Coast, and in Austin and other Texas places; drifters; prostitutes; bars, taverns, and lounges; cafes; country stores; Crider’s, the dance hall near Kerrville; camp meetings; maids from Mexico; blacks in their Texas situations; men and women, sometimes in bed; writers he likes or doesn’t like; rivers and their banks; a bus station; neighborhoods; a railroad waiting room; a house on Sunset Road; the lives of others he sees which he imagines; his father; his mother; his son Byron; his daughter Deborah; his grandparents; his aunts and uncles. “I am there at the river,” he wrote in Sketchbook II, “and the fish are in the water and my father is down the bank from me just out of sight, holding his pole and patiently smoking his cigar. I am standing there, watching my cork dip a little, grow still, dip again, grow still, dip once more. I am standing there, watching my cork, as the earth turns silently, as a cow bawls in a field nearby, as my father breaks wind, as leaves drift by in the current. “Waiting for the unseen perch to swallow my unseen worm, I gaze outward and I think no significant thoughts. I am only minimally me, along the river bank. I am part of the sycamore shade, part of the grass under my feet, part of the July afternoon. I am merely an extension of my fishing pole, and I am happy.” In Commonplace Mysteries Bode presents sketches of, or meditations or short essays on, the house in Kerrville where he was born; his school days; the family ranch near Harper; walking; a murdering husband; the contrast between a radio evangelist and the stretch of the night toward Saturn; popular songs in his life; coffee at Victor’s Cafe in downtown El Paso; walking around Juarez on a summer day thinking about people everywhere; the homeless at and around a public library, and the hookers and the lovers nearby; a man eating out of a dumpster who rejects an offer of money for a meal; the author’s faceoff with an officious householder who challenges him for standing, musing and jotting down notes,. in the street in front of his house; Bode fishing with his Uncle Mitch; a drive along the back road to Las Cruces, during which he smells a green pecan; pet ducks, a bantam rooster, a black rabbit and a sheep named Fellini in the back yard of his house on Sunset Road; a visit to Bulverde “on a Saturday afternoon, sick with self,” to be healed mysteriously there; a painful, bitter rendering of the dying, death, and burial of his mother \(“I could not fit the two together: at the family hunting cabin \(“I grappled with my problem of the moment: how to interpret a cow’s stare. That is, how could I get down in 1984, when he purged himself to bring, he hoped, his years of mourning to a close. “Day is ending on Magoffin Street,” Bode begins the opening sketch in Commonplace Mysteries. “I walk past red-brick houses with red-brick chimneyspast small homes, small yards, small boys, small corner grocery stores. Women holding babies talk to women with other babies as the light fades and the night coolness comes on. “They are still here on Magoffin, Myrtle, San Antonio, Olive, St. Vrain: houses left over from the turn of the century, houses that were once the heart of town. They sit side by side with their attic windows, peaked roofs, and green porch posts. Some of the yards are grasslessjust sandy dirtbut they are swept clean as a plate. Others are neat, shaded sanctuaries filled with marigolds and cannas, oleanders and arbor vitae. Pink-flowered `miguelito’ vinesQueen’s wreathare draped like modest shawls over doorways and along fences. Children are everywhere: in doorways, in alleys, on steps, in apartment hallways: They throw a ball, ride bicycles in slow, constant, almost meditative circles. Sisters carry little brothers in diapers, lead twoyear-olds along the sidewalk. Boys who are not playing touch football in the street are playing pitcher-and-batter in a cluttered yard: the pitcher throws flattened beer cans and the batter swings at them with a stick. Children call out constantly, and other children answer from a distancetheir voices rising and drifting in the late afternoon air like bird wings changed into sound.” And then here is “Anais: A Story.” “It was May and I was at loose ends, recovering from a divorce after 18 years of marriage. A friend said, ‘Hey, why don’t you look up Anais. She’s…different, and terribly bright. She’s had more things happen to her than the law allows, but she paints and writes poetry and raises greyhoundsI bet you’d like her.” He spent the summer with her in her small frame house in a riverbottom jungle on River Road south of San Antonio. I will not say more about