- Josh Ritter, “Change of Time,” from So Runs the World Away

Books

Maeve Kinkead: A Dangling House

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Apr 26, 2017
Category: Poetry

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Maeve Kinkead was in my class at a small New England boarding school. If I didn’t really know her there, it was because I was awestruck and — rare for me — tongue-tied. Maeve acted. She wrote poetry. And she was beautiful in an ethereal way that suggested she was made of finer, fragile stuff.

In fact, as viewers of TV soap operas know, Maeve was no hothouse flower. She was Vanessa Chamberlain Lewis on “The Guiding Light” for more than 25 years. Here’s just the start of her story, as chronicled on a soap opera site (there’s more, and worse, and crazier in the full account):

Vanessa arrived in Springfield as a spoiled rich girl who flirted with all the married men in town. After a quick marriage, she seduced Ross Marler and then began a string of affairs. He repaid her with an affair of his own and threats of a split… She began eying her doctor, Ed Bauer, but became involved in a murderous blackmail ring that doomed her relationship with the doctor…

In 2014, half a century after we graduated from boarding school, our class convened for the first reunion I felt obligated to attend. The school has a ritual: At the alumni lunch, there are two speakers from the 50th class — one female, one male. That meant Maeve. And me. So there we were, across decades and marriages and families and careers and joys and heartbreaks, meeting for the first time. We exchanged emails, then drafts. We became friends. That friendship is oxygen for me. I won’t be objective here.

Maeve Kinkead has, finally, published a book of poems. “A Dangling House” is a thin book. Its 47 poems fill just 61 pages, and there’s plenty of white space on those pages. But they’re pure protein. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.]

The challenge of the book for a reader is figuring out the story behind the poems. Maeve and I have seen one another regularly for three years now, and it is a measure of her discretion that I didn’t know the backstory until I read the poems and demanded an explanation. Yes, I know Archibald MacLeish’s dictum: “A poem should not mean/ But be.” Still…

There are only two facts to know. One is that Maeve was not her parents’ first daughter. She had a sister, Kathleen, who drowned when she was five years old. Maeve was born a year later — and although her parents never used that phrase, she was never unaware that she was “the replacement child.” The other fact is that, six years ago, her brother “went and shot his head/ in with the gun his family didn’t know/ he owned and left some inked scratches that read/ how much love… should have done better.”

A mediocre poet would write about loss — about unending grief. A gifted poet would do what Maeve as done: use head-splitting events to explore what is seen but not discussed, and to move ahead. Not because, as happens in bad American books and movies, she’s had “closure,” but because, like the main characters in “Moonlight” and “Manchester By the Sea,” she knows there’s no such thing. What there is: learning to live with your personal history — and, if you’re a poet, to dig deep and share what you’ve learned. To see these poems as bummers you want to avoid is a mistake. By the time you get to the epilogue, you have been reminded that courage is more powerful than tragedy, and that the price of looking hard at what has hurt you is less than the cost of evasion. If you’ve been damaged — and who hasn’t been? — you’ll get the unspoken message: These poems are what triumph looks like.

So, Now that you know what you’re dealing with, a poem…

Objective

Write truthful
the interior life
of the extended family,
letters marching down
creamy parchment
like a file of reticulated
ants. Slip it in a fine
envelope and affix
colorful and antiquated
stamps prised from
sleeves of the collection
forgotten in the closet,
walk 4 miles to the landmark
Post Office and bury
it in the garbage can
out front. Away, away.

And the epilogue…

Fire Island

On the shingle they stood, a small sad band,
gazing at what they’d keep if they could.

Yellow broom grew on smooth hills of sand
when they came to shutter their house for good.

“What they’d keep if they could” — “if”…but they can’t, can they?

And then the last phrase, “for good.” Meaning “forever.” And then the other meaning, the positive one.

As a late-life debut? Exceptional. For the reader? Enriching in the extreme.

Short Takes

The answer to the question in the title of “What to Do About the Solomons” — read it.

American Jews in Israel. An inheritance, which means money and a lot more. Back in Los Angeles, a son’s alleged financial crime — what kind of crime did you expect? — has become a family scandal. Not promising material, when you consider how Jews are presented in American fiction. The writer loves them. Or the writer hates them (or, more correctly, hates herself/himself). And in a first novel yet! I ask you: What was the last great first novel you read about Jews? Goodbye, Columbus. Okay, what else?

Bethany Ball’s “What To Do About The Solomons” is my favorite length for fiction: blessedly short. But in those 235 pages, we get a large — there are so many characters that Ball starts the book with a Solomon family tree — and unruly clan. They’re like moose with antlers locked: They can’t get closer, they can’t get apart. But you’ll have no trouble telling them apart. And coming to like them, for very different reasons.

For a novel about Real and Serious Things, this is a very funny book. Bethany Ball writes with wit as sharp as the blade of a mohel. For once, I totally concur with a New York Times review: “I ended ‘What to Do About the Solomons’ absolutely swimming with affection, not just for the characters but for the multiple worlds that created them. Despite their collective penchant for psychodrama, there’s something profoundly lovely — and loving — about the Solomons. And about Bethany Ball’s debut.” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Love the novels of Christina Baker Kline? Chat with her on Thursday, April 27

Do you know about Book-the-Writer? At this pop-up book event in New York, a small group discusses a book…with the writer. Next Thursday (4/27), the writer is Christina Baker Kline, author of a terrific novel A Piece of the World, about the woman who inspired Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World.” Her last book: the mega-bestseller, “Orphan Train.” I’ll be the moderator and occasional interrogator and, perhaps most important, wine butler. For information and tickets, click here.

Garland Jeffreys: What are the odds?

The so-called law of life says that you start winding it down as you hit the golden years, but Garland Jeffreys is 73, and at City Winery, he put on a 90-minute show that ranged from reggae to New York soul to sound-clouds that would have done Van Morrison proud — he and his raised fist of a band rocked hard. And then he delightedly signed CDs for a legion of adoring fans. More confounding: His new CD, “14 Steps to Harlem,” is just as strong as his 2011 classic, The King of In Between. As a brother on the Back 9, he’s inspiring. But he’s a pain in the ass for me as a reviewer — he sends me to the dictionary for fresh superlatives. To buy the CD of “14 Steps” from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.

In a month of causes, “Happy Hour” matters three different ways.

Every month has a cause. This month, Gretl Claggett has three. As a writer, Monsoon Solo: Voices Once Submerged more than qualifies her for prominence in National Poetry Month. And “Happy Hour,” a film she made of a poem from that book, fits right in to National Child Abuse Prevention and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. “Happy Hour” isn’t fiction; it’s a short, unsettling account of her childhood abuse by a family friend during cocktail parties while her parents socialized downstairs. Narrated by Julianne Moore, it won awards at film festivals. Here’s the trailer:

You can now download the film on Amazon and iTunes, with all proceeds on both platforms going to a small group of nonprofits whose focus is treating and preventing sexual abuse and promoting healthy relationships. For film buffs, there’s a bonus: an early look at a writer-director who’s moving on to features any minute now.