By Laird Hunt and Eleni Sikelianos July 15, 2020
Like her good friend the writer Lucia Berlin, Bobbie Louise Hawkins was an excellent observer of others. Like Lucia, too, she was wise and damn funny. Her stories are vitamin-packed, full of her own specific and inimitable possibilities of voice. Or maybe we should say voices, or voicings, because the singular doesn’t quite do it justice. Her voice could take on multiple angles and colors, depending on the setting and time of day, the interlocutor, or, more accurately, the listener, and the number. It wasn’t unusual to hear her with a Texas drawl in the morning in her garden (this voice said “honey” a fair amount, and unfurled like a smoked tumbleweed just rolling out of the fire), a soft New Mexican clipping of word endings in the afternoon, and a British tilt at a party in the evening. Her voice could even take on several aspects at once, especially when she was giving a reading. Voicing was important enough to Bobbie that she offered classes on how to talk (and not talk) into a mic. Don’t pop those p’s! Make sure you cut the mic! No heavy breathing between words!
And while the novella One Small Saga is not as voicey as some of her other work, her marvelous capacity to listen and deftly mimic is acutely on display. She speedily gets her world and her characters “in,” as E. M. Forster, a writer whose prose she admired, put it. Consider one quick sentence early on, the short passage that takes place in Mr. Collins’s sitting room. Bobbie builds this Englishman’s whole character out of just a handful of syllables. The narrator has just noticed the wall hangings, “patterned blue and white cotton to match the drawn drapes … ‘Nigerian,’ Mr. Collins told me, seeing me looking, ‘handwoven native.’ ” In three tight-lipped words we get the tone of the whole of the British empire circa 1950, from the mouth of one of its servants.
Still, in this autobiographical work (Bobbie claimed not to have done any other kind), what’s mainly going on is an attempt at taking the measure of the life the narrator wants to live. She starts that process by recounting a mistake that isn’t a mistake at all. She does something stupid (marries Axel) to get to the next thing (the story of her life). How else would a ferociously observant, intelligent, original young woman born into poverty in the thirties get out of the fix she is in? She has plans, inchoate as they are, and takes the ship that will get her started, pointed firmly in the direction of elsewhere. That the ship she travels on has a “green marble swimming pool” hidden in its depths, which she soon finds herself plunging into daily, seems emblematic. Like Bobbie, the narrator of One Small Saga has an unerring ability to sniff out the unlooked-for and the exceptional.
“You want to put yourself adjacent to the most interesting person in the room,” Bobbie liked to say to her students (we were two of them). Bobbie herself, of course, was very often that most interesting person, but if she was never under-cognizant of this particular fact of the matter—and why should she have been?—that discerning eye of hers turned ever outward. You can see the narrator looking for compelling adjacencies all though One Small Saga. If at first she has to contend with bipedal oafs like Axel’s insufferable sister—“I smiled at Birte. It was very like smiling at a locomotive”—the circle expands as the story takes us and the narrator through London, Jamaica, and elsewhere, and by its end a critical mass of interesting acquaintance has been achieved. Along the way, both the novella and its narrator have expanded their capacities to accommodate. The last sentences, in fact, deftly, brilliantly present us with several stories at once. There is the woman doing the remembering and the woman being remembered. Against these two, who are at once the same and different women, is thrown, in excruciating relief, the major’s wife. She is not so much a character as an apparition: a woman who did not grok what her own next thing was or how to get there. She is stuck there in the past with her choices and her bandaged wrists.
The narrator, however, has made more than several lives for herself since that juncture. She doesn’t need to go into them. We know it because she is elsewhere, in a state of remembering. The doubling and tripling of meaning, the deep care for both herself and for the major’s wife that is encapsulated in that final sentence—“How could I have forgotten?”—is nothing short of stunning.
Included in the reissue of One Small Saga is the short story “En Route,” which is an episode from her later marriage to the American poet Robert Creeley. Here, Bobbie has clearly put herself adjacent to the most interesting persons in the room. However difficult that marriage also proved, she enormously relished the conversation and mind of it and spent a significant part of the years after its dissolution untangling its many stories.
Bobbie was, above all else, a storyteller, a potent one. One who could stick her landings and shape the hell out of her sentences: “The desires of the heart do rise up at the least jogging. The heart stands high and looks for miles at the least excuse.” One who developed, as she turned to teaching, violent antibodies to infelicitous utterance. Once I (this is Laird) gave her a story to read that was full of short-i sounds. Think pin, gin, and sin. “Oh, good Lord, honey,” she said. She looked both anguished and angry as she smashed her pen through each offensive instance. Was it that there was too much complaint in all that ih, ih, ih sound? Not enough of the round, full vowels of creation?
To the ancient Greeks, being a storyteller meant you could weave the opening stuff of the world, which was chaos, into muthos, also known, Bobbie’s friend Charles Olson reminds us, by the term myth. This is not any Christian sense of that term, but a self-making. If you don’t believe in heaven and hell, Bobbie tells us, “then you don’t get the simplified up and down. The pattern is instantly random and the options are more like something hit the floor and splattered.” What you do with the splatter is up to you.
Some storytellers are also talkers, and Bobbie was one of those. She talked about gardens and flowers, because besides being a storyteller and a talker and a fierce editor she was a world-class gardener. Why have I (this is Eleni) jotted down, in an old note about Bobbie, “the hero of her own journey”? I guess because, like the narrator of One Small Saga, she was. For example, she wasn’t afraid to rip everything out and start from scratch; there would be murdered daylilies strewn across the walk, much to everyone’s shock, and no one believed she could make a better garden than she already had, but then she did. When we moved to Boulder to teach at Naropa, one of the first things she said to me is, “Cleomes. You’re gonna want cleomes.” I soon learned she was not wrong.
Laird Hunt is the author of seven novels, with an eighth, Zorrie, forthcoming from Bloomsbury USA in early 2021. He is the winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction, the Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine, and the Bridge Prize, and was a finalist for both the PEN/Faulkner and the Prix Femina étranger. His reviews and essays have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others. A former United Nations press officer, he lives in Providence, where he teaches in Brown University’s literary arts program.
Eleni Sikelianos is the author of two hybrid memoir/family histories (The Book of Jon and You Animal Machine) and eight books of poetry, most recently What I Knew. Sikelianos is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and the National Poetry Series, among other awards. She was Bobbie Louise Hawkins’s student in the late eighties and early nineties, and her colleague at Naropa beginning in the early aughts. She currently teaches at Brown University.
Introduction © Laird Hunt and Eleni Sikelianos, first published in One Small Saga, by Bobbie Louise Hawkins (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020).