the story because it is too complicated and too fragile to characterize. Across just 23 and a half pages, with “Anais: A Story”with the strange wildness of this real woman=Bode lifted Commonplace Mysteries into a mysterious wholeness, or completion, as a work. And the story has such appalling truth that it seems to signify much more that Bode may do, if he chooses to. For a regular living he teaches at Austin High School in El Paso. He is 60 now. On the odds for a healthy man that age he has 20 more lucid years in which he can continue his writing and perhaps even bring his search to rest back home within a peaceful grove. he work of Elroy Bode has not been fully receivedhas not been widely appreci ated for its literary and existential strengthfor several reasons. The foremost of these is the fact that most editors and most literati view askance the written sketch, done directly from life. Poetry and the short story have a hard enough time in the literary marketplaces, and to most trend-setters the sketch, as a form, is just beyond their pale. Not a “short story,” and’ not quite an essay, the sketch, perhaps because of its connections to both the personal journal and the journalistic report from nature, has as hard a time being received for its artistic worth as the artistic crafts, such as Ann Matlock’s tapestries, have being received as works of art. Snobbery and exclusivism will feed on anything handy, and nothing’s handier than a whole form of endeavor, especially one whose only plau sible name the sketch connotes, in draw ing, something that has been tossed off. Bode knows this painfully, but accepts it as his lot. Writing the sketches is as natural and as necessary to him as walking or breathing. Too often, perhaps, people trying to be helpful have said to him, in effect, “Elroy, you write like an angel, do a novel, write some short stories anyway, they’ll have a much better chance in the literary marketplace.” Not indifferent to the relief that fame or even fair assay would be, Bode did write a novel, but it is still in manuscript, and he goes on writing his sketches. It is what he does. Another reason Bode’s work is not yet widely known is in part particular to him and in part due to a certain proclivity among most people. He is a serious person; he takes serious questions seriously. He has a fairly good sense of humor, but this is not who he is. Writing while on a lifelong quest; for what being the question, sometimes comes through as portentous, or overly grave. In other forms a writer can disguise or transform the psychic nakedness of such a vast, unmoored search, but in the short personal sketch the question rises immediately in the mind of the writer from what he is seeing and where he is being, and the result is unguarded seriousness. Many people, secure in their certitudes or silly and nervous in the presence of existential issues, laugh or snicker. It’s the special courage of the work of Elroy Bode that from time to time, when he thinks it is necessary in order to add something into his body of work, he shows his soul and takes the consequences. There is a third reason. The sketch speaks for itself; it leaves little or nothing for a reviewer to add. For the full-blown literary theorist eager to expatiate elegantly, it’s like a perfect leaf when what’s wanted is a matted forest. A collection of these sketches, paged into a book, is difficult to write or talk about intelligibly because its parts are so discrete and so different from one another. Finally, Bode is a person some of whose facets do not reflect amiably the shines of other natures. In the main he celebrates being and nature, but he can be dour. When speaking of ‘God, as he did quite a lot in Alone in the World Looking, he can lose a reader in the strength of his own need and fear of loss. Sometimes there is a bitterness in his thoughts. As Yeats said of himself in one of his later poems, Bode might stay… In some good company, I who have always hated work, Smiling at the sea, Or demonstrate in my own life What Robert Browning meant By an old hunter talking with Gods; But I am not content. Bode knows, of course, that discontent does not travel well. One of his insights in one of his sketches took the form of this figure: people sense that a person’s aura, as it were around his head, is composed of multitudes of little pluses or multitudes of little minuses or some mixture of the two, and will not follow a person whose aura is mostly or even a majority of minuses: Bode’s sketches express a man of pluses, a celebrator of ordinary being 14 APRIL 10, 1992
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