BEFORE THE INDIANA FAMILY REUNION, KURT VONNEGUT
The Kurt Vonnegut Notebook
BEFORE THE INDIANA FAMILY REUNION, KURT VONNEGUT
Before placing time and place,
Before the placing of your years beside ours,
a conversation full of history,
reader and writer, conversation and clues.
What about that Vonnegut hardware store?
And what Vonneguts left in the phonebook?
Connections and disconnections in home,
for all of us, in our eachness.
A quick run to the library to pick up the letters
before coming your way. Museum and library
with your name on it in your home town.
Letters being a big part of the beginnings,
telling myself, Have the Indianapolis librarian
sign this book before returning it to the shelves.
This pilgrimage in letters and notebooks.
This way of being at table with family,
sitting quiet on the friendly porch
with a plate in my lap.My wife’s family
gathers in New Ross, outside Brownsburg,
where her uncle, a quiet man
under influences of fence rows, trees,
and the etymology of words, lives
in wild obedience to all that surrounds him,
listening to trees. This is Indiana
with Gingko and Dawn Redwood, punctuation
for a forest of locust and wild raspberry.
I’ll bet we can get a ride into the city.
Somebody here will want to shop
those big stores in Circle Square.
The famous letters. The published one
The year we have in common,
the 22d year. The high school journalist
does poorly in college, drops out of school,
enlists. Home on Mother’s Day
leave in 1944, his mother commits suicide.
The letter to Kurt Vonnegut, then,
from Yakima, after the afternoon at
Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and Museum
in downtown Indianapols. Dear Kurt Vonnegut:
The letter from your dad, returned to sender,
remains under glass at your library.
There’s a scholarship for students, they write letters
to you in your Dad’s voice. Anna Bennington
and Zachary Bradby this year’s winners.
A thousand bucks for each for school. Bennington
writes as the father with regrets:
…I distanced myself from you,
Bradby’s letter describes the father’s dream,
worst things that can happen to a son in war,
confined in a concrete cavern…
people not people at all, but corpses…
Letters published in So It Goes,
the Literary Journal of the KV Memorial Library,
An Armistice Day Anthology.
Armistace, not Veteran’s Day.
Your earlier call carries the day.
It’s National PTSD Day in the country
every veteran walking through your door
gets a complimentary copy. And so it goes.
How you showed Dresden to the world,
taking us in, bringing us out, giving us your code,
So it goes, asterisk for the asshole on the cover.
A nreakfast of champions.
They’ve re-created your office
with your chair, and typewriter.
I pretended my short body was your big frame
hunched over the typewriter on the coffee table below.
No ashtray, but the pack of Pall Mall’s
locked up behind glass. You started those at 14?
There’s a photo of your dad behind your chair
smoking one, posed by the professional photographer
of the day imagining immortality. Artists
render you in pigments of light,
and body language that makes one wince,
as if time travel cooks the breath
until tears can be released as laughter.
Your quotes all over the walls in elegant typeface.
In this letter they all change,
each person’s favorites emerging unique
in digital wonder. One piece of art, yours—
The New Beatitude for Dan Wakefield
turned Christian: Blessed are the happy boys and girls.
Great grandfather Clemons Vonnegut
having the word on Jesus:
If what he said was good, what does it matter
if he was God or not? My favorite kernel
coming from Mary O’Hare blowing her stack,
lifted out of context from Slaughterhouse:
You were nothing but babies then.
The museum in your name makes this happen.
The trigger lifted out for all to see.
And this is true of soldiers.
They are in fact babies. They are not movie stars.
And realizing that was the key,
I was finally free to tell the truth,
and the subtitle…became the Children’s Crusade.
Re-reading Slaughterhouse on the plane home,
your title page becomes its own document,
worthy of study. Your letter to the family,
May 29, 1945, published prominently twice—
Appendix B, Modern Library edition of Vonnegut,
Novels and Stories 1963-73, alongside Slaughterhouse;
and again in Kurt Vonnegut Letters,
edited by Dan Wakefield. What else?
Your photo after basic training,
its innocence, and I hold it for the camera
having one of my own—How close you are to
Vietnam in Slaughterhouse!—and the photo
of you and your fellow GIs in the horse cart
just released from the POW camp. That’s you
with your back to the headboard? Your description
of the horse. Re-reading on the plane
holds me in solitary, I have no one to read to.
I’m in altered space, flying at night
with no sleep. The numbers and the years.
1945. I do some research on the battle.
Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge.
You on a ship in October, 1944. Three weeks
of training in England and shipped out fresh.
The details in your letter. You’re 22.
Life script given to you in the first six months
of 1945. Discharged before the bombs
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My birthdate:
Auust 9, 1945. Born between the times.
Bombs folded into both our brains.
I was your age in Viet Nam working Med Evac
after Tet. You carrying signs to bring us home.
And your birth. 1922. My friend’s mother
shares the same year. I see her enough
to know what the year looks like.
It helps. Finally, the rejected thesis
from Chicago, and the most satisfying teacher,
Robert Redfield, his thesis, human beings
hardwired for living in a folk-society
where everyone knew everybody well,
and associations made for life, what one man
believes what all men believe,
…every man part of a larger, coherent whole—
your world view. Where I’m coming from
with my wife’s Indiana family, her gift to me,
an Indiana story. I’ll close with your good title
from your anthropology thesis in Chicago,
On the Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales.
Peace to all of us, in your name.
2 June 2014—3July 2014