From Suzanne Wingo’s Poems
Man wonders but God decides
When to kill the Prince of Tides.
Nature Writing in Prince of Tides
“I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. … I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my father’s table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders. As a boy I was happy above the channels, navigating a small boat between the sandbars with their quiet nation of oysters exposed on the brown flats at the low watermark. I knew every shrimper by name, and they knew me and sounded their horns when they passed me fishing in the river.” [p. 1]
“It was my mother who taught me the southern way of the spirit in its most delicate and intimate forms. My mother believed in the dreams of flowers and animals. Before we went to bed at night as small children, she would reveal to us in her storytelling voice that salmon dreamed of mountain passes and the brown faces of grizzlies hovering over clear rapids. Copperheads, she would say, dreamed of placing their fangs in the shinbones of hunters. Ospreys slept with their feathered, plummeting dreamselves screaming through deep, slow-motion dives toward herring. There were the brute wings of owls in the nightmares of ermine, the downwind approach of timber wolves in the night stillness of elk.
“But we never knew about her dreams, for my mother kept us strangers to her own interior life. We knew that bees dreamed of roses, that roses dreamed of the pale hands of florists, and that spiders dreamed of luna moths adhered to silver webs. As her children, we were the trustees of her dazzling evensongs of the imagination, but we did not now that mothers dreamed.
“Each day she would take us into the forest or garden and invent a name for any animal or flower we passed. A monarch became an ‘orchid-kissing blacklegs’; a field of daffodils in April turned into a ‘dance of the butter ladies bonneted.’ With her attentiveness, my mother could turn a walk around the island into a voyage of purest discovery. Her eyes were our keys to the palace of wildness.
. . .
“Melrose Island was a lozenge-shaped piece of land of twelve hundred acres surrounded on four sides by salt rivers and creeks. The island country where I grew up was a fertile, semitropical archipelago that gradually softened up the ocean for the grand surprise of the continent that followed. Melrose was only one of sixty sea islands in Colleton County. At the eastern edge of the county lay six barrier islands shaped by their daily encounters with the Atlantic. The other sea islands, like Melrose, enscarved by vast expanses of marshland, were the green sanctuaries where brown and white shrimp came to spawn in their given seasons. ” p. 2.
“I began to run down the beach. At first it was controlled, patient, but then I started to push myself, letting it out, until I was sprinting, breaking into a sweat, and gasping for air. If I could hurt the body, I would not notice the coming apart of the soul.
“As I ran, I considered the sad decline of flesh. I struggled o increase the speed and remembered how once I was the fastest quarterback in South Carolina. Blond and swift, I would come out of backfields with linemen thundering toward me in slow-footed ecstasy as I turned the corner and stepped toward the amazing noise of crowds, then lowered my head and dazzled myself with instinctive moves that lived in some fast, sweet place within me. But I never wept in high school games. Now I ran heavily, desperately, away from the wife who had taken a lover because I had failed her as lover, away from the sister too quick with blades, away from the mother who did not understand the awful history of mothers and sons. I was running away from the history, I thought–that bitter, outrageous slice of Americana that was my own failed life–or toward a new phase of that history..” p. 26
“It is an art form to hate New York City properly.
“My sister, Savannah, of course, matches my contempt with her own heroic yet perverse allegiance to New York. Even the muggers, drug addicts, winos, and bag ladies, those wounded, limping souls navigating their cheerless passages through the teeming millions, are a major part of the city’s ineffable charm for her.” p. 27
“‘People that like to read are always a little fucked up.’ … ‘Savannah’s living proof that writing poetry and reading books causes brain damage.’ p. 28
. . .
[In the book The Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy illustrates how three siblings have reacted to something terrible that has happened to them. None of the children are dealing with their pain in a healthy way, and none of them are fully facing what has hurt them. Rather, all three of them have assumed a false persona–a facade that defines them. This facade has become associated with the roles that they play in the dynamics of their family].
