Editor’s Note: What follows are two sets of excerpts from Marvin Bell and Christopher Merrill’s extended collaboration After the Fact, in which the poets shared a conversation on the page in the form of a series of linked, single paragraph prose poems. The first thirteen of these works, or “paras,” are from the as yet unpublished After the Fact: If & When; the final four are from After the Fact: Here & Now, a subsequent volume left unfinished at Bell’s death. Each selection is introduced by one of the poets.
After the Fact: If & When
After the Fact: If & When is a sequel to the 2016 book After the Fact: Scripts & Postscripts, ninety linked paragraphs written in 2011-2015 with Christopher Merrill, whom I first met in 1978. It was Chris’s idea to start a back-and-forth collaboration. By turns, it has felt like prose poetry, lyrical nonfiction, poetic memoir, and emotive journalism. It is a conversation in which we take up matters biographical, philosophical, sociopolitical, and aesthetic. Neither of us realized at the start how much it would come to mean to us. Hence, If & When following After the Fact. Because Chris undertakes cultural diplomacy missions for the State Department, his paragraphs arrive from all over the world, while mine have been sent from Iowa City, Iowa, and Port Townsend, Washington.
The Werther Effect
The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1774. Theorists of social contagion trace the idea that harmful social influences can be transmitted like infectious diseases to the rash of suicides that followed the publication of Goethe’s semi-autobiographical novel. Like his doomed protagonist, melancholy young men wore blue coats and yellow trousers to shoot themselves or jump from bridges—stylized statements that convinced some European authorities to ban the book. Goethe composed a poem for the second edition, admonishing readers not to follow his example. Two hundred years passed before a sociologist coined a term for a form of contagion—the Werther effect—that soon infected my hometown. Keith’s younger brother took his life, and others followed suit, as others always do. Consider the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire at an intersection in Saigon to protest the war, inspiring other self-immolators, including a fruit-seller in Tunis who sparked the Arab Spring. Then remember the suicide bombers in London, Madrid, and Manchester; the killers stalking houses of worship in Charleston, Pittsburgh, and Christchurch; the white supremacists chanting “Blood and Soil” in Charlottesville, MAGA-hatted men and women threatening journalists at Trump rallies, online trolls desperate to own the libs. Some take their marching orders from what they read, see on TV, or track on social media, inoculating themselves, or so they think, against the viruses circling the globe. Think again.
April Fools’ + 1
April 2, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump declares that wind turbines cause cancer. The comedians snicker, and we guffaw. Think back to the Piels beer television ads of 1955 to 1960 in which the comics Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding voiced the animated characters Bert and Harry marketing Piels. The ads were meant to focus attention on the brand, but Bert and Harry sometimes entertained us as if they were still getting around to it. Was it the cartoon Bert or the cartoon Harry who sent the other for a table and was told to stall by doing bird calls, which he did until the table appeared, by which time it was too late. Trump is an unwitting practitioner of the method: to entertain us until it is too late. Viewers enjoyed the Bob and Ray ads but forgot for what product, and Piels resorted to the hard sell in which a song kept repeating “Piels, Piels, wonderful Piels” over pictures of people having fun. Schlitz, Pabst, and Budweiser steamrolled the national beer world. January 6, 2018, Trump says, “I’m a very stable genius.” Are we having fun yet?
June 6, 2019, Normandy Beach, France. The ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy was delayed, according to U.S. President Donald Trump, by the interview he taped with FOX News—a mixture of grievance, insult, and deceit, with the American cemetery in the background. I was ruing, once again, the loss of the journals my father’s godfather had kept during his medical service aboard the hospital ship USS Hope, which had set sail across the Pacific not long after the liberation of Paris. His meticulous record of the final campaign against Japan, during which his ship evacuated and tended to the wounded and dying from the Battles of Corregidor, Okinawa, and other islands, disappeared when I moved west, along with my dream of bringing his voice to life in a novel. I feared him in my childhood, perhaps remembering in some vestigial way his decision at our kitchen table in my infancy to use a pair of scissors to snip the band of tissue connecting my tongue to the floor of my mouth. My malnourishment he blamed on the fact that I was tongue-tied, which relieved my mother, who traced his brutal methods to the USS Hope. I did not speak until I was nearly two. Sometimes it is best to hold your tongue.
