Nine Point Circle by William Ward Butler

Isleford Abstraction: Hook by Peter Rudolph

1. When Harry Houdini surfaced
    from being buried alive
    he is quoted as having said
    the weight of earth is killing.

2. When Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested,
     he is quoted as having said
     for what I did, I should be dead.

3. It seems the Midwest has a way
     of turning people inside out.

4. Years ago, my mother told me
     her cousin committed a murder-suicide
     in Michigan. She told me not to worry,
     we weren't related by blood

5. Jeffrey Dahmer abducted two boys
     one after the other, both named Steven,
     dissected the bodies as if their ribcages
     held truth beneath the sternum

6. When Harry Houdini stepped into his coffin,
     the audience told him he wouldn't survive

7.  I wonder what it felt like to be the second Steven
     to have your fate echoed in your name.

8. -the weight of earth is killing

9. When Jeffrey Dahmer was a boy, his
     mother told him he could be anything.

 

William Ward Butler is a junior studying literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is a staff editor for the longest-running literary magazine on campus, Chinquapin. He has performed his work at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and Herbst Theater in San Francisco. This poem received the runner-up award in Catamaran's 2nd annual George Hitchcock memorial poetry contest for UCSC students. 

Peter Rudolph is a painter and art dealer who divides his time between the Philadelphia area and Maine. He owns art galleries in both places. He studied at Syracuse University and at Tyler School of Art, and holds an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with several artists including Alex Katz. In Springs, on Long Island, he worked with Willem de Kooning. His paintings and prints suggest vital forces of the natural world, and his current abstractions developed from nearly abstract landscapes he had been painting in Maine for many years. His lyrical work has roots in abstract expressionism.    

On reading The Grapes of Wrath on its 75th anniversary

Penguin's new Limited Edition of Steinbeck's classic

Penguin's new Limited Edition of Steinbeck's classic

When I was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University in 2007-8, I used to drive my rattletrap of a car back and forth between San Jose and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood with The Grapes of Wrath audiobook playing on my CD player.

I listened to the book twice in a row, all 21 hours and five minutes of it in 42 installments. As the story unfolded, I projected the action onto the land in front of me. While an amoral used-car salesman ripped off desperate “Okies” on their way to California, my own jalopy leaked oil on Highway 280. When Noah Joad disappeared, I imagined him lost in the foothills above Palo Alto. Twice in a row the lapsed preacher John Casy got his head bashed by thug cops while I crossed Church and 22nd Street in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” Casy said to his tormentors as I found myself trapped behind a stalled-out streetcar. To this day, that upscale neighborhood feels like a tragic place; the taint never fades. Never mind that The Grapes of Wrath took place worlds away, in the San Joaquin Valley.

To me, Steinbeck’s writing, at its best, is a lived experience. It doesn’t matter when or where you read or hear it. No matter how many times I revisit Grapes, I fool myself into thinking the Joads will find what they need in California.  John Casy will survive his confrontation with the police. The heartache and disappointment feel fresh every time. So does the shock of the book’s final image.

Steinbeck believed in slow writing. It takes forever to get to California. We live through every mile with the Joads and their touring car, overstuffed with belongings and people and always on the verge of breakdown.

To mark the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath, I got back in touch with my former colleagues at SJSU, including Paul Douglass, an English and American literature professor, and director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. “When I think of The Grapes of Wrath, I think of the remarkable way in which it embodies the agony and transcendence of its era,” he told me. “The dirt poor down low life of the transient population, uprooted and outcast, and yet at the same time, the luminosity of the human spirit revealed through the pressure of poverty and desperation.” I had a longer conversation with Shillinglaw, a recent President’s Scholar Award honoree, and a longtime professor of English and comparative literature at SJSU. She marked the 75th anniversary with her new book, On Reading the Grapes of Wrath (Penguin, $14.) Shillinglaw sat down with Catamaran to talk about the origins of The Grapes of Wrath and the reason it continues to enchant, infuriate and inspire generations of readers.  

Read about our conversation in the latest issue of Catamaran, now available at a bookstore near you.

 
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Dan White is a creative nonfiction author, travel writer and occasional teacher of fiction/poetry/travel writing/memoir. His first book, The Cactus Eaters, published by HarperCollins in 2008, was a Northern California independent bookstore bestseller and a Los Angeles Times “Discovery” selection.  He has taught composition at Columbia University and composition, poetry and creative nonfiction at San Jose State. He has his MFA from Columbia University.