By Jim Miller
In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil [The Brazilian News ] not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,”a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”
What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontieri tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.
More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less–I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with two novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”
Nonetheless the urge to narrate persists. Along with Lispector I am cursed with it–for better or worse. So for a few lazy weeks of summer I will try my hand at the form. But why write at all in a world filled with so many problems? For that perhaps I should turn to the great Pablo Neruda, who, in a lightning interview with Lispector in one of her chrônicas answered the question “what is the most important thing in the world?” with this: “To try and make the world a worthy place for everyone, not just the privileged few.”
And for this, Neruda turned to politics but also to poetry and said his “greatest satisfaction as a writer” came when he was able “to read my verses to ordinary people in the remotest places: to miners in the highest desert regions of Northern Chile, to wool shearers in the Magellan straights in a shed smelling of unwashed wool, sweat, and solitude.”
While I have not had the rare joy of bringing poetry to a shed in the Magellan straights, I do have my own remote connection to coal miners, two generations removed.
So on this day after Father’s Day, I remember my own father, long dead. I once wrote a poem about his “hands covered with tiny scars” as he “steers the truck, stares blankly at the road.” It was a meditation on thankless work and longing for the “lush green fields of your childhood” that might “make the work simple and good” and “take the sneer off the face of the world.”
My father had a hard life. His mother, an Irish immigrant, was killed in a car accident when he was a child. His father, an autoworker, then a mechanic in Detroit and northern Michigan, where he finished his work life as a small town cop, raised him.
My grandfather was a tough man who, as I heard many times, taught my dad to never come home from school crying after a fight or he’d get another beating there. He taught my father to swim by tossing him off a dock and yelling at him to kick toward the edge or sink.
When my Dad was growing up, he had to go pick up his father at the bar when he was too drunk to drive and the bartender called. My grandfather taught my Dad how to work hard, hunt, fish, and play sports. That’s what life was all about: work and sports.
According to family legend, Grandfather played some professional baseball. And my mythic great uncle was a semi-pro football player for mining town teams and always “got carried home after he got knocked out.” And that was a badge of honor–being a hardheaded son of a bitch.
Thus Grandfather left my Dad two things: his old Winchester rifle and a clear mission in life–tough it out.
Despite all this, my father idealized the Michigan of his childhood. It was always better than California–simple and good without the rough edges. And, as a kid, my father was kind to me, coached my teams, took me camping and taught me how to fish, how to use an axe, how to spot a deer’s tracks in the woods.
He never went to college but he found a good job as an engineer after going to trade school and learning how to draft. We lived in a ranch house. My mom didn’t work. We were middle class. He used to drive around with whisky and orange juice in a coffee cup. He taught me to throw the high inside fastball and foul the other guy so hard in basketball that he would remember not to drive on you again. He tried, unsuccessfully, to teach me how to fix cars.
Things went downhill later, in my teens, when my Dad’s professional life stalled out. He became bitter, started to drink even more, got screwed over at work and lost his job. Then the downward spiral–the failed businesses, the sad affair, the divorce.
I can remember going back home to visit and spotting the bottles of whisky hidden all around the house and the garage, as if no one would notice. In the morning his hands shook before the first drink. Then he got sentimental or mean.
My father turned down the path of resentment and, after awhile, there was nothing left to talk about but sports.
When he got weak and sick, it wasn’t pretty. Once he pulled out the IV in the hospital, escaped, and drove out of state to go bowling.
Tough it out.
Then, in his last days, just before his memory failed for good, I finally got him to really talk about his father’s family. He told me how hard they worked in the coalmines in Pennsylvania before his Dad fled to Detroit for a job in the factory.
Once, as a boy, he went back to the mining town with his father to visit, and the thing that stayed with him was this: “You know, I remember this, to this day I remember it, the dirt floors. That really stuck with me. They had dirt floors.”
After my father died, I scrubbed the dried blood off the floor where he had fallen for the last time. We divided his few remaining belongings, and I got my grandfather’s United Auto Workers retirement pin and the old Winchester rifle.
We scattered his ashes in the ocean from a boat off the San Diego coast. I was going to read a poem but I didn’t. Instead, I did a shot of whiskey and said goodbye with my two-year old son at my feet.
Now when I talk to my son about my father, the grandfather he never knew, I show him the union pin and the useless rifle, tell him that my Dad taught me how to throw a good fastball, and that he’s out there in the vast blue sea, part of everything that is.
“This column is part of Jim Miller’s “summer chronicles” series based on the Brazilian model. In that literary tradition, a chronicle allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”