Patrick Kavanaugh – Provincialism vs. Parochialism

Parochialism and provincialism are [direct] opposites. The provincial has no mind of his own; he does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis – towards which his eyes are turned – has to say on any subject. This runs through all activities.

 The parochial mentality on the other hand is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish. All great civilizations are based on parochialism – Greek, Israelite, English.

 In Ireland we are inclined to be provincial not parochial, for it requires a great deal of courage to be parochial. When we do attempt having the courage of our parish we are inclined to go false and to play up to the larger parish on the other side of the Irish Sea. In recent times we have had two great Irish parishioners James Joyce and George Moore. They explained nothing. The public had either to come to them or stay in the dark. And the public did come. The English parishioner recognizes courage in another man’s parish.

Advising people not to be ashamed of having the courage of their remote parish, is not free from many dangers. There is always that element of bravado which takes pleasure in the notion that the potato-patch is the ultimate. To be parochial a man needs the right kind of sensitive courage and the right kind of sensitive humility.

 Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals.

Patrick Kavanaugh (h/t to Jeffrey Bilbro)

Provincialism in James Wood

Speaking of Fluellen in Shakespeare’s Henry V

“…There is something piquant about a man who is at once an omnivorous roamer of the world’s knowledge and literatures, and at the same time a little Welsh provincial. His monologue on how Monmouth resembles the classical city of Macedon is both funny and moving.

I tell you, captain, if you look in the maps of the worlds I warrant you shall find, in the comparisons between Monmouth and Macedon, that the situations, look you, is both alike. There is a river in Macedon, and there is also moreover a river in Monmouth.

“I still meet people like Fluellen; and when a garrulous guy on a train starts talking up his hometown, and says something like “we’ve got one of those”–shopping mall, opera house, violent bar–“in my town, too, you know,” you are apt to feel, as toward Fluellen, both mirth and an obscure kind of sympathy, since this kind of importuning provincialism is always paradoxical: the provincial simultaneously wants and does not want to communicate with you, simultaneously wants to remain a provincial and abolish his provincialism by linking himself with you.”

James Wood. “How Fiction Works.” p. 125. 2018.

If There is a Reason for a Novelist

If there is a reason for the existence for the novelist on earth it is this: to show the element which holds out against God in the highest and noblest characters–the innermost evils and dissimulations; and also to light up the secret source of sanctity in creatures who seem to us to have failed.

“God and Mammon.” Francois Mauriac. Sheed & Ward Inc. 1936. p 79.

Dissimulation means to conceal one’s thoughts or emotions; pretense.

Newsletter, A Year In

A little over a year ago, I began a newsletter called “In Solitude, For Company” after a line in W.H. Auden’s poem “Horae Canonicae.” I promised that it would include:

  1. A lo-fi layout
  2. Something I’ve written (usually published by someone else first)
  3. Pencil sketches
  4. A review of a local artist or author
  5. A bi-weekly schedule

I have nailed the lo-fi layout. I’m a writer, but I could tinker with code all day if it was available to me, which would eat the time that I wanted to write. So apologies that it isn’t pretty, but it keeps me in the sentences and out of the back end.

It has morphed into an opportunity for me to discuss artistic vision, so it has mostly become short (~1,000 words) essays about the ends for which art should strive. Occasionally that means I take a look at someone else’s work, whether a visual artist, an author, or potentially a songwriter. Although, reviews of local authors have been tricky. Discussing honestly a person-I-know’s art–successes and shortcomings–in a public forum didn’t have quite the effect that I was hoping for. I’ll figure it out at some point; maybe I’ll get a thicker skin about other people’s thin skins.

The pencil (or ball point or sharpie) sketches aren’t good, and I’m ok with that. They’re staying.

I’m currently working on Issue #20, which means I’m averaging a newsletter once every three weeks. I’m also ok with that. No one needs more emails just for the hell of it.

If you’d like to subscribe, toss in your email address by following this link.

Or if you’d prefer to browse the archives to see what you’re signing up for, check here.

New Essay about Larry McMurtry

Front Porch Republic published an essay of mine (Larry McMurtry and Wendell Berry at the Dairy Queen) remembering Larry McMurtry and his influence on our local imagination. Below is the opening of the essay; if it intrigues you, then go ahead and click the link above.

