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5/3/2011 The Soul of an Island (published in Sandlapper Magazine, Summer 2010)
Edisto Island is a flat, subtropicalAtlantic barrier island, three-fourths of it tidal creek and marshland. Pelicans and great white herons populate the azure sky. The high land is a jungle of magnolias, palmettos, yucca and oak trees tangled in Spanish moss, a lush and verdant woodland where venomous snakes slither and colorful chameleons skitter over the ever-composting forest floor. The balmy sea breezes stir the pungent smell of the pluff mud and the sweetness of Confederate jasmine. The music of whippoorwill and cicada enliven the night. Edisto is sensuous, mysterious, romantic, fecund.
An environment for poetry.
Nick Lindsay is the poet of Edisto, the island’s bard. He is tall, tough and wiry, with white hair, a jutting chin, robin’s egg blue eyes and a nose like the keel of one of the seaworthy yachts he builds on Edisto. A face both formidable and friendly bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Paul Newman.
Visitors looking for him will rarely find him at his desk and certainly not in a hall of academe. He’ll be outside hammering a roof, mending a net or planking a deck. He’s a writer, poet, philosopher and transcriptionist. He’s a carpenter, plumber, boat builder and professor. He is also a consummate family man, rearing 10 children on a small Edisto homestead that he built with his own hands. Among his children have been a circus performer and flamenco dancer in Australia, a performance artist and translator in France, an art agent in South Carolina, a filmmaker and playwright recently moved from New York to the South, and several musicians.
Lindsay has taught, lectured and performed in schools, museums and recital halls across the U.S., Canada and Europe. He has presented the poetry of his father, Vachel Lindsay, and increasingly his own.
He moves when he recites poetry, approaching his audience and retreating as he did at a Spoleto festival fringe event with the Anonymity Dance Company. Climbing atop a scaffold overlooking a studio space, he chants. He plays the guitar. He hammers a trowel like a gong, calls forth a mesmerizing tone from a crystal water goblet. Below him, an all-female dance ensemble reaches and sways and interprets his words and music. “The sky gave earth tangible time... That was her first born,” he intones.
His style evokes that of his father, who similarly produced poetry to be performed. When Lindsay recites his father’s “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” with its stage direction, musical instrumentation, and choral refrains, he becomes a music hall performer, a revivalist minister, a shaman. “Booth led boldly with his big bass drum— (are you washed in the bloood of the Laaaamb?)”
Many remember the poetry of Vachel Lindsay from high school textbooks. While the peripatetic Vachel spent most of his life as an itinerant artist and vagabond, Nick Lindsay has grown deep roots on the South Carolina coast, where he settled 50 years ago.
Sitting in a rocker on the terra cotta porch of his Edisto home, he lazily strums a guitar and speaks of the irrepressible impulse to artistic expression that is a part of his very being, blood and bone.
The live oaks and blossoming magnolias outside his home form his daily vista and nourish his poetic imagery, leagues away from the halls of academe where he once dwelt. He considers oak avenues as likely a place for poetry as classrooms. When he speaks, he often seems to be addressing an audience, even if his audience is only one.
“In general, who is poetry for?” he asks. “For the likes of us? For authorities on poetry to make their living with? Some say it is for the birds. What is a poem? Is it a shape? A brick of gold to hoard away? Maybe it is a 5x7-inch place on a page which can be whittled and revised at your convenience to reach that level of harmony called art. Stack and store the pages and it can be dealt out as payment of a fee as in the schools and colleges. Is it a map? Is it a set of directions leading to a place of wonder?
“Maybe a poem is not a shape but a sound in the living air. Then it may not be revised any more than a kiss can be revised; it spills through windows, cracks in doors and will not be tamed by professors, governments nor walls; it is a caress, a glow, a riot, a disaster, a touching toward heaven in its own self.” He was born in Spokane, Washington, where his father was poet laureate of the city, on September 16, 1927. When Lindsay was 4, his father committed suicide. Vachel left his son a letter about art, bequeathing to him an aesthetic vision for the world. “I am about to step over,” he said. “I will need to go wandering. I need to check again the source and goal of vision, deep wellspring of darkness, the Other World.”
Of the manner of his father’s death, Lindsay says, “I have many reservations about the procedure, though none at all about the integrity of his intention. Was it worth it to him? It will at present take a very long-distance phone call to find out. Was it worth it to us? The logic of art can only answer, ‘Yes.’”
Nick Lindsay took up his father’s legacy with a kind of missionary zeal and continues to spread a message of art and beauty to the world.
On a dramatic arts scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Lindsay met Frances Easley DuBose, born in Greenville and raised in Camden. On September 21, 1945, they married, and that, he says, is when the world began. He dropped out of UNC to work as a plumber and carpenter. He bought a motorcycle and in 1946 they rode to California. Nick and DuBose (as she is known) attended classes at Berkeley and lived aboard a sloop in San Francisco Bay. He attended the University of Maryland and the University of South Carolina, eventually earning a degree in French. He later became proficient in Spanish and Russian. He did graduate work at five universities, including Columbia and Fordham, and taught high school for a time, but always drifted back to carpentry, a lifelong vocation.
If he is doing carpentry at an island plantation home, he will take into account all of the original architectural influences. His devotion to manual labor found expression in Studs Terkel’s 1972 interview, published in the book Working. Lindsay speaks of the relationship between spirituality and human endeavor in characteristic literary fashion.
