Restoring the Burnt Child: A Primer. Nebraska, September 2003. $22
This Death by Drowning. Nebraska, September 1997. $15
Sergeant Patrick Gass, Chief Carpenter: On the Trail with Lewis and Clark. Spoon River Poetry, July 2002. $12
Someone has said, with respect to memoir, that you get no points for your life. Untrue when it is celebrity, notoriety, or newfound-sobriety memoir, letting that last serve as stand-in for anyone’s tale of surviving the savageries of circumstance: quite the opposite; but when the writer seeks to extend the art of memoir by exploring what the form can become, that assertion is more than a decent half truth. It is what you make of your life in writing that counts; it’s your life as you form it on the page.
With Restoring the Burnt Child, William Kloefkorn seems to be halfway into an ambitious exploration of the fine art of memoir, one that began with This Death by Drowning. Water in the earlier title and fire in the recent one suggest the scope of his ambition. A tetralogy must be under way, and if so, it is one that I want very much to see through to the end. In a sense it is a classic American story: a man forms himself from a background of no particular distinction but with ample help from a modest family and spare, most spare community that give freely of their support. But in a sense too that seems not in the least contradictory, it would be a singular American story; at least, I can think of nothing quite like it. The early setting is south central Kansas—Attica (population, then and now, about 700), in Harper County, on the Oklahoma border, with Kiowa, Medicine Lodge, Hazelton, and Cedar Vale nearby settlements of distinction. Kloefkorn’s journeys, unspecified so far except as hinted at by his ease with canonical literature and brief mention of the Marines, lead him one state north, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to the sandhills and to the banks of the three branches of the Loup River and of the Platte.
This Death by Drowning begins with an incident in the writer’s sixth year, one week before he enters first grade, when he stumbles into a farm pond chasing grasshoppers for bait. His father, a county road worker with a right hook more than a hand, grapples him out of the water, onto dry land, and into his first sense of absolute depths, both below and above, as he stares, breathless, into the sky beyond his father’s back. This near catastrophe is Kloefkorn’s first touchstone of water and of wetness. Other touchstones highlight the remainder of this book: a sandpit in which his younger brother slashes an artery while exploring a sunken car; Pearl Harbor and then the loss of the five Sullivan brothers when the Juneau, on which all five served, founders in the Pacific, news that the grade-schooler absorbs in the local barbershop and from newspapers he delivers; a cistern and cream separator that his grandfather constructed; the Platte and the Loup Rivers, by which he locates himself as an adult; and finally, in a kind of coda, the Caribbean, with his wife, close to the time of writing, meditating on the many streams that link their home to the sea.
Beginning a week before first grade and ending “recently,” Drowning sketches a life. Kloefkorn is a retired professor of English, the State Poet of Nebraska, and the author of numerous books, including Sergeant Patrick Gass, Chief Carpenter: On the Trail with Lewis and Clark, through which he recreates the voice of the sergeant, carpenter, and, next to the captains, the most striking journal keeper on that epic expedition. Kloefkorn is steeped in the history of the Midwest and West and in English and American literature, as befits a man who has given much of his life to college teaching. “Touchstone” he makes his word; allusions to and quotations of the Bible, Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Vaughn, Wordsworth, Shelley, Pater, Emerson, Thoreau, and Twain, and no doubt a few more whom I have forgotten or missed, punctuate his text, and almost always with a light and easy touch: “when it came to plumbing, [he] knew a hawk from a handsaw”; “when the decision was made to travel one hundred and twenty miles to Grandfather’s farm near Cedar Vale, each of us … began to live lives of quiet exhilaration.” Loren Eiseley and John Neihardt make appearances, as does Black Elk. You may get “no points” for your life in memoir, but neither does it hurt to draw upon one that has been richly spent.
Restoring the Burnt Child begins again at Kloefkorn’s beginnings, then dwells on his early years. He is nine in its first chapter when he burns out the kitchen of his home while engaging a playmate in a war game with matches. The book ends as he turns thirteen. Our atomic bombs have just brought “a black rain of ruin” down on Japan. “Each day during the past week I delivered papers that told more than a boy could understand,” Kloefkorn observes. The book moves back and forth, from as early as his fourth year to the brink of his teens. As water is the touchstone of Drowning, fire is of Burnt Child—match fire; house fire; firecracker, slingshot, and BB gun fire; hellfire from evangelical sermons; the shotgun fire of his father and grandfather battling a plague of rabbits on a hardscrabble farm; and war—suffusing it all from a distance and inhabiting the boy’s consciousness. Since Burnt Child focuses on these formative years, I assume the earth and air volumes to come will see Kloefkorn to maturity and beyond, though perhaps I am being presumptuous, or just unimaginative.
