Tuesday, December 1, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 1, Mike Martone and His Steam Memoir


“Stop digging.” I am thinking of that old adage as I start this essay. I traced it back to the early 80s when I started writing. The Law of Holes. The Law of Holes is attributed to the politicians Bill Brock or Denis Healey: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Others source the saying to Will Rogers. It sounds like it might be Will Rodgers. I find myself on a new edge now, digging. Now “retired,” the excavation’s begun. The whole hole of what’s past behind me. Before me another knot, a hole not yet hollowed out.

Do you know the children’s picture book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton? Does anyone read it anymore? It’s a book about obsolescence to be read to the uninitiated young, their clocks (and these would be clocks of winding stems, escarpments, toothed gears and coiled springs) newly set, all wound up, written for kids in the before world of a tick tock not the current one of Tik Tok. Though as one of those kids even in that before world, I think the book might have been the first “video” I watched. This book (a technology itself on the edge of obsolescence) about obsolescent technologies was first “read” to me by Captain Kangaroo on his CBS morning children’s show. I think of that now, in this after time, this early occasion of being read to by the television, as a “video” akin to the music videos that were twenty years in my then future. I heard the words on the audio track read aloud by the Captain as the camera panned over the pictures, zoomed in and out, animating the still shots of the pictures on the pages of the book. Television, this new visual medium, putting the oral storyteller out of business right before my eyes. Little did I know, then, but right down State Street (in Fort Wayne, Indiana), the inventor of the image dissector connected to a scanning cathode-ray tube creating the first electronic television, Philo T. Farnsworth (the inventor of the device on which I was now watching a video of a book being read to me), might have been (I found out later) in his basement, half mad, attempting to create a household appliance-sized nuclear fusion reactor to put the energy companies out of business.

I loved the way the camera (or image dissector) loved those illustrations of Virginia Lee Burton, the soft tailing tracks, rubbed and riddled graphite of the shading pencils, the smear and smudge of the charcoal (charcoal!) that seemed to seduce the scanning electromagnetic beam sweep, the oscillating swipe and wipe of the camera’s gaze. And how organic! The story is about the disappearance, the erasure of steam, steam generated by the burning of coal, coal that fossil of what’s left after the after of life. Not etched so much as fudged fragments, the fuzziness of the graphic leaden lead (more coal!) lined clouds picturing clouds, smoke emitted from Mary Anne, Mike’s steam shovel, always already disintegrating, energy going to entropy, the whole point of the story, dissolving as the screen dissolves and fades and blurs, bleeds images of dissipating exhaust, a sublime transformation (skipping any liquid state), but starting out right from the softest solid to meta-morph into an insubstantial gesture, a wisp.

I am retired now. From what have I retired, resigned? I taught for forty years this this. This: storytelling, narrative, the writing it down, the digging into it, the digging it up. I was in the construction business. I fabricated prose both fictional and fact. I didn’t teach so much as mused. I thought a lot and aloud about story and memoir, about beginnings and middles and ends. And students (or as I thought of them, other younger writers) overheard my mumblings on these matters, took in my doodles and scratches in chalk on black and green boards, then in inks on white boards. How lucky was I? How lucky am I to have been able to tell stories about stories, tell stories about making stories. Stories can be about many different things but all stories are always also about stories. Well, that may be the one lesson I learned even if I didn’t teach it. In the story of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a crucial part of the narrative involves gathering a crowd of onlookers to observe Mike and his machine digging. Writing, the actual act of writing is never a performance, but attempting to capture action in one’s writing might initiate the desire, in the writer, to make that task of writing athletic. Very hard to dramatize this scene: me sitting at a desk, punching buttons, staring at a screen. Teaching writing was as close as it gets, I guess, to animating the only art form produced and consumed rather passively in private. But that is all behind me now. Here, now, I am in a room, in my house looking at the words I am typing (this “this”) appears on the screen of the machine I am manipulating. The cursor pulsing, I think (just now), like the panting of that idling steam engine. Anyway, I am retired, retired from my professional puttering and turning now (as I turn to look out into another real window another world) to contemplate the garden, thinking writing this this is keeping me from being out there, digging, digging a new bed. I need to get the daffodil bulbs in the ground so that they will bloom next spring. I am running out of time.

