Robert Bly was named poet laureate of Minnesota this week, bringing back a flood of memories from the summer I was 9. That year, my father, a college professor, put on a seminar called "What about writers in the North?" At that time--the mid-1960s--Southern writers were getting all the attention with, as my father put it, "All that hot magnolia and lynching business." Tennessee Williams. William Faulkner. Flannery O'Connor. Thomas Wolfe. Peter Taylor.
So for this seminar, Guv brought in Robert Bly, and Sigurd Olson and J.F. Powers, whose book, "Morte d'Urban," had just won the National Book Award. A little later, he brought in W.D. Snodgrass, who had recently won the Pulitzer Prize.
These were northern men; speaking out against the Vietnam War and launching literary magazines and teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop and Smith College and shooting rapids in Alaska and translating previously obscure Norwegian poets into English. No mint juleps and languid front-porch swings here; these were men of action, ideals, and strong, powerful words.
Guv wrote about the seminar in the Spring 1967 issue of "South Dakota Review." I had to look up this date, and it astounds me. Was the seminar the summer of 1966, then? But my oldest brother drowned that year, in June. Could my father have carried off something like this right after the death of his oldest son?
But he did; I looked that up, too. June 27-July 8, 1966.
The Blys--Robert and Carol--were traveling in a big motor home with their family, and it was the job of my brother David and me to entertain their two kids, who were about our age.
I remember walking down 21st Avenue East to play miniature golf with them, and I remember David pushing me down, I think just to look kind of macho and older brother-like, and I skidded on the gravel and tore up both of my knees. I didn't want to cry in front of the Bly kids, and I really wanted to play miniature golf, so I walked up to the golf shack and asked if they had any Kleenex to mop up the blood, which was trickling down both legs. All they had was paper towels, which were too rough on my tender skin, so I just played and bled. It only really hurt if I bent my knees.
David was appalled at what he had done, and he apologized urgently and repeatedly. An unusual thing for a very cool 11-year-old big brother to do. But I forgave him; I figured that I knew why he'd done it; I wanted to impress the Bly kids, too.
My other strong memory from that time is of Camille.
Camille was a young woman who was traveling with poet W.D. Snodgrass, who my father brought in for another seminar. My mother told me that Camille was Snodgrass's secretary, but I didn't see why a poet needed a secretary, and I did not believe her.
She was quietly glamorous -- slender, with long blond hair hanging down her back, and a gentle manner. She had a Russian wolfhound named Vanya who was traveling with them. This was astounding, because Guv did not like dogs, not one bit. To be honest, he was afraid of them. But, remarkably, he allowed Vanya in our house.
Vanya was much like Camille--quiet, gentle, pale, ethereal.
She and I became friends during the visit, and I showed her my dollhouse, and I went along when my folks took them to Madeline Island. We drove to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to catch the ferry, and I remember Camille standing at the front of the boat, looking out at Lake Superior, and I remember thrilling to an understanding of the illicit relationship between the bearded poet and the lovely woman.
I asked my mother about it, just to see what she would say.
They sleep in separate rooms, she said. She's just his secretary.
But I knew that wasn't the case, and I kept them under constant surveillance.
A few weeks after the seminar was over, I got a package in the mail, and a note. The package contained colorful sheets of Contact paper, for redecorating my dollhouse. The note was from Camille, written on wispy paper.
I kept that letter for years and years; I can still feel that rough thin paper, folded in thirds over a photograph. The picture was of herself, sent at my request, but she was obscured; she was crouched down next to Vanya, and I could not see her face.
I still cannot, in my mind. I can see her standing at the boat, looking out over the water, her blond hair flying in the breeze. And I can picture her sitting in my parents' living room, bent over Vanya. But I cannot see her face.
My father's seminars were all about brilliant men and their strong, powerful words. But what has stuck with me over all these years is the quiet kindness of the gentle young woman.
Photo: Robert Bly, from google
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