Whatever the arc of these volumes proves, circles will describe them. “You ever have the feeling that whatever isn’t round wants to be?” he asks on one occasion. Or, on another, “Do all things at last aspire to roundness?” So, in Burnt Child, this quotation from Black Elk Speaks and Kloefkorn’s comment on it:
Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. . . . Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s loop, a nest of many nests… .
- Ah, roundness. Ah, music, that consummation all writing aspires to. And perhaps the spoken word wants to be music, too, music that in its own form of roundness returns again and again, as does the sun, to warm and enlighten. (
Close always to the spoken word, Kloefkorn’s writing aspires to be a sort of sun on his life, to warm and enlighten, and so to improve upon one preacher he mentions, “whose sermons were a lot like most Kansas waterways, neither deep nor wide.”
The characteristic movement of Kloefkorn’s chapters is periodic. He achieves width and depth by circling. One story will open to another, then to another, and yet another, then often to still one more, reminding me of 1001 Nights, before returning to the first for closure, with each inclusion having deepened the sense of the whole. After outlining the main event, the initial story in Drowning turns to his father’s accident, how he lost two fingers and thus made a hook of his hand, to his mother’s belief in Divine Providence, to his accidentally burning down their outhouse, and so to the intervention of Providence, Who now ordains indoor plumbing, to the plumber who knew hawk from handsaw, to the father who “looked upon” the new plumbing “and was pleased,” and finally to a small disquisition on touchstones before returning to his near drowning to complete the period and amplify the triggering event.
The opening chapter of Burnt Child is parallel. Its topics are kitchen matches and the game that burns out a kitchen, not merely an outhouse this time, World War II growing “hotter and heavier,” a BB he lodges over the eye of his playmate, the word strop and the playmate’s being well stropped for it, their game again, the firefighters who came running, his father’s swearing, the mayhem that ensued, an earlier small disaster in which his father’s behavior distinguished itself, then back to the fire, creeping closer to the heat of it and so fixing on another touchstone of extreme experience.
Almost every chapter in both books moves in this fashion. Sometimes a sequence nests within a longer sequence, as in a case in Drowning that I particularly admire. Kloefkorn tells of an afternoon at a cabin by the Platte with his four-year-old granddaughter. There will be peanut butter sandwiches, milk, and whittling. He slips a visit to Woodpecker Haven among these activities. Then comes whittling. The girl’s delicate hands pitch him forward a few years to an afternoon when those same hands, a little more grown-up, not only cleaned but “scoured” his plow at jacks. He tumbled, literally, which reminds him of another spill, when rather too late in life again he had tried to ride a bike with “no hands.” Now we circle back to jacks, to the whittling, to the peanut butter sandwiches and a nap. While his granddaughter sleeps, Kloefkorn rereads Mari Sandoz, retelling a Pawnee story of creation in which he finds the shadow of truth once more as the child wakes up to a fresh world and spends the remainder of her afternoon claiming stones from the running water, examining them, arranging them, and tossing them back in. The afternoon progresses by circling around a few small events with their surprising associations before the mother returns, “around dusk,” for her daughter. By this time, “around dusk” has become a refrain, a signal of cycles within cycles, from inner to cosmic ranges of order. Kloefkorn has an unaffected way of enjoying the pleasures life offers. “She is four,” he repeats, as the granddaughter drives off with her mother. “Her hair is cornsilk, her eyes sky. When she smiles, and she smiles often, I believe she means it.” His day unfolds in the keeping of a “full marriage moon,” a term new to me and that he may have invented—full marriage, full moon. It rises that night, and “because it has happened countless times before,” he assures us, “it will happen again.”