Amarillo, TX. On a pre-Covid Saturday afternoon in Amarillo, I was having a beer with the poet Donald Mace Williams at a bar that was otherwise empty—save for one cowboy drinking alone. At 90, a lifelong newspaperman with a Ph.D. in Old English, Don has contributed his fair share to Texas letters, including an  adaptation of Beowulf set in our forgotten section of Texas called the panhandle. Around Beer #2, we began discussing the works of Larry McMurtry. Don proclaimed loudly that he believed Lonesome Dove was a farce. The cowboy down the bar perked up at the mention of the novel. 

Lonesome Dove is the greatest book ever written,” said the man, pushing back his Stetson. 

Don, undeterred, said it again. “It’s a farce. McMurtry thought the Western was dried up, and then he wrote one!” 

The cowboy squinted down the length of the bar, sizing up the old poet. For a moment, I felt Don had just drawn me into a fist fight with a stranger.

“I don’t know about all that,” the cowboy mumbled. “It’s just a great book.” He pulled his hat down and returned to his beer. 

Picturebook Horses

And between the shelves, framed pictures covered up the walls. The old colonel’s love of livestock showed in most of them. Here was a painting of a Thoroughbred stallion, unlike any real horse that ever lived. Yonder was a glorified version of a Durham bull pawing sand, his huge head lowered in lusty challenge.

Elmer Kelton. Hot Iron. 1956.

On the wall opposite above the sideboard was an oilpainting of horses. There were half a dozen of them breaking through a pole corral and their manes were long and blowing and their eyes wild. They’d been copied out of a book. They had the long Andalusian nose and the bones of their faces showed Barb blood. You could see the hindquarters of the foremost few, good hindquarters and heavy enough to make a cuttinghorse. As if maybe they had Steeldust in their blood. But nothing else matched and no such horse ever was that he had seen and he’d once asked his grandfather what kind of horses they were and his grandfather looked up from his plate at the painting as if he’d never seen it before and he said those are picturebook horses and went on eating.

Cormac McCarthy. All the Pretty Horses. 1992.

I’ve thought about this scene from Cormac for a long time. For one, I took a drawing class in college and since our university had a top-notch equestrian program, I was able to sketch horses of various breeds at the horsebarn. I know something about the difficulty of getting a horse’s proportions correct. Another, my mother worked for the American Quarterhorse Historical Museum when All the Pretty Horses was published. She read it and disliked it and eventually I read it and fell into a deep, deep Cormac rabbithole. Anyway, Mom curated an entire exhibit on the quarterhorse original sire Steeldust, and wrote a children’s book about him.

Finally, and here’s my actual point. Cormac’s observation about art and copying art from art–this mimetic impulse in humans to make something beautiful or commit atrocious acts of violence– and also separating artist from mere tradesman takes on a whole new level considering Cormac likely copied that exact observation from Elmer Kelton. It’s pretty much guaranteed that he would have read Kelton as he prepared for the Border Trilogy, and Kelton knew horses. Cormac, of course, made it new, but there’s a lot to ponder there.

Inaugural Poems

The Texas Poetry Assignment, edited by Laurence Musgrove, published a pair of my inaugural poems. Amanda Gorman rightly won a lot of praise because her poem met the moment on the Capitol steps on the international stage. I’d like to think mine do as well; the moment and me just met in a different place.

Naming Dogs

Here’s a history of my family’s dogs.

A collie named Lassie. My entire memory of her is that she lived long enough to become arthritic and was in a lot of pain. She laid in the shade of our house in a spearmint bed. When she died, my older sister cried.

I didn’t see this happen, but I later came to know that my dad had taken her into the field and shot her.

There were sundry other dogs scattered through childhood, dropped off in the country by people in town. Most did not survive well. They got into the chickens. They wandered too far into the field and were killed by coyotes.

One was a Jack Russell we named Skeeter. When she was young, she could leap onto a round bale of hay, which was at least as big as I was. She never left the yard and lived off our table scraps. Once a cat of ours had a litter of kittens, and was quickly dispatched by a barn owl. Skeeter came into milk and nursed the kittens. Damnedest thing.

A dropoff, half-blind, milk-eyed Shih-Tzu strolled up to our house at some point and knocked Skeeter up. If we named him, I don’t remember what it was. They had a batch of ugly, useless pups. He was ill-tempered and snapped at Skeeter, the pups, and just about everyone else. I was old enough at that point to be the one to take him out into the field.

The only dog my dad ever paid money for was a Border Collie we named Lass (I know). The $300 he paid the breeder seemed extravagant for our family in 1995. But she was a workdog and smart and had the kindest temperament. She would “herd” toddlers that visited by walking between them and the road, keeping them in the yard, but she could also cut cattle and pen the stupidest of all God’s creatures, our flock of turkeys that dad raised to butcher and sell every Thanksgiving. Never once did she set a tooth to one of those birds. She, the near descendant of wolves, nearer than most domesticated dogs, treated those birds more gently than I ever did.