The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff, 1979. A book of revelations. To be moved to write for an occasion is a sure cure for the wordless. You and I were there in the Bread Loaf barn to hear the stuttering author who had barged through his fear of his first-ever public reading so that his children would hear, prior to the publication of his memoir, the truth of their father’s father, whose life as a con man had been unknown by his son. I recall, too, the novelist who, as a student, lengthened every question with an unstoppable stutter but who did not stutter on stage. Both writers would vanquish their genetic constraints. There are other reasons for not speaking. I will never know if my father would have said anything much about his escape from Ukraine under a horse-drawn load of hay, or his horseback ride to Poland and the voyage in steerage to America. Had he lived longer, still I think he would not have told. Indeed, it seems that asking PTSD veterans to speak of the horrors of their wars abroad is not therapeutic but destructive, as they go through them again. The desensitization training of the military did not carry over for those whom Rusk, McNamara, and Bundy sent to Vietnam, and for whom no treatment could loosen their tongues about the whole truth. Our friend Rocky tells me of his 99-year-old mother, her faculties intact, who asks of him that he tell those at her “service” to enunciate clearly. We are lucky who are given the words to say enough.
Mickelsson’s Ghosts, John Gardner, 1982. The reviews of Gardner’s final novel were brutal—one critic likened it to “mountains and mountains of loose black coal, shifting and sliding but burning no fire and making no light”—and that summer at Bread Loaf some attributed his drunkenness to literary despair. He was late for his morning lecture, and when I found him in his room drinking with his fiancée and another writer, he was in no mood to go to the Little Theater, where he delivered the shortest lecture anyone could remember. If you’re not writing political, he said, you’re not writing. Then he strummed his guitar for a minute or two before returning to his room to continue partying. I developed a theory about his fall from grace, which ended the next month, just before his wedding, when he drove his motorcycle off the road. He survived colon cancer, two divorces, and assorted literary controversies, including a plagiarism charge, only to find he could not rid himself of the ghost that called him to write, in one form or another, how at the age of eleven, driving a tractor on the family farm, he had accidentally crushed his younger brother to death. From his books, his attempts to exorcise the nightmares and flashbacks he suffered until his dying day, I am learning that what I witnessed and experienced in Sarajevo will not leave me be.
Sept. 27, 2019, Beverly Hills, California, the Saban Theater. Holograms of Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly take turns not being there. A reviewer, against his expectation, said, “It wasn’t creepy,” but admits his mind wandered after two numbers. A tribute show, the audience had come to see the artists perform. They cheered the first appearance of Hologram Orbison. They moved to the beat when Holly jumped about the stage. Were the holograms memory blocks—in either sense of the phrase? Or both at once? Holograms, ghosts, people in dreams, the fabricated characters of fantasy, echoes of times past, déjà vu—they show up unbidden, living in the resonant cavities of the brain yet seeming to arrive from afar. Staying in Frost’s cabin in New Hampshire, when poets who had slept there previously said they had met a nightly ghost, I welcomed the ghost but, whether awake or asleep, neither saw nor heard anything. I kept the bedroom door open, not that it would have been a hindrance. Free of the ghostly, I tell stories about friends who have died because, after all, I still know them. In that way, but only in that way, I bring them to life. I remember the insomniac John Gardner writing through the night at a small table in a Bread Loaf hallway, and wonder now if it was a way to avoid his lost brother. Those who paid $25 apiece to be in the moment with Orbison and Holly were largely satisfied and appreciative, though the reviewer noted that some left early, as had Orbison and Holly.
The Fishermen, Sculpture Garden, Petrozavodsk, Russia, 21 October 2019. My guide, a linguistics professor from the state university, had remained single for so long that when she invited her friends to a wedding celebration, at the lakefront restaurant where we were dining, they did not believe she would marry the Egyptian computer scientist she had met on holiday in Alexandria; hence they brought no gifts to their nuptials. After lunch, walking along the embankment, she rehearsed the nicknames locals had bestowed on the postmodernist sculptures commissioned and presented to Petrozavodsk by its sister cities—Woman with Four Breasts; a series of posts called Dogs’ Joy; and Kissing Snakes, two tall columns twisting toward each other, each topped with a metallic serpentine shape. The monument to Peter the Great had been moved from the city center to make way for one to Lenin—which was not removed when the Soviet Union dissolved. We had no time to visit Lenin Square, also called “Round Square” (the English translation of круглая площадь), before my overnight train departed for Moscow. The other passenger in my compartment was attached to one of the security services, though I could not make out the pin affixed to the lapel of his leather jacket. Nor did he speak to me or turn a page of the book he was reading, which was thick enough to be War and Peace. Our encounter was as unlikely, and perhaps inevitable, as my guide’s marriage or the pair of wire mesh fishermen overlooking the lake, who would soon be coated with ice; they had no nicknames. After midnight, when I realized my bunkmate would read until morning, I took an Ambien and slept like a baby.