One of the things I taught or thought about was the memoir, the way the memoir was thought about, the way it is built. It seemed many of the writers I worked with were interested in utilizing this form, the memoir, both in fictional and nonfictional modes. For a while there, there were many writers I worked with who created mock memoirs—stories told in first person in the voice of an amateur narrator at (or about at) a moment of crisis in the narrator’s life, creating a dramatic epiphany in a kind of inarticulate yet poetic prose. It was a form of short fiction that might have been borrowed from the real memoirs one could read in The Big Book of AA. And these renditions informed the fictional flowering of minimalistic, Dirty Realism of the 80s. When it comes to memoir I always return to my misremembered reading of St. Thomas Aquinas. Somewhere in there he was trying to answer the big question of death. Why do we die? His answer, I think, or the one I made up and attribute to him, is that without death life has no meaning. Without death, life is just a bunch of stuff that happened. Life is melodrama. Death defines, shapes incident into a shaped charge of meaning. But if death (a real death) defines, it also renders the writer mute, of course. So the memoirist’s first move is to simulate that death, to draw a curtain down, to hit a bottom, to stop digging and now examine the spoil, the filings and tailings, the chaff and debris, finding the ore and reward. One needs to create an artificial parenthesis, a cyst of sorts to sort it out. That is why there are the memoirs of one’s youth, travels, journeys, marriages, battles, babies. Contained stretches of time. Memoirs are the completed subplots of our unfinished, open-ended main plot. One needs that artificial death, a synthetic ending, that closed parenthesis in order to begin. I was thinking about that as I began (just yesterday) to dig new beds in the garden now that I am retired. The spade’s blade, I noticed, punctuated the ground grammatical, amending it with that sideways smile ( ) ) as I puttered.

Let me summarize what happens in Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. The “once upon a time,” part, the “ground” situation (as my teacher called it) is set in a land transforming from the rural and agrarian to the urban and industrial. Things are changing, and changing fast, amplified and accelerated by Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel named Mary Anne. In this ground situation of the story, we witness Mike and Mary Anne together digging, filling, leveling, and moving dirt to create canals, railways, highways, airports, and foundations for the new skyscrapers of the big city. We are also told that Mike is proud of his machine and “took such good care…she never grew old.” We are also told as all the projects are recounted that Mike believes his steam shovel can dig in a day as what a hundred men could dig in a week. This could go on forever of course if it wasn’t for the “one day,” initiating incident, that will set the story off, climbing up the incline grade of rising action. The “one day” is the arrival of the other more modern kinds of shovels, (electric, diesel, gasoline) apparently nameless and faceless, that take away all the jobs for the steam shovels. The picture is poignant here with Mike and Mary Anne looking over the edge of excavated cliff into a deep pit, the bottom piled with the wreckage and ruin of retired scrapped shovels (still steaming!). It goes unsaid but the composition suggests that this grave might have been the last hole our heroes have dug. The story pivots, pivots like the levered boom of the bucket shovel, and Mike and Mary Anne trundle on their tracks out into the countryside looking for work. We are now in the part of the tale that is, as my teacher named it, “the incremental perturbation” of the raising action. The turning of this screw leads them to a job (to dig the basement of the new town hall in Poppersville), but the cheap selectman will only hire them after Mike says he can complete the excavation in a day or won’t be paid. Then there is the drama of the day. Will they or won’t they make it? Crowds gather to watch and cheer them on! And yes! They do finish squaring off the fourth corner just as the sun sets only to discover (when the dust has settled) that they have dug so fast they have forgotten to construct a ramp for the way out. But a young boy, who suggests a solution, provides for the narrative’s way out. Both can stay in the cellar, and the town hall will be built overhead. Mary Anne can be turned into the new building’s steam furnace and Mike can serve as the town hall’s janitor. It turns out. It turns out this is not so much a story of obsolescence as it is about repurposing. Perhaps.

