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Owed to the Confederate Dead

Having destroyed all drafts of my only novel, I took a teaching position in Farmville, Virginia, renting a second story apartment across the street from the campus and with a view of the ubiquitous statue of the Confederate soldier. I could see him from the window at my writing desk, his rifle held at his waist, his angry gaze looking southward as though looking for the people who sent him on his doomed errand.

If you look at a map of Virginia you will notice that Farmville is in the center of the state and that everything interesting is toward the perimeter. It is as far as you can get from the parts of Virginia that anyone would want to see, with the exception of Appomattox Courthouse. Originally known as Bizarre, Farmville had changed its name a few decades before my arrival, opting vainly for the bland. Prince Edward County had been notorious in its resistance to Integration. Alabama had blustered, George Wallace had stood in the school house door, but Farmville had responded to the 1954 Supreme Court decision by simply shutting its public schools altogether. At the time of my arrival, white pupils attended a racist “academy” and black pupils either attended an impoverished county school or went out of state. On a per capita basis, Farmville was the suicide capitol of the nation.

I soon moved out of the apartment into a rented house that had belonged to a prominent dentist now among the voluntarily deceased. The basement was full of old dental equipment. I took naps in “the chair” and listed “dentistry” as my hobby on the college personnel form.

Longwood College, formerly the State Female Normal School and Teachers College, still had an all-female student body in those days. During orientation new male faculty were sent to a little meeting with the president, who told us that the students were fair game, hormonally speaking, as long as we didn’t create any problems he would have to deal with. “Discretion is the thing,” he told us.

On my first day of teaching I eagerly asked my students to write a few paragraphs on why they chose Longwood. At the end of the period I gathered the folded papers, put a rubber band around them, dropped them into my briefcase and walked eagerly to my office. Opening the stack, I looked at the first paper ever submitted to me by a student. The first sentence of it I have never forgotten: “To future one’s life in today’s world, one must higher educate yourself.”

I closed the paper, put the rubber band back around the stack, locked my office door behind me and entered a decade of hard drinking. If you think rock and rollers or bikers or rugby players are serious boozers, you should attend a few English Department cocktail parties. If you live through them, you’ll know who the real drinkers are in this country.

I did have some good students at Longwood. More than one good poet passed through my classes, Dara Weir and Dan Corrie to name a couple.

I was continually in trouble for raising the fact that the college employed not a single minority faculty member or administrator. I was told at first that no qualified person could be found. Besides, it would not be fair to ask one of “them” to live in Farmville. Later I was informed that no qualified person was “affordable.” “They” were now in demand, it seems, and we could not compete in bidding wars, could we?

In Alabama, bottom-line racists had worn white robes and hoods. In Virginia, they served in the Senate. You could take your pick. The Democrats offered Sen. Harry “Massive Resistance” Byrd, a man who would have made Trent Lott look like Thurgood Marshall by comparison. On the Republican side of the aisle was Sen. William Scott, surely one of the stupidest men ever to hold public office. It was Scott who once stood on the banks of the Suez and vowed that over his dead body would the canal ever be returned to Panama.

Such were the glories of the two-party system. Oh, well, at least it produced a visit to Farmville by Elizabeth Taylor, campaigning with her temporary husband John Warner. She of the diamond-flashing eyes succeeded in electing Warner to Scott’s Senate seat before fleeing the Old Dominion for more fashionable precincts.

Other celebrities wandered in and out of Farmville, too. I met Vincent Price after watching him do his one-man show, “An Evening with Oscar Wilde.” Ned Rorem dropped by to hear the college music department attempt some of his songs. I learned that Vladimir Nabokov had once lectured at Longwood. Erica Jong came for a reading. She visited the college bookstore and discovered that, apart from textbooks, the store carried little other than copies of Bride magazine. “Did you notice that you could read several issues of Bride magazine and never discover that weddings might also involve a man?” she observed.

For the most part, though, diversion from drabness was at least 65 miles away, in Charlottesville to the north or Richmond to the east.