Nov. 13, 2019, the public impeachment hearings of Donald Trump. With my father having come to the U.S. from Ukraine as a teen, I should like beets and borscht, and the bitter herbs of the seder, but I do not. My culinary affiliation with his Old World consists of the likes of bagels, garlic and halvah, though one can hardly find a true bagel any longer, even on the lower east side of New York to which those fleeing poverty and pogroms came. When I delivered my son to his sublet on his move to New York, before leaving I fixed the mailbox, bought a duplicate door key, and pointed to a nearby deli, telling him to ask for a “bagel with a schmear.” He was too shy to say such a thing, but half a year later, his girlfriend told me that he had gotten better about it. She explained that he had ordered a bagel and, when the waitress asked if he wanted “a schmear,” he had said yes. Such a small thing, it still makes me smile. Even the inquiry to establish the President’s crimes linked to Ukraine has its humorous side, given his continuous “I’m rubber and you’re glue” fibs. In good times and bad, we take our joy and delight from actions of which we were a part, even when it falls to us only to know the news and to speak of the obvious. I’m not saying everything is peachy keen, but there’s a reason to smile.
November 20, 2019, the public impeachment hearings of Donald Trump. When Jennifer Williams, a Foreign Service officer detailed to the vice president’s office, swore an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to the House Intelligence Committee, I thought I recognized her from a cultural diplomacy mission a decade ago. My control officer’s instructions for my first engagement in Beirut were unnerving, given the travel warnings issued by the State Department for Lebanon: take a taxi to Fantasy World, a family-themed fun park in Dahiya, a largely Shi’a district and Hezbollah stronghold in south Beirut, then cross the road to the high school. A young diplomat (Ms. Williams, if memory serves) was waiting for me with her security detail. She was anxious to start, and stayed only long enough to introduce me to the class, reminding me before she left to take a taxi back to my hotel and send her the receipts. I do not remember ever feeling so alone. But the students, who were fluent in Arabic, English, and French, seemed to embrace my idea that translating poems and stories from one language to another could be part of their literary apprenticeship. And when they read aloud the writing exercise I gave them—describe a room in your house—it felt as if they had invited me into their lives. This was a fantasy, of course, like the fun park across the road, which belonged to Hezbollah’s financier, or the belief that truth might prevail in Congress. The diplomat testified that Trump’s phone call to the Ukrainian president was “unusual and inappropriate.” It took me forever to hail a taxi in that part of town.
The Art of the Deal
1987, a book “by” Donald Trump, ghosted by Tony Schwartz. January 22, 2020, President Trump says, about the coronavirus pandemic, “We have it totally under control.” Jan. 24: “It will all work out well.” He explains that it will “just disappear.” Previously, he called it “the Democrats’ new hoax.” March 24, 2020, over 53,000 people in the U.S. and territories have tested positive, and over 700 have died. Trump has caused a run on hydroxychloroquine, a drug needed for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, falsely claiming it treats the virus. He refuses to invoke the power to pay companies to make ventilators with which to save the sick. Trump, who it seems has betrayed banks, stiffed workers, and stolen from charities, now shows the qualities of a wholesale serial killer. My wife and I, seniors with “underlying conditions,” will be indoors for a long time, while Trump is eager to tell us not to self-isolate but to make the economy look better for his re-election campaign. Meanwhile, our son in NYC, a trained ninja, is buying things for us he thinks we should have. Our other son, who FaceTimes from Tennessee, convinced us to buy LifeStraws. They say you can stick one in the mud and suck up clean water. If only that applied to the Trump administration, devoutly lying, while “Let them eat cake” Melania, is having a tennis pavilion built on the White House lawn. Who will play tennis there? This time of “social distancing” is no time for Socratic dialogue, but we can seek a smile here or there, to wit: Dorothy, out walking, heard someone across the street say, as his friend approached him, ”I’ve got a tape measure, and I’m not afraid to use it.”
