drew johnson

           The poet Norman Patrick Edson was born on a dim morning in St. Albans, Vermont, the snowy first of February, 1916. His still-mysterious father left shortly thereafter as a member of the AEF, fought in France, and returned to indeterminate occupations. The poet’s mother came to that near-Canadian outpost by way of a prominent Southern family fallen on hard times. Ellen Edson made her dubious marriage in defiance of her parents’ wishes and, on this occasion, parental concern was not misplaced.
            Edson père had doubts about—and trouble with—the law. Accounts suggest that he was not a sufficiently accomplished con artist to work where his family lived; it was their misfortune and his that he persisted in doing so. Over the first few years of the younger Edson’s life, the number of his father’s mortal enemies grew to include many, and eventually all, the citizens of that small border town. Later in life, Edson would characterize his parents’ demise in this manner:
           “The official explanation for their deaths was that they drowned or froze in Lake Champlain…but you have to understand that this was midwinter, the lake ice at its thickest. No one ever bothered to explain or reconcile these circumstances to me; perhaps they felt I was too young to need to be deceived. Not that I understood why or exactly how they had died, but at the funeral—which was quite crowded—there was no pretence of grief. Just an unmoved silence and the monotone of the priest.”
           Edson, not much more than five years of age, was unceremoniously placed aboard a train to Chicago, and from Chicago right down the line, not stopping until the boy met his maternal grandparents at the station in Natchez, Mississippi. The old family home had long since been thrown open to boarders, and so Edson came of age as the smallest member of an ever-changing cast of itinerants. In time, each of these fleeting figures must have seemed a reason to leave. When he did leave, there was little to mark his passing; he had made no impression on Natchez, whatever its impression on him. The question of the Natchez period is vexing, yet must not concern us here: all suggestions of a latent Southerner in the totality of Edson have proven spurious.
           In life’s inimitable manner, the boy was steered towards the Spain of the Thirties, where, though just seventeen and by his own admission a political naïf , Edson found himself immersed in another country’s culture, language, and civil war.
           Curiously—and despite spending over half his life in Spain or Mexico—Edson’s command of Spanish would never extend more than a few phrases beyond the cursory commands a stretcher-bearer could give or obey. Lie still, lie down, be quiet. Clear a path. He’s finished. Of this linguistic absence Edson has only said, “For most of my life, if I had a need or possessed a want, I had to express it in the most limited Spanish. I like to think that this drew the mercenary aspect from my own language before I ever turned it to poetry. Gave me that…blankness I’m always said to possess. And absolutely ruined my love poetry.”
           Whatever the case, the war was a formative time for Edson. Among the knapsacks of his idealistic and usually better-educated British and American comrades, the young man discovered a kind of library. So it came to pass that this man—who, because of his apparent unconcern regarding the political dimensions of the war, has been remembered as the “Least-Loyal Loyalist”—performed his duties without complaint, reading incessantly, reportedly even as his unit was taking fire.
           Besides the sum and substance of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Clare’s The Parish, various bits of Browning, as well as the early Auden, many other volumes made their way through this strange new reader’s hands, and—as tragic Clio would dictate—some of these volumes would permanently to him belong. Around this time, too, Edson was stuck with the nickname that would supersede his given name in use and in posterity—Fay.
           Fay: without explanation of which the poet was aware. Then, the war collapsing into chaos in a language the poet could scarcely follow, Edson escaped Spain for what would prove many decades.
           Fay Edson returned to the States armed with a handful of derivative but promising lyrics, as well as the seed of what would become “On the Ice,” the long narrative poem that seemed to treat his parents’ very public death, but also captured the apathy the world had shown toward Republican Spain. The indifference to the fact of civic murder—the town’s narrative resistance to the lines they do not wish to acknowledge, their other-metered protestations, the harsh sketch of the wintry landscape: all these dirge-like elements accumulate into a heavy indictment. Compared to the satiric and the accusatory in Auden, the best of the narrative Jeffers, and later to Lowry’s Under the Volcano, the poem (the centerpiece of his 1939 collection, Fulminant Distemper) was hailed by critics for the “fragile resilience” and “meditative haste” of its verse. These same critics, having employed rusty paradox to dim the poems, used the onset of the war to forget the poet.