Tom’s Role in the Family’s Dysfunction [Tom Is the Character Associated with Pat Conroy]
“My designation in the family was normality. I was the balanced child drafted into the ranks for leadership, for coolness under fire, stability. ‘Solid as a rock,’ my mother would describe me to her friends, and I thought the description was perfect. I was courteous, bright, popular, and religious. I was the neutral country, the family Switzerland. I had been married for almost six years, had established my career as teacher and coach, and was living out my life as a mediocre man.” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, pgs. 43-44.
“But it was good to feel the tears try to break through. It was proof I was still alive inside, down deep, where the hurt lay bound and degraded n the cheap, bitter shell of my manhood. My manhood. How I loathed being a man, with its fierce responsibilities, its tally of ceaseless strength, its passionate and stupid bravado. How I hated strength and duty and steadfastness. … Strength was my gift, it was also my act, and I’m sure it’s what will end up killing me.” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, p. 46
Luke’s Role in the Family’s Dysfunction
” Luke had been offered the role of [p. 43] strength and simplicity. He had suffered under the terrible burden of being the least intellectual child. He had made a fetish out of his single-minded sense of justice and constancy. …he was the recipient of my father’s sudden furies, the hurt shepherd who drove the flock to safety before he turned to face the storm of my father’s wrath alone. … He had the soul of a fortress…
Savannah’s Role in the Family’s Dysfunction
“From earliest childhood, Savannah had been chosen to bear the weight of the family’s accumulated psychotic energy. Her luminous sensitivity left her open to the violence and disaffection of our household and we used her to store the bitterness of our mordant chronicle. …. Craziness attacks the softest eyes and gentlest flanks.
. . .
Luke chose to react the way that his mother had reacted and to totally deny that the tragedy had occurred. He pretended or he convinced himself that he had forgotten the incident entirely, but Tom remembers:
[Luke]”‘Mom told us it never happened.’
[Tom]”‘Mom also told us that Dad never beat us. She told us we’re descendants of southern aristocracy. She told us a million things that weren’t true, Luke.’
[Luke]”‘I don’t remember much about that day.’
“I grabbed my brother’s shoulder and pulled him toward me. I whispered brutally in his ear, ‘I remember everything, Luke. I remember every single detail of that day and every single detail of our whole childhood.’
“‘You swore you would never mention that. We all did. It’s best to forget some things. It’s best to forget that.’
. . .
“‘We’ve pretended too much in our family, Luke, and hidden far too much. I think we’re all going to pay a high price for our inability to face the truth.’ ” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, pgs. 42-43;
A failure to face the truth is not a solution to a problem. It damages people in a number of ways:
- Ignoring the Truth Can Result in Numbness
- Ignoring the Truth Can Result in Cynicism
- Ignoring the Truth Can Result in Bitterness
[As the book Prince of Tides begins, Savannah has tried to commit suicide, and at first, it appears that a mutually shared wound has affected her more than it did her brothers who preferred not to deal with the issue. But upon further reading, we realize that Savannah is trying to cope through her writing].
[Tom] “‘I just think the truth is leaking out all over her.’ Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, p. 42
[Luke] “‘She’s crazy because she writes.
[Tom] “‘She’s crazy because of what she has to write about.
. . .
[Luke] “‘She should write about what won’t hurt her, what won’t draw out the dogs.’
Tom] “‘She has to write about them, That’s where the poetry comes from. Without them, there’s no poetry.’” p. 43
From Savannah’s Poems
[This passage describes writing and how words are working within Suzanne]
My navies advance through the language,
destroyers ablaze in high seas.
I soften the island for landings.
With words, I enlist a dark army.
My poems are my war with the world.
I blaze with a deep southern magic.
The bombardiers taxi at noon.
There is screaming and grief in the mansions
and the moon is a heron on fire. Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, p. 47
Denial and Masked Words
[When Tom first meets with Dr. Lowenstein, he is cynical, in an angry sort of way. Instead of answering Lowenstein’s questions, he makes jokes out of them].
