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Plumbing a writer's art

Long after she left her Texas home for a writing career, childhood images used to leap back, whole, into the mind of the late Katherine Anne Porter -- images like the face of her brother Paul, when he discovered a silver dove in the dirt of an empty grave pit he and his sister were exploring. It's moments like these that give vitality and meaning to Katherine Anne Porter: the Eye of Memory (PBS, Monday, July 7, 9-10 p.m., check local listings). Creative artists are notoriously difficult and elusive subjects for biographies and TV shows -- the real action is all internal. But through such visual links, this evocative program -- third in the ``American Masters'' series (with Joanne Woodward as host) on important artists in various media -- manages to convey at least the atmosphere of inspiration and brings the viewer into rewardingly close contact with one of America's great short story writers.

The program successfully performs a rather intricate task: to weave together interviews, glimpses of the landscape itself, narrative, dramatized scenes, and other material in a constantly cross-cutting pattern.

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The liberal use of four friends and fellow writers -- Robert Penn Warren, Eleanor Clark, Peter Taylor, and Eudora Welty -- lends credibility and depth. An important extra dimension is added by comments from Porter's biographer, and especially by the son of Porter's brother Paul, ``one of the few'' people Katherine really trusted,'' according to the son.

The dramatized excerpts are from three short stories -- ``The Witness,'' ``The Circus,'' and ``The Grave'' -- from Porter's series ``The Old Order.'' Set in the central-Texas farming area that she called ``the native land of my heart,'' the scenes sometimes touchingly re-create the people and the life style of that region and show how Miranda -- Katherine's alter ego in the tales -- searched her world in wonder, a free spirit in overalls whom even her matriarchal grandmother couldn't tame.

Porter lost both her mother and grandmother at early points in her life, and these scenes give viewers a glimpse of the ``sense of betrayal'' that Welty says lies behind much of Porter's writing.

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