W Is for Wet Concrete
In the corner of the graveyard, not far from his church, Father Wernerus builds a concrete altar with niches. Before the concrete dries, he embellishes it with crushed purple glass, golden tiles. He sees in his designs clusters of grapes, ears of wheat. He imagines visitors who will come, and see, and be stirred, pilgrims who are Catholic and Protestant, carloads of people. He’s making a garden for them.
Before he built the Watts Towers, Sabato Rodia says that he was an itinerant worker. Says that he did a job for Father Wernerus, designed concrete flowerpots, finished the pots with wires and seashells. Says that Wernerus refused to pay him, told him he was laboring for God. Says that he should have gotten his hands on an axe and “chopped that priest.”
Betty Avery moves in with her aunt in Atlanta and looks after her for years. She goes outside to see what she can make. She paints blue and yellow designs on her aunt’s brick house, stripes of robin egg and sunshine. She shelters a Cuban man who has no home, and he busts up the old driveway for her. She adds some of the busted cement and rocks to a stump in the front yard, adds a yellow tire. It’s her first yard sculpture.
Father Wernerus shepherds a parish of German farmers in Dickeyville, Wisconsin: a village with cheese factory, blacksmith shop, three sons who died in the war. He compels the faithful to build a school, to purchase a bell, to remove unwanted trees from the graveyard, and then to give work and money to the shrines he makes from concrete, from broken jars and colorful stones, fossils and corals. He calls it “God’s wonderful material collected from all parts of the world.”
Sabato Rodia enlarges, embellishes, remakes his towers and his life. Instead of diminishing, he unfurls. Maybe he was born in Rivottoli, maybe Rome, maybe in 1875, or 1886. His older brother immigrated, worked in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. When he turned fifteen, Sabato followed his brother, crossed to the far country, and went into the mines. Then there was an accident. I imagine the props buckled, the mules keened, the earth slammed down, crushed the older brother like an olive pit. I imagine Sabato dug through the debris, tried to find light, and blew ash from his hands.
When the legs break off her pink plastic flamingos, Betty Avery puts them on another pile she’s making. She calls it “that big sculpture.” A pile that holds a little bit of everything: a lamp that doesn’t work anymore, tiles, broken mirrors, spray-painted concrete fragments, anything she can’t bring herself to discard, wants to keep.
Marie, Father Wernerus’s elderly cousin and housekeeper, becomes his co-laborer. For five years, she talks about his garden plans with him, moves iron bars and fence wire inside the house they share, brings wooden forms when he’s ready to pour concrete. She fashions the glass rosettes that adorn the Grotto of the Blessed Virgin. Marie’s hands are sore, her fingers bloody from arranging the shards of glass.
Thomas Harrison suggests that Sabato Rodia built the Towers because of trauma and pain, because he wanted to atone for his wild ways. Sabato drank too much, mistreated his wife, deserted his children, took part in knife fights. Sabato survived the mines; his brother did not.
Betty Avery and her husband Billy drive to Treasure Island, where he buys little statues of cowboys and Indians. She arranges his collections in her aunt’s house, covers the living room wall with pictures of people who look like Jesus. In the cracks in the stump outside, Billy sticks some green pinwheels.
Into wet concrete, Father Wernerus presses amethysts, turquoise and unpolished onyx, and crystals. For the Sacred Heart shrine, he perches Jesus on a blue sphere, raises a dome on four glass-encrusted pillars. From the villagers, he collects brooches, pendants, porcelain teacups, figurines, other things they treasure; he adds these to wet concrete.
Sabato Rodia moves to Seattle, then Oakland, then Los Angeles. He works for a builder, listens to mariachi and jazz, guzzles cheap wine, woos and marries women, and sheds each like a sweater that scratches too much. When he’s forty-two—his eyes enflamed, dust in his lungs—he buys a small house, a weedy pie-slice of land near the Red Car tracks in Watts. His home for the next thirty years. I imagine he drinks bootleg gin, and smashes the empties, and piles up the glass-bits in the middle of his lot, a mountain of shine. Over outdoor fires, he heats the glass until it’s molten; he makes new colors, new shapes that he pushes into concrete.
