Thursday, August 14, 2014

St. Agnes' Eve

An oblique reference to Woody Guthrie's haunting "Pastures of Plenty" ("The Leather Man," Chapter 9) aside, two works of poetry are cited in my novel. Both are used in character development.

In Chapter 19, the Canyon State sports information director refers to the poem "Ozymandias" for a reminder that the fickleness of sports reflects the vagaries of life itself. The second occurrence comes in the next chapter, where readers learn more about Sherry Sullivan, the elegantly beautiful special-education administrator and instructor who meets title character Ben Steinbrecher through his visits to see his son Teddy.

Sherry and Ben recognize the attraction between them as soon as they meet, and both independently dig in to fight it for the same reason _ Ben is married, and neither he nor Sherry wants to deal with the implications of their getting too friendly, let alone the consequences of breaking up a family. But the magnetism continues to grow with Ben's weekly visit to the institution which houses his son and employs Sherry.

Her recognition of the depth of her feelings about him takes place in the context of putting on makeup. In a series of soliloquies, Sherry admits that she's taking greater care than usual to get everything right because she knows that Ben is driving to western Idaho from Canyon City in the state's midsection. Exasperated over having to redo her mascara, she chides herself for letting thoughts about him intrude into her life:
I'm a better woman than that. After what I went through, the abuse and the divorce, I told myself I'd never look at another man again. I'm supposed to be beyond that, and he's not even my man. Maybe that's part of the attraction, another side of her said. There's no attraction, was the reply. Even if there was, I have enough character to reject it. But reject is such a harsh word, it doesn't even go with Ben; he's so gentle. Soft on him already, huh?
Sherry continues dressing, alternating between trying to empty her mind of everything but the familiar process of getting ready and recognizing what amounts to a fear that getting too close to Ben could mean not being able to be around him at all. She rehearses her life story, flavored with the pain of her parents' divorce, the recognition of her athletic talent, and the disappointment of her marriage to a libertine who laughs at her academic achievements and cheats on her even as she is delivering their child:
She spent the next few years back with her mother waiting tables to get enough money together to begin floating resumes, embittered by the incongruity of a trained professional doing menial labor.
That experience and the relief of finding employment at the state-run institution for the mentally handicapped set up the chapter for an ending that refers to "The Eve of St. Agnes," John Keats' 42-stanza poem. The exhaustive work is based on the medieval belief that a maiden who fasted and followed other rituals the night of Jan. 20, the eve of the Feast of St. Agnes, could have a vision of her future lover. Madeline, the virginal daughter of the lord of the castle, sees a glorified version of Porphyro, who loves her, and then awakes to see Porphyro in her bedroom, led there by Angela, an aged nurse. After a magical return to sleep and the dream of her lover, Madeline awakes and they leave for Porphyro's home "o'er the southern moors."

The masterpiece by Keats, written in 1819, has influenced generations of writers because, in part, it contrasts near-Arctic cold with the pageantry and warmth inside the castle, where, "The level chambers, ready with their pride, Were glowing to receive a thousand guests." It influenced me so much when I read it in college that I memorized the first stanza and made a mental note to use something about the contrast of cold and heat if I ever did a major work of creative writing.

The chapters in "The Leather Man" that deal with the Canyon State-Utah State game are based on that dissimilarity. But, by the time I wrote the book, I'd discovered that other writers had beaten me to the idea of naming something "Fire and Ice." Among them, the great Robert Frost gave that title to a poem. It has nine lines, the same as one of Keats' Spenserian stanzas.

During the writing of my novel, though, I found the right place for a St. Agnes' Eve reference. It's the penultimate paragraph of Chapter 20, part of Sherry's last soliloquy:
But you've got a good job now, she reminded herself. A position, actually. You have people who appreciate you, and children to love and care for, your own and the sweet, helpless kids at the school. And one of them has a father who looks a lot like the man you envisioned when you were little Sherry Seaberry, throwing rocks in the backyard creek and hoping for just one St. Agnes' Eve glimpse of her soul mate.
The chapter turned out to be one of my favorites in the book, because it represented a special challenge: I wasn't sure beforehand whether I could develop female characters in a way a woman could relate to. It was with great relief that I learned after completing it that one of my daughters asked another one, "How did dad get in touch with his feminine side?"


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