           With an apparent indifference to this or that measure of his success, Edson drifted from town to town in the wartime South before learning from a mutual friend that Conlon Nancarrow, the composer and exile, had removed to Mexico City to live and to work. The composer’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War had complicated his U.S. citizenship, and his exile was very real; it is scarcely fair to suggest that Edson, who had not yet run afoul of the State Department’s renewed fear of communism, was joining him in exile.
           Best to say he only went. As Edson himself has elsewhere said, “I meant to be gone a few months and stayed for fifteen years.”
           In Mexico, Fay Edson did whatever came to hand. Most days that meant assisting Nancarrow in the composer’s accumulation of player pianos, the boxy herd that was to give voice to so many experiments in chords and rhythms beyond the span of the human hand. Edson became the shepherd—a fine one, Nancarrow later allowed—learning nontraditional piano-tuning from his unorthodox friend. In a short time, they were deeply in harmony. “Ever since I’d been writing music I was dreaming of getting rid of the performers.”—these lines from an early interview with the composer may give some idea of their shared mindset and of Edson’s place in that aesthetic; he had become the preferred nonentity, tolerated where neither audience nor performer could find a place. Musical pilgrims of the period were just as likely to have the door shut upon them by Edson’s hand as Nancarrow’s.
           The inhuman rhythms of this music would deeply affect Edson’s verse and inform his most experimental phase. Only recently collected and published in two volumes by the University of Texas Press, Edson and Nancarrow: Lieder and Libretti and The Punch-Hole Poems contain verse as difficult to read aloud as a more modern Hopkins.
            Of this period Edson himself has said, “We were so isolated—neither of us realized that experimentation was largely on the shelf in the rest of the world—carving itself up once more without need of reason or encouragement. In our isolation, we thought we might stage a sort of oratorio with forty pianos playing simultaneously to an edited, spoken newsreel. Interesting when we tried it, but awful.” Scholars possess the score and—despite Edson’s modesty—continue to search for the film negative of this fortuitous conjoining of twentieth-century avant-gardes.
           In his own efforts, Edson remained unhurried, being by nature a creature of repetition; over the war years he endlessly reread the same few books. Though Edson maintains that the books were as randomly acquired as the books of his years as a stretcher-bearer, critics have found this difficult to believe. In addition to a nearly complete homemade edition of Hart Crane’s The Bridge (razored from journals in libraries and the home of John Crowe Ransom), these volumes included Melville’s The Confidence Man, an edition of Sir Thomas Browne, Le Sage’s The Devil Upon Two Sticks, a collected Corneille, as well as T.E. Lawrence’s peculiar memoir of military life, The Mint. Least-expected, most particular, and most necessary of all was Travels in Siberia (1848) a two-volume Russian travelogue by the German, Adolf Erman, translated to a plain and musical English by W.D. Cooley.
            Edson says he had found these two octavo volumes years before, sheltering in a derelict Southern farmhouse where the author has sought cover from a driving storm. The two books were simply resting on the mantle. “I was grateful. The rain had soaked my Milton straight through. The book wasn’t lost, no, it would have dried back to legibility by morning—but the night was long and with nothing to read—bound to get longer. I figured I ought to be well into the first volume by sunup, but when I sat down the first volume fell open to this sentence—listen: ‘From Mostovaya to Shaidrukha we found the ground strewn with sharp fragments of white quartz.’ All night I wandered abroad in that sentence—I don’t doubt that it will be the last thing I forget…I took both volumes and left my Milton on the mantle for the next fellow.”
            Just how long the silent tinkering of the 40s might have continued cannot accurately be estimated—Edson was never known to rush to press with his poems. But the polyrhythmic morass of Nancarrow and the too-imitative strains of “Cooley’s Englished German” gave way before a very human addition to Edson’s cosmology. The crisis of his poetic life came as a result of an encounter with the novelist-to-be, William Gaddis.