The longer I stayed in Farmville, the more I felt like a character Dirk Bogarde might have played. Since I found suicide unappealing (certainly in others but especially in oneself), I did what most people would have done: I tried to write my way out of the situation. I had begun writing poetry at Vanderbilt, winning an Academy of American Poets competition and publishing a few poems in literary journals. Now I was serious about it. Over the next few years a good many of my poems saw daylight in the usual places of that time: Antaeus, Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, etc. I was in an anthology of contemporary poets from Virginia and in 1978 Poets in the South published a book-length feature complete with critical appraisals.

I began to give readings on the circuit. At one of these I met Henry Taylor, who became a lifelong friend. We would sit up all night reciting poems at each other. He would send me a new poem in Poulter’s measure and I would fire one back the same day. Henry later won the Pulitzer Prize and probably hasn’t had a day’s rest since.

For a time I did so much writing in blank verse that I began to dream in it. Characters in my dreams at least could speak whole paragraphs of it effortlessly; why is it so hard to write?

I was also able to bring a few writers to the college for readings and other events. Andrei Voznesensky and Robert Penn Warren drew huge crowds. Audiences of 300 people were not uncommon for poets such as Richard Eberhart and Charles Simic. The writers were usually pleased, since they may have read to 7-15 people the night before in Charlottesville. With support from the administration I was able to establish the John Dos Passos Prize. Mark Strand served on the first jury with me and nominated Graham Greene, who accepted.

Longwood was substantially damaged by fire in 2000 and has lately proclaimed itself a university.

I taught for a couple of semesters at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. Three memories stand out from that period. In one of them, a student stands in my door and demands to know “just what you have to do to make an A in my course.” I mention coming to class occasionally, handing in some of the assignments, and so forth. “Oh,” he says. “I just wanted to know.” In another, the chairman of the department charges me with recklessness and irresponsibility after Gregory Orr and I give a joint reading. He finds our poems depressing and worries that we will inspire sensitive young people to kill themselves. I ask him whether he reads much modern poetry. He prefers fiction, he tells me.

In the third memory, Donald Hall and I meet for drinks in the lounge at a local motel, where a sign on the stage proclaims that Tiny Tim will perform later.

In 1978 I went down to Tampa to read my poems at a literary festival. I was on a panel with Harry Crews, who was a handful in those days. He behaved less than ideally under the influence. The next morning, however, I learned from the newspaper that it was I who had done so: the reporter had gotten our names mixed up. I wondered whether to complain or send flowers.

It had been seven years since I last played music in public. I gave a solo performance at Longwood and a few others at colleges around the state. At one of them a student told me, “If you’re doing anything but playing the piano and singing, you’re wasting your life.” It took me a while to hear it, though.

The following year I was whisked out of Virginia and packed off to Eastern Europe as Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Bucharest. It was to be the most dangerous year of my life.


That night as he lay in the gutter in Baltimore
abandoned by the politicians and the men
of busyness, who had gone home to console
their morbid sense of practicality

that night as he groaned in the ditch in Baltimore
there was a fine rain falling slowly, then it stopped
and the small drops were suspended in the air
like the jewels of a city he had dreamed.
The light wind came to a halt and remained intact.
The gray light sank deeper into the streets.

That night as he rolled in the slush it seemed to him
he had never heard the sound of his own voice
and raising himself on one arm he extended the other
to a strolling citizen and told him desperately
“When they dig my grave they will find nothing but promises,
I wish to be buried in my poems”–but the citizen passed.

That night as the cold settled down over Baltimore
he caught at his own reflection in a storefront
but failed in the final effort to get his attention.
He discovered again that he would never be the same.
Whatever he had seen he refused to salvage.

He surrendered his rage to the rain
sight without consciousness
He surrendered his thirst to the wind
that empty mirror
He surrendered his fear to the dark
which is crouching in the ruin of silver birch
He surrendered his breath to the dead
who choose to remain in the present
He surrendered his hunger to the stones
which are feeding in silence
The life he gave away
was never his life.

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, just released a scorching new CD, Way Down Here.

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DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.

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