2017 Carl Sandburg Writer-in-Residence

2017 Writer in Residence, John Michael Flynn
John Michael Flynn
Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site and the Friends of Carl Sandburg at Connemara are pleased to announce the 2017 Carl Sandburg Writer-in-Residence, John Michael Flynn. The writer for 2017 is a prose writer.

About John
John Michael Flynn is a writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Some of his work has been published under the pen name, Basil Rosa. During the past three decades his work has appeared in approximately 50 different publications. In 1998, his first book of poems, Moments Between Cities, earned the annual Writers And Readers Award from the U.S. Peace Corps. During that same year, he earned the Erika Mumford Prize from the New England Poetry Club for his series of poems, Seven Postcards From A Former Soviet Republic, drawing from his Peace Corps service from 1993-95 in the newly formed Republic of Moldova. He’s also earned awards from the Poetry Society of Virginia, The Worcester County Poetry Association, and the HG Roberts Prize from Kansas State University for the title story of his first published collection, Something Grand. He holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, where he studied under the late George Garrett. In 2015, he was an English Language Fellow with the U.S. State Department serving at the Far Eastern State University in Khabarovsk, Russia. Married to his wife, Angelica, for 22 years, he’s lived in central Virginia for the past decade and currently teaches as an adjunct in the English Department at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

Prose Selection from John

Replica Or Not

Janet knew names of painters in the Uffizi: Titian, Raphael, Domenichino. She knew of paintings by Perugino called Holy Family, and Madonna del Cardelino. She moaned, heartbroken, when she learned that the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace were closed. All museums in Florence ran holiday hours. A week after Christmas, which meant a week after their departure, the museums would open again. This came as both disappointment and surprise, and it occurred to Casey that in the American working life a period of rest and piety had become a concept that smacked of the medieval. Only the anti-Christ closed retail operations during Christmas.

It was Janet’s turn to whine. She’d been raised in Philadelphia. Her father was a lawyer. Fluent in Spanish, she had a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown. "I really wanted to see some art. What's wrong with these people? Talk about a missed opportunity."

"There you go again,” he said. “These people. Their museums aren’t privately owned."

"Let me complain, will you? You do it all the time."

Casey apologized. Trying to sound sympathetic, he said he understood her disappointment and thought Florence felt cramped and brought out a contentious energy in them both. He didn’t believe what he’d said, but he knew Janet would agree with him, which she did. She also went along with his suggestion they keep walking and looking, since the city itself was a work of art.

Using her guidebook and a small map, Janet led them to the Palazzo Vecchio, where a replica of Michelangelo’s David stood in the place where the original had once been. In the center of a cramped square surrounded by dirty brick and concrete walls, it was blackened in places with splotches of soot and streaks of runny pigeon guano.

“Not surrounded by scaffolding,” said Casey. "Not like in Rome. And he's always open."

“But it’s so dirty.” Janet sounded glum. "And a replica. Not the real deal."

"So the perfect man is disappointing?”

“He’s not. Am I right?”

“I have no idea.”

“He is true, though. That’s what he is. There’s something larger than life about him.”

Casey smirked. “You women are impossible to please."

Janet snickered at his comment, which startled him. For the first time in Florence he hadn't annoyed her.

She asked, "Tell me something, Case, is David what every boy wants to be, or what every boy already is before knowing it?"

He didn’t like being referred to as a boy. He pondered this, hoping to please Janet, wanting to get it right. "Maybe a man like this is so perfectly made he can only exist in an artist's dream."

"Who taught you so much about art?”

“You did.”

They shared a laugh. Casey felt relieved and energized. For a change, he’d said the right thing. They were the only people in the square and it was quiet enough to hear the pigeons cooing.

Janet nosed around the statue, guidebook in hand, reading as she circled the statue, careful not to touch it. She said as if lecturing him, “This is David before he went into battle. It says another sculptor, Donatello, sculpted him after he had slain Goliath. Hmm. That’s interesting.”

“It is,” said Casey. He’d never seen Janet so vulnerable, so much a tourist and he thought the role fit her. She wasn’t nearly the bucket of hard nails she liked to project herself as in public. In Rome, she’d been impossible. He quipped, “We might as well enjoy ourselves.”
Janet offered an airy nod, nose in her guidebook as she kept circling the statue.
Casey thought Florence quiet in a way that American cities, even in his native pastoral Vermont, seldom were. No airplanes overhead. No roar of distant freeway traffic. The city was shut down for the holiday. All life that stirred did so behind closed doors in family kitchens and in churches. A holiday meant peaceful recuperation, prayer, traditional meals and conversation with visiting relatives and neighbors. Not hare-brained dashes to crowded shopping malls.

He also liked that he’d started to notice such smaller details. “I think I could live here,” he remarked.

Janet had heard him and she nodded, but her comment proved she was on a much different wavelength. "It's amazingly accurate," she said. "A shame we can't see the real one, since David's shape is a kind of poem, a part of the earth, not a dream. Out here in the elements it changes just like the rest of us. By rain and sun and wind."

"Sounds arty to me but I like it," he said.

The idea of beauty fascinated him. There would come a day when as a film director he’d have to choose actors based not on talent alone but on the shape of face and body. He envied Janet. She projected beauty in her own way. She had money and a well-rounded education and, as she’d put it, choices. She had intellect and a passion for learning, yet she showed a practical, decisive and confident side. She’d also developed the habit of speaking with her hands as if she were a daughter of the Piedmontese.

