Friday, June 25, 2010

A Road Beyond Violence

As I go back and forth between the news and archived essays by Jeremy Ingalls, some of which were written before our current president was born, I can’t help wondering what Ingalls would have thought about Barak Obama as the first African American president. Prior to the announcement that Ingalls was the Yale Younger Poet Prizewinner for 1941, she wrote in an essay, “The Road Beyond Violence,” that “part of the informing spirit of every poet ‘out of the ivory tower,’ [is] the poet seeing himself once more a legislator with a post to fill in society.”  Before poets were invited to speak at presidential inaugurations, and before we had women in the U.S. legislature, Ingalls became one of those legislators of poetry, extolling the work of Margaret Walker, the first African American to win the Yale Younger Poet’s prize for her collection For My People (1942) as “a genuine poetry of indignation and challenge.”  Walker’s “cadenced verses ripe in imagery,” were, according to Ingalls, written for a people “indicting the world they never made,” while also challenging people to undertake “that world’s re-making through strength born of their long endurance.” Indeed, the final poem in Walker’s collection, “The Struggle Staggers Us,” speaks of the endurance “for pride, for simple dignity,” that is an ongoing struggle, begun long before the emancipation proclamation and the battle for civil rights and continuing today among many different people and cultures, throughout the world.  “This is more than fighting to exist;” Walker declared, “…more than revolt and war and human odds. /There is a journey from me to you. /There is the journey from you to me. /A union of the two strange worlds must be.”

            In their parallel journeys toward poetic self discovery, it seems that Ingalls and Walker had more in common than the distinguished prize they shared in consecutive years.  Walker, whose poetry manuscript was the basis for a Master’s in Fine Arts from the University of Iowa Writer’s Program before it was published by Yale University Press, also juggled the hats of poet, scholar, and eventually, professor.  Walker returned to the University of Iowa for a PhD, and, like Ingalls, taught literature for 30 years before retiring to write full time.  Both poets published several books in their lifetime, and yet neither poet seems to be as well known or remembered today as many of the poets who influenced and inspired them.  Perhaps their legacy remains, more humbly, among the generations of students and scholars whom they taught.    

            Jeremy Ingalls’ essay “The Road Beyond Violence” was written in praise of younger poets—among them Muriel Rukeyser, Dylan Thomas, and Delmore Schwartz—all of whom Ingalls, who was 30 at the time, accurately felt were “significant spokesmen for their times.”  Switching hats from scholar to poet, Ingalls concluded her essay with a poem of her own, which she felt developed some of the themes she saw in the poetry of her contemporaries.  “An age of violence,” Ingalls wrote at a time when the U.S. was on the cusp of entering World War Two, “begets its own philosophy of redemption.”  The themes she examined in her essay attempted to find “the urgent need…among ‘the just men,’ for the recovery of justice in our times.”  Her poem addressed the “present impasse in personal, national, and international problems,” which she offered as “a challenge on three levels, religious, political, and literary,” because it “poses the total problem of physical and spiritual survival in a world deformed by violence.”  In a world which remains deformed by violence, perhaps Walker’s “journey” and Ingalls’ “road” have converged, and are redeemed in a modern-day “recovery of justice”—the election of Obama—that happened just beyond their lifetimes, but which they each would have whole-heartedly embraced.


The Road Beyond Violence


The road beyond violence will be taken.

That we go between the legs of Hell to find it

Is little enough and not enough to say.

Cancerous flesh, lack-blood, and ague-shaken,

Maimed, mute, blinded, plunged on terror,

Nevertheless are some will find the way.


There is a heart which does not die of bleeding.

Not a gentle excursion chance-chosen,

Not gentlemanly, not footsoft or gay.

A martyr’s goatpath and the mind ascending

Every negation but one and that affirming

A sun to reach more bright than planet day.


Not a road to be found by cautious verging

Little retreats from horror falling later

And less gently to the ready slough.

This heart I speak of is a mightier urging,

A road to be taken by some and not later

The path of the burning footsoles taken now.


Jeremy Ingalls, 1941                                

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Childhood's End: Observations from Ingalls' Fellow Mimi Wheatwind

Nestled inside one of those baby shoes that I found early in my exploration of the papers, notebooks and correspondence of Jeremy Ingalls’ life, I was amused that a small Cupie doll, no bigger than my thumb, would be preserved with an equally tiny note in Dearing Lewis’elderly hand, identifying it as Jeremy’s “first personally chosen gift from Graham,” when they were “about 4 or 5” years old. I had thought at first that Graham was one of Jeremy’s many cousins, as his parents, Arthur and Ethel, were referred to as “aunt” and “uncle” in photographs of summer family gatherings, from when Jeremy and Graham were infants. But the Brimmick surname did not appear in any of the genealogical records or ancestry charts of the Ingalls or Dodge branches of Jeremy’s family.

In a conversation with Dearing Lewis in 1996, when Jeremy was asked to reflect back on what she felt were the pivotal achievements or events from her undergraduate years at Tufts, she said, “Of course, it was Graham’s death, following so soon after Mildred Lincoln’s death. Those two events changed my life.” Mildred Lincoln was an influential literature teacher from Jeremy’s high school years and the Gloucester community, who had invited Jeremy to be her traveling companion in Europe during the summer after Jeremy’s freshman year at Tufts College.

Graham’s death occurred in early summer, 1929. At that point in their lives Graham’s relationship to Jeremy had changed from brother to cousin to classmate to fiancĂ©.

There was never a time that Jeremy hadn’t known Graham. He was born in late January, 1911, before her own birth on April 2nd in the spring of that year. Their parents had been friends before marriage, and continued to be throughout their lives. They lived close enough so that Graham and Jeremy attended the same Sunday school and public schools. Equally precocious, they both received “double promotions” during the primary grades, after which Jeremy wrote the class poem, “Success,” for their grammar school commencement.