“‘I cannot help your sister if you only answer my questions with jokes or riddles.'” p. 52
In the book The Prince of Tides, generations of Wingos had not listened to their inner warnings. For one reason or another, they had stuffed and suppressed their feelings, and the entire family was ill. Too often, families never move from their frozenness, their numbness, their cynicism, and their bitterness, and they refuse to listen to the reasons why they are angry and they do not allow the anger to move them to another, healing level. But by the end of chapter 3, Tom Wingo dared to take the next step:
“And then the pain summoned me. It came like a pillar of fire behind my eyes. It struck suddenly and hard
“In the perfect stillness, I shut my eyes and lay in the darkness and made a vow to change my life.” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, p. 63.
In chapter 4, two stories twine around each other. While Tom and Savannah Wingo are being born during a South Carolina storm, their father is wounded in Germany. A German priest helps the father and brings him food. The father describes the food:
“Years later, my father would describe with undiminishable wonder the taste of that dark German bread, that slab of precious, hoarded butter smeared across that bread, and the red wine the priest gave him from the bottle. … all of us could taste it again with him, the wine spreading like velvet in our mouths, the bread, fragrant as earth, softening and melting on the tongue, the butter coating the roofs of our mouths….” p. 71
Healing Through Remembering
[Tom begins to remember his past. Initially, he remembers to help explain Savannah’s problems, but gradually, he remembers as a means to help himself].
“After the first week, there came to be a shape and character to all those New York summer days–those introspective, confessional days when I spun out the history of y dispirited, sorrow-struck family to Savannah’s lovely psychiatrist whose job it was to repair the damage sustained by one member of that family.
“The story grew slowly and as it unfolded I began to feel an interior strength flicker into life. …and each day startled myself with some clear vision of memory I had repressed or forgotten. … Each memory led to another and another until my head blazed with small intricate geometries of illumination.” p. 84.
. . .
“In stillness, I started to keep a journal…. At first, I concentrated only on what was essential to Savannah’s story, but I kept returning to myself, able to tell the story only through y own eyes. I had no right or credibility to interpret the world through her eyes. The best I could do for my sister would be to tell my own story as honestly as I could.
. . .
“But first there had to be a time of renewal, time to master a fresh approach to self-scrutiny. I had lost nearly thirty-seven years to the image I carried of myself. I had ambushed myself by believing, to the letter, my parents’definition of me. They had defined me early on, coined me like a word they had translated on some mysterious hieroglyph, and I had spent my life coming to terms with that specious coinage. My parents had succeeded in making me a stranger to myself. … I allowed them to knead and shape me into the smooth lineaments of their non-pareil child. I adhered to the measurements of their vision. They whistled and I danced like a spaniel in their yard. They wanted a courteous boy and the old southern courtesies flowed out of me in a ceaseless flood. They longed for a stable twin, a pillar of sanity to balance the family structure after they realized Savannah was always going to be their secret shame, their unabsolvable crime. They [p.85]succeeded not only in making me normal but also in making me dull. … I longed for their approval, their applause, their pure uncomplicated love for me, and I looked for it years after I realized they were not even capable of letting me have it. … I needed to reconnect to something I had lost. Somewhere I had lost touch with the kind of man I had the potential of being. I needed to effect a reconciliation with that unborn man and try to coax him gently toward his maturity.
. . .
“I was not comfortable with anyone who was not disapproving of me. No matter how ardently I strove to attain their impossibly high standards for me, I could never do anything entirely right and so I grew accustomed to that climate of inevitable failure. I hated my other, so I got back at her by giving my wife her role. In Sallie, I had formed the woman who would be a subtle, more cunning version of my own mother. Like my mother, my wife had come to feel slightly ashamed of and disappointed in me.
. . .