She said to him, "It doesn't matter whether David is made of stone or water, because he still continues evolving. Even in stone, there’s a sense of motion. I’ll tell you why he was made. Not because of any dream of perfection, no, such dreams are dangerous. David was made to show us that we’re solid and earthbound, and that hundreds of years from now people will still be able to see that growth in all of mankind starts and becomes inevitable once we see how simple we are."

Casey, listening, blew a sigh. The girls he’d known in high school had never talked like this. "Man, that is out there. So let me get this straight. You’re saying we just keep learning, whether we want to or not?"

"And in that way we’re perfect, yes,” said Janet. “That’s the myth. That’s how we kill the giants. We trust our perfection.” She beamed at him. She paused. A flash of doubt reddened her face. “Or something like that. But we’re still flesh and bone and we should celebrate that, too. You know, our own form. It’s beautiful when you think about it. I’ll tell you something else, too, before I forget it. I think that sometimes the dream of mankind is just beginning."

"You’re starting to lose me,” said Casey. “Exactly which dream would that be?"

"Perfection, of course.” She rolled her eyes. “Isn’t that what we’re talking about?"

"Inner perfection?" He risked sounding facetious. “Or outer?”

"God isn't even close to being revealed in us,” she said. “We have so far to go."

“That’s pretty heavy for a business major.”

She sneered at him and remarked sourly, “What do you know about it?”

Not much, he thought. He felt pleased no one had heard their conversation. It was preposterous, but he loved Janet for it. All her barriers had come down. She moved with the confidence of a woman comfortable in her element. She’d made the best of enjoying a replica, having missed the museums she’d looked forward to. They’d met on a train, made friends, and agreed to travel together until, she’d said, they got sick of each other.
He doubted that would happen. He loved Janet’s mind, her passion and seriousness. He loved the way she made him think and really hear himself and how she chattered like an elitist intellectual. He loved that only the two of them, at mid-day, occupied the square.
Later that night, lying in a tiny bed in a tiny pensione, Casey asked himself if other men had ever felt the whirl of emotion he’d experienced upon seeing David, replica or not. It stood as an idealized representation that sought to define the purity of the male form. Which male of the species had been sculpted more sublimely? He didn't exist. He needed to be created. So did that mean life imitated art, or vice-versa? He couldn't say.

Like many of Janet’s pointed comments, the statue had brought him to an uncomfortable affirmation of his ignorance. He couldn't, if asked, define perfection or beauty. He couldn’t define art or why he felt so drawn to it. Art seemed to him allied to a dexterous alluring energy that informed and elevated people. At the same time, it spoke of benevolence, love, good and evil, the coarse and refined. Art examined extremes of human and animal nature and the kingdom as a whole. It couldn’t just represent the surface. It needed other elements, as well: mystery, hidden energy, honesty. Art couldn’t be afraid of being wrong.
The sculptures and paintings and even the best architecture he’d seen possessed a sensual darkness, a kinetic force and a willingness to try to capture something essential, even at the risk of failure. A true work of art spoke from beneath what it offered on the surface, as if from out of a dream, the same dreams he’d often had. The kind of dreams he chased and jotted down and imagined one day as films he’d direct.

Art in this way, like a dream, could be dangerous. The greatest of it didn’t just stand for an idea or concept or topic. Nor was it a rote lesson on morality or a grandiloquent exercise in form; it was simple enough to be inexplicable and magical. It spoke of life in all its forms and yet it was elusive, too, asking more questions than it gave answers. Finally, it was a masterwork of technique, composition, color and choice of materials held together by the tissue of the human heart, out of the white spaces in the artist’s quiet and perhaps tortured soul and mind.

If he’d learned anything about art, it was that he’d been wrong about it and he’d known nothing. He could spend the rest of his life trying to unlock its mysteries.

As Janet had said, the sculpture of David represented a myth. This myth led to the truth that all creatures born of earth, sky and water possessed an infinite beauty not he, not anyone else, would ever fully comprehend. It was an expression of not knowing and it was worth striving for. Art had a way of harnessing beauty and absence of knowledge into a measurable familiar form. It defined life’s irony. It helped the raw and untutored, persons just like him, to see that no one knew everything about the infinite human condition and it was okay not to know. Humanity had managed to survive and would live on in spite of the consequences of its own cruelty and ignorance.

Like a memorable film, art didn’t just entertain or allow escape; it helped the lost as they sought ways to see. This idea so thrilled Casey that he made a promise that he would never forget it. Once he realized his dream of becoming a film director, every film he made would open eyes and minds and hearts. It would show form and simplicity, and it would communicate. The feeling of being opened, thrilled, scared and enlightened was the lasting entertainment factor, after all. It’s what every viewer took home after leaving a cinema, theatre or museum.

Rising and falling with his thoughts as if he floated upon the sea, Casey, all of 18 years old, fell into a dream full of sunlight. He felt gratitude. Air filled his body and he floated out of his bed on a carpet of vapors and he watched each wall around him slide away, not to be touched until they disappeared. He felt courage. He’d seen so much of Italia in so little time, far beyond expectations. He’d been changed. He would go back to Vermont and his uncertain future, but he would never be the same there.

He lay alone, brimming with light as he thought of all the art and the beauty in the world that he was yet to discover. In this state of mind he spent his first Christmas Eve away from his family and friends and all that he’d once defined as home.

Last updated: March 14, 2017

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