The two remained intellectually competitive in their ambitions until their graduation from Gloucester High School: Jeremy wrote the class poem, “Peaks,” along with the lyrics to the class song, and Graham was Valedictorian of their class. Graham then went to Harvard, the recipient of the New England Chamber of Commerce Essay prize, the North Shore Harvard Scholarship, and a Harvard book prize. Jeremy’s scholarships took her to Tufts—not that far from Harvard—but their academic schedules and extracurricular activities prevented them from seeing each other very often, so they wrote letters to one another instead. In those letters, the close bond of surrogate siblings evolved into one of soul mates. No one in their family was surprised to learn that first Christmas home from college that they planned to be married after they graduated.

On the day that Graham died—June 26—Jeremy reminisced many decades later that they had planned to meet late that afternoon at what they always referred to as “their island.” It was also known as Bass Rock, in Good Harbor Beach, a place that could be reached by walking at low tide, but as the tide came in, it would become completely submerged. Graham had taken his parents’ car to the harbor in the late morning, so he could swim out to the rock when the tide was in. When he didn’t return by late afternoon, his parents became worried, and after finding their car parked near the beach with his outer clothing on the seat, the community began a search that continued into the early days of July. Both Graham’s and Jeremy’s fathers walked the beaches for days, while the mothers “sat at the Brimmick’s house and wept.” Jeremy “was left to answer the phone,” ringing all afternoon those first few days. Graham’s body, which may have been attacked by “dog fish” (small sharks), was never found.

Jeremy returned to Tufts in the fall, and continued her studies that year under a cloud of mournful grief. Late one night in the spring she walked to the reservoir with the intention of throwing herself in, but a friend persuaded her to return to the dorms, where an all night session of talk with friends helped to turn her thoughts away from death, towards the mystery of the unknown, the future, and the vast world yet to be explored. This awakened in her memories of her youth and of a beloved geography book, along with the realization, at age nine, as she stepped from her porch on Washington Street, “I’m walking on a turning earth.” Jeremy turned away from thoughts of suicide after those conversations, never to consider it again. She traveled to Europe that following summer, and in subsequent summers with girl friends from college, she took a walking trip across Connecticut and a road trip to Northern Maine. In later years, as she garnered fellowships and awards, she crossed the larger seas that would take her around the world, and some of her published books—The Woman from the Island, and These Islands Also—may have paid poetic homage to that rock in the Harbor of Gloucester, known to Graham and Jeremy as “their island,” where one imagined life became engulfed, and a vaster world emerged.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ready to Take Steps off My Palm

The boxes were new: white,
acid-free cardboard file boxes, with snug lids and curved, recently folded-in hand slots at each end, marked with bold black labels, which indicated her name and a number on one side. I had a scope and content list-fifty pages long-general, intentionally sketchy (the detailed list would be the archivist's task) and I soon found, far from accurate. I went through the pages, circling items on various lists that I wanted to start with: journals, photographs, and tapes of the poet reading her work at various events. I could request only four boxes at a time, and began going through them with an oddly numbered mix, since the chronology of boxes did not guarantee a timeline of her life and work. I was looking for something other than the books, edited manuscripts, and professorial notations of Ingalls' scholarly life. I wanted to don headphones and listen to her poetry while turning pages of photo albums; I wanted her voice as a background to the slant or intensity of her scribbled, inner thoughts.

What I encountered first was a familiar, musty scent: not the moldy smell of attics or basements, but the familiar fragrance of old books that have been opened and read in rooms lit by fireplaces, or scented by autumn incense, or the summer vases of garden roses. What I found, first, was a disappointing silence: no cassettes, no reel-to-reel tapes, no digitized disks. To be sure, I completely unpacked each box first, to verify that they weren't hiding inside a folder, envelope, or stationary box, or slotted between the pages of an album. But then, slowly repacking each box, I began to make my own expanded lists, and encountered delightful surprises. Not just the tokens of success: a Poet Laureate Medal in a small brown box, a published collection of Ingalls Prize Poems of Glouchester High School, 1940-1955-so named to honor their alumni-or the pristine contributor's copies of literary magazines and journals, the author's copies of her published texts and translations.

What I also found were rejection slips, and more personal rejection letters, photocopies of manuscripts and documents of writing that brought up questions: did this radio play, "To Honor Medgar Evers" actually get performed in 1972? If this poem, bookmarked in the 1933 Tuftonian (Tufts College literary magazine) "by Mildred Ingalls, '32," is an early work of our author, what (or who) was the inspiration for changing her name from Mildred to Jeremy? And then, in a corner of Box #15, carefully nestled among a stack of small pocket journals, I found a pair of tiny leather shoes.

In faded handwriting, across each smooth sole, was an inked message: Jeremy Ingalls, First Shoes, assuring there was no question of their provenance. Holding the soft leather pair of footwear in the palm of my hand, I examined them. Each had an angled row of three tiny, tightly-stitched brown buttons along their ankle edge. Side by side, as I moved my hand, marveling at these remnants of a 1911 infant's wardrobe, the shoes seemed poised, ready to take steps off my palm and out into some great beyond. These were not the pastel, knitted booties of a sweet Mildred, nor were they the scuffed and bronzed reminders of a defiant Millie, toddling in fields and seascapes among family. They held the smell of calf-leather bindings, and the sturdy and sensible shoes of a future scholar and world traveler. As I tucked them back in the larger box, I decided let go of my initial fantasies. This wasn't going to be a sonorous sifting through the papers of another century, listening to a static voice as I handled aged photos with white cotton gloves. This was going to be a series of adventures. And Jeremy's first shoes were here to help me embark on the myriad intellectual, imaginative, and inspiring journeys ahead.