“Though I hated my father, I expressed that hatred eloquently by imitating his life, by becoming more and more ineffectual daily, by ratifying all the cheerless prophecies my other made for both my father and me. I thought I had succeeded in not becoming a violent man, but even that belief collapsed: My violence was subterranean, unbeheld. It was my silence, my long withdrawals, that I had turned into dangerous things. My viciousness manifested itself in the terrible winter of blue eyes. My wounded stare could bring an ice age into the sunniest, balmiest afternoon. I was about to be thirty-seven years old, and with some aptitude and a little natural ability, I had figured out how to live a perfectly meaningless life, but one that could imperceptibly and inevitably destroy the lives of those around me.
“So I looked to this surprise summer of freedom as a last chance to [p. 86] take my full measure man, a troubled interregnum before I ventured into the pitfalls and ceremonials of middle age, I wanted, by an act of conscious will, to make it a time of reckoning and, if I was lucky, a time of healing and reconstitution of an eclipsed spirit.
“Through the procedure of remembrance, I would try to heal myself, to gather up the strength I would need to manifest as I guided Dr. Lowenstein along the declivities and versants of the past.” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, pgs. 84-87.
“Behind the house, a large deciduous forest, circumvallated by a low stone fence, stretched al the way to Briarcliff Road. Thre were ‘No Trespassing’ signs posted along the fence at thousand-foot intervals. Our grandmother informed us in a breathless, conspiratorial voice that ‘very, very rich people’ lived in the property and that under no circumstances were we ever to cross the fence to play in those verboten woods. This was the Candler family, the heirs of Coca-Cola….
“But we would approach that fence after school each day, that deep-green perfumed realm forbidden to us, and smell the money coming through the trees. We longed to glimpse a single member of that noble and enchanted family. But we were children and soon we were climbing the fence and taking a few forbidden steps into the forest, often racing back to the safety of the stone wall. …Slowly , we began to demythologize the outlawed woods. Soon we knew the acreage of that forest better than any Candler ever had. We learned its secrets and boundaries, hid in its groves and arbors, and felt the old thrill of disobedience buoyant in young hearts gallant enough to ignore the strange laws of adults. Surrounded by trees, we hunted squirrels with slingshots, watched from the high branches of trees the lucky Candler children, looking serious and [p. 107] bored, cantering thoroughbreds down forest paths….
“The house was known as Callanwolde.
. . .
“We built a treehouse in one of Callanwolde’s extravagant oaks. … Quails called to us at dusk. A family of gray foxes lived beneath an uprooted cottonwood. We would come to the forest to remember who we were, what we had come from, and where we would be returning.
. . .
“It was early March and the dogwoods were just beginning to bloom. The whole earth shivered with the green tumult of ripening sun-soft days, and we were walking through the woods, looking for box turtles. [p. 108] Savannah saw him first. She froze and pointed at something ahead of us.
“He was standing beside a tree covered with poison sumac, relieving himself. He was the largest, most powerful man I had ever seen, and I had grown up with men of legendary strength who worked around the shrimp docks in Colleton. He grew out of the earth like some fantastic, grotesque tree. His body was thick, marvelous, and colossal. His eyes were blue and vacant. A red beard covered his face, but there was something wrong about him. It was the way he looked at us, far different from the way adults normally studied chidren, that altered us to danger. The three of us felt the menace in his disengaged stare. His eyes did not seem connected to anything human. He zipped up his pants and turned toward us. He was almost seven feet tall. We ran.
“We made it to the stone fence, clambered over it, and ran screaming into our back yard. When we reached the back porch, we saw him standing at the edge of the woods, observing us. The fence we had to climb over barely came to his waist. My mother came out of the back door when she heard our screams. We pointed toward the man in the woods.” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, pgs. 107-109.
Grandpa Wingo – Character Development Through Memorabilia
“Savannnah was the first person who ever said aloud that Grandpa Wingo was crazy.
