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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 13, 2011
Plumbing the depths of Earth and soul with poetry, Michael Nardacci listens to ghosts of a lost explorerBy Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Intrigued by mystery, Michael Nardacci explores to find answers. Then he writes from experience.
Nardacci, now in his sixties, has long straddled the world between literature and science. He taught earth science for years at Christian Brothers Academy and now teaches English at Hudson Valley Community College.
On Oct. 26, just before Halloween, he’ll be reading a three-part lengthy narrative poem at the Guilderland Public Library, “Ghosts of Floyd Collins,” that was recently published in the National Speleological Society News.
His poem tells the story of a young man who lived on a farm in Flint Ridge, Kentucky and loved to explore the cave beneath the land he named it Crystal Cave for the delicate gypsum formations that looked like flowers. His cave is connected to Mammoth Cave, which is now known to be the world’s largest; over 390 miles of it have been explored.
In January 1925, Collins got trapped in Crystal Cave and failed attempts to save him garnered worldwide attention. Nardacci wrote a lengthy account of the cave for his Back Roads Geology column in The Enterprise, focusing on scientific aspects of Mammoth during his recent trip to the cave with Arthur and Peg Palmer, world-renowned cavers and scientists.
His poem, though, features the otherworldly.
“I wanted to capture the mystique of caving, the awe of it,” said Nardacci. “Mammoth Cave is so big, no one will see all of it…Like the universe itself, no one will see all of it.”
Since his childhood, Nardacci has been interested in caves, in superstitions, and in writing. The three come together in his poem.
At age 4, he visited Howe Caverns and felt like he was coming home. “My parents,” he said of his father, an Albany dermatologist, and his mother, a nurse, “were absolutely uninterested in caves.”
But, for Nardacci, it sparked a lifelong fascination. “They’re mysterious. You get a feeling of going places no one has been before,” he said. Cavers often liken it to traveling to another planet. “It’s easy to get lost if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Nardacci started writing short stories and poems when he was 6 or 7. “I still have a ghost story I wrote when I was 8,” he said, concluding simply, “I like words.”
His early ghost story foretold of writing to come. After graduating from Vincentian Institute, he went to Siena College where he majored in English, which came easily to him. He went on for a Ph.D. at New York University. “I thought I’d be a playwright,” said Nardacci.
At Siena, as co-editor of the literary magazine, he had written to Edward Albee and was granted an interview. Albee talked for two hours. “He really opened up,” Nardacci recalled; he has been in touch with Albee “on and off” since then. “He said it was the best interview he’d ever given.”
Recently, Nardacci sent Albee a poem he wrote about a trip to the Grand Canyon, and Albee sent back some suggestions.
Nardacci is currently working on a play about the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, the husband of Nefertiti. “He was the first to believe in a single god and messed up Egypt trying to convert people,” Nardacci said.
Because later pharaohs wanted to expunge Akhenaten from Egyptian history, just a few scraps remain, which have been interpreted in vastly different ways. Some have viewed him as a religious reformer like Moses and others see him as a crazy lunatic, said Nardacci. “I’m trying to tell the story of what happened to him,” said Nardacci. “Each scene is introduced by someone like a college professor or a psychologist with the most recent interpretation of his character.”
He’d like to produce the play. “Some of it is quite funny…looking at the absurdity of people trying to judge someone who died 3,500 years ago based on just a few artifacts.”
Nardacci concluded, “It’s been said historical plays are not about when they took place but rather about the times in which they were written.”
The supernatural has had a part in his writing since he was 8. Nardacci wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Shirley Jackson, best known for her short story, “The Lottery”; one of her books, The Haunting of Hill House, was made into movie.
Nardacci, a Catholic, said, “You don’t believe in ghosts without an afterlife.”
He has written a long novel, a ghost story set in the Helderbergs, based on a house in New Salem, said to be haunted. The subject found him when he was a teacher at Vincentian Institute, before it closed. He wanted his students to do a paper on local folklore. Two of them asked to interview a woman about the house with the tower in New Salem, reputed to be haunted.
Nardacci left a message for her. Three hours later, she came to the school “in tears, pleading,” and said it was not a good idea for kids to be looking into it, he recalled. “She told me stories revolving around the spirit of a little boy who died in the house.”
He started gathering other stories about local haunted houses and wrote his novel about a psychic who wrote a book on hauntings. “Her book is contained in my book. The ghost of the little boy tells part of the stories,” said Nardacci. “One of the characters is being possessed. The two main narrators are the husband and wife, but the child starts taking it over.”
Asked how his scientific background fit with his interest in the supernatural, Nardacci said, “I’m not sure it’s reconcilable.” He went on, indicating his stance on evolution over creationism, “I have no doubt the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, not 6,000.” But what piques his interest is “the element of the unexplainable.” He said, “It’s that fascinating unknown.”
Nardacci believes his interest in ghosts begins with his roots. One side of his family is Irish, the other is Italian. “A lot of the Irish believe in ghosts the way we do in traffic lights,” said Nardacci. “The Italians are superstitious.”
Some Italians, he said, refer to Malocchio, the evil eye, and wear a medallion with a fist to ward off the evil eye. “I grew up hearing people talk about it,” said Nardacci, concluding, “I don’t know if I believe in ghosts, but I’m fascinated by people who do.”
“Ghosts of Floyd Collins”
Nardacci wrote his poem’s first part, “Death in the Darkness,” eight years ago. It tells of the 13 “days of night” that Collins spent trapped in the cave till he died of starvation and exposure.
