I am at Yaddo writing a novel about the messiness of love. Yaddo is an artist colony in Sarasota Springs, New York. I have been here for a month. I write every day, I walk in the woods, and before I go to bed each night I read a story from a collection of love stories titled My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead.
Desperation and fear of inauthenticity have long been a part of my writerly identity, and maybe every writer’s identity. With that mix, I had long wanted to come to Yaddo on a residency.
The real writers who have been here in the past include Eudora Welty, Philip Roth, James Baldwin, and Flannery O’Connor. The wooden stairs outside my room lead to a studio above where Sylvia Plath wrote poems during a productive 11-week stay. If I didn’t already have my own characters for a story about love, I could as easily have written of my love for the writers who have been at Yaddo.
Downstairs, beside the piano in the living room, hangs a framed statement by the writer John Cheever from a meeting in September, 1968. Cheever’s text begins: “The forty or so acres on which the studios and principal buildings of Yaddo stand have seen more distinguished activity in the arts than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community or perhaps in the entire world.”
He goes on to list what he has witnessed at Yaddo: “Lushes down on their luck, men and women at the top of their powers, nervous breakdowns, thieves, geniuses, cranky noblemen, and poets who ate their peas off a knife.” I’m so struck by the witty construction of that sentence that, for a moment, I forget to ask if that description holds true for the present bunch here.
From the shadows: Truman Capote wrote his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), in the Tower Room in Yaddo
I haven’t watched any television since my arrival, but the newspaper arrives each morning. We have read news of the two killers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, who escaped from the prison two hours north of us. The story has caused excitement.
A playwright is staying in the Tower Room where Truman Capote wrote his first novel. We didn’t need to be reminded that Capote’s great success (the 1966 non-fiction book, In Cold Blood) was about two men on parole who killed the members of the Clutter family, in Kansas, in 1959.
If Matt and Sweat were going to escape to Pennsylvania, they would be going right past us. The anthology I’m reading, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, takes its title from the writings of the ancient Latin poet Catallus. In an introduction to this superb collection, Jeffrey Eugenides explains the two verses that concern Catallus’ lover, Lesbia, and her pet sparrow.
In one, the sparrow is the object of Lesbia’s affection, denying Catallus her attention; in the other, because the sparrow is dead,
Lesbia is no longer in a mood for love and, moreover, her eyes are swollen from crying. And there, writes Eugenides, lies the
key to the love story: either there is a sparrow or the sparrow is dead.
If you are confused about the sublime equation that makes up a love story, here is more from Eugenides: "The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims – these are happy eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name."
And so, I was happy to discover that even in the story of the two men who escaped from Dannemore prison there is a love story.
Joyce Mitchell, a 51-year-old prison worker, smuggled in tools for the convicts – because, she has said, Matt made her feel special.
Her husband, Lyle, has been informed that the three had conspired to kill him. But in that marriage too there is a love story with at least one cold heart. Lyle Mitchell’s attorney told the press that his client still "cares deeply" for his wife despite her "improper relationship" with a prisoner. Joyce Mitchell’s first husband said, "I always thought she was a beautiful loving person. Then once we were going through the divorce I thought she was heartless."
At the prison, there were not one but two sparrows. They had flown the cage. Gluttons for love, the police got both.
The Bookist is a monthly column
From HT Brunch, July 12
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