Monday, December 7, 2009

The Morning Reading: Leonard Michaels

I've been reading a great deal, the kind of meandering reading that I haven't done for years. For example, I read this note in the back of Brenda Hillman's new collection of poetry, Practical Water: " 'The Eighties' owes a debt to Leonard Michaels's 'In the Fifties' & is dedicated to JS."

I had just read a tantalizing excerpt of "In the Fifties" in a California anthology – and so Hillman's note was all I needed to push me toward locating the full text of "In the Fifties" found easily online – which further inspired me to find the books.

Time to read like this is a luxury.

Now, the winter issue of The Threepenny Review presents Elizabeth Tallent's appreciation of Leonard Michaels, "Once, with Attention." Tallent was a former student of Michaels and she writes about discovering his work and the writer and what he taught her.


In my years as a clerk I believed that the faces of writers I loved were bound to be beautiful. This fantasy fed on moody black-and-white book-jacket photos of the cigarette-smoldering-in-ashtray-near-typewriter genre, and because I had only pages to go on, hundreds of thousands of pages and no writers’ faces, or none in real life, it kept me company while I swept the aisles or counted out change. Day-dreamy and monotonous, clerking was a Peter Pan exemption from grownup responsibilities, which would have crushed the little stories I had begun writing at night, after locking up, on the store’s typewriter. In case the store’s owner drove by I left only one light on. The store was a long drift of shadow and I was its brain. The best nights, the streetlights shone into sudden movement—lucid high-altitude snow that seemed to know where it was supposed to touch down and to be drawn softly toward the spot. Books loomed on all sides, my education neatly shelved and waiting, borrowable as long as you didn’t leave fingerprints. Books were handed to me by people who loved them. One was a paperback whose title was I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. Saved who? Me, maybe. I had never read anything like these stories. That summer of 1980 there was to be a writer’s conference in Berkeley run by this writer, Leonard Michaels, and in a shy person’s fit of brashness I sent off the story required with the application. I would have fished it out of the post-office box if I could.

One of death’s minor agitations is that if you owe someone, really owe them, death can’t touch that: if they die you owe them just the same, only now what you owe is both a fact and a form of loneliness.

As much as I'd like to reprint it in its entirety here, I cannot. For the rest, click here.

You should.


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