Betty Avery goes to the library, meets the oh-so pleasant man who says he represents her neighborhood. All the houses on her street and the surrounding streets are red brick, two-story, cookie cutter. Your house should look like everybody else’s, he says: he’s warning her.
Several Menominee Indians give arrowheads and axe heads to Father Wernerus. He presses them into another garden wall.
On his lot, Sabato Rodia makes many things from concrete: towers, and ovens, planters, a merry-go-round that doesn’t move, a fish pond, a cactus garden, a gazebo, and a baptism pool. He names all of it Nuestro Pueblo.
The people who run Betty Avery’s city send her a notice in the mail, tell her she must dismantle her sculptures, clean up her yard. She paces in her house, moves too fast, bumps into a wall mirror, shatters it. She sweeps up the mirror pieces, saves them in a box.
Father Wernerus says that his garden is “for God and country.” With donations from his parishioners, from business owners, he buys statues: Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, an eagle of Carrara marble. Over Columbus’s head, he makes an arch of conch shells and abalone shells and broken glass, blue as the sea.
When someone asks why he built the Towers, Sabato Rodia says, “Why does a man make shoes?”
Betty Avery reminds herself that she’s a strong person. People say they’re afraid of her. People ask her to predict their futures. People call her root lady. People call her witch. People call her everything, she says, “everything but a child of God.”
To acquire more materials for his grotto, Father Wernerus goes to river banks and limestone quarries and caves. He knocks stalagmites loose with hammer and chisel.
Charles Mingus remembers seeing Sabato Rodia build the Towers: “He was always changing his ideas while he worked and tearing down what he wasn’t satisfied with and starting over again, so pinnacles tall as a two-story building would rise up and disappear and rise again.”
Betty Avery chips, scours, washes away the blue and yellow paint so that her house will be plain brick, nondescript again. One morning, her sculptures are gone. Her neighbors wonder if her husband loaded them into a truck and drove them to the landfill, or if she’s moved the assorted pieces inside her house.
The parishioners give Father Wernerus money, and household items, and family treasures. Men with trucks bring dirt and rocks. Girls help him by rinsing glass and small rocks in pans of water; some girls help inside his house, where Marie shows them how to press glass rosettes into concrete. Boys shovel foundation holes, move the heavier things. The blacksmith makes iron bars for him. George Splinter sometimes assists him all day.
Sabato Rodia raises towers made of rebar, wire, and concrete; while it is still wet, he stamps the concrete with corncobs and shoes, adorns it with shells, buttons, pebbles, mirror pieces, and broken soda bottles, the brightest shards.
No more dead shrubs, no more busted driveway, no more stump sculpture, no more big sculpture with flamingos on top. Betty Avery works inside her home, hangs more pictures, paints her cabinets. She remembers what her mother told her: if you can’t use your head, you can always use your hands.
As Harris suggests, you might see vernacular architecture, or assembly art, or a pile of junk, or amalgamate sculpture, or pieces of debris.
Imagine a ziggurat, a spire, a midden, a thing made of concrete and glass and mirror, its fragments catching light.
Ƿ, the Letter Wynn
The letter ƿ has vanished from the English alphabet. Named wynn, or wên, or ƿynn, it represented the w sound. Wynn meant joy, delight, pleasure. If you looked further back, maybe you would find a family to return to in the letter wynn. If you scraped away the layers, maybe you’d uncover some tie between wynn-that’s-joy and kin, maybe you’d connect wynn to the German “die Sippe” (meaning the clan) as the medieval literature professor Maureen Halsall does: “all joy appears to have been seen by the Germanic people as having its source within the peaceful bonds of human community.” Maybe there’s kin or a suggestion of kin in every alphabet, syllabary, rune-row. Maybe when you picture kin, you would see yourself reaching for the sewing box that holds your great-grandmother’s letters, stumbling upon a field of timothy grasses you knew as a child and have longed for ever since.
Maybe your joy memories are tied to food memories, cubed steak and gravy, lima beans, orange gelatin beaten into fluff—and that steak beaten too, with the edge of a saucer, taking the toughness out, all that pounding because your grandmother wanted you to taste one of her favorite joys.