“Listen to the thunder of a Kentucky midnight,” the poem begins, “As across the weedy, tick-ridden, once-farmed fields/ The wind exhales, humid as a rattler’s hiss;/ Sassafras and oaks, as old, some, as Daniel Boone./ Bend and squeak under starless clouds,/ Their gnarly roots anchored in sandy soil/ Made fertile by the ashes of slaves and pioneers;/ And under the fields the limestone,/Where only groundwater gone to acid moves freely/Dissolving halls and dungeons in the dark.”
The third-person narrative voice is interrupted periodically by the voices of various locals, including Collins, speaking in dialect: “A poor dirt farmer got no cause to leave his kin/Up top Flint Ridge, and go down traipsin’/round them caves where a Christian don’t belong….”
Nardacci reads these passages as if he were an actor, performing a part on stage.
“I’ve always been interested in dialect,” he said. “Living in New York City, I loved to hear people talk. They could tell the difference between Brooklyn, Queens, and Jersey.” Of the local voices in his poem, he said, “The dialect in central Kentucky is real Appalachian…Sometimes when I’m talking to people down there, speaking to farmers, I have a hard time understanding what they’re saying.”
The poem’s second part, “Encounters,” is the longest and most involved. Broken into three sections, each gives a first-person account of a surreal experience in Crystal Cave. The first, Nardacci said, is based both on a story he heard and on a real-life experience the Palmers had while doing research in the cave.
Deep in the cave, the scientists hear a sound for which there is no explanation “not a flickering or a fluttering/Like the sound of a tiny bird, in panic or fear:/But a slow, measured beat like a hawk or an eagle,/Moving inward then outward, deliberate and strong.”
Then, the pair separates to carry out their research. The narrator is working in a cramped alcove when he hears “something under or over the plash/Of cold cavern waters and the scratch of my pen:/Not quite subliminal, but far-away faint./It sounded like tapping or pounding of drums….”
He figures it must be the beat of his heart, somehow magnified, but, taking his pulse, discovers it isn’t the same pattern that booms in his ears.
The other encounters are based on stories Nardacci has heard one of a surveyor staying at the Collinses’ old farmhouse, and the other based on the few broad strokes of a tale about a native who, as an old man, heard Collins speak to him through his long-deaf ear.
Cody ’n’ Me tells the story of two boys who grew up exploring the cave and return as old men. “I was down there and I suddenly realized, if they grew up there, they would have a different experience than a scientist,” said Nardacci. “I also wanted to bring in positive aspects, the good times, and yet they talk about the mystery of it…a 200-foot drop, it’s very eerie to hear a pebble fall and fall and fall.”
He went on, “You hear of hauntings…People have been going in there for 4,000 years. Paleo Indians had torches made of cane.” These remnants, now carbon dated, were found a mile or two into the cave, where the Indians were probably mining crystals. “You find gourds for water, sandals, bits of food,” said Nardacci.
The poem’s final section, called “Dawn,” is its shortest. It returns to the third-person narrative voice of the poem’s opening and concludes, “The blackness is not silent, nor will it ever be…”
Learning by doing
Throughout, the poem is informed by Nardacci’s personal experience of exploring the cave, and is grounded in the science he has studied over the years.
Nardacci is an adventurer who explores in order to understand, and teach others. He loves teaching, especially science. “It’s amazing how little kids know about how the universe is put together,” he said.
“I’ve hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon three times and rafted it once,” he said.
On one of his trips, Nardacci talked to a ranger who did a poll and found the average time tourists spend looking at the Grand Canyon is 15 minutes; then they head to the gift shop.
“The rock you’re walking on is half the age of the Earth, giving you a sense of the mystery of it,” he said of visiting the Grand Canyon. “Why is it there? Ask 10 different geologists and you’ll get 10 different answers.”
Nardacci used to tell his high-school students that looking at the Manhattan skyline from New Jersey and taking a picture doesn’t mean that you’ve seen New York City. “You haven’t been to Times Square; you haven’t been to Broadway or the Bowery,” he’d tell them; that’s like saying you’ve been to the Grand Canyon by taking a picture from its rim.
“It’s another world…a fascinating world out there,” said Nardacci. “On TV, ghosts are really, really dumb,” he said, naming some modern television programming that irritates him. “It’s nonsense….So much is genuine scientific mystery.”
Nardacci has been to the Canadian Rockies six times and climbed on glaciers there. “In New York State, we had glaciers and we can see the evidence,” he said. “To actually see and climb on them…it’s a mystical feeling to be there, hanging on a rope.”
Outside of the classroom, Nardacci shares what he’s learned through his writing. He enjoys it when people read his Back Roads Geology column and tell him, “You made me feel like I was there.”
His poem on Floyd Collins’s cave is very different than the descriptive column he wrote for the Aug. 25, 2011 Enterprise, and Nardacci relishes reading the poem out loud.
His father’s parents came to America from Italy and spoke English with an Italian dialect, which was like poetry to Nardacci. His grandmother, from Sicily, had several favorite TV shows in America; one of them starred Groucho Marx. She said his name Mazha Grocklo.
Nardacci chuckles warmly at the memory.
He likes the mystique of the theater. “I’d like to be a playwright,” he said. “I like the sound of the human voice.”
Reading a poem out loud brings it to life, he said. “You can look at sheet music for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony but nothing will beat playing it; you can read Shakespeare but nothing equals seeing it on stage,” said Nardacci. “It’s much more alive…It’s a whole different experience…I must be a frustrated actor. That’s probably why I became a teacher.”
He concluded of “Ghosts of Floyd Collins”: “I thought of this as a theater piece…I like to read it aloud.”
Michael Nardacci will read his poem at the Guilderland Public Library, at 2228 Western Ave. on Tuesday, Oct. 25. The session will start at 7 p.m. with an introduction about Mammoth Cave. Then Nardacci will read his poem, “Ghosts of Floyd Collins.” Admission is free and the public is invited.