My Sister & Maurice Sendak

NOTE: Illustrator/author Maurice Sendak was born on 10 June, 1928 in England. In his honor I am reprinting the post I wrote upon hearing that he had died. —Jadi

Our first experiences learning to speak seem to involve rhymes. [Twinkle twinkle and Dr. Suess, anyone?] We recite as children, loving language’s sing-song chants.

One of the very first pieces I memorized as a child (to this day I can recite it) was ‘The Cow’ from A Child’s Garden of Verses and Underwoods by Robert Louis Stevenson, printed in 1913.

                                                           The Cow
The friendly cow all red and white
  I love with all my heart:
She gives me cream with all her might,
  To eat with apple-tart.
She wanders lowing here and there,

         5

  And yet she cannot stray,
All in the pleasant open air,
  The pleasant light of day;
And blown by all the winds that pass
  And wet with all the showers,

  10

She walks among the meadow grass
  And eats the meadow flowers.

Can’t you see her?? In my child’s brain she was white and a funny shade of red (who ever heard of a red cow? I mean, really.) And she was named Flossie, or Maisie, or Bessie. Placid Maisie meanders in a huge field, chewing her cud and surrounded by fairy rings of little flowers.

I have to be in the right mood for poetry, but I still have the used copy of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry from my college days of long ago. (How long ago? Decades. A couple of ’em.) My edition of Robert Frost’s complete works came to me when my mother died. When I read Frost, his poems of New England keep me linked to her, too.

Emily Dickinson still knocks me out, and every word Shakespeare penned is poetry in exalted form.

Poetry is emotion and experience expressed in crystalline shapes, no matter whether it’s metered or free verse. Prose works by poets betray themselves through the beauty of the writing. Think of The English Patient. I read that book slower and slower, and found myself rereading pages over and over, savoring Ondaatje’s mastery with language. Or anything by Ray Bradbury: each of his strange magical visions contains a goodly dose of poetry.

Hmm. I just went back and read what I’ve got here so far… Scratch the comment about needing to be in a certain mood to read poetry.

The Muses pay a very special visit on those they gift with the ability to speak through poems. For me it’s the hardest of all forms of writing. Sadly, the poetic Muses Erato (love poetry), Calliope (epic poetry), Euterpe (songs and elegiac poetry), and their sister Polyhymnia (hymns and sacred poetry) just don’t knock on my door more than once a decade or so. An impulse to even attempt a poem is the sighting and citing of a rare bird. The last time, and it came over me in a total rush of surprise and inspiration, was the death of Maurice Sendak.

File:Sendak illustration.gif

(Photo from Wikipedia)

Mr. Sendak accompanied my childhood and probably yours too, and he was particularly part of my sister Pam’s early years. I remember his Nutshell Library books, extra small to fit the hands of children. There were 4 of them: Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup With Rice, One Was Johnny, and Pierre (A Cautionary Tale). Pammy read them repeatedly, relating especially to the contrary Pierre. A few years ago I spotted an interview with Sendak in The New York Times (click here for the interview).

The article brought back those little books and how much my sister loved Maurice Sendak. I promptly sent the link to Pam and we spent several weeks emailing back and forth about his wonderful art and our childhood memories.

In May last year, Maurice passed away. My sister was teaching in Japan; had she heard yet? For some reason I wanted to be the person to break the news to her. I debated how to contact Pam and gently let her know.

The next morning I awoke preoccupied with way too much to do. I began my tasks with the radio on. NPR mentioned that Terry Gross was doing a special Fresh Air show in honor of Maurice Sendak’s passing (a much older interview with Sendak and a more recent one recorded not long before his death). Despite really having no time to spare, I sat down to give 5 minutes to Sendak.

An hour later I still sat. By now tears were streaming down my face. Sendak’s wise, sweet old voice came over the airways, speaking of the secret fears of children, of his inability to believe in God after the horrors of the Holocaust (he lost his entire extended family), his more than half a century with the man he loved, Dr. Eugene Glynn, a NYC psychoanalyst his parents never knew about… Sendak told his story as the tears continued to pour.

