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Positively Fourth Street

And beyond: Professor Gordon Osing on poet Gordon Osing.



It's a recent Tuesday, late afternoon, and Gordon Osing, who just turned 69, is set to leave the next day for his mother's funeral. He's bought a new dress jacket, he's got new dentures, and if, as he says by phone, "my voice comes out like I've got castanets in my mouth," he apologizes.

But his voice is clear, no need to apologize to me, who's here to listen in while Osing, on the line, tears through topics close to his heart and much on his mind: his home in north Mississippi and the nearby Delta; Memphis and the University of Memphis, where he's taught creative writing and culture studies for more than 30 years; the poets Emily Dickinson and John Crowe Ransom; the writing life and the "fictive" life; departed parents and the surviving self.

Lofty topics, some of them, to be sure, but the occasion for the call is simple enough: the publication of Osing's new book, Things That Never Happened: Fictions of Family Eros (published by Spuyten Duyvil press), a self-described memoir consisting of nine stories and one novella, all told in blank verse but don't let that keep you. It's verse, according to Osing, that easily accommodates "direct, ordinary, intimate speech," and he effectively uses it (as his model, Peter Taylor, did in In the Miro District) to examine the life he lived on Fourth Street in Springfield, Illinois, as the son of an often absent Lutheran father, who worked as an "auditor" tracking railroad shipments. His formidable Irish Catholic mother, meanwhile, worked to raise (and sometimes put the fear into) her children. The book opens with Osing, in the 1940s, a child haunted by the sight of his mother catching flies and eating them; it closes with Osing, a man accusingly, lovingly in a hundred-page conversation with his ghost of a father.

Between those two poles, we follow the author to a Lutheran boarding school designed to turn boys into seminarians (and from which Osing was kicked out); to Osing in the mid-'50s on the carnival circuit (where he worked and watched as a guy named Mickey did everything but marry a gal named Beulah); to Osing in Memphis in '73 in the erotically charged company of an art student named "Janet"; to Osing in Memphis in '77, "forty and fat and free," in the oddball company of a woman left unnamed; to Osing in '97 on the phone with Walter, a theologically driven friend from school and a certified schizophrenic (or is he a genius?).

True or not, each and every detail, any or all of the above? Or true enough, according to poet Howard Nemerov, whose Journal of the Fictive Life inspired Osing to "narratize" the self, make of one's life a fiction, put order to disorder, to arrive at a greater end: literature?

I don't know. This I know: It took Gordon Osing 20 years to question and compose Things That Never Happened, and I leave it to him, in his closing pages, to do the math and reach a memorable, lasting solution:

"And all I will have to show someday/ will be these words in rows and taken/ together as leaving or adding up to/ everything. Some things more than/ happened. They remain, happening/ still. Only their sum is more than/ they add up to or a difference should leave./ That, in a word, is the trick I do./ For the sake of auditor me, auditor you."

Gordon Osing will read from and sign copies of Things That Never Happened at Burke's Book Store on Friday, March 3rd, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. (reading at 6 p.m.).

In Chasing the Sea (2003), Tom Bissell wrote of the disappearing Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. In God Lives in St. Petersburg (2005), a collection of short stories, Bissell wrote of traveling Americans personally and culturally at sea in Central Asia. Author and expert critic Pankaj Mishra praised that book in The New York Times Book Review. Hear and see for yourself when Tom Bissell reads from his works (booksigning to follow) at Rhodes, inside Frazier Jelke, on Thursday, March 2nd, at 7:30 p.m.

The challenge: how to decorate a room by yourself in two days for next to no money. The possibilities: a shower curtain as window covering; a tutu as lamp shade; or a rug as headboard. For added ideas, go to $500 Room Makeovers (Clarkson Potter) by Lisa Quinn, a native Memphian (now living in Oakland) who went from waiting tables at Automatic Slim's to hosting her own decorating segment on San Francisco TV, this after founding her own interior-design company during the 1990s and serving as a California set designer. On the small screen, Quinn's acted as spokesperson for the furniture giant IKEA and Kelly-Moore Paints. Later this year, she hits the big time: the launch of a line of her own bedroom furnishings for Spiegel catalog. Welcome Quinn back to town when she signs $500 Room Makeovers at Borders on Saturday, March 4th, at 2 p.m.

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