Perhaps. Even back then, when I was a boy (the boy in the story’s age), the early 60s, when Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was read to me while I watched the Captain Kangaroo Show, the steam seemed (even then) to have gone out of that happy solution. I could see (even then) the gas pilot light in the furnace and water heater of the house’s basement, little blue ghosts waiting to ignite. All the boilers pulled out of all the basements. At school the electrically heated hot air blew out from boxes under the window. At my grandparents’ house, I never saw any coal in the coalbunker in their cellar. It was now an empty empty room we could explore, with random cans of corn or peas, a proto pantry, and a dented metal chute that led up to the sealed off steel hatch in the foundation wall. No coal. No steam. The denouement of Mike! Mike rocking in the rocking chair, smoking his pipe, stoking the converted cheerily glowing furnace, may have restored an order to the story, seemed to stabilize the dramatized disruption of progress, but even as the book ended happily, I had my doubts. What had happened to Mike? Where was he now, now that time had caught up with him again? The furnace converted. Mary Anne salvaged for scrap. The boilers all stove in. There were probably asbestos issues to address. Abatement? Disposal? But now I am getting ahead of myself. What had happened to Mike once the last fire was banked?

My house here (I’ve lived in it for twenty-five years) sits on a hole. Not a basement. There are few basements around here. The water table is too high. There is a crawl space, but that is not the void I mean. Fill. The house rests on fill. The hole that was here was filled-in in the 50s was part of the gully that still exists next to the lot, defining the end of my property. That gully is a deep, steep-sided cauldron that launches repelling vines of wisteria, kudzu, and poison ivy that grapple on to the chain link fence topping the pile of fill they used to fill up the hole and make my yard. To dig in the dirt of my garden is to discover an entire archive of aggregates. Here a drift of riverbed stones. Pebbles. Gravel. A boulder as big as a bowling ball. Decaying roots. Here, sediments of caking sand or veneers of the famous red clay of the South. Here, crumbs of brick or cinder block, aggregate made up of more aggregate. Here, a bog. And here, some loam a glaze of unidentifiable dirt. There, strata of ash. I gave up long ago sending soil samples to the state extension service. It is all too sour and wants to become the pine forest it once was all acid with an understory of too showy azaleas. Now that I am retired I could really have at it, a proper dig, map the underlayment of waste and spoil left here long ago. Instead of scratching the surface, I should go full archeological, trench and grid and dental instruments for detail. The neighborhood kids told me that they did find ruins of statues and capitals and cornices dumped in the ditch next door when the city tore down the old Beaux-Art courthouse downtown in the 60s. Archeology is a kind of destruction, spoiling the seasons of settling and steady and stately burial. But this archeology (lurking under the lawn, the garden), would tell no story. More a collage. One big juxtaposition of junk. Floating below there are green glass bottles and crushed cans, marbles and coins, I know. I retired into the sequestration and lockdown of the pandemic. I haven’t gone far afield during its gestation these past nine months. I have nowhere to go. I have nowhere to go but down.

My neighbor, Carl, was a fine gardener. His yard up the hill is famous. He owned the high-end French antique store and garden shop in Northport across the river, The Potager, where I bought a braided straw bee-skep and a cracked glass cloche. A week ago I was grubbing out a bed beneath the dogwood tree for daffodils and Carl walks by. We talk at a distance. He tells me a joke. That night, he will die, suddenly, so this would be the last time we spoke. I am in the front of the house, discovering what fill is beneath my feet. Carl has walked by the house almost every day for years, but for most of those years we would only have the chance to talk occasionally. More often we would simply wave in passing. I would be rushing out the door on my way to work, off to the treadmill at the Y, taking the kids to school. Then, I was a weekend and evening gardener. But now I am retired, and, because of the sequestration, we are all in the neighborhood staying close to home. I still had my Biden/Harris sign planted in the garden when Carl goes by. He likes the new folly I have installed to mark my retirement, a ten foot tower made of rebar topped with a wind vane, a cut-out of a crow pirouetting on one dipping wing tip. The election is over, but we all are waiting for the episode to end, to finally finish, the certification so the transition can begin. We keep our distance. We are wearing masks. I think the sign and the unfinished business it advertises cues up the joke he tells. All the inarticulate anxiety and the waiting for the over to be over, for the end to end. Everyday since I’ve retired is a Blursday. This day too, a Blursday. Still moving up the hill to his house over the filled-in ditch, he asks if I knew the one about the man, an optimist, who fell off the ten story building, and what he was heard to say as he fell by the open fifth floor window? Nothing occurred to me. I was leaning on my spade. Carl paused and leaned into the hill. “So far, so good.” 