Consider St. John’s Cathedral in New York. “If you try to kneel down in that church, you break your nose on the pew in front,” he points out. “A bunch of churches are like that. Who kneels down in that church? I’ll tell you who kneels. The man kneels who is setting the toilets in the restrooms. He has got to kneel, that is part of his work. The man who nails the pews on the floor, he had to kneel down... Any work, you kneel down— it is a kind of worship.”
On Edisto, “survival has always meant adaptability and hard physical labor,” but money never meant much to him. He quotes his father: “If you should wake up with a dollar in your pocket, give it away before lunchtime, lest it turn you into spiritual garbage.” An island resident once asked his daughter, “Child, what yo’ Daddy do?”
“He’s a poet,” she answered.
“Lawd, you gonna be hungry by Christmas time.”
Shortly after he moved to Edisto, Trinity Episcopal Church hired him to widen the churchyard gate because a prominent parishioner’s new Cadillac would not fit. He widened it as commissioned, but inscribed a not-so-cryptic message in a gatepost brick. Chiseled there is a simple biblical reference: “Mat VII: 13. Enter by the narrow gate. The gate is wide that leads to perdition.”
A bridge built in 1920 began a slow dilution of Edisto’s culture. Lindsay has preserved this culture as commercial development swallows the landscape. “Everything change up now,” says a character Lindsay describes as “coal black and skinny” in And I’m Glad: an Oral History of Edisto Island (Arcadia Publishing, 1999). This book brings island history to life through the voices of Sam Gadsden and Bubberson Brown, who recall the “old days and old ways.” Edisto natives, Gadsden and Brown observed the enormous changes that occurred in their lifetimes. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they told their stories to Nick Lindsay.
Still an adjunct professor at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, Lindsay set up Pinchpenny Press through the school. The press published the books on Gadsden and Brown and also many of Lindsay’s broadsides, poems, books and monographs. And I’m Glad combines both the Gadsden and Brown volumes. “Island places are more user-friendly than inland places,” Lindsay writes in the introduction. “Of all the islands of the ocean sea, the best are the sea islands of Carolina and Georgia. Of all the sea islands, the best is Edisto, here where nine-tenths of us are black, eight-tenths of us are in poverty and seven-tenths of us are Christian, the dark princes of the salt Atlantic.” Lindsay adds that three-tenths remain dwellers in the kingdoms of fear, root medicine and witchcraft.
“And me? A dark person. I am an old white carpenter on a hot island. People hire me to patch roofs, build trawlers and houses, ornamental doors and curving stairways. I work with one of the old men from the black community who is great-grandson to Jim Hutchinson, one of the kings of Edisto during the time when peace had been declared after the Civil War and before Reconstruction set in. We are not much of a business organization. As a carpenter, I plight troth with the wood, to be true to its grain and species, sometimes its color and smell.”
Lindsay began recording the stories in 1960, after hearing his neighbor Tony say people didn’t care about the old island ways. “Children say, ‘Them? Them old tale and story? Them old fogey ways?’” Lindsay felt differently. “He had a treasure to give away, but could find no takers. I said, ‘I care, Tony. Tell me.’” It wasn’t easy. Lindsay had to understand the basis for Edisto’s social order, a Nigerian social structure— formal, aristocratic, hierarchical and exclusive. Any outsider must be properly introduced. During an early interview, a woman attacked him with a kitchen knife (a very dull knife, Lindsay says). “I can cut that white arm just as easy as any black one,” she said.
“And the blood will run red from either, just like Jesus’ blood that saved us both,” he responded. (“Nobody taught me my answer,” he says, “but it was a very good answer.”)
Nick Lindsay counts among the most important influences in his literary life medieval French poets, the Russian dramatist and novelist Alexander Pushkin, and the Rev. Tony Daise, a Baptist minister on Edisto, the son of Tony Deas Sr. [sic] who initially led Lindsay to Sam Gadsden and Bubberson Brown.
“Nick Lindsay’s a Thoreauvian voice at the edge of the counterculture… recognizably the son of poet Vachel Lindsay, who also dwelt at the edge of the counterculture before the jargon was coined,” The Wall Street Journal once noted.
His creative work, mythic in proportion, connects to an ancient tradition, yet ever creates anew from the wellspring of life. Much in the order of nature is gendered, he believes, and the true fertile ground of creation is womankind. Hence, of primary importance in Lindsay’s work is the face of the female deity, the weaver— as illustrated in his poem The Weaver’s Leman. No doubt this is due to the remarkable devotion, passion and awe he has for his wife and their multitalented daughters.
“Life on Edisto is tough. It takes long hours and hard work, yet each of the... people who told me stories of the old days said early in their testimony, ‘This place is paradise,’” Lindsay writes. “Evidently this paradise has some raggedy and painful elements, yes, and includes things we often call curses. Hurricanes, pestilence, earthquake, tidal waves, slavery and the money system.”
The world that existed on Edisto for generations is rapidly passing. The island is now part of the 21st century and its civilization. Life is materially better than it was 100 years ago, Lindsay acknowledges, with electricity, plumbing, transportation, good wages and equal rights. Progress comes with a cost, however. There is an inevitable dilution of the heritage and spirit of the place. But as long as Nick Lindsay is part of the island, its culture— old and new, European, African, native, natural— will remain, interpreted for the world by his poetic soul.
by Curtis Worthington l photos by Susan Roberts