Accept the previous paragraph as my apologia for venturing to write about Baron Wormser’s novel Teach Us That Peace. Baron has been my teacher, my mentor, my boss, my colleague, my friend. In essence he has been my father in poetry, and he has been exactly as loving and ruthless as a father should be—which is to say, there’s not much impartiality between us. Moreover, we share a bond in our essential subject matter. As Baron said to me one day when we were walking through his flower garden, “I like people.” By like he didn’t mean approve of. What he meant, I think, was a driving need to make humanity the centerpiece of his art. The two of us aren’t nature poets, though we care about plants and animals and live in attentive proximity to them. We’re not idea-driven poets, though we read many books and do a fair amount of thinking. Far more often, for both of us, it’s people—beautiful, hideous, eloquent, silent, real, imagined—who trigger our poems.
I’ve always assumed that novelists mostly feel the same way about people. Thus, in theory, writing a novel instead all of those essays about novels might have seemed like my logical next step into the literary forest. But I can’t write novels; I just can’t. And this paucity makes me all the more aware of the complications that arise—structural, narrative, imagistic, thematic, dramatic—when a writer shifts from constructing a poem, even a long narrative poem, to constructing a novel. As I read Baron’s book, I couldn’t stop thinking about how hard he must have worked to make it.
At the very end of Teach Us That Peace, Arthur Mermelstein, a white teenager from Baltimore, arrives in Washington, D.C., to take part in that watershed event, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As he and his friend John Silverman walk down the street, an elderly woman accosts them:
She seemed not just old but very old, . . . her face an intricate web of wrinkles and creases, her light-brown skin almost translucent. She was small, too, no more than five feet. She was dressed in black.
Arthur realized that what she had motioned with wasn’t an umbrella. It was a parasol, something he had read about but never seen.
“You boys help me along today and I’ll buy you each a Coca-Cola.” She bent toward them. Arthur reached for her instinctively so that she wouldn’t topple over, but cat-quick she grabbed at his arm. “I’ve lived most of my life right here in Washington, District of Columbia, and I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, ’cept I didn’t know I was waiting.”
“Neither did I,” said Silverman. “Neither did I.”
“I got a passel of stories,” the old woman said. She held on to Arthur’s arm.
“That’s great,” Arthur said. “Tell us some.”
When I reached this final line of the novel, many of the shifting thoughts in my head began to fall into place. In so many ways this is a book about the stories that people tell one another. Whether they take epic or intimate form—that is, whether their historical, religious, racial, or gender issues can be generalized into moments of universal significance or noted as a single individual’s recognition of a private life—stories help us comprehend our world. But of course our comprehension isn’t always fair or accurate; and in the larger reckoning, human stories may have done more harm than good.
Baron is fully cognizant of storytelling’s long and ambiguous role in human self-definition. He also recognizes that stories not only include people against their will but also leave people out. As Arthur’s girlfriend Rebecca wistfully notes, “‘How many Jews have ever been in a church? We spend our lives walking around and seeing these buildings’—she motioned at the imposing mass on the other side of the street—‘and we never go in.’ She looked down at the sidewalk. ‘That’s what it is to be Jewish—to never go in certain places, to always be looking and watching but never to go in.’ Her voice trembled.”
Many of the characters in Teach Us That Peace are striving, in some fashion or another, to stop “looking and watching,” to open the door into a new life story. This is eminently true of both of the central characters, Arthur and his mother, Susan. Each is trying to devise a future that makes moral and emotional sense, to find a way to honor their own inner lives while never neglecting the larger stream of humanity. And as always in a work of literature, beyond these characters is the author, struggling to devise a form, a dramatic pattern, that will shift the burden of this tale from his shoulders to the reader’s.
A poet’s approach to such a task is necessarily different from a novelist’s. First, even the longest poem pales in comparison to a standard-sized novel. A novel requires a boatload of words, whereas a poem requires the exact words. This isn’t to say that a novel is inexact. Rather, its exactness does not necessarily arise from the perfection of its individual word choice. Often, or so it seems to me, a novel writer reaches toward exactness by choosing a precise structure or framework from which to hang that curtain of words. I daresay that fiction teachers have all sorts of words for this technique, but I’ve never taken a fiction class. All I can say, as a poet looking from the outside in, is that I think that Baron chose a musical framework for his novel, which to me is very interesting, given music’s close ties to poetry, this poet’s shift into prose fiction, music’s important thematic role in this novel, and Baron’s real-life attachment to jazz and blues—an affection not only for the sounds themselves but for the way in which they infiltrated and changed the everyday music of 1960s white kids.
