Selected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins, edited by Barbara Henning (Blazevox Books, 2012)
I used to tell people that I’ve been in all the western states except Arizona and Texas. This remains true of Arizona, but after reading Hawkins’s autobiographical novella Back to Texas in this recent collection of prose, I’m not so sure I can continue to say that I haven’t been to Texas. The writing is so vivid I feel as if I’d just paid a visit to that huge and desolate state, traveled its roads, viewed its endless horizons, breathed its air, gotten to know some of its people.
Hawkins structures her narrative around a drive she takes with her mother in her mother’s three-year-old air-conditioned Buick to visit family in Texas. For Hawkins, it is the first time she has returned to Texas in twenty years. She flies from San Francisco to her mother’s house in Albuquerque and they begin their journey about mid-morning the following day. It is in the free-flowing exchange and familiarity between the two women that the richness and energy of their conversation finds its natural fuel and drives the narrative as the women take turns driving the Buick. One could just as easily say they take turns driving the narrative. Reminiscences are shared and reinvigorated. Histories and confessions are mapped and explored. When people with old and shared histories come together the stories acquire the subtle fluctuations of a vintage landscape. This is not the unhurried conversation that occurs at the dinner table. Incidents are crocheted in the murmur of an engine, behind the dashboard of a Buick. Hawkins manages to capture the feel of movement, the brusque stimulations of velocity and space.
The details and dialogue feel so natural and real there are times when you want to put your hand out of the window of the car to feel the warm southwest air lift and flow over it. Hawkins is the first to drive, and her mother pitches right in giving advice. “You’re just used to those little cars that don’t have much power,” she said. “This car’ll creep right up on you if you don’t pay attention. You’ll think you’re just poking along and if you look at the speedometer it’ll be on eighty or ninety.”
Hawkins’s mother is a live wire. She evinces that robustness and directness I find so typical of people from Texas. And the stubborn willfulness. Mae, Hawkins’s mother, is offered an onion at the house of some relatives. She avers she can’t eat it, as much as she would actually like to, because it’d tear up her system. She is asked about her throat operation, ostensibly for a tumor (Mae is a heavy smoker), and if it’s ok for her to talk.“Listen,” she answers,
you know how they are! Let a doctor boss you and you’re as good as buried. They want you to stop anything and everything! They
want you to stop anything and everything! Dr. Macauley heard him tell me not to talk and not to smoke and I guess he saw the
look on my face. He just went to laughing. He said to Dr. Dillon, that was the other doctor, he said, Don’t you have anything
better to do with your time than stand there and pound your head on the wall?
The stories cover a breadth of history and tragedy, a familial architecture whose geometries coincide in eccentric angles in the harsh, unforgiving terrain that is Texas. There are abrupt departures and jealous husbands, crops devastated by grasshoppers, suicides, heartfelt confessions, and poverty. Joys are elemental, and come from the earth. Sensations are sharp. “Inside those houses,” Hawkins reminisces,
there would be a smell throughout of too many lives, as if animals lived in the walls. A memory smell that stayed into present
time as a woman’s hair will take the smell of frying onions while her hands still smell of the fresh onions she sliced to be fried.
Oilcloth covered the table, flower or checks, cracked and worn through to the fabric, the pattern spoiled by the overwhelming
pattern of wear. On the floor the linoleum had been used into islands of patternless brown at the sink, the stove, around the
The kitchen chairs were wired together, some became stools with a row of broken bits along one edge like teeth to show where
the back had been. Straw chairs burst through underneath to remain a static explosion, fixed, under the board that was laid
across to be sat on.
There is a sang-froid and resourcefulness among the older generation that contrasts, instructively, with the wilder interactions of the children, “as when Peter one day had sharpened his axe and was chopping at whatever caught his eye. Hannah was always a tease and she angled off what she was doing to put her finger down on a good-sized wood chip that Peter was aiming for.” Peter warns her he’s going to bring the ax down, but the girl refuses, defies and dares him to do so. He brings the ax down. The finger is severed. “Hannah ran to the house screaming with her finger pouring blood and dangling, caught only by a piece of skin.”
There is no description provided for the emotional reaction of Hannah’s grandmother, which proves better than a description, as it suggests so much more. The stoic imperturbability so richly implied in that silence emphasizes the induration to poverty and hardship, and the self-reliance that results. The grandmother simply boils a needle and thread, sews the finger on,“and it took.” “Hannah’s finger gave a loud crack and swelled up for a week or two and when the swelling went down the lump was only half the size it had been and she could move it a lot more.”
There is also a terrific ghost story. I’m not given to superstition, but this one had me going. I won’t spoil it, it must be read to be believed, but it involves an old wood stove, enigmatic footsteps, and a murder.
There are two novellas in this collection. The second, also autobiographical, is titled The Sanguine Breast of Margaret, and takes place on a coffee plantation in Guatemala. Hawkins’s own domestic tribulations are represented here, as well as the tragic marriage of another set of expatriates. There is another side to this drama which is ensanguined with literary history.
