I never saw the Schmidt Brewery that Patricia Hampl presents here, alive with its reverie-enhancing, rhythmic, red neon sign. But the first time I discovered the hulk of the brewery’s abandoned buildings sprawled out along West Seventh Street in the fall of 2004, I recognized immediately what I was looking at; its vacant structures flooded me with the memory of reading about that flashing sign in Hampl’s acclaimed 1981 memoir, A Romantic Education. Soon the Schmidt site will take on a different look as “developers” trick it out to new purposes—a welcome change. But such is the power of Hampl’s art that, passing this site, I will still “remember” not just that hypnotic red sign I never saw (evoked so powerfully my mind’s eye thinks I have seen it), nor even the horrible accident Hampl’s Uncle Frank suffered there—burned to death in a beer vat—but the whole of all I read in A Romantic Education, including the notion that beauty, as she writes elsewhere in this first of several major prose works, “is broken.” Seeing that new development, whether from high on St. Clair Avenue or driving right past it, I will continue to remember the education I have received from Hampl’s wonderful book.
The place I considered my own, the one I went to for several years to write, to sit, to be a poet, was a park bench in St. Clair Park, not far from our house in St. Paul. I had tried other places at school, including a tiny box of a room almost completely filled by the grand piano on which I was supposed to be practicing. But this was illegal and therefore nerve-racking. I didn’t want to get caught and, being deeply conventional by nature, I did not like my poetry writing to be illicit. In this alone, I was not a romantic.
* * *
From the St. Clair hill I looked down on the West Seventh neighborhood, the name of the area taken from its main street. My park bench was situated so that I saw not only the unremarkable houses of the old neighborhood, but the Schmidt Brewery sign, mounted above the nineteenth-century brick factory, that spelled over and over, like an eternal one-word spelling bee, the name S-C-H-M-I-D-T in neon-red chancel-style letters. I looked down on the old neighborhood as if from an airplane, as if on my way to somewhere more important. I was higher, bigger, more life-size than the toy houses and cars and streets, the miniature twig trees and tiny doll people down there. The only thing approaching my dimension was the brewery itself and its blinking sign. Hypnotized, I watched this sign for hours, for whole seasons. I think I sat there just to watch it.
“We know our own rhythms,” I read years later in Muriel Rukeyser’s book The Life of Poetry. “Our rhythms are more recognizably our selves than any of our forms.” Yes. And once again, as so many times before and later, the Schmidt sign blinked behind my eyes.
The bedrock of poetry is rhythm. Finding one’s “voice” is, essentially, getting to the point where you can say anything. That assurance has everything to do with rhythm, the flow of utterance coming in a familiar, authoritative pattern, lighting its way beat by beat. The Schmidt sign did this. Its repetitive assurance and its intimate knowledge of one thing which, when expressed, illuminated a whole world, found in me a deeply receptive audience. More than an audience—I didn’t sit on my bench, often in cold weather, to be edified. I came to be made sluggish, to be stupefied by that beer mantra, a disciple of silence, a seeker after the power behind the voice.
I liked everything about the sign—the way it was hoisted above the brewery which itself seemed to have been converted from a medieval monastery and whose dull orange brick made an appropriate mounting for the sign. I approved too of the style of the letters: the faint overtones of a typeface not so different from the one in Gutenberg’s Bible suited my literary taste: I was crazy to be literary. The red neon itself was a red both warm with homeliness and slightly hellish. This satanic quality was emphasized by the thick billows of steam that rose from the underworld of the fake-medieval brewery to the fiery crown of the inferno—the sign spelling out in its diadem its bit of intelligence in unbroken meter.
This meter was not tedious; it did not just beat on and on. It had a snap, it lived:
S-C-H-M-I-D-T (letter by letter)
S-C-H-M-I-D-T (one great choral voice)
and so, on and on.
I came almost every day to the park, sat on my bench, and watched this basic life-fact impose itself from the Schmidt Brewery sign, sending out its warm and hellish light in a trance I felt the world might be unaware of but to which it still must be responsive.
This was lyricism. Or was it sentimentality? Only, I think, in the inevitable adolescent reaching for emotional significance. Although my subjects were sentimental (or simply outlandish), my purpose was authentic. Whether a poet is “sentimental” or “difficult,” the voice is a cry whose first allegiance is to the authority of rhythm. And rhythm has nothing to do with “feelings,” sentimental or otherwise. It is possible that this sense of rhythm in language was heightened for me because I was surrounded by two impenetrable languages, the Latin of church and my grandmother’s Czech (though she spoke English too). As an odd result, language, though primarily a means of communication, was also the utterance of things essentially unfathomable. I did not expect the world to make sense: so much of it was consigned to expression in languages I did not know, but whose sound, devoid of meaning, was intimate and reassuring.
Maybe the primacy of rhythm, the longing for it, has to do with the conviction that something is back there, poised behind all that rising lyrical steam. And the beat goes on, the rock lyric said. It goes on because it is an echo of something.
The red neon dealt its familiar flash cards above St. Paul, over my grandmother’s neighborhood, my father’s greenhouse, the little houses where everyone I was related to had lived. But it was more than that. At the heart of this lyrical haze that somehow connected everything (“only connect” Forster said, and I believed that when I read it), there was the nugget of autobiography, of history, that gives force to a detail. It was this: Uncle Frank, my father’s older brother, had been killed under that red sign. It was a freak industrial accident, “before the War,” as everyone said, using that phrase that divided the world in two and separated me from their other half: I was born in 1946, the first year of peace.
I was held by rhythm, entranced as I watched the red letters appear, disappear, reform. My mind moved like lightning and yet was perfectly still. That must be the power of meditation and the appeal of disciplines like Zen. I flew to my sentimental subjects. At the same time I brooded, without knowing it, on the single horror I knew to be mine in some way: Frank, first son of my grandmother, Frank of the dashing mustache, the one who added an e to the end of our name (Frank Hample), who had briefly been a prizefighter (Frankie Campbell), Frank with his antique and therefore fascinating occupation—blacksmith—had burned to death down there in a beer vat, fixing a valve. Someone, not realizing he was there, had turned on the huge, rushing spigots and he had been scalded by boiling water. He lived for three weeks, conscious, knowing it was hopeless.
I watched the reassuring red sign from my bench, thinking I was lost in a daydream, thinking I was possibly inspired. In fact I was lost in death, as if I already knew that it, not my lyrical flights, was the real intimate of poetry.
James McKenzie has published several chapters of his memoir Speaking Over Graves in Notre Dame Review, Western Pennsylvania History, and Whistling Shade. Among the graves he speaks over in this narrative are that of Andrew Posey, a worker thought to have been buried in the sixty-ton ladle of steel that vaporized him in McKenzie’s home of origin, and the grave of poet John Berryman in Mendota Heights, not far from his home of choice now, Saint Paul.
Patricia Hampl’s most recent book The Florist’s Daughter is the winner of numerous awards, including the New York Times’ “100 Notable Books of the Year” and the 2008 Minnesota Book Award for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction. Patricia Hampl first won recognition for A Romantic Education, her memoir about her Czech heritage. A Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota, she was born and bred in Saint Paul.