From “The Tinker’s Bairn”
by Ellen Grehan
When the strangers came, asking their questions, we told them we never knew her name. To us she’d just been the tinker’s bairn, a hoop-spined, rickets-racked child whose eyes, one green one blue, told us she’d the gift of second sight and the power of casting spells.
She was one of a small tribe of tramps and hawkers who crept through our village in the pale hours of a Sunday morning and camped for almost a week that summer at the river where it’s spanned by the old Roman bridge.
The first time we saw her she was scuttling through the weed-choked allotments where, before the village lost its heart, men who worked underground farming crops of coal spent their Sundays coaxing vegetables out of the grudging earth.
We heard her sing, her head thrown back, her eyes outstaring the sun. Mouth music, it was, the nonsense-sounding wordless songs women sang to their babies as they dandled them on their knees.
We watched her crawl through a break in the fence, her hands clutching a withered bouquet of the ferny tops of stillborn carrots, the leaves of a mouldy cabbage worn as a hat.
And we followed her along the cracked stretch of Unthank Road to where it meets Main Street at Mossdyke Cross with its pub at all four corners.
It was there that the tinker’s bairn stopped and turned to face us, each one as raggedy as herself with her torn skirt bound to her waist with a length of rope, her feet in tacketty workboots, too big, too heavy for her crooked limbs.
Just a few feet away from Derry’s Walls where Protestants did their drinking she began to dance, and for all her poor, bent legs and the weight of those boots, she moved so lightly she didn’t seem earthbound.
She danced a Strathspey, her hands delicately reaching out to touch her invisible partner and as she twirled there was a blissful smile on her face. Och, but we could tell that she saw herself right then in a finer place than in front of the soot-covered stones of Derry’s Walls.
Folk going to and from the pubs began to gather, the drunker among them howling “Heuch” as encouragement. Then the bairn began to gasp. She stopped dancing and, her face contorted, strained at the air desperate to breathe.
When she fell no one went to help her. They laughed because in her fall she’d bared her knickerless bum, the sight of which caused Brother Meikle, on his way to a meeting at the Band of Hope, to start speaking in tongues. And him not even Pentecostal.
We who’d followed her watched as she dragged herself up from the dirt. Then one of us, was it Maggie Shaw?, knelt at her feet and tied the bootlaces that had come undone during the dance.
In silence our raggle-taggle band, not one of us older and few much younger than her, followed the bairn to the foot of Bog’s Brae, a short distance from the tinkers’ camp with its fankle of carts and caravans, yowling children and barking dogs.
Without a word she made it clear that she didn’t want us to walk any further and we were happy to do her bidding. Our folk had warned us about what happened to children who got too close to the tinkers: they were never seen again....
From “My Genet”
by Edmund White
I had already lived in France four years when my editor Bill Whitehead back in New York asked me if I knew anyone who could write a biography of Jean Genet, the great novelist-thief-homosexual who’d died only the year before, in 1986. I was astonished that there was no proper biography of him already.
Of course there was Jean-Paul Sartre’s Saint Genet, which was termed an “existential psychoanalysis.” Eventually I realized that the hard biographical facts in this book could be reduced to a thirty-page summary. All of its hundreds of other pages were filled with speculation, brilliant but controvertible.
I proposed myself as Genet’s biographer and Bill accepted me instantly. What I didn’t know was that Bill was already ill with AIDS and would be dead within two years. He certainly seemed at the height of health and fitness; he stayed with me in Paris and when I tried to keep up with his daily aerobics exercises I was left crippled.
I myself had been diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985 and I kept imagining that in another year or two I’d be dead. Doing the Genet biography was my way of shaking my fist at fate. I figured it would take at least three years to research and write. And it wasn’t the sort of farewell, personal elegy readers might expect but an objective study of someone I had never known.
I decided that Genet deserved a scrupulous, highly detailed, strictly chronological biography in which the biographer himself would never intrude as a voice or character. Maybe because I was an autobiographical novelist and tired of the word “I,” I longed for the “otherness” of traditional biography. Nor did I believe “Monsieur Genet, c’est moi,” since I knew that Genet had despised fellow homosexuals, most whites, all white Americans, fellow writers, all middle-class people—on five counts I was out. Whereas I’d been sent to private schools and psychiatrists and had never gone to bed cold or hungry, Genet had been “un enfant abandonné” and had entered into a life of crime (petty thefts in order to eat) in his early adolescence and had known years of deprivation and imprisonment.
In the end the biography took seven years of my life and like George Eliot, who said when she finished Romola, “I started it as a young woman and finished it as an old one,” I, too, felt that the book divided my youth from old age. Bill Whitehead died early on but my own health remained stable. Throughout the seven years of researching and writing Genet, however, such a possibility was not yet envisioned.
