Madison Smartt Bell, TSKW Writer in Residence Reflects on Islands, Trembling Trees, Rebirth, and Works in Progress…

I got to know some of the good people at TSKW in the winter of 2009 when I was in Key West on other business. When I thought to inquire, somewhat belatedly, if they could find a spot for me in January 2010. I was pleasantly startled to find that the answer was yes.

A working holiday in Paradise, I thought. Okay, Key West is a little louche to fit the Judeo-Christian image of Paradise, but then that’s why I like it. I was also getting to come with my wife, Elizabeth Spires, who is as fond of the place as I am, in part because of Elizabeth’s Bishop’s connection to it.

A few days before our departure, the earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince and the surrounding region of Haiti. It upset my world a little bit also. One night I packed a bag for Haiti. The next day I unpacked it, reasoning that I don’t have the first response skills immediately needed, that if I went I would be consuming resources scarce enough for those already there, and that I might be able to be more useful for the Haitian cause by trying to get various words on the subject out and around the United States.

Key West, small as it is, does remind me of what Haiti could be (maybe now has another chance to become) with political stability, basic security, a functioning economy and a sound infrastructure. The two spots share a world’s end feel—and a sense that there is no other place on earth quite like this one. In front of the abandoned school on Southard & Margaret there is a magnificent ancient tree where last year I wanted to make a jete dlo, the Haitian water sacrifice. This year I did it.

Haitians consider old trees to be reposwa, resting places for ancestral spirits, and there are some magnificent trees like that in the back garden of Heritage House where we were put up, thanks to the kindness of her descendants, in Miss Jean Porter Poirier’s cottage. One of the best things about our stay was to inhabit for a little while the aura of her life, which must have been a very rich one, judging from all the wonderful art she made and collected, a library ranging from South Florida history to the implications of the Mayan long calendar and taking in a whole lot in between, a full-size rickshaw she must have ridden in, outside on the gallery, and a scale model of the same rickshaw inside on a bookshelf, complete in every detail down to the paint job. One of the books I brought was William Vollmann’s forthcoming book on Noh theater; lo, there was a Noh mask hanging among a thousand other artifacts on the cottage walls.

Thanks to the flexibility and generosity of TSKW I was able to keep getting words out on Haiti, tying up their land line to talk on the radio, and giving a talk at a benefit (around twenty-five thousand dollars were raised I am told) that they hosted at the Armory. I met some good people from the Key West Haitian community, especially those who congregate at Mo’s Restaurant (which furnished some excellent Haitian food to the benefit).

At first I intended to work on a novel in progress tentatively entitled Red Stick, about the Creek Wars of the early nineteenths century, in which Andrew Jackson participated, among many others. I had proposed that as a project to TSKW because it is describable, where as the other novel I’m working on, a thing called Behind the Moon, is thoroughly indescribable at this point. But the earthquake in Haiti scrambled my brain too much for me to call up the proper Red Stick state of mind, so I worked on Behind the Moon instead and made some decent progress.

I would like to thank people including but not limited to Elena Devers, Eric Holowacz, Martha Barnes, Lauren McAloon, Marc Hedden and Nan Klingener for doing huge amounts of work with an apparently effortless grace. Key West was a very good place for me to be at what was otherwise a very bad time. I hoped and prayed for a lot of people I know in the earthquake zone in Haiti, and quite a few of them came back out of the wreckage. There’s more than a little magic in Key West as well as in Haiti, in the movement of the water and the trembling of the leaves.

The last few words I finished on Behind the Moon are these.

She set her parking brake and got out. The small house sat half in, half out of a thicket of evergreen brush, at the bottom of a dish in the prairie, scattered with sharp white stones. It did not exactly look abandoned, but the door hung open in a way that dismayed her. She started to call to the house but did not. To the left of it the rusted carcass of an old Mustang stood on blocks and beside it a washing machine so ancient it had a wringer bolted on top. A dented aluminum saucepan lay upside down among the stones.

The sky darkened abruptly, though it could scarcely have been noon. Marissa looked up to see a black squall line hurrying from the west, dense inky cloud that blotted out the sun. She could no longer remember why she had come here. Out of the thicket to the right of the house came an old man with long white hair, wearing a green quilted vest with the stuffing coming out from its parted seams. He shook a rattle at the end of one bony arm and made a thin keening sound with his voice. Although he did not seem to see her he was coming toward her certainly, as if everything in this day, in her whole life, existed to carry her to this moment and him to her. When he had reached her, his free hand took hers.

Marissa said, Why?

You have a hollow in your heart, the shaman said. Or maybe he said hunger. The rattle shook in his other hand. Hunger. Hollow. Now Marissa was weeping, with no sound or sobbing. She only knew because the water from her eyes ran into the neck of her shirt and pooled in the shell of her collar bone.

Go to it now, the shaman said. Don’t hesitate.

The Studios of Key West