26 March 2020. I was rereading Camus’ novel when the United States became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with more confirmed cases than any country and a thousand deaths. One month after Trump’s declaration that COVID-19 would disappear, “like a miracle,” this public health emergency was for the president not what the French writer had described in his diary as “the redeeming plague.” Camus set his story in the coastal Algerian city of Oran, which had a history of epidemics, and while the plague he describes in minute detail is often regarded as a metaphor for life in Vichy France, it is first and foremost a disease. Quarantine resembles military occupation, it is true; also Sarajevo during the siege, which was where I first read The Plague. A friend suggested that Trump was leading a death cult. What’s next? an Episcopal priest asked me in an email. Frogs and boils? The ten plagues of Egypt, sent by God and recounted in the Book of Exodus, which include turning the water of the Nile to blood, a thunderstorm of hail and fire, and enough locusts to cover the face of the earth, convinced the Pharaoh to free the Israelites from slavery. The president’s dereliction of duty will cost many lives. In despair I snuck out of the house at dusk to go for a run, and when I started down the hill above the marsh, I heard a chorus of spring peepers calling to their mates. It sounded like sleigh bells.
Aesthetic Wobble #6
March 28, 2020. Can we vindicate our yearning for beauty during a pandemic? Is there a writer’s hazmat suit? Beginning to write at 2:30 in the afternoon, I noted the count of 116,448 coronavirus cases in the U.S. and 1,943 deaths. When I quickly reloaded the page, I saw that someone else had passed. By 2:41, the death toll was 1,978. Now Trump wants people to die for the Dow. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, during the pandemic the most presidential spokesperson in the country, having asked in vain for sufficient federal assistance while New Yorkers perished, now could not keep from calling Trump’s plan to get people into the streets by Easter “not aspirational, but asinine.” Trump has told his sycophantic veep, Mike Pence, not to telephone governors insufficiently “appreciative” of him. I am bent from concern for my son and daughter-in-law residing on the 26th floor of a Brooklyn high-rise. He reassures me: “We take the stairs down and up,” he says. “Nobody takes the stairs in New York!” Taking a break from writing this at 4:00 p.m., the U.S. death count stands at 1,979. One minute later: 1,993. Trumpism is exponential.
The True Believer
March 29, 2020. On my mother’s birthday, one month to the day after her death, I counted out the pills remaining in my supply of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, to gauge how long I might have before my immune system resumed its attack on my joints. A Trump tweet extolling its miraculous healing properties for sufferers of COVID-19 led to a shortage of the drug, with doctors prescribing it for themselves and their families, and so the pharmacy cannot refill my prescription. The president’s faith in a single study, dismissed by virologists, unnerved public health professionals accustomed to making policy recommendations based on scientific evidence. And his followers’ belief in the misinformation he offers daily about the pandemic, despite media fact-checking, called to mind The True Believer, Eric Hoffer’s study of mass movements and fanaticism, which once helped me understand my mother’s trust in Richard Nixon. The stevedore wrote his first book in longhand between shifts on the San Francisco docks, then sent his only copy to Harvard University Press; when asked what he would do if the editor lost his manuscript, he said he would just write it out again, because he had it memorized. The true believer is everywhere on the march, he wrote in 1951—and this is still the case. My mother died of dementia on Leap Day, the date of the first American death from COVID-19, and since I last checked this morning, the plague has claimed 172 more lives, medical supplies are running dangerously low in New York City, and Trump is boasting on Twitter about the television ratings his press conferences garner. If and when this finally comes to an end, I hope that what we have written here—and what we may yet write—will be at once original and true.
After the Fact: Here & Now
Marvin and I completed the second volume of After the Fact, subtitled If & When, in the early days of the pandemic, and while we could not imagine how long the initial lockdown would last or what toll it might take on our lives, we knew that the novel coronavirus would not only change the nature of our collaboration, which had heretofore depended to a certain degree upon the tension between what I experienced during my international travels and what Marvin was thinking about closer to home, but force us to document and reflect on the sudden changes thrust upon us. Thus began Here & Now, the unfinished third volume of After the Fact, which I wish Marvin and I were still writing. Here are its opening paras.
From Twitter, I learn that the Welsh word for self-isolation, hunan ynysu, can be translated as self-islanding—a working definition of our new dispensation, which has its own nomenclature. Here in the Peninsula neighborhood, where we shelter in place, practicing social distancing to avoid contracting the novel coronavirus, I recall stories my late friend, the Welsh writer Leslie Norris, used to tell: how in one bleak period of his life, he would look over the page he had typed each day, crumple it up, and drop it in the trash can. His wife, Kitty, would retrieve the page, read it, and return it to the trash can. Leslie relished the idea that in his elegy for Edward Thomas he misnamed the white star-shaped flowers growing on the hill above the poet’s house, calling them ransoms instead of ramsoms, which merited a citation in the OED. Sometimes I wondered how they survived their last years in Provo, Utah, feted by the Mormons at BYU, though they did not belong to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and now it comes to me: they made an island for themselves at the base of the Wasatch Mountains. I had the good luck to dine with them regularly, gathering stories, it seems, for our self-islanding. Medieval Welsh bards, Leslie told me more than once, wrote their deathbed poems when they were still healthy. No telling when the end is nigh.