“But it was a sweet, uncomplicated craziness if that is what it was.” p. 130
“Along the back roads of the rural South, he carried one suitcase filed with his clothing and his barbering tools and another, larger one, brimming with Bibles of all shapes and sizes. The least expensive Bibles were small, black, and utilitarian, the size of children’s shoes. But their print was small and could induce myopia if read too fervently in bad light. He considered it his duty to push the showier lines. The Cadillac of Bibles was one of dyed, milky white Naugahyde with gold tassels to use as page markers. It was sumptuously illustrated by the Biblical paintings of ‘The Great Masters.’ But the crowing glory of this radiant voume was that the spoken words of Jesus of Nazareth were printed in vivid red ink. These most expensive Bibles were invariably snatced up by the poorest families, who purchased them on a generous time-payment plan. In my grandfather’s wake, poor Christians would often have to make the difficult choice between paying the monthly tariff for their flashy white Bible or putting food on their table. ,,. he would never bring himself to repossess a Bible once he had filled out for free the family chronology in the Middle of the book. He believed that no family could feel truly secure or American until they were all named up in a decent Bible where Jesus spoke in red.
. . .
“As a salesman of Bibles, my grandmother became something of a legend in the small-town South. He would hit a mill village or a crossroads town and start going door to door. If a family was no in need of a Bible, then someone in that family was probably in need of a haircut. He would cut a whole family of hair at a group rate. … He spoke of the life of Christ above the razor’s hum and the dense clouds of talcum as he brushed the falling hair fro the necks of squirming boys and girls.” p. 131.
Inherited Family Dysfunction
[Note: Grandpa Wingo’s wife had abandoned her husband and child when the boy was young. She returned years later, but Tom Wingo’s father was raised by a single father, the traveling salesman Grandpa Wingo]
“But as a traveling salesman whose territory covered five southern states, my grandfather often left my father in the lackadaisical. inconsistent care of maids, cousins, maiden aunts, or whomever Amos could rustle up to care for his son. For very different reasons, neither of my grandparents ever got around to the fundamental business of raising their one child. There was something unsponsored, even unreconcilable, about my father’s quarrel with the world. His childhood had been a sanctioned debacle of neglect, and y grandparents were the pale, unindictable executors of my father’s violations against his own children.
“My grandparents were like two mismatched children and their house retained some flavor of both sanctuary and kindergarten for me. When they spoke to each other it was with the deepest civility. There were no real conversations between them; no light, bantering moments, no hints of flirtation, no exchange of gossip. They never seemed to be living together, even after my grandmother’s return. Nothing human interfered with their unexplained affection for each other. I studied their relationship with something approaching awe because I could not figure out what made it work. I felt love between these two people but it was a love without flame or passion. There were no rancors or fevers, no risings or ebbings of the spirit to chart, just a marriage without weather, a stillness, a resignation, just windless days in the Gulf Stream of their quiet aging.
. . .
“I never heard Toalitha or Amos raise their voice. They never spanked us and were almost apologetic when they corrected us in the slightest way. Yet the had created the man who fathered me, who beat me, who beat my mother, who beat my brother and sister, and I could find no explanation or clue in my grandparents’ house. … My mother forbade us to tell anyone outside the family that my father hit any of us. She put the highest premium on what [p. 132] she called ‘family loyalty’ and would tolerate no behavior that struck her as betrayal or sedition. We were not allowed to criticize our father or to complain about his treatment of us. He knocked my brother Luke unconscious three times before Luke was ten. Luke was always the first target, the face he turned to always. My mother was usually hit when she tried to intervene on uke’s behalf. Savannah and I were struck when we tried to pull him off my mother. A cycle was born, accidental and deadly.
“I lived out my childhood thinking my father would one day kill me
“But I dwelt in a world where nothing was explained to children except the supremacy of the concept of loyalty.
“I learned from my mother that loyalty was the pretty face one wore when you based your whole life on a series of egregious lies.
“…I had prayed for God to destroy him….My prayers buried him up o his neck in the marsh flats as I prayed to the moon to make the ocean surge over him, watched the crabs swarm over his face, going for his eyes I learned t kill with my prayers, learned to hate when I should have been praising God. … Whenever I killed a deer, it was my father’s face beneath the rack of horns; it was my father’s heart I cut out and held aloft to the trees; it was my father’s body I strung up and emptied of viscera. I turned myself into something heinous, a crime against nature, … My mother taught us that it was the highest form of loyalty to [p. 133] cover our wounds and smile at the blood we saw in our mirrors,” p. 134
. . .