I forgot everything, the chores that had seemed so important that morning, the things I had wanted to cross off my to-do list that day. The interview ended, I got shakily out of my chair, found some tissues and blew my nose, wiped my eyes, and sat down to write my sister. “Pam,” I said, “I just heard an incredibly moving interview with Maurice Sendak. He’s died, and I wanted you to get the news from me…. but really you need to hear this interview and listen to his voice.”

And as I sat, a Muse spoke. I wrote the first version of the following poem in one take.

Maurice

Maurice Sendak

Your words and drawings,

depictions transcribe

the soul&depths

of my sister, Pammy.

You died yesterday,

83 years old and not a day

older than the children now grown

adults weeping, mourning

your passing theirs passing

something of childhood gone beyond

retrieving.

Maurice.

I listen to recordings of your voice

You speak, the New Yorker

in you       so     obvious

I love your sense of place

your first generation voice

of Polish immigrants

of your humanity

your humility

your atheism

your embrasure of

a definition of the world

in which God is

everywhere

in the Wild Things

where they are

My Wild Things salute you.

My Wild Things weep.

Gnash our teeth.

Our King has left us.

Our island, and not just New York

is so much smaller with your passing.

We will cook a meal

Eat a supper and

wish

You were still with us.

(In loving memory of Maurice Sendak, June 10, 1928 to May 8, 2012.)

Copyright © 2013 Jadi Campbell.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.

The Pavilion

We were heading to China, and the World Expo was taking place in Shanghai that year. Oh man, did I ever want to go. When I was a kid, my family made the trip to the World’s Fair in New York City. I still remember the excitement of the Space Park, the talking, moving Lincoln robot statue in the Illinois Pavilion, and the Bel-Gem Brussels waffles we all ate for the very first time, smothered in strawberries and whipped cream. [1]

Expo in Shanghai! Surely, we had to see it. But there was just one teeny problem: all the on-line sources for tickets had been sold out for months. I wrote my friend Weiyu in Beijing and asked her, could she get us tickets? She checked in the capitol… all the ticket options there were sold out, too! But, ever resourceful, she called in a favor from a friend who lived in Shanghai, and he managed to secure two tickets for the time period we’d be visiting.

With our passports in hand (because your passport allowed you to skip the unbelievably long lines in front of most of the pavilions and enter your country’s VIP door), we headed out early in the morning.

That Expo was terrific. Some countries had put incredible thought and creativity into their presentations (more on some of them in future posts). And visiting Expo was a way to glimpse certain countries in places that I feel pretty sure I’ll never visit in real life.

Like North Korea. For a country that’s usually in the news these days, North Korea sure is shrouded in permanent mystery. I don’t know if their pavilion at the Shanghai Expo cleared up many of the mists, but it was an eye-opener in other ways.

I had no idea that Jeff Koons had designed their central fountain, for instance. [2] Frolicking naked cherubs (minus the wings) showed off their muscular buttocks. They held hands in a circle as they released a bird. Cherubs and bird all gazed up into the heavens…. I have a funny bone that gets amused by kitsch, and from the second I saw that fountain my funny bone began to tickle. I started laughing, and couldn’t stop.

The colored lights were an especially thoughtful finishing touch

The selection of literature for sale was slim on choice but heavy on message. Who can forget that classic of North Korean literature, “The Immortal Woman Revolutionary”?

Who doesn’t know and love The Immortal Woman Revolutionary

The sales woman was dour and didn’t crack a smile. Maybe humor doesn’t translate as easily as I’d hoped.

NOTES: [1] The Vatican even allowed Michelangelo‘s Pietà to travel for the World’s Fair. Viewers stood on a moving walkway to see it. [2] Not really. I have no idea if Jeff Koons was consulted on that fountain’s design. But I  laughed so hard I almost peed my pants. ©Jadi Campbell 2018. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to viewpics.de.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.