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Saturday, May 07, 2005

Guy Davenport's Memorial Service Was Held This Morning.

Presumably, a memorial service was held this morning, as planned, from 10 AM to noon, at the University of Kentucky Arboretum, for Guy Davenport.

One day, during Upstate New York's delightful Indian summer, in 1992, while I was looking through the stacks at Dan Wedge's Dove and Hudson Books, in Albany, Dan called me over in order to point out a row of books on a shelf near the cash register. They had been written by someone named Guy Davenport.

The books, Dan informed me, were totally impenetrable, not at all popular prose, for which reason he
thought I might be interested. The only possible downside, he averred, was that Davenport was still living and breathing. By reputation, I uniformly found those traits disqualifying. My purchases, over the years, at Dove and Hudson had apparently done nothing to convince him otherwise.

I went away with Eclogues and Every Force Evolves a Form that day and periodicaly returned to buy one or two more Davenport titles. My time in the Capitol District was clearly coming to its end in yet another of a seemingly endless concatenation of meltdowns from out of Colin Wilson's The Outsiders or a literature of Asperger's Syndrome that was then still some years away from being written. It was only a matter of time. I spent the autumn reading and rereading Eclogues, in particular, and reams of Guy Davenport pages in general, and bathing in the glorious late-empire golden light that infused the Dutch-English architecture surrounding the Capitol Plaza.

Some two years later, a Paracelcean journey brought me to Lake Worth, Florida. Once I was settled enough to do so, I wrote Guy Davenport a garbled letter of appreciation, liberally daubed with white-out, on a Smith-Corona word-processor. (Those who've owned that demonic collection of misconceived transistors and programs know my pain.) A reply arrived within a few days. His reply to a second letter directed me henceforth to call him "Fessor". Almost everyone did, he said. The friendship which ensued, maintained largely through letters, lasted nine years until his death this past January.

The Fessor, for his part, seemed to be fascinated by my marginal, clapped-together existence and entertained by my etymologies and observations on colorful locals. Every few weeks I posted letters headed with derivations of "Ods Bodkins" and "Gadzooks," selections from the manuscripts of John Aubrey, and the like. In return, I received back warm and crotchety letters (somehow they were both at the same time) filled with stories of Beeminster the Opossum, various favorite cats each of which, in their turn, "went to Pasht," invasive plumbers, Kentucky snowfalls and plenty of shop-talk

When I wrote Het nieuve wereldbeeld, shortly after escaping yet another near-meltdown, by judiciously moving to St. Augustine, Florida, where I spent a particularly delightful summer watching Shakespeare in the Park and pouring over the Flagler College library stacks, the Fesser was more than usually pleased. Upon returning to Lake Worth, where matters had resolved themselves somewhat, I'd sent him a copy of the Elimae text. He very generously replied that there weren't a half-dozen people who knew his work well enough to have written the piece.

Castor and Pollux walking naked, side by side, past Kafka; Emerson, gone blind and lame, seeking health hoeing vegetables at a Protestant yeshiva; Levy-Bruhl and Pastor Leenhardt out for a daily walk while nearby it is decided that boys smell like oranges, girls like lemons. This is the stuff of which proses are made: the proses of Guy Davenport, anyway. Nearly thirty years (and nine volumes) ago, a new idea in prose arrived and a new character who lives in a way which thrills the reader:
The Dutch philosopher Adriaan Floris van Hovendaal was arranging the objects on his table, a pinecone to remind him of Fibonacci, a snail's shell to remind him of Ruskin, a drachma to remind him of Crete.

He inhabits a new Erewhon at once both real and imagined. It is a Holland through which he and myriads of perfect children go discovering themselves and the strange and wonderful world into which they have been thrust.

For thirty years they will weave in and out of a dozen stories. They will have various names and always be wrestling or tenting or biking or reading Lucretius or peeling off their clothing to admire themselves and each other.

In between, various adults, themselves as remarkable as Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Maman, and Uncle Jaques, live with us for a few precious pages. The details are unfailingly perfect. [Read entire essay]

Over the last several years, I have managed, once again, to stay settled and out of the way of this troubled world for long enough to place my own work in a scattering of journals. My letters to the Fessor had grown sporadic, as a result. In the summer of last year, I began especially to feel the lack and sent several at the old pace. There was the possibility that I might be presented an opportunity to return to Lexington for another visit. I looked forward to picking up where we had more-or-less left off.