The shovel I use to dig in my garden, a poacher’s spade made by the Bull Dog Company in England, was given to me by the Nobel Prize winning poet, Seamus Heaney, when I left Harvard. I worked there for four years, teaching creative writing. Harvard, a miserly employer, provided a party line I shared with Seamus and the other writers in the program. I had moved from Iowa to a cramped and yard-less apartment in Cambridge, and I spent a lot of time in my office on Kirkland Street where there was room to work. There, I took many calls and messages for Seamus who was often on the road. Back in the office, Seamus would have me in to go over those messages. I caught him up. After we finished the business, he always took some time to talk to me, not about writing or poetry or teaching, but about gardens and gardening. He knew, because I told him, all about my garden in Iowa and my old joke about soil so rich you could spit on that ground and grow water. He would tell me about peat cutting and potato planting in Ireland. Idiot, I didn’t know then the poem, “Digging,” he wrote in the early 60s. This would have been about the same time I was home being read to by the television the story of Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, who could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week. After a few years, I had to leave Cambridge. It was a limited stint, the job there. The memory of the time there came with a built-in closure, a terminating parentheses, the shape of which (that curve) is the same as the divot the spade leaves in the ground whenever I use it. I took it with me on to Syracuse where I could garden again. I planted peonies, false indigo, and beach roses (Rosa rugosa) with their pronounced hips and accordion leaves, mulched with piles of downy buckwheat hulls I scrounged from a local mill looking to unload the waste. The poem, “Digging,” I read it later. I don’t remember when. It is itself a little memoir, a little steam powered memory of his father rooting potatoes, his grandfather cutting turf. At its beginning and at its end the poem compares the shovel’s shaft to the barrel of the pen, the concave curve of the blade, the convex curve of the nib, the different (and the same) kind of digging. 

How can we forget cinders, that noncombustible seed inside that lump of coal? The slag, the ash, the waste of it, how can we forget? All that’s left that needs disposal that we are never, never really able to dispose of. After all, this was what was left after all the rest was used up. You can’t incinerate cinders. I am thinking of the ash heaps in The Great Gatsby. I am driving through those wastelands. Back in the day, we found uses for cinders. We fused the soot into concrete blocks. Cinders persist, persistent by design. I remember hollyhocks. I associate that old-fashioned flower with the ash they loved at their feet, their abundant leafy habit hiding the side-dressed dump of cinders near the cellar doors. I think of narrative as a stove, a furnace, a fireplace. The ground situation finds carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in a stable state as fuel (logs, leaves, coal). The spark is the spark that sets the story burning, creating fire and water and steam and smoke. At the end we still have carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen but now permanently rearranged, recombinant, no longer combustible. Air and ash. Residue, a kind of dew. All this residue. I remember cinders paving alleys, gray glassy pellets, tuffs of pea gravel in the tufts of grass. And I ran track (I was a sprinter, if you can believe it) on the compacted beds of cinders lined with lime, I can still hear that particular crunch of feet striking the cinders (the spikes on the shoes, so long, pocking the scum), the way the packed cinders held the right amount of water after a rain and left the rest to drain into the gutters drifted with a fine grayish dust. I just now looked it up. Cramer, a sports medicine company manufacturing athletic liniments and analgesics, still makes Cinder Suds, an aerosol soap to clean wounds. There is no mention of cinders in the copy now as the cinder tracks are all gone but abrasions still occur. Cinders, back then, persisted. I remember after a spill over a hurdle, a slide headlong at the end of botched baton exchange, wiping away the blood to see the tracks of cinders lodged beneath the skin. I remember the scrubbing too with a toothbrush, agitating the lather of the Cinder Suds, digging into the abrasions, cleaning the wounds. And after that, I remember that (even after the skin knit up again, closed over the tear) you never got it all. The debris of a wrong step, a fall. I just now looked, felt, here, sitting at my desk. I ran my hand around my knee, my thigh, searching for the little knot, the cavity, the cluster of specks that never dissolved, a phantom feeling, a sliver of something lost, something found.



Michael Martone's new book is The Complete Writing of Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, Edited by Michael Martone, published by BOA Editions, LTD,. He lives in Tuscaloosa where he recently retired after 40 years of teaching.


  1. The paragraph that begins "One of the things I taught or thought about was the memoir, the way the memoir was thought about, the way it is built." is one of my new favorite paragraphs. Thank you for this essay.