Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Jayne Anne Phillips Reading from Lark and Termite

The Ransom Center recently acquired the papers of American novelist Jayne Anne Phillips.

Phillips has published six novels and story collections over the last three decades. Her most recent work is Lark and Termite (2009), which explores the effects of the Korean War on a soldier and his family back home.

Known for her poetic prose and her in-depth study of family dynamics, Phillips has received critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Phillips is professor of English and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University, Newark.

Phillips visited the Ransom Center and recorded a reading of Lark and Termite.

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JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS: So I'm going to read about 5 minutes from Lark and Termite. And I'm going to read a very short piece from Lark's first section of the book in which she's describing the long piece of blue plastic that they call Termite's ribbons. It's actually a piece of a blue plastic dry cleaner bag that's cut to a certain size, and he loves to hold it up and look through it. So this is Lark's voice. She's his 17-year-old half sister.


I tell Termite, "Today could be a birthday. You come inside with me while I mix a cake, and you can hold the radio. You can turn the dials around, OK?"

Dials around OK. I can almost answer for him. But I don't. And he doesn't, because he doesn't want to come inside. I can feel him holding still; he wants to sit here. He puts his hand up to his face, to his forehead, as though he's holding one of the strips of blue plastic Nonie calls ribbons: that's what he wants. "There's no wind, Termite, no air at all," I tell him. He blows with his lips, short sighs.

So I move his chair back from the alley a bit and I go inside and get the ribbon, a strip of a blue plastic dry-cleaner bag about four inches wide and two feet long. It's too small to get tangled and anyway we watch him; I take it out to him and wrap it around his hand twice and he holds it with his fingers curled, up to his face, to his forehead. "I'll get dressed and clean up the kitchen," I tell him, "but when I make the cake, you're going to have to come inside, OK?"

He casts his eyes sideways at me. That means he agrees, but he's thinking about the blue, that strip of space he can move.

"Termite," I tell him, "I'm going back in."

Back in, back in, back in. I hear him as I walk away, and now he'll be silent as a breather, quiet as long as I let him be.


JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS: And this is from Termite's first section of the book:


Termite
Winfield, West Virginia
July 26, 1959

He sees through the blue and it goes away, he sees through the blue and it goes away again. He breathes, blowing just high. The blue moves but not too much, the blue moves and stays blue and moves. He can see into the sky where there are no shapes. The shapes that move around him are big, colliding and joining and going apart. They're the warm feel of what he hears and smells next to him, of those who hold and move and touch and lift him, saying these curls get so tangled, wipe off his hands, Lark, there's Termite. He sings back to keep them away or draw them near. That's all he'll say, he won't tell and tell. Lark bends over him and her hair falls along his neck and shoulders, her hair moves and breathes over his back and chest in a dark curtain that falls and falls. Her hair smells of flowers that have dried, like the handful of rose petals he grasped until they were soft and damp. Lark names the flowers, and he says the sounds but the sounds are not the flowers. Pictures that touch him move and change, they lift and turn, stutter their edges and blur into one another. Their colors fall apart and are never still long enough for him to see, but the pictures inside him hold still. He sees them without trying. It's how Lark sees everything, everywhere they go. She couldn't walk and run so fast and be so sure through his moving colors, his dark that blurs. But she can't hear what he hears. He listens hard to tell. She never knows what's coming but he can't say and say.

Lark says feel your soft blue shirt want to wear this? She says hold the crayon it's green as grass is green. She says listen to the radio even if it's not so loud as you like. She says eat your toast while it's hot and she gives him toast, thick and warm and buttery in his hand with the blue jam on the knife like the farmer's wife. The knife comes and goes across the plates. The table holds the pouring and crashing and banging while Nonie walks hard and fast in and out of the kitchen in her white shoes. Her legs swish every step and he can hear her stepping room to room to room. No matter where she is, he can hear and he puts his head on the table to hear the sound alone through the wood without all the other sounds. But she picks him up, one strong arm around his chest and the other bent for the seat under him she calls his throne. They move fast, thudding across the floor out the door onto the ground where the sound goes hollow and deep.

The porch door bangs.

All the while he can hear Elise's car roll its big wheels closer until it turns roaring into the alley but Nonie puts him in his chair. She brushes his hair back with her two broad hands while the car throbs in the narrow tracks of the alley, crushing gravel to rattles and slides and bleating loud. He calls and calls and he wants to go but Nonie goes. Under the motor sound he hears the car take her weight, a sigh before the door slams. The car roars away down the stones onto the smooth pavement and goes until it's gone. There's a shape in the air where the car was. He feels the shape hold still until it begins to end. Slowly the air comes back. The grass begins small sounds.