Everything … is done in a circle. That the memoir as we have it so far began with his near drowning “one week before” he entered first grade and ends “one week before” his thirteenth birthday extends the primacy of circles and leads to the thought—not an accusation, mind you—that he just might have been fudging things a little for the sake of pattern. This is the circle of widest circumference so far, from the beginning of the first book to the end of the second. Its periodicity is reinforced by a passage that comes a page before Black Elk’s remarks on circles and by which Kloefkorn pegs his ars poetica to a Sunday school teacher:
- It has taken me a long time to realize the extent to which the story, any story, relies upon a melody, however subtle that melody might be… . The composition began with the music of individual names—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, certainly, but also the names of the instruments—cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer—names that, repeated, provided a refrain. Add to all this the titles, the governors and the captains and the counselors and so forth, and what you have are lyrics by way of litanies. Add to that my teacher’s voice speaking each word as if she both understood and approved it, and that included
cubit, sackbut, psaltery,
- —they tripped off her tongue without apology or hesitation… . It occurs to me now that perhaps all writing aspires to be music. (
War consciousness, its looming, smoldering fire, provides the specific heat of both volumes, its own music, and much of the litany: ric-o-chet, tra-jec-to-ry, Mess-er-schmitt, flak, strop, a word so savored that it generates also the fifth poem in the series for Sergeant Patrick Gass. Thus the circles of ex-pec-tan-cy, another of his words, widen. Kloefkorn’s family does not seem to speak much of the war; instead he absorbs news of it from the papers he delivers, from the radio, and from talk at the barbershop, where he hangs out and listens. “Before I leave Urie’s barber shop I too … will be a new man,” he comments toward the end of Burnt Child (138), and it will not be because of a clean look. There is a touch of metaphorical extension in this remark, since his “leaving,” if we press the matter literally, is not complete that day but only becomes so one week and thirty pages later, the day before his thirteenth birthday. In that short interval, he had delivered the news of Enola Gay and so, over a series of days, news “that told more than a boy could understand” and that the men of the town, little more comprehending than he, chew on while Kloefkorn folds his papers. Hence that second Saturday:
- It is another Saturday in my small hometown, a warm Saturday in August, and the amazing thing is that the town looks pretty much the same as it had before Little Boy and Fat Man were dropped. But there seems to be something not quite definable waiting, or maybe lurking, beneath the surface. Tomorrow I will turn thirteen. (
That last sentence, halfway down the last page of the book, is another refrain, with three soundings in the final five pages. “One week before” modulates with “tomorrow I will turn thirteen” to embroider this melody. The closing chapter of Burnt Child moves from awareness of the war, to a haircut, to the war again and the bombs that end it, to “God’s plan” questioned when Kloefkorn is sent back to church to retrieve his grandmother’s Bible. His not finding it leads to “milk toast and homemade chocolate pie” with her, and so to his taste for milk toast in spite of one sorry time when a nurse forced it on him just after his tonsils had been extracted, then back to the bomb and the barbershop, a setting that permits one last mention of strop.
- The amazing thing is that things keep going on. After delivering the paper I’ll make the other rounds—pool hall, drugstore, grocery store and so on. Tomorrow, after Sunday school and church, I’ll probably walk my grandmother home, then, at her insistence, stay for a piece of the birthday cake I know she’ll surprise me with. Already I can see myself at the kitchen table. Between us sits the cake, large enough to feed a mid-sized army. Watch now as Grandmother hands me a box of Diamond matches… . (
For the candles, of course, but they are matches like those with which he had burnt down an outhouse at the start of one book and burnt out a kitchen to begin the other.
An unfriendly reader could call this sentimental, and it is true that much sentiment shows. “Sentimental,” though, is when the writer presumes many more points than needed, not to mention deserved, without working much to score any. Merely showing up with one’s life is held to be enough. The sentimental is avoided by discovering more in the material than the stuff itself, then making more from it so that we can savor the shape of experience and the critical understanding of it brought forward by the writer. The music Kloefkorn finds in his material determines the circling shapes he works from it. He aligns his effort with what Neihardt once offered as a short list of “human blisses.” These begin with “ ‘love given,’ as [Neihardt] puts it, ‘rather than love received,’ followed by ‘the satisfaction of the instinct of workmanship’ ” (Burnt Child, 122). Love given is evident in the sun Kloefkorn shines on his past and on the land and community that raised him. His instinct of workmanship shows in his carefully attentive, periodic form of narration. “My blessing / upon all works assembled by human hands: Such / works are holy,” his Sergeant Gass offers. The particular work in question then was a “collapsible iron-frame boat lugged all the way from Harpers Ferry” to fail its test in the Rockies and be buried with something like mock honors. The corps had called it Captain Lewis’s “experiment,” and their attitude toward its failure was, we might say, mixed. “Do all of us aspire at last to roundness?” Kloefkorn asks again. Gass’s tone toward that experiment and then toward the grave of his Captain’s boat is all but identical with Kloefkorn’s toward the boyhood stories he tells. That grave, says Gass,
- is uncommonly long, uncommonly wide,
- uncommonly shallow. May
- no animal, high or low,
- disturb its remains. Or fail to smile when its
- story is told, or in silence
Kloefkorn’s smile upon his own story is evident, nor do I fail to share it. And when smiling, we sense the third of Neihardt’s blisses, “the exaltation of expanded awareness in moments of spiritual insight.” Naturally such a moment is fleeting, but it is a gift nevertheless.