only while lounging on the couch. I am grateful things aren’t as bad as they have been, but in honesty I would have never known how quickly a month passes without having to wonder where the rent was coming from. Destitution has taught me to appreciate the rainy day, for even the rainy day has a purpose.

What the Gardener Knows, by Brenda Smith

Brenda Smith
What the Gardener Knows

I stand in a cultivated castle garden in Ireland, camera in hand, trying to preserve the moment. Leaning, shadows on leaves, pink more delicate than the inside of a cracked eggshell, the kind from those hens that lay brown speckled eggs. Leaning, not straight, hollyhocks, I think. The gardener knows that he could not make this living thing straight even if he wished it, fervently wished it. Nature and the draw of sunlight has an agenda all their own; scientific laws that govern the leanings of things, the swaying of things, even. All pale pink and feathery and leaning, almost dangerously, the hollyhock. My yearning would be to straighten the stalk for fear of its leaning itself to death, breaking the lifeline that keeps the juices flowing from earth to blossom. But all things die in their time. Whether it’s the real “right” time or not, I can’t consider here, and anyway, who am I to say what is death’s correct hour. Even if I could render that information, I think it would only tear my heart out, knowing of all the what-ifs surrounding each life and soul involved in the balance of the universe. A knowledge too heavy for anyone, even for a gardener. But a gardener is wise enough, at least, to not fret over the leaning of the fragilely pink hollyhocks.

Now there are brother hollyhocks surrounding my cockeyed friend that are straight and tall, but they are not the center of the photo. Straightness is not the draw here—the allure is all crookedness and waving light. Straightness suppresses the shadows and reminds the gardener of something too trained to be itself. He has had enough of that to last a lifetime. Sure, the owner of the garden, knowing virtually nothing of the way of plants, only of the “effect” she desires to impose upon her visitors, has instructed, in the most strict of manners, the design that the gardener was to maintain with his paths and trimmings and, so often, the designs were straight. Straight and narrow. But my flower of choice is pink and leaning, leaning out over its boundary to draw me in.

The foxglove leans, too. But it is a variety of magenta and is speckled, and is not nearly so delicate a color. More bold and in your face and it exudes a confidence in itself that it will endure all the leaning you care to send its way: even errant children with bats or the gales of a hurricane. Of course its confidence is false, what with baseball bats being made of stainless steel these days, and hurricanes blowing down houses of stone. The foxglove has built around its magenta self a false sense of security for sure. But not the hollyhock. That makes its leaning all the more brave.

Farther down the path are two more spires of hollyhocks, wearing a pink even more delicate than the leaner. These two companions are more straight, but then, you see, I’m not a scientist and nothing is really straight, is it? All you need to prove that is some kind of multimillion dollar instrument that measures the hell out of anything sent its way, mili-whatevers of measurement so small that I question the sanity of anyone who spends more than a mili-second worrying about them. And so, in the garden, with the gardener’s mind, I see a few hollyhocks, of the most magnificent fine pink, standing straighter. They told me they did this, on this particular day, just so I would have the leaner in better perspective. Just for the lesson I could wring from it. And now I feel badly about the lesson—the fact that I have to wring it from the stalks. (Sometimes the gardener, at the orders of the owners, is obliged to train them up in the way the owner feels they should go, so that when they are old they will not depart from it. We wouldn’t want an old plant leaning too far out into the path, would we?)

The gardener mourns with me that I should have to heave myself up onto a makeshift stepping rock to peer over the six-foot wall to see the river. All castles have water somewhere around them, it seems, but this garden has walled the water off from view. Now, if you are inside the castle, you can look out of the windows at the river as it glides by. The hollyhocks and I would prefer to have water much closer by, to gaze at, and to lean toward. Let me strain to see over this wall again. Willow trees trail into the water from the low grassy bank and the field is all mowed around them. Someone walks here then? I see a fence around one of the trees. I must ask the gardener what he knows about this, for my limited castle-deprived American mind does not have a clue why a tree must be fenced.