I had been describing the Internet, and his popularity on it, to him when the correspondence had grown sparse. In the first letter, I returned to the subject in the wake of his obituary for Hugh Kenner. A reply came promptly back:
I don't know what the phrase "search-engine listing" means (that my HK obit went to the top of). I've been busy writing introductions, blurbs, and reviews. A review of a new bio of Borges (12 pages) went off to Harper's this afternoon, via FedEx. I doubt they will print it.
I received no reply to the others. Of course, I learned, in January, the reason I had not heard back. It not being possible to attend the memorial service, I offer these few words and a deep respect and affection.

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1 comment:

David Eisenman said...

Mr. Purdy-- The memorial service came off beautifully. Perfect weather -- 70 degrees and a breeze. For 90 minutes, people famous and obscure spoke of Guy's erudition (a word once or twice pronounced correctly) but primarily of Guy's kindnesses. His prodigious letter writing, to hundreds of correspondents, was alluded to often. Highlights for this attendee were (1) Paul Prather's piece from the Lexington paper, written at the time of Davenport's death, read in his absence (a death in his family kept him away) by Bonnie Jean Cox. It's a beautiful piece centering on how Guy saw promise in the young Prather, and gave him the sort of encouragement that lasts a lifetime; and (2) Nikky Finney's eloquent poem about preparing to live in Guy's house, a case of a poet feeling the presence of her poet predecessor in these digs. It was perfect; look for it to be published somewhere.

The newspaper account of the event is a fair summary, but fails to mention Ken Haynes's fine delivery of Latin and Greek passages, some of his choosing and some written and chosen by Otto Steinmayer, who lives in Sarawak but carried on a correspondence for years with his fellow classicist Davenport, sometimes in Latin. Here is the piece:

Lexington HERALD-LEADER Sun, May. 08, 2005

A human and literary 'miracle' remembered

By Greg Kocher

The world knew Guy Davenport, who died in January at age 77, as an author, poet, artist and English professor. But in a memorial gathering yesterday, colleagues and former students remembered Davenport for his acts of personal grace and giving.

Bonnie Jean Cox, Davenport's companion of 40 years, described her life with him as "living in and with a miracle."

"Not only a human miracle but a literary miracle. And I am grateful for every minute of it," she said.

About 75 guests attended the memorial at the Arboretum on Alumni Drive. The 90-minute event opened and closed with Shaker songs, and featured the dedication of a sweet gum tree, a species that figured in Davenport's poetry and prose.

When Davenport received a $365,000 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation in 1990, Erik Reece was a student in Davenport's seminar on James Joyce. After class, the two would go to a market on Limestone Street to buy sandwiches.

"I would make these feeble attempts to pay for my sandwich, and Guy would say, 'Oh, let's let John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur pay for it,'" said-Reece, now a UK English and writing instructor. "So I've eaten well on the MacArthur fellowship."

"Auden said of Yeats that the death of the poet was kept from his poems," Reece said in his closing remarks. "I would like to think that the opposite has happened to Guy. Guy has finally escaped into the imaginary landscapes he created."

Ellen Rosenman recalled her days in the 1980s as an untenured professor in the UK English Department, when seeing Davenport was "rather like running into T.S. Eliot at the water fountain."

"The quality I remember most about him is his courtesy," said Rosenman, now chairwoman of the English department. "There was a courtliness in manner about him that was endearing and genuinely democratic. Guy really didn't seem to care whether you were a first-year freshman or the president of the university."

Kentucky author Wendell Berry, a former writing instructor at UK, remembered how he and Davenport had neighboring offices in Patterson Office Tower.

"By walking a few steps and leaning on his doorjamb, and saying a word or two of greeting, I could start Guy decanting whatever happened to be on his mind," Berry said. "But my metaphor is off. The flow started not from a decanter but from a stream, and somewhere upstream it was raining."

Davenport never owned a car, preferring instead to walk from his house to campus. "He did not care one thing ever about material things," said Gloria Williamson, Davenport's sister from Anderson, S.C.

She said that in his last letter to her, Davenport wrote: "I hope you're as happy as I am."

Poet Nikky Finney read a poem she wrote about buying Davenport's house. A portion of that poem goes:

You can remove every book from every shelf

You can even disassemble the shelves

You can untack the old floor coverlets one by one in every room

But he's still there.