“If your parents disapprove of you and are cunning with their disapproval, there will never come a new dawn when you can become convinced of your own value. There is no fixing a damaged childhood. The best you can hope for is to make the sucker float. p. 134.
Pat Conroy on New York City
“It is an art form to hate New York City properly. So far I have always been a featherweight debunker of New York; it takes too much energy and endurance to record the infinite number of ways the city offends me. Were I to list them all, I would full up a book the size of the Manhattan yellow pages, and that would merely the prologue. Every time I submit myself to the snubs and indignities of that swaggering city and set myself adrift among the prodigious crowds, a feeling of displacement, profound and enervating, takes me over, killing all the coded cells of my hard-won singularity. The city marks my soul with a most profane, indelible graffiti. There is too much of too much there. On every visit I find myself standing on the piers, watching the splendid Hudson River flooding by and the noise of the city to my back, and I know what no New Yorker I’ve ever met knows: that this island was once surrounded by deep, extraordinary marshes and estuaries, that an entire complex civilization of a salt marsh lies buried beneath the stone avenues. I do not like cities that dishonor their own marshes.
“My sister, Savannah, of course matches my contempt with her own heroic yet perverse allegiance to New York. Even the muggers, drug addicts, winos, and bag ladies, those wounded, limping souls navigating their cheerless passages through the teeming millions, are a major part of the city’s ineffable charm for her. It is these damaged birds of paradise, burnt out and sneaking past the mean alleys, that define the city’s most extreme limits for her. She finds beauty in these extremities. She carries in her breast an unshakable fealty to all these damaged veterans who survive New York on the fringes, lawless and without hope, gifted in the black arts. They are the city’s theater for her. She has written about them in her poetry; she has learned some of the black arts herself and knows well their ruined acreage.” p. 27
“Savannah knew she wanted to be a New Yorker long before she knew she wanted to write poetry. She was one of those southerners who were aware from an early age that the South could never be more for them than a fragrant prison administered by a collective of loving but treacherous relatives.” p. 28
. . . .
“It was not until my second week in the city that I developed the first unmistakable symptoms of the New York willies. I always felt an ineluctable guilt when I was just taking it easy in New York when all those grand museums, libraries, plays, concerts, and that whole vast infinitude of cultural opportunities beckoned me with promises of enrichment. I began to have trouble sleeping and felt as if I should be reading the complete works of Proust or learning a foreign language or rolling out my own pasta or taking a course at the New School on the history of film. The city always stimulated some long-dormant gland of self-improvement when I crossed her rivers. I would never feel good enough for New York, but I would always feel better if I was at least taking steps to measure up to her eminent standards.
“When I couldn’t sleep, when the noise of postmidnight traffic proved too dissonant or the past rose up like a pillaged city in the displaced instancy of dreaming, I would rise out of my sister’s bed and dress in the darkness. On my first morning in New York, I had tried to jog to Brooklyn but had only made it to the Bowery, where I stepped over the recumbent shapes of malodorous bums who slept in the vestibules of lamp shops on a street overripe with sconces and chandeliers. ” p. 135
Catholics in the South
“Until 1953 my family were the only Catholics in the town of Colleton. My father’s wartime conversion, the one radical act of the spirit in his lifetime, was a perilous and invigorating voyage on weedy, doctrinal seas. My mother accepted her own conversion without a word of protest. … And such was the nature of my mother’s naivetè that she thought her conversion to Catholicism would mean an automatic rise in her social prestige. She would learn, slowly and painfully, [p. 142] that there is nothing stranger or more alien in the American South than a Roman Catholic.
. . .
“But though the feasted on that succulent corpus of dogma whole hog, they they remained hard-shell Baptists masquerading under the veils and gauderies of an overripe theology.” p. 143