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26 February 2006 @ 08:51 pm
Since you've been gone...  
Some people you meet once, and that's all it takes. That's how it was for me with Octavia Butler in March 2000. Octavia spoke to a small, late night crowd at an intimate writers and scholars convention I regularly attend (The International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts). I meet a good many wonderful, inspiring people there each spring. None has made a greater impression on me than she did.

What Octavia talked about that night was unsurprising. I've listened to many writers discuss how they came to give themselves to the profession. As an aspirant, I'm as familiar with the outlines of that story as I am with those about young wizards who find their path through the world after they discover and temper their magic.

It wasn't the story Octavia told that moved me. It was the woman who told it. What she put into the narrative, the character, the fervor, led me to want to try harder and be more than I had been. When I returned home from the conference, I applied for Clarion East. I did it because Octavia had done it, and been a vital contributor to other writers' lives since.

Many people in the coming weeks, months, and years will assess Octavia's career, and the significance of her fiction in particular. Many, too, will acknowledge the impact she had on their careers, and lives. Today, the most I can say for my part is that I am one of them. I am grateful to her, and I, among many, will miss her.

I wish I had it in me tonight to write an elegy more eloquent than this -- I've only just found out, sitting in a bookstore, browsing through Jess Nevins' The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana and checking email on my cell while my son played on the floor at my feet. Ironic, and appropriate.

Instead, I'll quote whole the best I know, which is Auden's for Yeats -- somehow not without its resonance here, in its third movement. Liberation, understanding, dignified desire; these are words, too, with which I match Octavia Butler.

In Memory of W. B. Yeats

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
The snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.


Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
Jess Nevinsratmmjess on February 27th, 2006 04:19 pm (UTC)
Ah! Excellent--I've shopped there. :-) Glad it made it there, and that you're enjoying it.

I'd be really, really grateful--cravenly so, really--for a review, especially since PW passed on it.
kellysearsmithkellysearsmith on February 27th, 2006 04:35 pm (UTC)
You _are_ fearless, writing that to a 19C British lit specialist :). But I'll read it primarily as a specialist in the fantastic for JFA, if that goes through. I'll write the review editor today.

BTW, I'm writing a study of the Victorian fantastic, directed at a period specialist crowd. So, I especially appreciate the continental and obscure details. If you ever wondered who would love them, you've found your reader.
Jess Nevinsratmmjess on February 27th, 2006 04:37 pm (UTC)
Not exactly fearless. But my attitude is, if a review is 51% positive, then I come out ahead. :-)

I'm glad you're enjoying the obscure and continental stuff. :-)

Please do post about your study, when it's ready to go--it sounds like something I'll definitely want to buy, both for myself and for the library.