One morning, dad walked out to check the livestock and Lass was bleeding all over the front porch, her skin laid open and the sheath of muscles along her rib cage exposed. She’d been lured out into the field that night by the yipping of coyotes, and she’d done what she was supposed to do: guard our interests. She’d managed to get away. She’d managed, somehow, to crawl up to the porch in the night, and lay there waiting for the sun to rise and dad to find her.

I’d never seen dad distraught over an animal. Even once when a cow was dying of bloat in the corral. He handled the crisis clinically. He cut a garden hose and shoved one end down the cow’s throat, hoping to reach the stomach that had trapped enough gas to cripple the cow. When that didn’t work, he marched into the house and grabbed the longest butcher knife he could find in the drawer. One must administer whatever help one is able to when an animal is on the brink of death. He kneeled beside the moaning cow, lifted the blade, and plunged it into her swollen side to relieve the pressure. It didn’t work. The next step was the .22.

But when he found Lass ripped open on the porch, he went to the coat closet, passed over the .22 which I’d seen him grab for any number of dogs, and instead picked a coat to wrap her in and rushed her to the vet. She survived for another eight or nine years.

Again, dad found her on the porch one morning unable to move in old age. He wrapped her in a coat again, and took her into the field and shot her. I didn’t see it, but eventually he told me that he’d cried for a whole day afterward.

My wife had a pair of Maltese lap dogs when we started dating 15 years ago. I wasn’t fond of either of them, but they came with the marriage, so I tolerated them. The male, Benji, died a few years ago. My wife came home and found him dead by the front door, waiting for her to get home. I made a coffin, and we buried him next to a crepe myrtle tree in our front yard. My kids cried and my wife cried off and on for three days. I did not, but I did read some words from the Book of Common Prayer as we buried him. The words did not seem to comfort my family in the moment, but reading them gave me something to do while they hugged.

His mate, Popcorn, had cancer last year, and a subsequent surgery to remove the tumor. A few days after the surgery, she was in bad shape. Barely breathing. Not eating or drinking. We took her to the emergency clinic to be “put down.” My wife and I and our three kids huddled around an examination table. The doctor explained what the process would look like. A hypodermic needle full of drugs I have no need to remember. It would take less than three seconds. We signed the paperwork. The doctor left the room to retrieve the syringe. My wife and kids cried. I did not. The doctor came back in. My wife, with a sudden resolve, said, “No, we’re not ready. We’re taking her home.”

She’s still alive 18 months later. She slept in my daughter’s bed last night.

About the time Benji died, and when my oldest son was eight–he’s eleven now– he asked for a dog of his own. We found an Australian Shepherd a few towns over, and all five of us drove over to pick him up. My son named him Blue. This is the first dog I’d ever bought. It’s my son’s, but I was going to be invested in this one.

I’d seen people squander good dogs, so my son and I took him to obedience lessons and trained him to walk beside us; allow us to walk through gates ahead of him; and we worked on fetch. The trainer said that Blue had clearly developed a bond with my son, and other than a fear he had of grown men, he is a sweet dog and has continued to be. This dog is also a common point between my son and me, a friend we could train together.

Life progresses though. My son developed other interests, and I went back to teaching, so I’m only home at the bookends of the day. We don’t play with Blue like we used to, but he’s always eager to play, sitting at the fence when we pull up; although, lately he’s been digging out and roaming.

Until yesterday when my son texted me as I was driving home from work. “There’s something wrong with Blue. We’re taking him to the vet.” The doctor didn’t offer much of a diagnosis; just a dose of antibiotics.

We let him sleep inside. When we got up this morning, he was dead.

The kids and my wife cried in the utility room. I read some words that were of no immediate comfort. I went to work before the sun rose.

I’m about to leave work now, and the sun will be setting and it will be 33 degrees with wind close to 40 mph when I get home.

I have to dig a God-damned grave.

I didn’t finish teaching Blue to fetch. He digs out because I never permanently fixed the fence. My son and I abandoned our own bonding over training this dog.

My wife and family know how to feel these things and offer comfort and weep. I’ve been mulling over sentences and verb tenses, constructing ways in which I’m supposed to feel. Maybe if I can say it clearly, I’ll know the emotion to perform, like stage direction in a play.

I have to buy a new shovel on the way home.