            The young American arrived in Mexico City in an Auburn, an expensive, nearly handmade automobile, which Gaddis and his traveling companion Bill Davison hoped to sell on that country’s black market (the car belonged to Davison’s father). This was of a piece with Gaddis’ expulsion from Harvard a few years before and a stint in a Central American revolution still to come—his period of wandering was more varied and colorful than these pages can encompass. Here, however, the two young men were stymied. The black market of Mexico wasn’t up to the Auburn: the car couldn’t be sold and didn’t survive. When Nancarrow and Edson happened upon Gaddis and Davison, the two young men were in a position to be grateful for the help that was offered.
            Edson has said that from the start Gaddis’ speech acted on him like a tonic—a brutal, glib, satirical vein was woven through their interaction and was evident in their first exchange, which Edson recorded in his journal that night.
           After speaking only to Nancarrow for several minutes, Gaddis turned to the silent poet, smiled, and asked, “Talk much?” So Edson uttered a first friendly sally: “When I was a boy, I came to speech so late folks thought I was slow.”
            Gaddis’s reply: “Used to beat up that sort of kid, but, hey, a pleasure to know you.”
            Real discord did develop on their return to Nancarrow’s home, where Gaddis revealed not only a surprising knowledge of player pianos and their history, but a rabid ideological dislike for these mechanical stalwarts of Nancarrow’s oeuvre. To complicate matters, Edson seemed to take neither side—a lack of loyalty that proved galling to the composer. The scene must be imagined, as we have only second and third-hand accounts: Gaddis and Nancarrow squaring off in the workshop, surrounded by the various machines: Welte-Mignon, Metrostyle, Themodist, and Ampico B: names familiar to any student of Edson. Did the two men circle? Did they declaim? The only thing of which we may be certain is that they retired that night, after a tense few hours drinking and talking, in the grip of an uneasy truce.
            All were awakened after a few short hours to the sound of a mob in miniature. Sleepless Gaddis had apparently made his way into the night, found a cantina full of disaffected and causeless souls, and raised them into a musically luddite posse bent on returning to exact justice upon the offending instruments. The scene revealed to Edson—and later to us through Edson—was out of a clown’s most fascist nightmare.
            The inebriated Gaddis had to lean heavily against one of the pianos to remain standing upright. At his side were two policemen turned vigilante, a fat Frenchman with a large and glistening moustache, and a growling three-legged dog. After the pause of their discovery, Gaddis roused and they returned to their work; the piano was put out the door and pushed, jangling, down the street. Running alongside it, guiding it towards the ravine at the end of the wide street, Gaddis poured kerosene over the piano, lit and dropped a matchbook onto its soaked surface. As the flaming box went over, Gaddis bellowed “Clear out the dead wood!” The dog, legs windmilling a-rhythmically, was unable to stop and dropped into the precipice.
            Three additional pianos, no small fraction of the whole, had suffered a similar fate and, in Nancarrow’s fury, Edson was ejected alongside Gaddis and Davison. The two men would never reconcile. As the reader will have recognized, this is the incident delineated in “Piano’s Lesson,” one of Edson’s most autobiographical and best-known poems, an elegy for the broken friendship in which Edson found his mature style. “Piano’s Lesson” is also notable as perhaps the first of the poems that were published in 1958 as part of the collection Songs To Follow. Here the poem is reproduced in the earlier, somewhat less polished version, yet fully invested with the odd rhythm or false starts of the final product, and already bearing a dedication to two opposed American originals frozen forever in their Olympian antagonism—

Piano’s Lesson

                                            (for Con & for Bill)

Both you—each rogues—now friezed over
a player piano. But both never was one
for Con—old ringmaster runs,
calling all shots, punching all dots

til You rode up in golden abandon
in auto—Auburn—almost all handmade
to debate—over lemonade—
merits of machines that create.

Late that night—that fight—we thought—over
your drunken band raided our darkened halls
rousted the dusted shapes from their stalls
to march them—quick-time—through the town.

Music lovers: those fascists: the Frenchman
oiling his moustache: one three-legged dog:
Flames from dead wood—your catalog
of our corruption began here.

Would you have mangled all dozen pianos?
Established and certain, kept your ardor?
For it seemed so: your furor still
sustained—but that the dog

Craven in his aping, nipped the piano’s
passive flanks, then—clumsy with his missing paw
was caught, tossed after, pulled into the maw—

a howling voice among these burning strings.


Drew Johnson was raised in Mississippi. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and StoryQuarterly. Agni recently published his review of Wells Tower's fiction and an interview with Lydia Davis appeared in Meridian. He lives with his wife in Carlisle, Massachusetts and is at work on a novel.