The only hitch was that I didn’t know how to write a biography. Certainly not this one. Most literary biographies are about middle-class men and women who have spent their lives in an intellectual and artistic milieu. Their juvenilia are carefully preserved by a doting mother. Their success is often early, their friends are fellow-scribblers who generate and put into archives their journals and letters, whose movements are documented by cultural journalists and whose manuscripts are sold to libraries.
Genet was the opposite. His first thirty years were spent as a foster child, runaway, delinquent, soldier, prostitute and thief, and only his extraordinary intelligence and imagination saved him—and especially his ability to transcend himself. He was brought up by peasants in the Morvan (the equivalent to Tennessee in the States) in a narrow-minded world, but he ended up as a friend to the Palestinians and Black Panthers. He established a reputation by writing five autobiographical novels in five years, books that reversed all the conventional views of homosexuality and did so in an eloquent, sometimes arch literary manner, and then he moved on to write three of the key plays of the twentieth century (The Balcony,The Blacks and The Screens) which in no way touched on the homosexual experience but dealt with the inner workings of political power, colonialism, race and the fate of those who remain marginal and excluded even after a popular revolution. If I’d changed as a writer and person over the years my development had been much more modest. I began as more privileged and I ended up as less radical than Genet.
His life was difficult to document. Over the years he’d dropped most of his friends and whenever I met one I first had to soothe wounded feelings. And then some of his friends had been jailbirds who didn’t live long, who if they survived were hard to find, who if found wouldn’t talk, or if they talked had to be paid and weren’t to be believed. During a period of just seven years Genet had mixed with Parisian artistic folk, everyone from Simone de Beauvoir to the sculptor Giacometti. Of his artistic friends only Leonor Fini was still alive (she has since died) when I began my research and she wouldn’t respond until the last few minutes before the book went to press. Then she talked to me briefly on the phone. All those who had remained loyal to Genet didn’t want to give me an interview; Genet had never wanted a biography written about him, possibly because he didn’t want a set of facts that would compete with what he called, in medieval tones, his “golden legend.”…
by Albert Goldbarth
“I am Raoul de la Roche Pierre de Bras, whose father writes himself Lord of Grobois, a free vavasor of the noble Count of Toulouse, with the right of fossa and of furca, the high justice, the middle and the low.”
—Sir Nigel, Arthur Conan Doyle
A “mini-stroke”: and now Amanda’s father
was a little figure of schoolroom paste
left overnight on the sill:
a sudden rain had turned him general
and blurred. This was the same year
that her mother disappeared, one thread of thought
a day: that doesn’t sound like much, but
in a month the unweaving is terrible to see;
it leaves you talking to the rag left
at the end of the shift, when life is mopping up
and ready to go. This is the common theme
of common poems in every generation, and it still asks
to be said in ours: how quickly!
The rank and lineage that Raoul de Bras unfurls
is like a banner of scarlet and inset gold
the length of a coach-and-six, and equally
weighty. He is a squire and the son of a knight,
and in love with the Countess Beatrice, and an even bloom
of courtliness and valor is as natural to his manners
as is clover to a meadow. It’s on page 192 that we
initially meet him; and he’s dead on page 205, the bolt
of a crossbow “driven to its socket” in his neck.
Is that a unit we can take away and use
in application?—seven pages. Not that this
provides much comfort or illumination: “Wasn’t
Amanda’s father four-times-seven-pages?” etc.
Even so, we’ll try whatever terminology we can
in our attempts to understand the body
swallowed up by time. The prep she did the day
before her colonoscopy, my sister said, “was just
like shitting razor blades”—as accurate
as anything the doctor’s instructional pamphlet says.
And really: what else can we bring to the brink
of our lives, to the line where the darkness starts,
if not our language? When they rolled me into my own
procedure (that’s the pamphlet’s word: “procedure”)
what did I have?—they’d taken away my clothes,
and the tether I use to keep my brain from floating
into anonymity. But a voice survived,
inside somewhere, a voice below
the bullying of the Demerol, and it said
“I’m Albert Goldbarth, whose father signed the rent check
‘Irving Goldbarth’ with the fake gold pen he earned
for over twenty-five years of service with Metropolitan Life Insurance,
he of the genuine heart—and the salesman’s overbearing laugh
that never represented the true heart adequately;
and he gave unto me the lug nuts and the hubcaps
of the north side of Chicago at my birth, as well as the candle
that lights the menorah, and the shockingly sexual pink
of the lox at Sunday brunch, the skivvies
and the quilted winter longjohns, and the prayershawl,
and the secret naughty coin for ‘heads’ and ‘tails,’
and the American right that even an insignificant man
and his insignificant family have, to go to bed
with their honor intact, to walk the dog
as if the night were as good in their nostrils as anyone’s.”
It was small, as I said—a pipsqueak voice,
a match that burned for a moment. And then,
like any match, it was tossed to the pile
of billions of matches preceding it.
Why do I write? It’s what I do
with the portion of carbon I am, before it returns to the universe
of carbon that the trees created even before there were people.