I’ve played the violin since the age of six, and my connection to music has been fraught and strained, to say the least. One evening, as we were sitting together on the porch at the Frost Place, Baron asked me, “Do you even like music?” The shock was that I didn’t know how to answer him. Since then, I’ve thought about his question again and again. And as I’ve watched people, both musicians and listeners, I’ve come to recognize that in many ways a serious listener can be more devoted to the art than the performer is. Making music is physical, athletic, often team-based; it is like playing a sport versus watching a sport. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard great musicians claim that they “never really enjoyed practicing the piano.” Many rarely go to concerts or listen to recordings. For these people, music is the intensity of the performance itself. In other words, a listener and a musician are not the same kind of expert. A listener may not be able to physically create the sounds, but that doesn’t mean he can’t live inside them in an entirely different, perhaps more complex way.
Baron isn’t a musician, but he is a listener, as are his main characters; and what I see and hear in his novel is an attempt to replicate a musical structure that will transform the reader into a listener alongside them. The chapters alternate between titles—“Arthur,” “Susan,” “Arthur,” “Susan”—a replication, it seems to me, of the way in which musicians alternate in taking solo leads. Yet even though the focus changes, the point of view does not: the author remains in omniscient control. I find this intriguing because other novelists have taken a markedly different approach to what, on the surface, seems like a similar structure. In The Waves, for instance, Virginia Woolf also alternates her focus among her central characters. Yet even though she frames their perceptions as dialogue, she essentially shifts the novel’s point of view from first person to first person. The narrator of Teach Us That Peace firmly maintains his omniscience, and I wonder if this, too, is a musical notation of sorts. The narrator always seems to comprehend more about Arthur and Susan than they understand about themselves. In a way, they are improvising their solos within a boundary of preknowledge. But what else is a riff than a story that every lead player has to figure out how to tell again in her own way?
There’s much more to Baron’s novel than the little I’ve said about it. It delves into a past that is older than I am but one that other readers will recognize personally and idiosyncratically. It lives inside a physical place—the city of Baltimore—that I do not know at all. It casts a close eye on that troubled generation of women—what one might call the Plath-Rich-Sexton generation—who were trapped between soul-killing stasis and their own burning ambitions. Baron has much to say about religion, race, art, class, education. It would be pleasant to listen to other non-impartial readers unravel their own links to these stories. However, I will end with this scene, which not only touches on one of my own absorptions but is also, I think, emblematic of the way in which this novel presses us to connect the stories outside ourselves with those that we carry within us.
The policeman shone a flashlight in Arthur’s face. “Just out driving, son?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Arthur answered. “Just out driving.”
“Nice night for it,” the policeman observed. “You’ve got a dead left taillight. You know that?”
“No, I didn’t, officer.”
“Probably your parents’ car?” The policeman turned off the flashlight. “You give me your license and registration and I’m going to write up a report. It says that you need to get this fixed. If we pull you over again, you get a ticket. Sound fair.”
The ballpoint pen that the policeman wrote with was barely visible in his meaty hand. Patiently he scrawled the information. “Probably a good idea to head home now, since you have that light out. We want everyone to drive safe.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Arthur answered. Inside himself he exhaled.
“You like baseball?” The policeman nodded toward the stadium.
“I was just thinking of Bob Boyd tonight. You remember him, a Negro guy, played first base?”
Arthur looked at the policeman’s face. He must have had bad acne when he was Arthur’s age. His cheeks and nose were pitted.
“The called him ‘The Rope’ on account of he hit so many line drives. When he got a fastball he liked, he’d rip it.” The policeman shook his head. His cap tipped a little to the side, as if it were a size too large for him.
Arthur wondered how much the cap weighed. With its visor and badge affixed to the front, it seemed heavy.
“Stick with the Orioles, kid. One of these years they’re going to do it.” He hitched up his belt but didn’t move. “Everything comes around sometime,” he said, then turned his back and strolled toward his car. He started whistling. It was one of those Irish rebellion tunes Arthur had learned in the folk music club—“Roddy McCorley.” Arthur began whistling himself. The policeman turned around, tipped his ungainly cap, and then got into his car. Arthur whistled even louder.
As he drove through the vast, quiet city, his home of black and white, North and South, aching feelings and thoughtless answers, he sang to himself—aloud, not in his head—“Young Roddy McCorley goes to die.”