On downstream, if I climb through overgrown hedgerows of the garden’s outer rim, I can see a stone arched bridge over this river. The curved grace of the arch echoes the calm current and the quiet strength of the arch, that marvel of architecture. I wonder how exactly it happened that ancient man discovered the power of the arch. Was it by accident, by repeated scientific experiment, or maybe the gardener just watched a hollyhock bend over without breaking and suggested the construction, offhandedly, to his brother the stonemason?

Time to move on– up the hill and into the formal garden where the array of colors in the arranged beds is mesmerizing, even if the rows are planned by man. As always, I am magnetized toward the lavender bed, rioting out of its border and rendering the most fantastic scent known to mankind. (I realize that, to a hungry man, this scent is rivaled equally by the aroma of a grilling steak, but we are talking of what the gardener knows here, not the cook.) I stand with my camera behind the lavender explosion to capture it in the foreground, and see, that stretching out behind it, beneath carefully carved arches of squared-off shrubbery, is a straight path. It leads off into the heart of the garden, all laid-out in geometric grids, straight lines and such. But what the gardener knows is that in the beds between every carefully planned grid are the blossoming flowers, bursting their colors over the trimmed hedges and toward the path. They lean over the staid bushes meant to contain them. The escapees are pink, pale, and draping blue, using the sawed-off tops of the border shrubs as beds to recline on as they lean out. And they love the gardener for his seeming laxness, I think. They know that if bidden, or if he chooses, the gardener can trim them back, too. Then all will be neat and tidy.

Yet of all the occupations known to man, I think the gardener knows better that any other, that the quest to contain and control, the quest for perfection, is the least able to be attained by those in his profession. For as fast as he trims along one lane of paths, another lane is growing every second. (You know I could prove that if I wanted to invest in one of those multimillion dollar measuring devices used by the scientists. But I think instead I’ll just rely on my eyes as they watched a National Geographic special that featured sped-up nature photography of a flower blooming. Every second those rascals are growing, I tell you.) And so, that being proven, to my satisfaction at least, I come to the truth of what the gardener knows. He knows that nothing can be contained, nothing fully trained, if it is indeed a pure creation of nature. No matter how diligently man attempts to order the natural world around him, total control is impossible. Even partial control is illusive. The gardener knows, however, that he must still try. He knows that he must try, not because the future of his employment depends upon it (even though it does), but because we humans will not be able to survive without the constant battle to beat back nature at its own game of growing every second of every day.

Our survival depends upon it as surely as it depends upon anything. You only have to plant a stand of bamboo in your back yard to prove this to yourself. Every day the little garden of cane will advance toward its goal of taking over the entire mowed surface of your lawn. It is not even satisfied with that, as it demonstrates by insinuating itself into walls and buildings. Some has gotten loose in my own yard, you see, and I half expect it to creep in my bedroom window during a warm summer night and begin to stab holes into my mattress from its fortress under the bed.

Back to the gardener. He knows, too, in his quest for the aesthetically pleasing, that the battle of symmetrical over a leaning asymmetric hollyhock, is all about control. Without trying for control, the beauty of a garden could never be. If all earth was a mass of uncontained chaotic jungle, what is beautiful about an ordered garden could never be appreciated. Without the contrast of chaos, order would have no value. We only value what is hard-fought to obtain. The gardener knows this. The gardener knows this is his job security for all eternity.

The gardener knows that all of nature is a dance between every living atom to survive, to be noticed, to dominate. But in the end, knows the gardener, dominion is as unattainable as the perfect summer breeze, still vivid in the memory, from a random summer day in childhood, when perfection was neither sought nor recognized, but only fifty years later, acknowledged. The mind wants to hold forever this memory of perfection, but every day the thought of the breeze smoothing over a bare arm grows fainter. Control of all things natural is illusive: the hollyhocks we can touch, and the memories that fade no matter how desperately we work to make them stay.

The gardener bends slightly to caress the pinkness of the blossom and a perfect breeze caresses his arm. And the gardener knows, and smiles.