Bobbie Louise Hawkins was married to Robert Creeley from 1957 to 1975. It was a common law marriage. This fact arouses a strong voyeuristic interest, as I’ve long been an admirer of Creeley’s poetry, and have had enormous respect for the man. I always perceived him as one of the more cerebral of poets, yet paradoxically also one of the more anguished, and candid in expressing that anguish. Candid, yes, but I must immediately qualify that by saying that his poetry was exquisitely elliptical, providing each situation with extra dimensions and a wealth of ambiguity. Hence, my keen interest in getting a more personal look at this person. It is as if Hawkins let me in through the back door of a house on a coffee plantation in Guatemala so I could see everything going on.
The story begins, once again, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The family, which includes four young children, are living in near poverty (“For four years the Dougherty’s had lived on next to nothing, with no hope for improvement”), and are more than ready to make an exodus. Patrick Dougherty (the Creeley character, it might seem) teaches at a grade school and has a horrible boss named Willy: “It would take too much space and time to describe Willy in his beastly entirety. He belonged in Dickens and you know how wordy that can get. He was self-indulgent, alcoholic, mean in heart and pocketbook and a sadist.”
An opportunity for change arrives in the form of an advertisement in the Help Wanted section of the newspaper. “Someone in Guatemala wanted a tutor for five children of various ages from two adjacent coffee farms. The tutor would be provided with a mail order teaching kit. The pay would be negotiated.”
Hawkins describes the decision to go through with this adventure, which entails driving to Guatemala in a car loaded with vomiting toddlers, diarrhea and diapers, and very little money to pay for amenities, with a provocative, protoplasmic analogy:
Take the poor amoeba that wants to make a move. Every peripheral bit is a potential leg. Outshoots on three sides -- each thinking “Excelsior!” Then they haul back in while two more shoot out elsewhere. In all that jiggling does it think it’s moving right along? No,
no thought -- just another creature dependent on all that interior destiny stuff that moves lemmings to the edge of the cliff and over. No thought needed to go all the way down to splat.
What does the human mind do that’s any different? Not what it thinks it does. The mind goes along for the ride, explaining all the way.
Hawkins employs a style, I would call it a vigor, that encompasses candor and eccentricity, warmth and acuity of perception. She is intrepid in her relations with the world, operating under the happy assumption that her own subjectivity, any writer’s subjectivity, is miniscule and closeted compared to the scrawl of actuality. “Imagination fades before solid fact. Reality is more various and there’s more to it.”
One wonders why Hawkins, who is now in her 80s, has had such a low profile as a writer in the last several decades. Raising children is certainly part of that hindrance (“. . . scrubbing and swishing sheets and shirts and dresses and the endless diapers”), but there is another, which is that Creeley did not allow her to write. There was room for only one writer in the family. Hawkins had to do her writing on the sly, or suffer the consequences.“When Bob and I were first together, he had three things he would say,” Bobbie reveals in the interview with Barbara Henning included in this collection. “One of them was, ‘I’ll never live in a house with a woman who writes.’ One of them was, ‘Everybody wants to be a writer.’ And one of them was, ‘If you had been going to be a writer, you would have been one by now.’”
This is how The Sanguine Breast of Margaret came to be written. She kept trying to persuade Creeley to write about their Guatemalan experience, and he kept refusing.
At some point I thought, he’s not going to write this book, so I think I will. When he would go off to do readings and was going to
be gone for three or four days or something I’d bring my cardboard box out of the closet and set it up on the table and go to work.
If I had things to do and if he was at home and he was teaching, when he would leave where we lived, after half an hour he had
gone too far to come back, so I’d wait half an hour and I’d bring it out, and I’d start some work. He’d be gone for the time the
class took plus an hour’s drive each way. I’d have everything put away by the time he came home. I wrote the first draft of that
book, a not so hot hundred page draft. If he suspected that I was writing, he would sit down with a glass of whiskey and start
drinking and then we’d have three days and nights of furniture smashing and all the radios in the house turned up full-volume
and the kids trying to sleep. It would just be three days of hell. I think part of what attracted Bob to me was competences I had
within myself, but it was as if once I was within his purview, those competences were only to be used for his needs, in the space
where we lived, and not as though they were my own.
Sandwiched between the two novellas are short stories that remind me a lot of Fielding Dawson’s gritty aperçus. They concern drunks, eccentrics, neurotics, and ongoing dramatizations and demonstrations of the fact that you can never underestimate human nature. Or the obscuring chaos that are the exigencies and screaming every day needs that keep pushing us out the door to do our daily tightrope walk. “Why does anyone write except to speak of those things that conversation will never elicit,” asks Hawkins, “what is closest to the heart. And to speak of the personal with some accuracy, in the proper setting. And to have finally and for once the statement of the thing, dear thing, caught out of the void, caught onto paper; to be there at least as real as what usually happens, namely that we are so often misshapen by event, obscured by misunderstanding. . . . Why does anyone write except to say what presses closest to them; what matters.”