April 1, 2020

“Miles and Miles of Heart” — “Just Life, Dear Life” with C.K. Williams

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m not missing Opening Day. No use pretending this into an April Fools move by Joe Torre and the owners. So I tell myself. No need to feed on field of dreams fantasies. I can live without the misery of blown saves, lost leads, delusional winning streaks, walk-off home runs, magnificent catches, bench-clearing brawls, heartache, and hype. I could care less how the sign-stealing narrative plays out for the disgraced Houston Astros. It’s actually healthy when you think of it. No more high blood pressure moments second-guessing managers Tony LaRussa or the two Mikes, Matheney, and Schildt.

True, for a while I had to overcome my habitual itchy-trigger-finger visits to the St. Louis website on mlb.com for rebroadcasts of Classic Cardinals Moments like the titanic home run by Albert Pujols that stunned the then-National League Astros and super fans George and Barbara Bush in the 2005 NLCS playoffs or the Mother of All Walk-Off heroics of David Freese in the 2011 World Series.

So here I am with a shelter-in-place mindset looking out the living room window at the backyard bird feeders while pondering potential subjects ranging from comic books to comfort food, desert island narratives to the National Pastime.

Thanks to the determined nocturnal activities of a certain raccoon, the bird feeders have to be taken in every night and returned to their respective branches early every morning by my wife, still in her robe and slippers, a bird feeder in either hand. In our domestic comic book, Little Lulu has evolved from the Little Red Hen into the Bird Lady of Princeton Ridge.

Whistling in the Dark

Cleaning up from dinner, I catch myself whistling “You Gotta Have Heart.” Baseball again, “miles and miles of heart” from Damn Yankees. Last year all that mythical musical heart paid off in real life with a world championship, the ever-consistent Senators (“yeah, we always lose”) having been replaced by the Washington Nationals. Like the song says, “It’s fine to be a genius of course, but keep that old horse before the cart” — and keep your six feet of social separation, sneeze into your sleeve (and then knock elbows — hello?? who’s writing this script?), don’t push that button, be sure to sanitize the door knob, and when you take your chances on a walk, continue carefully across the Harrison Street Bridge, being sure not to lean on the railing mid-span. Think of it as adapting your moves to someone else’s screenplay, and keep whistling, preferably upbeat tunes like “Heart.”

And don’t forget to keep your pandemic pantry stocked with plenty of peanut butter and jelly.

As American as P and J

The phrase “as American as apple pie” sounds good, but that’s not what the lockdown authorities are telling you to put at the top of your list next to eggs and the almighty TP. It’s peanut butter.

My father used to make gifts appear “by magic.” He’d go abracadrabra and point to a chair and presto, I’d find a comic book under the cushion. All my mother had to do was conjure up four open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches neatly arranged, two above, two below, made with Wonder Bread no doubt. My mother must have been in the room, pouring a glass full of cold milk, but I only had eyes for those little darlings on the plate. When I try to compute how many P and J sandwiches or the equivalent thereof I’ve eaten since infancy, I go into mathematical freefall. If you include the various combinations (peanut butter and honey or jelly on bagel and English muffin, etc.) it comes out to something like 90,000, and that’s after taking into account several years spent in countries where peanut butter was all but unobtainable.

In a previous column devoted to the ultimate comfort food, I pointed out peanut butter’s midwestern roots. It was in 1890 that a St Louis food manufacturer named George Bayle Jr. began selling something resembling the product we know today, only to be outdone five years later by the Kellogg brothers of Battle Creek, Michigan, who applied for a patent “to create a paste from nuts and legumes” they called “nut butter.” The first recorded, tabulated sale may have been at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904, where one C.H. Sumner set up a booth and made $705.11 selling peanut butter.

Did I say St. Louis? Who am I kidding? Is it any coincidence that the aforementioned ode to peanut butter appeared in mid-October 2011, as the Cardinals were on their way to their 11th world championship? Like to like, two forms of sustenance linked since childhood coinciding in October, and I almost forgot to mention the Mark Twain connection, though I never actually tasted the Tom Sawyer brand of peanut butter, with its label showing a barefoot boy with a fishing pole slung over his shoulder. It was my fate to grow up with Peter Pan in the era when the label portrayed Peter as a full-grown flirtatiously smiling woman in a form-fitting forest green dress and matching high heels, later replaced by a Disneyesque elf closer to the James M. Barrie original.

Reading in the Dark

Terms like “heart” and “comfort food” can take you only so far. While what’s happening worldwide in the spring of 2020 is of far greater magnitude, I keep thinking back to the anthrax-haunted aftermath of 9/11 when it seemed possible that a lethal menace related to the attack might be a deadly second act. What made the not-knowing in the fall of 2001 especially eerie was the fact that one of the toxic letters had been traced to a mailbox on Nassau Street. On November 12, almost exactly two months after 9/11, the crash of an American Airlines air bus shortly after takeoff from JFK roused eventually discounted speculation about an ongoing series of attacks. By then the country was in Afghanistan and on its way to Iraq and I’d discovered a companionable presence in the poetry of C.K. Williams, who died in September 2015 and is remembered by his Princeton University colleagues in the Lewis Center reading series named for him.

It makes sense that my first reading of Williams was a poem at the heart of the news, on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. In “Fear (September 2001-August 2002),” after telling us he still wants to believe “we’ll cure the human heart, heal it of its anxieties, and the mistrust and barbarousness they spawn,” he asks, “but hasn’t that metaphorical heart been slashed, dissected, / cauterized and slashed again, and has the carnage relented, ever?” The answer has grim resonance right now when it’s all too clear that the “carnage” highlighted in the current president’s inaugural address as a slur against the state of the nation has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the same poem, Williams refers to “the flicker of the television news … war, threats of war, war without end,” picturing “a chorus of grackles” as “negative celestials risen from some counter-realm, to rescue us. / But now, scattering towards the deepening shadows, they go, too.” “Fear” was among a series of poems (“The War,” “Night,” “The Hearth”) that first appeared in The New Yorker and were eventually collected in The Singing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2003). Reading Williams then, and now, you’re in touch with a deeply concerned fellow citizen speaking to you one-on-one in a low compelling voice.

The last lines of “The Tract,” the last poem in The Singing, begin with “the hope that someday I’ll accept without qualm or question that the reality of others/the love of others the miracle of others all that which feels like enough is truly enough/no celestial sea no god in his barque of being just life just hanging on for dear life.”