May 2014 brings Lemsford Greenhagen to the Studiola!
I was christened “Lemsford” after the “gun-deck bard” in Herman Melville’s White Jacket. Thank God my parents didn’t name me “Bartleby” after the Scrivener! My romantic heart would have preferred a true sea hero’s name “Nelson,” or “Magellan” or even one so out of tune with our age as “Herman.”
But, no, being literary dilettantes, my folks chose an obscure name from an obscure novel and then raised me in a Midwestern swamp at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers far even from the high plains where at least the grass truly waves, the winds whip like sea storms and the expanse becomes oceanic…
… No, since my birth, I have been mired in muck and mosquitos barely supplanted by a modern metropolis. Literature, at least, relieves and illuminates life’s slog and for this I can thank my parents; and this—the confluence of life and literature—I wish to explore with you in this blog.
Curatorial Statement of Intent:
From reading “White Jacket” to wearing a Yellow Vest
My parents also passed on a good deal of Germanic work ethic, which has served me well in the long string of labor jobs I’ve held since a grad-school burnout—an “Icarus” affair—singed and sent me down an alternate course. Re-assessment has come with middle age. I have re-read Melville as well as discovered Poe Ballantine. My namesake has become newly relevant as I don the fluorescent yellow vest of a railroad trainman newly hired and determined to pursue poetry on the rails just as Lemsford did on the high seas:
“Lemsford was a poet; so thoroughly inspired with the divine afflatus, that not even all the tar and tumult of a man-of-war could drive it out of him…
In a frigate, you cannot sit down and meander off your sonnets, when the full heart prompts; but only, when more important duties permit: such as bracing round the yards, or reefing top-sails fore and aft. Nevertheless, every fragment of time at his command was religiously devoted by Lemsford to the Nine. At the most unseasonable hours, you would behold him, seated apart, in some corner among the guns—a shot-box before him, pen in hand, and eyes “in a fine frenzy rolling.”
“What’s that ‘ere born nat’ral about?”—”He’s got a fit, hain’t he?” were exclamations often made by the less learned of his shipmates. Some deemed him a conjurer; others a lunatic; and the knowing ones said, that he must be a crazy Methodist. But well knowing by experience the truth of the saying, that poetry is its own exceeding great reward, Lemsford wrote on…Still, the taunts and jeers so often levelled at my friend the poet, would now and then rouse him into rage; and at such times the haughty scorn he would hurl on his foes, was proof positive of his possession of that one attribute, irritability, almost universally ascribed to the votaries of Parnassus and the Nine” (Melville, Herman. White Jacket. Pg. 40-41. L.L. Page & Co. Boston 1892 .)
Despite Melville’s obvious affection, Lemsford is a pathetic fellow for whom readers could wish the camaraderie of a literary cafe or the subtly erotic companionship of a doting female professor; instead, booming cannons and massive prows cutting salt spray are the back drop for his “siren songs” and melancholy musings. The scoffing he receives from “manlier” sailors on the frigate “Neversink” reminds me of railroaders; in many ways, railroading hasn’t changed much since the transcontinental conquest of Melville’s time although the engines and rail cars that I ride are twice as large and the competition to make a buck is stiffer.
My mind has come to embrace this gritty locus like the soul of a 4th century Syrian ascetic its body (ascetics used to be idolized as philosophers despite their strange and emphatically physical preoccupations). In the rail yard—where engines puking diesel exhaust coat the world in grey dust— every new yellow safety vest loses its fluorescent sheen, immediately becoming a tennis ball dipped in gutter sludge. Locomotives are my warships, swamps and prairies my sea because the “Ark-of-Art” only sustains–economically–a small remnant chosen at a trickle, while conventional jobs ostensibly unrelated or opposed to creativity can become ferries: I am a train conductor, the artist within a hobo whom I smuggle aboard:
Image from the series A Period of Juvenile Prosperity 2006-2009 © Mike Brodie, Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery / Yossi Milo Gallery
In Melville’s work, Lemsford was “victualed and appointed” by the U.S. Navy; I by a class I freight railroad (second only to the U.S. Navy in diesel fuel consumption!). My company is historic in prestige and proportion, a massive centralized transportation factory spread over half the continental United States some 32,000 track miles upon which I am a peon, a blip, a spot on a list of trainmen assigned to one two-hundred mile stretch, subject to call 24/7, working in every sort of weather. From this chugging machine, I hope to wring worthy sentences and writer-ly wisdom, channeling both Melville and Ballantine.