NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
A Hole in the Ocean: A Hamptons’ Apprenticeship by Sandy McIntosh
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2016)
Sandy McIntosh was born in Rockville Centre, New York, and received a BA from Southampton College in 1970, an MFA from Columbia University in 1972, and a PhD. from the Union Graduate School in 1979. After working with children for eight years as a writer in the schools of Long Island’s East End, Nassau County and in Brooklyn, he contributed journalism, poetry, and opinion columns to The New York Times, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, American Book Review, and elsewhere. His first collection of poetry, Earth Works, was published by Southampton College the year he graduated. He has since published seven more collections. He served as chairman of the Distinguished Poets series at Guild Hall, East Hampton, NY from 1980-2000. He has been managing editor of Long Island University’s national literary journal, Confrontation, and is currently publisher of Marsh Hawk Press.
A Hole in the Ocean: A Hamptons’ Apprenticeship is a hybrid of memoir, reflection and fiction. The title is derived from a line from e. e. cummings: A hole in the ocean will never be missed. The book has an appealing structure which helps to pull all the strands together. A chance encounter, one summer evening in 1970 with Willem de Kooning prompts McIntosh to investigate Green River Cemetery in Springs, East Hampton. This early awareness of our mortality puts the writer, years later, into a reflective mode as he looks back to a particular period of time in his youth. This leads into the first part of the book where McIntosh chronicles the eccentricities of the writers and artists he came into contact with during his apprenticeship as a freshman and as a young aspiring writer in the Hamptons. Of the writers mentioned in the first part of the book, I have to confess that, as a “Little Englander” (albeit living in Scotland) most were unknown to me (none, with the exception of Bly, are listed in the Penguin Book of American Verse). This is not the first time that McIntosh has written about his mentors. A desire to understand issues concerning their lives has lead, in the past, to several other literary projects, in particular, a history of the stage work, translation and poetry of H.R.Hays and the compilation and transcription of print and television interviews with Hays, David Ignatow and Charles Matz.
The chapters in the first part of the book record “incidents” – snatches of remembered conversations or observations about these artists’ lives which happened at a certain point in time. They do not purport to give us the full picture, just a brief brushstroke on a blank canvas that might give a hint about someone’s personality or outlook on life. The episodes by themselves do not add up to much when taken in isolation but what is interesting about them is some of the insights and collective wisdom that they bring to light on the subject of writing and painting. I particularly liked Bly’s blistering attack on kayak magazine. He makes an important point – namely that too much poetry slips through the net and finds its way into print. There are stern warnings from Hays not to exaggerate the truth. Ignatow maintains that a healthy dose of criticism never does anyone any harm even if that criticism is hard to swallow at the time. Emotion should not be killed by too much analysis. Language, and the way in which it is handled, is important, especially when it comes to poetical expression and the interpretation of that expression.
The first part of the book comes full circle with some reflections on the final work of three specific Hampton poets: Armand Schwerner, David Ignatow and Harvey Shapiro. The concluding chapter ends once more in Green River Cemetery.
In many ways, the second part of the book echoes the major themes and preoccupations of what has gone before. Memory is all that we are left with and even that, with age, can become distorted and at odds with the truth. At the end of the day, we are left asking ourselves, what is reality and what is fiction? Memory can play tricks and so can language. Cue back to the first part of the book where McIntosh recites to Charles Matz the opening lines of his unfinished memoir as he recalls them from years before. Matz retorts “You’ve turned the incident on its head!” McIntosh says that, from that moment on, he was suddenly chilled by doubt.
In the second part, the opening piece, The Plagiarist’s Heart reminds us that, just as every writer has to find his or her own voice, this book is a celebration of individualism. In A Curious Case: Dr Irvin D. Yalom Treats Bartleby the Scrivener, McIntosh offers us a short treatise on the power of the imagination and its ability to play tricks on us. He dishes it up with with the minimum of fuss and a large dose of absurdist humour. In MAX’S: How History is Made imagination becomes reality and in Foreign Tongue he offers the reader several cameos which demonstrate the quirks of language and the different meanings that people place upon it. Again, we are back to this question of interpretation and how we as individuals interpret the past. “Translation is difficult” says the bartender at the Grand Hotel in Oslo. It can lead to some hilarious misconceptions, some of which are documented by McIntosh whose sense of humour is a joyous attribute that runs like a thread through this book.
Again, the book comes full circle. In the appendix, we are back in Green Rivers Cemetery, perusing an informal list of notables who are buried there. It calls to mind McIntosh’s poem Vanishing Point which appeared at the beginning. In the end we all fall through the hole in the ocean. The truth of the matter is that our going is not particularly missed or even noticed – such is the brevity of life and all it has to offer. McIntosh has a way of making us aware of this fact by seasoning it with intelligence, foresight and wit. Between the lines, there is something here that is at once deep, engaging and profound.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014).