I am especially fond of literary endings in which a poem stops but the poetry continues. Does that not apply to deathbed poems written early? It’s an up-in-the-air presence, a sailing away, a wave of insinuation, neither an aura nor an omen because endless. We were leaving the Salt Lake City airport for a long drive south when I turned to the Deseret News journalist in the back seat and asked, “Where do Mormons think Heaven is?” “Do you really want to know?” he asked. “We’ve got five hours,” I said. And it came to pass that he told me the ins-and-outs, the ups-and-downs, the then-and-now, even the story of the borrowed garment for a hot date. He told of a mission where they competed with Jehovah’s Witnesses to see who could find the next graveyard. He said (was he joking?) they received a pound of chocolates for each male soul and a half-pound for each female. It was a happy drive, though two years later he would walk by me without speaking. Having once written an article that displeased his editors, he had been welcomed back. In the age of COVID-19, a doctrine by which the faithful stockpile for emergencies and tithe on principle, even as they seek converts, looks like a business plan for a pandemic. In a safer time, at the Mormon university in Hawaii, down the road from the Polynesian Cultural Center, where the Samoans do the haka and the hula dancers sway languidly, the man assigned to deliver the prayer before my poetry reading declared his certainty the audience would leave the event feeling spiritually uplifted. I knew I was being told to watch my step. Afterward, I played basketball with some of the teachers, and then we went for ice cream. I don’t know if the Mormons have yet baptized every branch of my Ukrainian family tree. Can they ever? That’s a lot of blood and chocolate.
A whistleblower’s complaint to the IRS detailing how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had misled its members about investments in its charitable accounts brought to mind the last time I saw my father’s Aunt Kay. She was visiting family in Orem, Utah, in May 1987, finalizing preparations for her move from a 5,000-acre mountain ranch near Carmel-by-the-Sea. Her husband, Dudley, chairman of National Airlines, had been dead for twenty-five years, and she explained that when a Mormon deacon offered her disabled son a job, she took that as a sign to convert—a decision, my father said, that would have caused Dudley to turn over in his grave. Aunt Kay was nearly seventy when the Mormons sent her on a mission to Hawai’i. Over lunch she described her friendship with Robinson and Una Jeffers, also Clint Eastwood; when asked about the ranch, Aunt Kay said she had decided to donate it to the Church for a conference center—which apparently was not built. The whistleblower claimed the investment manager had set aside $100 billion for the Second Coming of Christ, some of which was used to bail out failing companies instead of helping those in need—which gives new meaning to Paul’s command to store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. The tithing of the faithful might be put to better use in a pandemic. Poor Aunt Kay gave up everything to enter the Celestial Kingdom.
April-June, 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings. They overlapped my graduation from high school. I was glued to the TV, oblivious to the local damage inflicted by McCarthyism and the Red Scare, but I could tell Tail Gunner Joe was bad news. I had won the American Legion annual speech contest by relating the Constitution to daily life, including baseball. I had won because they weren’t going to give first place to my friend, the son of a physicist at Brookhaven National Lab, who had spoken about McCarthyism. Anyone could be a commie, how were we to tell? Scientists were suspect. People who thought twice were suspect. Suspicion stayed on the level of gossip kept from the children. At least that. Jump to June 1, 2020. The powder keg of police brutality has brought us once again face-to-face with the systemic racism of our country. Trump’s response is to stand in front of a church holding a prop bible fished out of Ivanka’s $1,500 purse. To let him amble across the street for a photo-op, a peaceful assembly has been tear gassed. The Archbishop labels Trump’s stunt “baffling and reprehensible.” The Bishop says she is outraged. The Mayor defines Trump’s blatant ill-use of the church as “shameful.” Even a senior White House official is reported to have said, “I’m really honestly disgusted. I’m sick to my stomach.” I wonder which speech contest topics are now considered unpatriotic. The McCarthy-Army hearings lasted thirty-six days, while the blacklist of alleged Communist sympathizers lasted a decade. The popularity of lies is an unfathomable curse. To depend on the Trump government for truth is whistling in the graveyard.