Paul West and Jeanne Mackin at a reading at the Tompkins County Library,Ithaca, NY, in the fall of 2005. Article and photo by Stephen Poleskie
LAST WEEK I SPOKE to Paul West on the telephone. We had not been in touch for some weeks, then I received a letter from him in the mail. My wife, Jeanne Mackin, and I used to meet with Paul, and Diane Ackerman, every Sunday for brunch at the Sangam Indian Restaurant in Collegetown. However, since his stroke, the second he has had, and his subsequent development of Broca's Aphasia, we have only met once since his return from Florida, where he now spends the winters. I must say that I miss our regular meetings, which were always quite witty, and sometimes rowdy.
Broca's Aphasia affects ones ability to speak and understand language. Paul does have a brief time, during the middle of the day, when he is not afflicted by this malady. Otherwise, usually after about three o'clock he does what he calls "zoning out." I was reluctant to call, as I know Paul tries to work during his "clear time," but he doesn't use a computer, preferring an the old fashioned typewriter, so doesn't answer e-mail.
Paul sounded happy to hear from me. He has been busy since his stroke and has written three books: Tea With Osiris, a book of poems, The Shadow Factory, a prose meditation on the effects of his illness, and a 700 page, as yet untitled, novel. This two year output would be staggering for any author, but Paul has always been productive, having in the past written over forty books, and numerous short stories, articles, essays, and book reviews. The poetry book has recently been published by Lumen Books, and excerpts from it appear below. The prose work will be available from the same publisher in 2007.
from TEA WITH OSIRIS
Back in the hospital a child
of twelve is screaming, felled
by loss: Where is she?
They hold her close, then down.
Osiris added her to his own.
And the foam from her squandered lip
will take its place among famed
vapors from cuckoo to Lear, aimed
at school children out on a trip,
from Emily Bronte's poisoned menses
to Eva Braun's best pensées.
All grist for the Osiris mill,
which says, whatever you will,
you shall please me till I kill.
One summer's day in winter
when the snow was raining fast,
a barefooted boy with clogs on
stood sitting on the grass.
He went to the movies that night
and bought two front seats at the back,
ate a big plain cake with currents in,
and when he'd eaten it he gave it back.
A review of Paul's book, written by Bridget Meeds, appears in the August 23, 2006 issue of the Ithaca Times. Here is a brief excerpt from this review:
TEA WITH OSIRIS IS a book of poetry, only the third West has ever written. It is a dizzying 53-page sequence of sonnets about Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, as he swans about a modern American hospital with a kidney stone "somewhat smaller than / that blocking Christ entombed," waiting for the awful nugget to pass. By turns ribald and funny, morbid and clever, West is as intelligent and language-drunk as ever. Osiris is, as he writes, "As fully languaged as Pan / with constant updates from the constabulary / of vocabulary..."
But the voice here is much more compressed than in his novels, which tend to sprawl. In this book, West is compelled to say more with fewer words.
Sonnets such as (those printed above) don't shy away from truth.
Tea With Osiris, poems by Paul West, Lumen Books, 116 pages, $17.00, hardcover.
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