After her mother died, Marilyn Nelson traveled to Hickman, Kentucky. In her poem “The House on Moscow Street,” she describes her visit to “a tarpaper-shingled bungalow”—the former residence of her great-grandfather Pomp, her family’s homeplace. She says that seeing it moved her “not to silence but to righteous, praise Jesus song.” Her praise song had catfish in it, and turnip greens, and “hot-water cornbread.” She called “with all her voices,” but the ghosts of her loved ones did not answer her.
Maybe you wish you could journey back to a small house with low ceilings and red linoleum on the kitchen floor and a calendar with calf birthdays, a house you’ve loved all your life and have almost lost now. And you would find it unlocked, and go inside, and smell molasses, or pine oil cleaner, or the dust that lingers in an empty hallway, or potatoes frying on a stove that was no longer there. And you would say to yourself what the poet Maggie Anderson says: “the woods are going to take this home place back one day.”
The wynn (ƿ) was carried over from the alphabet of the old tribes because there was no sign for w in the Roman alphabet. The wynn had been, perhaps continued to suggest, a rune, a magical letter. The literature professor Henry Morley says that the runes were “cast into the air written separately upon chips or spills of wood, to fall as fate determined on a cloth, and then be read by the interpreters.” There’s something like joy that moves me when I look through the wavy-glassed window of an abandoned house, that tosses me like rune chips, and spills me, and lets me spell a new word.
Maybe you would want to bite your tongue, hold yourself like a glass of water that must not slosh over the sides, keep your new word to yourself for a while, wondering if there would be another loved house, wondering what word might come next if you poured out this one too fast.
Maybe you would walk through a wild field you used to know, the grasses high, the sumacs and hawthorns claiming it now, your hands held out as you puzzle through a tangle of brush, through a spill of light, dimmed by needles, by leaves, dogtooth, specks of purple, and you’re taking in the shade, the mossy stones where spring-water seeps from a mouth in the earth, singing a song of clay.
In her poem “The Durrett Farm, West Virginia: A Map,” Irene McKinney listed the things that were falling down on the farm where she had grown up: some of the Sour Russet apple trees, parts of the old house that starlings and wasps had nested in, a shack that saplings had sprouted through, the fences. Her father was declining too. “I began to want… to become my place and be in it,” she wrote. She remembered eating “elderberries, fuzzy sumac, birch bark, wild grape vine, sassafras leaves and bark, may apple, fern roots.”
Ēðel wynn was home joy, what you might feel when you return to your family’s land. Fugles wynn was fowl joy, what a goose feels when its feathers lift it into the sky, when one of those feathers becomes a quill, fillsa calfskin page with marks that look like tracks. There are kinds of joy that can change us, greet us in the place where a ghost should be, stir us until words spill out.
Twenty miles from the Durrett farm, my grandmother’s farm. This might be the last time my son and I visit her in the concrete block house with the wood floors my grandfather made from their own trees. She’s ninety-three, sits near a TV tray, plastic cup, drinking straw. She and my son kick a cloth ball, play keep-away. She’s mostly quiet. In her face there is warmth and light. I ask her a question, but she does not answer, as if some part of her is already in the middle of becoming, taking on a new shape, or tracking through an overgrown meadow, or flying off, lifting into sky.
The story behind the stories:
Natasha Trethewey suggests that poems about the past can “try to tell a fuller version of history, to consider things that might help change the future that we’re headed to, to make a world that is more inclusive, just, and humane than at our present moment.” For a while now, I’ve written poems that are striving for fuller history, for lyric history, trying to listen to and learn from the stories and songs of farmers, miners, millworkers, and laborers–people in Appalachia, the South, and beyond. When I turned from poems to essays, it was partly because I had been listening to (tuning in? visioning?) archaic letters and legendary figures and fading houses and scraps of Middle English, and I was casting about for a form or genre that suited this different kind of listening.
William Woolfitt’s poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in AGNI, Blackbird, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Spring Up Everlasting (Mercer University Press, 2020). His essay collection Eyes Moving Through the Dark is forthcoming from Orison Books.
Both essays were first published in Mount Hope.
Header Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash