Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Great Writer is Set to Return - Trust Me, You Ain't Ready

I may be the only one doing this, but I'm taking special note of the date February 14, 2006. I'm not talking about Valentine's Day, although I will celebrate mine and be grateful for it. I'm talking about the valentine that fans of serious literature are going to receive in the form of a new novel from one of the very best, and certainly the most under-lauded, writers in America today. The writer is Stephen Wright, and the new novel is The Amalgamation Polka. Mark this down: this novel WILL be the subject for a blog posting here in the future, as its author is right now. I was fortunate enough to study with Wright when I was getting my MFA at The New School, and he served as the mentor for my thesis project. I'm still working on my skills, but I'm very fortunate to have worked with such a fine writer.

I have been gathering materials rapidly in an attempt to research a nonfiction piece about Wright, which is not going to be an easy project, but I feel like I want to take a shot at it. Stephen Wright is very little known among most readers as far as I can tell, yet his three novels all register among my favorites and are certainly among the best literature this country has to offer in the last 75 years. It's a tragedy that so few people have consumed his work in the past, compared to celebrated literary heavyweights like Don Delillo, T.C. Boyle, Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, and those types. Some of those writers I like, all of them I respect; what I'd like to submit is that Wright belongs in their league, if not beyond it.

If you don't buy that, try reading his stuff. But I don't advise it if you're weak of heart, squeamish, or easily offended by honest portrayals of this country and the culture of madness we've created through the 20th century and into this one. Wright will not coddle his readers. You should not, alas, feel good when you finish one of his books (except, perhaps, if you experience a renewed belief in the possibility of great writing in the American canon) if you are a citizen of this country. America, ultimately, is under his intelligent scrutiny in all three books, even though their subjects at first seem radically different.

Wright's first novel, 1983's Meditations in Green, is a sui generis examination of the tragic mess that was the Vietnam War as it slouched towards its end, sometime around 1970. Based on Wright's own experience as an intelligence analyst in the war, it takes a broad view of the conflict from the perspective of the distance required in intelligence work, from which anything can seem casual, inconsequential and remote. Detachment is a key theme in the work, as Griffin, Wright's protagonist, attempts to find ways to endure the madness of the war itself, in flashbacks, and the post-war adjustment to civilian life in urban squalor. Through drugs, hallucinations, and mental gymnastics, Griffin navigates his way through the foggy, cold-hearted veteran's existence while grappling with increased disorientation and despair. Wright's use of metaphorical plant imagery throughout the novel provides the key ingredient to this brilliant, brutal work, as the collision between the natural and human-driven world, between drug-induced illusions and concrete reality, threaten both his characters and the 'before-my-time' ease of most younger readers who might tackle the book. If we think there are no lessons to be learned today from such a novel, we aren't really looking at the broader picture, I'm afraid.

Wright took what appears to be a radical turn in 1988's M31: A Family Romance. I only wish I could have somehow experienced the reception of this novel when it appeared, but alas, I was concentrating on going off to college at the time. Too bad I wasn't good enough for Princeton, where Wright was teaching when this novel emerged. Those who bothered to take notice of the book must have really scratched their heads - unless they were perceptive enough to see right away what some perspective has proven: that Wright was taking another look at the same subject, a distorted, twisted, and confused America. Only this time, Wright's focus was not on war abroad but domestic combat, family life, splashed with the outlandish colors of obsession and the crazed UFO sub-culture. Inspired by a magazine piece he had written about a cult in California (which eventually turned into the doomsday Heaven's Gate cult, where all the members, believing they were going to another world, committed mass suicide), M31 is the story of Dot and Dash, a celebrity couple on the UFO scene who spend their time whisking around to share their experiences on TV talk shows and at conferences. When they're not on the road, they're raising their three children in an abandoned church in the middle of rural Iowa. Their eldest son is frighteningly sullen and may be turning into a brutal murderer. Their youngest daughter, Zoe, is autistic, and her seizures are enthusiastically interpreted by her parents as communications with the galaxy M31. Their family dynamics and rituals are presented in an apocalyptic tale that is bizarre and hilarious, yet sometimes brutally frightening, especially after a wandering couple of tourists stumble on their unsual abode and decide to stay for a while. As strange and 'out there' as this story might seem, Wright's prose is razor sharp, and one notices that he is again indicting the confusing, morally capsized culture that we have created for ourselves in this country, in beautiful language and hilarious, crisp dialogue.

If these books - which were extremely well reviewed, but sold little - were not enough to firmly establish Wright's reputation, at least critically and among his peers, 1994's Going Native eliminated any doubt. An astonishing tour de force, this terrifying, hilarious and difficult novel was poorly marketed, virtually ignored by the general public, and a commerical failure. But it remains a brilliant artistic achievement. A road fable, it features eight separate chapters, long stories within the overall 'story', each of which are connected only in passing (literally) by a psychopath who travels under the name 'Wylie' - one of numerous cartoonish references in the novel. The opening chapter introduces him as a suburban husband and father at a mindless dinner party. We follow blindly along, while ominous clouds gather in the narrative, until we witness the man 'snap', disappear from his deck chair, walk through his house, and out the front door, for good - 'like the present tense,' Wright pens, 'Daddy was gone, gone.' The rest of the novel is a furious On the Road thrown into a blender with a horror film, drenched in blood, drugs, sex, and satire. Wright introduces drug addicts, pornographers, lesbian parents, truckers and filmmakers and tells their sordid tales, while his serial killer whisks by in the background, only pausing to inflict thoughtless and random acts of violence. Wright's ambition and scope in this novel is immense and admirable. He has no intention of giving us a thrilling joyride of a book: he wants us to squirm, as we recognize a culture and a country that could only be our own, and squirm we do. It is decidedly not offensive for the sake of offense: the writer's aim is much higher than this. Going Native is a forceful experience, one that is not for all readers, but will remain lodged in the brain of those who take it on.

I don't know the reaosn why it has taken Wright 12 years to produce a new novel. I can think of some possibilities. When I worked with Wright in 2000, he told me at that time he was writing the novel, but he clearly works very slowly and meticulously - the carefully crafted prose of any of his previous novels is evidence of the fact. Wright does not write an errant sentence. In addition, in 2000, his last novel had been long forgotten, and he was virtually unknown. His first two novels were out of print and he was holding down one treaching gig. I think he was pretty down on his luck, he spoke of depression to me, and I was only a student, not a friend. The Amalgamation Polka will be a book that ressurrects his literary reputation, I have absolutely no doubt. I am personally hopeful that he finally gets broader recognition and a larger readership from the new book. He was a distant, eccentric man to work with, but he read my work closely, gave me sound advice, and his writing deserves to be experienced.

The new novel, a Civil War period piece, will not be light on bloodshed nor on irony for these dark times. It will hit hard, count on it. I am prepared for the experience, but I doubt readers who decide they'll give him a try on reviews or word of mouth will be. That's a good thing. Wright is the kind of writer whose work can and should come as a jolt.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #9

As indicated in the side column (the What We're Currently Reading section), in these last few weeks I have been going back and dipping into the profound, and vastly underappreciated, poems of "the colossal genius," G. K. Chesterton. Anyone who has ever read more than a few words of Chesterton knows that he possessed this remarkable ability -- and in this regard I would say that no English writer has ever been his equal -- to combine good, pure, rollicking humor and fun with penetrating human insight and profound spiritual wisdom.

This short poem is a great example of what I mean. You read it, and at first you think it's just going to be all wit a whimsy, and you enjoy the ride... and then you hit those last two lines, which (it may sound strange) still sort of give me chills when I read them, as I think about what that scene must have been like... like just about everything GKC wrote, you're left thinking about it and pondering the significance of the seemingly casual, light-hearted words long after you've put the book down. The simplest of subjects in his hands becomes a profound reminder that God's ways are, indeed, not our ways... and it's very often the rejected stones with which He chooses to build.

Like all of GKC's work, this one is to be thoroughly enjoyed... and then savored, for a long time afterward.


The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

Friday, September 23, 2005

On the work of T. C. Boyle

T. Coraghessan Boyle is one of the most visible, prolific contemporary fiction authors publishing today. He's been at it for a while: his first book, a collection of short stories called The Descent of Man, appeared in 1979, and since then he has written sixteen others, both additional story collections and novels. He's won many awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1987 for his novel World's End and the PEN/Faulkner Association's Bernard Malamud Prize for Short Fiction for his collected stories in 1999. His 2003 novel Drop City was a finalist for the National Book Award. Evidently all this isn't enough success for him, for he has just published a seventh story collection (Tooth and Claw) and has yet another novel forthcoming, called Talk Talk, some time next year.

In recent months I have sort of inadvertently conducted my own study of Boyle's work, not all that consciously, but rather in a kind of obedience to a curious impulse to see what Boyle's literary celebrity was all about. He is certainly present in the book world, and as a minimum his frequent output is most impressive from a dedication-to-craft perspective. He obviously works hard and fast on his writing. For me that is something to respect, since I know how difficult it is for me to grind out stories or essays (let alone novels), working day after day, editing, revising, and the rest of it. But how much lay behind his work? I wondered. How deep did it go? Aside from the extensive variety of subjects Boyle pursues in novels and seemingly endless stories, was there a whole lot more to his ouvre than just output? In other words, how good IS T. C. Boyle.

The answer, I think, is complicated, and depends on numerous factors. For example, your criteria. What informs your understanding of what good books are? Their entertainment value? Their themes? Their insights? Their spiritual nature, if there is any? What you know about their authors? It depends a lot on what matters to a reader of Boyle's work. Therefore, I can only speak to my own reactions. But I think they are worth sharing, because Boyle's out there, everywhere, and on the leading edge of contemporary literature, and from a secular point of view, he's one of the drivers of modern fiction writing. He's the man. He has a large readership and he certainly makes sure people pay attention to him.

Which leads to one of my chief difficulties with Boyle, which is not even directly related to what he writes. It is his extreme self-centeredness, his arrogance, his obvious desire for attention, for fame. He's a self-appointed spokersperson for literature. Reading publicly for him is a spectacle, and he makes a show out of it, seeking to remind people of literature's most fundamental raison d'etre, to entertain. Interviews I've heard are shot through with inflated rerferences to his own success, pompous predictions of how future literature students will read and analyze his writings, and condescending remarks towards his questioners, critics, and anyone who believes in things he doesn't.

Sometimes, in reading and listening to interviews about him, and considering his statements and even some of his writings, I think of that line from one of John Cheever's most famous stories, "Goodbye, My Brother", that goes: 'Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do?' Of course, I don't have to live with the guy, so the question needs no true response. But in the sense that I as a reader recreate his interests and questions and play them out in my own head when I read his books, I take some of him into my inner life, and, thus, do have to contend with his presence to some degree.

And this is why it rankles me: the man is good. He has had success; he will be studied by future students - it is already happening. That output that I mentioned - the seventeen books - is stunning, as is the variety of characters and themes he has written about. But it goes beyond that. Leaving aside whatever his value system or beliefs are, Boyle can, and frequently does, tell a good story. He has a gift for plotting, pacing and comedy. His stories and novels are freqently hilarious, sarcastic, and witty. His vocabulary is immense, which is especially prevalent in his earlier work: in this more 'mature' phase of his career, I think he is confident enough that readers know he knows the language.

Speaking of confidence, it is without a doubt Boyle's main strength. He is sure he can write about absolutely anything, tell any story that grabs him, and so he does. Will plays a tremendous part in his bibliography, I think. He does not seem to have a rear-view mirror. Any aspiring writer must appreciate this because one of the biggest pitfalls of writing well is self-doubt. Is my story worth anything? Will anybody care what I write? What's the point? Boyle rebuffs these questions. He knows he can get you interested. He is sure he will get his book done, to his own specifications, without assistance. I certainly do respect that, and frankly, wish I had a lot more of it.

A perfect case in point is the novel I just finished of his, called Water Music. It was his very first novel, published in 1981. I absolutely loved it, I must admit: it was funny, thrilling, exciting and stimulating mentally. I think it is superior, even, than a lot of his later work, which he would certainly shrug off as my own ignorance, but there it is - my opinion. Boyle has a Ph.D. in 19th century literature, and when he began this first novel, he had only just completed his work on that rigorous academic challenge. So what did he do? He took the model of the 19th century novel, a la Dickens, Trollope, Elliot, etc. and stood it on its ear, creating a Dickensian, Rudyard Kiling-style rollicking adventure for an updated, Indiana Jones audience. The result is a hilarious romp through turn of the 18th-century England, Scotland, and Africa, an immensely satisfying read, full of exotic locations and violence, imaginative plots and sheer bravado. You can perceive the confidence it had to take to write this book when you read it. It's a long, sprawling effort and it succeeds beautifully because the young man who wrote it was absolutely sure of himself, more than willing to take a hard look at old traditions and long-sacred rules and bonk them in the nose. It's a great novel, a tremendous achievement, and I give Boyle full credit for what he did in his early career. After writing this book, he deserved to be on the map.

Nowadays, his books don't carry the same ambition nor the same full-throated Walt Whitman YAWP to them. But they are still well-written, interesting fictions, and you never know in what direction Boyle is going to turn. He can soften you with laughter only to hit you hard with violence or foreceful emotion. I suspect he feels his later work is centered on more sophisticated themes, such as man-vs.-nature (which has always been there in his fiction), a la Drop City, or human sexuality, as in his recent novel The Inner Circle, which focused on the research of Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s. I read Drop City, and enjoyed it, but it was not the same experience as Water Music or even World's End, another hugely ambitious Boyle novel, was. Yet I just recently got the chance to read the title story in Tooth and Claw, and I was impressed with the suspenseful and chilling conclusion. There's no doubt the man is still quite skilled.

To conclude, I must state a few things about what this blog at least focuses on, religion, and its relationship to literature and art. I'm not good at making erudite statements on my faith. But I do feel that my faith comes to the table when I sit down to read and write. And because I believe in vocation and God's presence in all creative acts, I feel like He must be acknowledged as part of the experience, and glorified when I do the best work that I can do. That's the ultimate source of my discomfort with T. C, Boyle, because I know he denies that God exists, and he feels, as he's said in interviews, that 'everything is voodoo', whatever the heck that even means. Boyle's lack of belief has him convinced that we have one life, one shot, and we're rotting flesh and then dirt when it's over, and this limited, aChristian view of his necessarily and fundamentally informs his work. He's confident, because he's the only one in charge of anything. He's bold, because in the end there's no real consequence to bravado and risk; we're all going to die and we're not coming back. To a Christian reader, this view of life and the world is unsatisfying to share in, and inappropriate to our task. We are here to give glory to God in our work and find ways to understand Him and one another better. We are writing, I think, to engage ourselves and others in and through the Lord God, ultimately, because we are created in the image of Him. We believe there IS more, and our stories and essays must somehow point to this. That is why T.C. Boyle's writing is in the long run unable to fully satisfy me completely, and yet I plan to continue reading him, if only to see what the world judges as good for my own knowledge, and, yes, to be entertained.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Of Arms and the Man

It is the famous first line of The Aeneid that gave us that oft-quoted phrase, but I would like to begin these further random observations about the great epic poem by citing the concluding lines, which are as follows:

“Then, rous'd anew to wrath, he loudly cries
(Flames, while he spoke, came flashing from his eyes)
"Traitor, dost thou, dost thou to grace pretend,
Clad, as thou art, in trophies of my friend?
To his sad soul a grateful off'ring go!
'T is Pallas, Pallas gives this deadly blow."
He rais'd his arm aloft, and, at the word,
Deep in his bosom drove the shining sword.
The streaming blood distain'd his arms around,
And the disdainful soul came rushing thro' the wound.”

Is that not a striking image, a highly dramatic way to end this great epic poem? Yet why do I post is here on The Thread? The most succinct answer is: why not? Lines as powerful as these ought to be shared. But beyond that simplistic explanation, there are other reasons why I decided to share them in this forum. First, I think they provide an adequate taste of what the experience of reading this classic is like: there is such emotion and passion in these verses (the translation I read and have quote above is John Dryden's), and I think it comes through loud and clear in a passage like this. One of the wonderful things about reading these ancient epics is the emotional experience of it: I would say that very few writings of any age evoke as much human feeling as these do. I was moved by the loyalty and fidelity to a friend expressed in Aeneas' words, even if he does follow through (literally) with a sword to the chest! "To his sad soul a grateful off'ring go"... to me, the inclusion of the word "grateful" in there is interesting. Aeneas seems to be saying not only that he remembers his friend, but that he cherishes those memories, and refuses to allow them to be tarnished. His loyalty to Pallas, admirably, extends beyond the grave.

And of course, there's the violence. I don't celebrate violence in any way, yet in the context of an epic "of arms and the man," the portrayal of bloodshed is inevitable. "War is hell," from Troy to Iraq... and certainly the classic authors do not shy away from such portrayals. The modern reader may well be surprised at how bloody works such as The Iliad and The Aeneid truly are. I know I was. And yet, thinking back, I'm not sure why I was so surprised. Think of ancient Rome, for example, and what images come immediately to mind? For most of us, the Colosseum would have to be near the top of the list. And what was the Colosseum? Basically, a Great Big Theater of Blood. (I often wonder at these older cultures, how their lust for blood seems to have been insatiable... not just the Romans either, think of the Aztecs and their great public sacrificial rites... it is puzzling to me that in our own age, which is so accustomed to seeing violence broadbast on our 24-7 news channels and TV shows with such mind-numbing regularity, we still seem to maintain somehow a sqeamishness towards violence, even as we celebrate it. The ancients seemed to celebrate it as we do, yet they seem to have lacked, generally speaking, the sqeamishness. Why is that, I wonder? Does that not seem strange somehow? A subject for another post, or blog, I guess...)

No doubt about it, these great epics are blood-feasts, and The Aeneid is no exception. The ancients (at least the Greeks and Romans) possessed a fascination with death, but it was not, I think, a morbid one... more of a desire on their part to know and understand this great mystery and its implications on the living. Notice how, when Aeneas kills his rival Turnus there, Virgil does not just mention his death: he also feels compelled to include the release of the soul from Turnus' body. Unlike more modern thinkers, the ancients were not so arrogant to insist that life is absurd and death is The End. Instead, they embraced its mysteries and regarded it as a passage to something other, something outside of themselves. (These are the seeds within the history of human thought that would eventually flower into the belief in eternal life and the resurrection of the body, an intuition within us that Jesus would ultimately affirm and put on vivid display for the world to know and understand.) Anyway, the point is that they cultivated a healthy respect for the profundity of death, and the references to souls and ghosts and the frequent forays in these epics into the underworld bear this out in memorable fashion.

I hope that in this aimless blathering I am getting across, if nothing else, the powerful impact an epic poem such as The Aeneid can have on even the modern reader, if he/she is willing to take the time to immerse himself in the culture and mindset so vividly and passionately rendered. There's that word again: if I could choose only one word to describe these ancient epics of Greece and Rome, I think I might choose "passionate." They are vivid, emotional, bloody, and passionate in their telling... arrows from some ancient Hellenic archer aimed right at the heart. They sing most often "of arms and the man," and as any recent news broadcast will show you, with such a subject there cannot be anything other than deep sorrow, pain, heroism, cowardice and the horrible futility of war. The Aeneid expresses all of this powerfully, beautifully, and any reader in 2005 who takes up the challenge will appreciate and remember the experience, I have no doubt.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #8

Along with Heaney, one of my favorite all-time poets is the much lesser known (but perhaps equally talented) poet/priest from Wales, R. S. Thomas. Thomas was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize; it's a shame that he never won it, largely because it more than likely would have brought his powerful poetry to a much larger audience. But those who have read anything by him are unlikely to have forgotten the experience.

Thomas' dark, seething, precise poetry centers upon the Welsh people and landscape, and on man's tormented relationship with his Creator. I don't think I've read any poetry that captures the struggle for belief and faith in a world that denies God more vividly than Thomas'. In some ways, his poems are very much like the Welsh landscape he lived and ministered upon: sometimes beautiful, often harsh and barren and treacherous, never easy to track through... yet very rewarding, if you take the time to soak in the atmosphere and meditate on the mysteries you encounter there.

His poems about faith in particular are not for those whose own faith hangs by a thread. He does not hesitate to ask God the toughest of questions, and to cry out for answers... sometimes his verses about both God and those who choose to believe in Him veer dangerously close towards bitterness or even contempt. Yet he seems to know his place, and to accept the universe on God's terms, although sometimes grudgingly. I believe his stark, unrelenting approach to matters of faith was his attempt to make sense of his own personal doubts and struggles -- as a man, husband, father and, especially, a priest (Epsicopal), ministering to a remote people in a remote place... a people who looked to him for answers to their own problems and fears.

Some of Thomas' images and lines are so powerful, so interestingly expressed, that they stop me dead in my (figurative) tracks. This meditation on the story of Cain & Abel is a perfect example. If it doesn't make you stop and think about that famous passage of scripture and what a mystery it is, I suggest you contact your physician immediately. That last line in particular gives me chills... in the end, it seems, Cain is not the only one being indicted here. He stands for all of us.



Abel looked at the wound
His brother had dealt him, and loved him
For it. Cain saw that look
And struck him again. The blood cried
On the ground; God listened.
He questioned Cain. But Cain answered:

Who made the blood? I offered you
Clean things: the blond hair
Of the corn; the knuckled vegetables; the
Flowers; things that did not publish
Their hurt, that bled
Silently. You would not accept them.

And God said: It was part of myself
He gave me. The lamb was torn
From my own side. The limp head,
The slow fall of red tears—they
Were like a mirror to me in which I beheld
My reflections. I anointed myself
In readiness for the journey
To the doomed tree you were at work upon.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Start Something, Part VI; or, Conclusion


Part VI. Conclusion.

John Francis steps out onto the chewed-up back lot. He brain registers a noise behind him, in the flash of an instant, but fails to process the noise quickly enough to fire off a signal to his muscles. Too slow, in other words. Two pairs of feet whisk rapidly across the pebbles in pristine sneakers.
He is grabbed from behind, two vice-grip hands seize his biceps forcefully, shove him hard into the side of the cab, facing the Kinko’s, away from his assailant. To his left, a figure has rushed the driver’s side and is thrusting something into the open window like he’s stoking hell’s fires. From underneath a gray hooded sweatshirt, his gritty voice derides the driver and demands money.
Something cold and metal is jammed painfully into the back of John Francis’ head. He bends over, his cheek nearly communing with the roof of the car. His back door is still open. In his right hand he is gripping the all-important CD. The hard metal feels like a jouster’s lance against the base of his skull – and is hurting more by the second. John winces, bends over further, and now his ear is touching the cold surface.
The assailants are clearly young men. John can tell by their voices, one making continuous demands for money from the driver, the other whispering something in the vicinity of his own left ear. He can’t make out the words, the language seems incomprehensible. Hands begin to rifle through his pockets brutally, swiftly; there goes his wallet, never to be seen again. $17. That’s all he’s got.
John Francis can barely comprehend what is going on. He is in utter shock, so much so that there is virtually no fear. Something in the back of head signals that this may come later. He doesn’t notice that his heart has begun to piston crazily inside of his chest, increasing in speed. Thoughts are lining up in his mind very slowly, competing with the deafening static of surprise and confusion. Only about thirty seconds have passed. His own assailant has found everything he could, including John’s room key, and is making disgusted noises. The lance digs deeper into his upper vertebrae.
Suddenly there are scuffling sounds, limbs tangling, an exclamation of some kind, followed by grunts – all to his immediate left. John involuntarily lifts his head towards the driver’s position as much as possible and perceives something he cannot believe. The taxi driver is attempting to forcibly relieve his assailant of his weapon. Through the car window. The hooded man curses.
John is released from his compromised position. He straightens out. The man behind him has moved towards his accomplice, one halting step, too late.
There is a blinding flash. John’s ears immediately erupt into high-pitched screaming. The taxi driver’s shadowy form slumps over, behind the plexiglass window and the car seat.
All of the air leaves John’s body at once – all of it. For a split second, the briefest instant, everything in the world is frozen. This includes John’s blood, his limbs, right down to the electrical impulses spidering up and down his neurological network. John’s eyes, which have become engorged, are fixated on the space in the cab where the driver’s shape used to be. Now there is the steering wheel. The red digital meter, running. Something obscuring the plexiglass, slow movement.
Then his eyes shift a fraction to the left. The first man has rotated his body ninety degrees to the right. Someone shouts something. John begins to raise his foot, take a step, his arms starting to rise, a plea forming in his brain, the language en route to his tongue. But words fail him again, by not arriving. Something hits him, hard, in the upper chest. Not like a fist, but a foot, a huge one, barreling with immense force. He falls backward, twisting slightly. The CD skitters off, plastic scratching on the pavement.
After this, silence. The only exception is heavy breathing, his own, rapid at first, gradually growing slower, and slower still. An indeterminate period of time passes, it could be seconds, it could be minutes. John is on his right side, for the most part, but his legs feel hopelessly tangled. Above him, just inside his line of sight, he sees the red awning, turned on its side, neon lights, but still no people. How is that possible, he wonders.
Then he realizes that his mind is emptying out. Static fades. He is feeling calmer by the moment, or maybe just more drained. Ideas, notions, concepts seem to be floating around just outside of his mental grasp, things he is vaguely aware of that he feels he ought to gather up into his consciousness, but is unable to do so. The CD is lying on the ground; he can see it.
Something wet is expanding slowly underneath his cheek and right ear. Strangely, John thinks of maple syrup. Then another thought begins to coagulate, the fragments assembling, and John knows that it is important – it will inform him of something he needs to know right now. He waits. It is coming, only its progress is impeded. Then halted altogether, drowned out by a single voice, an interruption.
Start something, the voice rasps. Start something.
As the thought evaporates, whatever it was going to be, John’s heart fills with frustration. He draws a breath to respond. If he knew the breath was his last, he would not use it in this manner, but he doesn’t know.

So he simply says, aloud, ‘I can’t.’


Thursday, September 15, 2005

Start Something, Part V


Part V.

He saw the red light blinking first. He hadn’t turned on the light when he got into the room, and it was dark when he returned. After inserting the little card into the slot and turning the brass handle, he pressed inside and saw the tell-tale flashing on the night stand through the blackness like something on an airport runway.
A phone message. Aw shit, he thought. There was only one person it could be.
‘Glad we finally caught you,’ his boss said when John dialed up his cell phone. ‘There’s a major mistake on the income projections, page 12. Figures II-a. and II-b. You know, those graphs?’
John knew. ‘Yes,’ he replied, while his heart belly-flopped into some inner pool of despair. So much for relaxation. Time to leap through flaming hoops.
‘You’ve got your laptop with you, I’m assuming.’
‘Yes, of course, for just this sort of contingency.’ He’d like that one, thought John.
‘Absolutely. Log in, let’s get started. I can wait.’
John booted up the machine.
Start something, the voice rasped in his brain. Start something. The screen came aglow.
He typed in password. The poet walked off into the night, past the lamppost.
Start something. What did that mean? Should he just put down anything? Start
‘Hey. John. Are you with me?’
‘Yes, sorry. I’m just waiting to get booted up here.’
‘Okay. Well, keep your head in the game. This is important …. a great deal of revenue ….. profit margin…..premiere opportunity …. I know you’ve had a long day, but right now, as I’m sure you agree, getting this proposal right and delivering it on time is literally all that matters.’

Two figures had been inputted incorrectly, reversed. When corrected, a red bar on two graphs rose three notches. Fortunately, both graphs appeared on the same page, the infamous page 12. But the page had to be entirely replaced. The binders opened, the faulty pages torn away. Have you got a blank CD with you? his boss wanted to know. Please say yes! Yes, John said.
All that remained was to import the graphs from Excel into the Word file. It wouldn’t work. They tried it over and over, his boss telling him on the phone the steps to take, patient at first, then growing irritated. Small children hollered in the background. John glanced at the digital: 9:02 p.m.
‘How the hell did you get these graphs in there in the first place?’ his boss pouted.
‘The same way we’re doing it now.’
‘What’s it say on the screen?’
‘”Error! Link unknown—“’
‘Fuck.’ The children hollered in the background.
After another hour, and yet another call to someone unsuspecting at home, this time the systems guy, they were able to figure it out. The graphs were inserted, the page finally complete, now it had to get printed out and copied. John had his orders: find a Kinko’s, take the disk there, get eight new pages made, switch ‘em out, deliver the thing and come home.
It was 10:22 p.m. when John hung up with his boss, grumbling. Opening up the yellow pages from the night stand drawer, he located a Kinko’s, open 24 hours. He talked to the guy there to let him know he was coming, and when he asked if he could wait on it, the response was belly laughter and a suggestion to bring a sleeping bag.
Frustrated, John finally was able to at least confirm that the pages would be done and ready by 7:00 a.m. He’d have to come back for them. I hate my life, John thought as he hung up the phone, grabbed the CD and his room card, pocketed his wallet, laden with $17, and left the room again.

In the elevator to the lobby, John heard the poet’s voice again.
Start something, it rasped. He could almost hear the smoke flowing through the poet’s lips, part of the overall message somehow. Start something.
Right now? John thought. What was he supposed to make of it? He assumed that the poet had meant just to start writing. That’s what he’d first taken it to mean. But the more he thought about it, and particularly the more he kept hearing the words in his head, as if there was urgency attached to the message and he wasn’t responding quickly enough, he wasn’t sure. ‘Something’, after all, could mean anything. But surely he couldn’t start anything until he got this ridiculous job, growing more so by the minute, out of his life.
He’d sworn to himself that he wouldn’t drive until he had to, and by God, he wasn’t going to break that now, at 10:30 at night. So he had called down to the desk, and when he arrived a taxi was waiting. John nodded to the receptionist, stepped into the surprisingly brisk night air once again, the precious CD in his hand, and gave the address to the rotund Italian man, chomping on some sort of trail mix, poised behind the wheel.
‘You know where that is?’ John asked.
‘Yeah, sure,’ said the driver, screeching away. ‘More or less.’
John leaned into the backseat, his eyes closed. He was tired and irritated by where he was, what he was doing. But in another portion of his brain, wheels were turning. The strange night, the encounter with the poet, even the sense of being somewhere odd where no one knew where he was – it was all conspiring to make him wonder if there was some greater purpose for his presence in this town on this night. He could do anything right now, no one would know. Tell the driver to drop him off at a bar, drink for a while, roam the streets, look for a girl, collect bits of this, scraps of that ….. or, he could go back to the room, strike up the coffee maker, hunker down and take the poet’s advice to heart: write lame poems until the sun came up.
Screw it, he thought. Forget ‘good’, forget ‘bad’, I will just start putting things down. What things? What I see, what I care about, how everything connects. It’s what I want to do. And who else cares?
For a while, outside the window, he saw nothing but more gray stone and windows you couldn’t see through (what was the point?), and he had the sensation of being in a maze or a labyrinth. Rodents came into his mind, crawling everywhere. But, really, no matter how bad it was, it was not that bad. At least he had a job. And eventually this would be over, life would go on, they’d get the new business probably, he’d get squat. He refused to get too morose. It was simply not worth the trouble.
Soon the external landscape changed, however, giving way to residences, first upscale, then not so much. The taxicab wound through what might be described generously as a lower-middle class neighborhood. Few lights were on in first floor windows. No one out on the sidewalks. There seemed to be a pallor of the approaching work week hanging over the streets, or maybe John supplied that himself. Who here is happy? he wondered. Who among these looks forward to the dawn tomorrow brings?
The poet stood before him, both feet planted on the cobblestone path. John Francis could not see his face.
The light changed again, garish brightness intruding, working against his imagination. There before his eyes, the oasis for the thirsting suburbanite, the strip mall. Everything you’ll ever need, although most of the stores inconveniently closed. But at the Bank of the USA, the automatic teller machine never closes, money is available even if you don’t have it, this is simply a matter of overdraft protection. Relax. Inside Foot Locker, Talbot’s, Jenny Craig, GNC, shadows stretched out in slumber among the racks, and the computer monitors were shut down and silent. But in the places that really meant business – Target, Stop n’ Shop, WaWa, and, God bless them, Kinko’s – the lights were on and the night shift stood prepared.
At least, the strip mall’s huge sign out on the road said there was a Kinko’s: only John didn’t see it. Not to worry, barked the cab driver, the entrance is around in the back of the strip. Turns out he had been there before. The Kinko’s was technically in the basement, spreading out underneath the Supercuts and Tiger Schulman’s Karate school. Sure enough, they traveled about six miles down the length of the strip and circled around, and John saw a red awning, sheltering its neon glow all alone among dumpsters, landing docks, broken pallets, beer cans, and the pot-holed tarmac. There was no parking, far less light, and a surprisingly slender area of maneuverable pavement given the fact that they certainly must have received fleets of delivery trucks in and out of there all day long. On the other side of the lot, behind the entire length of the structure, there were only woods, tree limbs rustling in the late summer breeze.

The taxi pulled up next to a dumpster, twenty feet from the awning. Kinko’s, 24 hour service, the luminous letters read. John asked the driver to wait. He wasn’t paying, it would be expensed, God bless the firm for these perks. The cab driver shrugged, rolled down his window, produced a cigarette, and lit up. John stood on the chewed-up back lot, and briefly watched as the first puff of smoke drifted silently out of the window, emerging like an emancipated soul.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Start Something, Part IV


Part IV.

He took a slightly different route back towards the hotel, to distract himself further. The sun had nearly set, but a pleasant, warm glow hovered over the quietened streets. Any glimpses of the horizon he could briefly spot between the stone buildings were highlighted with a dazzling stripe of orange-red, with a deep blue curtain slowly lowering on top of that. The temperature was probably somewhere around 65 degrees.
After almost bypassing it completely, John noticed a small wooded area on his right; trees and pruned vegetation in the midst of stone and concrete. It was a small park squeezed between two indistinct office buildings, interwoven with carefully laid cobblestone walkways, park benches, even a few shrubs in wooden enclosures that looked to John like Japanese bonsai trees, although he wouldn’t know. He guessed it to be a kind of break area, maybe a place for smokers to go commune with burned-out data analysts, number crunchers, or gofers, a kind of refuge in the middle of a stressful workday. John stepped off the sidewalk and entered the park by one of the cobblestone paths. He vaguely thought, for an unknown reason, that if he had had a cigarette, this would be the time to sit quietly and smoke it. Even though he had never so much as taken a puff of one in his entire life.
He hadn’t given a moment’s consideration to entering the park. He just did it without thinking. He had nothing to do, nowhere to go, his only reason for existence right now was to drop off some proposal for his employers. His parents didn’t know where he was. His sister didn’t know where he was. He thought of her, briefly, occupied with her own more significant existence. She’d be giving her daughter a bottle, maybe burping her, getting her ready for bedtime, herself exhausted. No time to wonder what her unattached kid brother was up to. Not that she needed to, John thought.
The park was not entirely empty. Two joggers and one couple with a husky had passed him already. What few people were out might have been naturally drawn here like himself. The trees, the shadowy coolness within this unexpected grove, the cobblestones: it was a lovely, calming spot. John sat down on a park bench across from another one where another man sat, thinking about this sanctuary in between the edifices of the system, a garden between two mounds of stone dug through with the sub-chambers of government. There was something strange about it, this place. Surreal almost. His thoughts scattered, spread out, searching, more or less subconsciously, for words.
After a few minutes he glanced at the man sitting across from him for no good reason. Abruptly, he recognized him. There on the opposite bench was the Poet Laureate of the United States.
John had forgotten his name. It was really the t-shirt he remembered best – DON'T GO – and the beard. But he knew it was him nonetheless. He was dressed very similarly to how he had been dressed on ‘Charlie Rose’. Glasses, no hat, a t-shirt (this one had a dog on it; it looked like a greyhound), khaki cargo pants that looked too large with frayed cuffs, and sandals. One leg crossed over the other. He was smoking himself, in fact. And as it turned out, he was looking right back at John Francis. What the heck was his name?
John saw him, he saw John, so John said: ‘Hey.’
‘Hello,’ said the poet.
‘I know who you are,’ John said. ‘I just saw you on “Charlie Rose”. Only, I forgot your name.’
The poet smoke, exhaled. He kept his gaze on John Francis.
‘You saw that, huh?’ he asked.
‘Yeah. Just last night, in fact.’ John didn’t feel nervous talking to the poet. He was surprised by that. He was more nervous talking to anyone else he’d just met than he was talking to this man. It might have been the setting, the context. Who knew?
‘Did you know that was taped like four months ago?’ the poet asked.
John shook his head. ‘I didn’t. They don’t tell you that.’
‘Yeah, it’s weird. I feel different now than I did then,’ he observed.
‘You mean, about whatever you said?’ asked John.
The poet hesitated. ‘Just in general.’
‘Oh,’ said John. For the first time he felt awkward. So he feels different, he thought. Does that mean leave me the hell alone?
‘What’s your name?’ the poet asked.
‘John Francis Grimm,’ said John Francis. For some reason, one that embarrassed him now, he used his full name when he introduced himself. Now it sounded pretentious. It didn’t seem to fret the poet, however.
‘Clayton Grassley.’
‘That’s it,’ said John, nodding. He paused a few moments, then made a decision. He knew he wouldn’t get the opportunity again, so ….
‘Hey, you know,’ he began, ‘this is going to sound ridiculous and everything …. But I have to ask you something, since I saw your interview and I know your name now.’
If the poet was surprised, or irritated, or bored, he didn’t reveal it, although he looked closest to the third.
‘I’ve never read your poems. But I do like poetry, believe it or not. In fact, I really feel that I want to try to write it myself. The problem is, I can’t.’
Grassley remained poker-faced, listening. He didn’t seem bothered. Maybe he’s flattered someone recognized him, John thought. But he was not worried any longer about what the other man might think of his statement, or of himself for that matter. He just wanted to hear what Grassley had to say in reply. It fact, it became clear to him at that moment that he really wanted to know what the other man, someone who had found a way, thought about it.
‘What do you mean, you “can’t”? Why not?’ he asked John Francis.
‘I … I can kind of see the poems in my head, or at least the things that I want to write poems about, but I can’t get them onto paper.’
Grassley nodded. ‘Yeah, that is the rub,’ he acknowledged.
A few moments passed, the silence paddling towards the shores of embarrassment. John suddenly realized Grassley’s implied message. There is no solution. Figure it out.
Now he felt self-conscious. It was a stupid thing to have asked. He should have left the man alone. He was about to stand up and wish Grassley well.
‘What do you put down?’ the poet asked, startling John.
‘Nothing,’ replied John Francis. ‘I can’t find any words.’
He was looking at the poet, whose face was becoming more obscured by shadows. Smoke streamed forth in front of him. John saw no further movement. Suddenly he felt the briefest touch of a kind of cognitive vertigo. He was no longer sure if the man across from him was the poet from TV. He was not even really sure if there was a man in front of him at all. The surrounding night had instantly become two or three shades darker. Fatigue coursed through John’s bones. A voice came out of the billowing dark that mingled with the shadows that mingled with cigarette smoke. It had turned raspy, coarse, as if spoken by some kind of spirit.
‘You want my advice?’
‘Yes,’ John heard himself reply.
‘Start something.’ Exhaled stream of smoke. ‘Start something.’
Why’d he say it twice? John pondered. And what happened to his voice?
That is what you would say to someone who wanted to be a poet?’ John asked.
‘That is what I would say to someone who wanted to be, or do, anything,’ said the voice. ‘Most people don’t understand that. But it is the only way. Start something.’ The poet stood up.
John was looking around himself from his position on the bench, trying to decide if he was still in the right dimension, or merely hallucinating. Neither would have surprised him. From where he sat he realized he could not see the sidewalk he’d come from, nor could he hear taxicabs rumbling by or other urban noises. One could hardly perceive in the lowering cloak of darkness that they were even between two office buildings. All he could see were angling, claw-like tree limbs, flora, and through the talons, a deep blue-black sky against which the trees were silhouetted. A cobblestone path winding away, a lamp on a post just down the curve of the path. He felt tranquil. He’d found a sanctuary in the midst of the capital to sit and reflect in, when he was here to do nothing of the kind.
The poet was looking at him. His feet planted on the cobblestone path. John Francis looked up to see if he was even still there. He saw his shape, slight, insubstantial, against the backdrop of dusk. He could not longer see the man’s face.

‘See you around,’ the voice rasped. There was a wisp of smoke, and the poet was gone. John didn’t know what else to do, so he stood and returned to the hotel.

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #7

Poetry doesn't always have to be serious, although there ought to be hint of seriousness, of issues pertaining to life and death, underlying even its lighter efforts (as there is in any real comedy). Grabbing a seat on this train of thought, then, I decided to stir things up a bit here and post a humorous poem. And who better to grace us with a humorous poem than Billy Collins, America's Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, who is widely read and loved for his whimsical and insightful verses?

Collins is sometimes spurned and shunned by the academics and the gurus because of his laid-back, tongue-in-cheek style, but in my own reading of his work, I've found there is a lot more substance than necessarily meets the eye at first glance. I chose this particular poem because it's indicative of the way he can be: funny, almost goofy; and yet, if you listen carefully to what the poem says between the actual printed words, there is certainly wisdom and truth to be found. Collins writes honestly and with a light touch about the everyday and the mundane, and this is what sometimes gets him into trouble with the critics.

Perhaps it's because he cuts a little too close to the bone sometimes?

At any rate, this one is purely for your enjoyment... I think we can all find something to relate to here!


Child Development

As sure as prehistoric fish grew legs
and sauntered off the beaches into forests
working up some irregular verbs for their
first conversation, so three-year-old children
enter the phase of name-calling.

Every day a new one arrives and is added
to the repertoire. You Dumb Goopyhead,
You Big Sewerface, You Poop-on-the-Floor
(a kind of Navaho ring to that one)
they yell from knee level, their little mugs
flushed with challenge.
Nothing Samuel Johnson would bother tossing out
in a pub, but then the toddlers are not trying
to devastate some fatuous Enlightenment hack.

They are just tormenting their fellow squirts
or going after the attention of the giants
way up there with their cocktails and bad breath
talking baritone nonsense to other giants,
waiting to call them names after thanking
them for the lovely party and hearing the door close.

The mature save their hothead invective
for things: an errant hammer, tire chains,
or receding trains missed by seconds,
though they know in their adult hearts,
even as they threaten to banish Timmy to bed
for his appalling behavior,
that their bosses are Big Fatty Stupids,
their wives are Dopey Dopeheads
and that they themselves are Mr. Sillypants.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Start Something, Part III


Part III.

It came down to the same routine in the end, every time, whether it was a Sunday or a Tuesday or any day. As long as he was in the office there was time; it only took four hours to drive to D.C. And as long as there was time, people thought, it could be used up. Calls were made, parties conferenced in, further negotiations on pricing, track down the Finance VP at home and tell him Ed wants to talk. Frustrated wife, who would call on a Sunday. John, the messenger, riddled with bullets. Endless talk, arguing over administrative fees, stressful delays. Eventually John had to intervene: if I do not get started with the photocopies and the binders soon, I won’t have enough time to drive down there at all.
You got all day, a VP growled.
No, let’s wrap this up now, Ed chimed in fortunately. This should have been done Friday. He’s got four hours ahead of him. And it’s Sunday, goddammit.
Photocopies, color toner, punching holes, paper jams, the whole bit. Didn’t the mail room guy tell John he’d already made the cover sheets? Then where the hell were they? John carried the project through t he usual snags to the end. Finally he had eight pristine copies of the proposal in white plastic binders, cover letters signed by the president of the firm, ready to deliver. In spite of it all, somehow it all got done faster than he expected. He left the office at a respectable 2 p.m. on the nose, crossing into New Jersey without difficulty, driving south, the product of his Sunday in a cardboard box, sitting next to his laptop on the backseat.

The drive was mundane and without incident. He listened to National Public Radio and ESPN, hoping to catch something interesting. He longed for football season but it was still two weeks off. He kept his eyes open, but there was nothing worth noting whatsoever on Interstate 95 save the unexceptional (by comparison) skylines of Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware.
The Institute was downtown, a few blocks away from the Library of Congress, which he had just heard about the night before on TV, life is full of weird coincidences. His destination was actually underground, in the basement of one of those nondescript gray stone buildings where Congressmen had their offices and all those pork barrel agencies shuffled paper around and processed data and released new studies once a year on some topic or another.
There was a Courtyard Marriot hotel not far from the Institute. He’d looked it up on the net and his boss approved the reservation. John was amazed they’d allowed – trusted – him to do this. Not that he’d given them any reason not to. But he was surprised they would put him up in a hotel, a worker of his piss-on status. When his boss had first mentioned the need for hand-delivery, John saw himself coming into the city at four in the morning to pick up the car and still have time to drive the proposals down before 9 a.m. It would not have shocked him, had this been expected.
Nobody gets to where they’re going in D.C. easily if they don’t have long-term familiarity with its absurd patchwork of streets, signs, arrows, lights. John was lost for about twenty-five minutes, which he didn’t think was too bad. Then he couldn’t find the parking garage (he finally did, around the back, with a poorly marked entrance) and when he did it was fuller than he’d anticipated, but he found a place. For a few moments he hesitated, but decided to carry the cardboard box with him up to his room, just to be on the safe side. I am not moving that car until tomorrow morning, he swore.
In spite of the long day, John was enjoying himself now. He liked hotels, even bad ones, but this one was probably nicer than any he had stayed in before. Spending a night in another city was always intriguing. The faces of strangers glided past him, and his imagination sparked into life. Who were they, why were they here? How many meetings would take place in the first few hours of the next business day, how much anticipation would there be roaming the corridors of this hotel late at night? Whose career was at a critical moment? Who could not sleep? What did that feel like? John tried to imagine himself in ten years, in another hotel, waiting for an appointment, checking in with a wife, children, his children ….. it thinned out as it came, this vision, and vanished into the next moment altogether. He could not see it; he’d forced himself to have a notion of a future that, for the present, he had no reason to expect would ever come to pass.
The room was ready. He entered the cool sanctuary, two double beds, a table and chairs, even a miniscule kitchen. He had never stayed in a business suite before, and it amused him that he would do so now. Good thing this kitchen is here, he thought. He could barely manage a bowl of cereal.
Speaking of, John was thinking, I’m hungry. And I can’t just sit here in the room for the next four to five hours. The digital alarm clock on the stand between the two pristinely arranged paisley-patterned double beds told him it was 6:35 p.m. Sunlight fought to penetrate through the crack in the heavy maroon curtains, trying to remind the room’s occupant that it was still late summer, the day was not over, he could go out and see things if he had eyes to see them, or guts to look. He briefly toyed with the idea of calling his boss’ cell phone to check in, but dismissed it. I’m here, he thought. That’s good enough.
One thing he knew for sure, he did not want to drive around tonight. He wanted to keep his parking space and did not want to deal with navigation any more than he had to the next morning. He’d get up early and find the Institute ahead of time. He didn’t care if he had to wait in a parking lot – he would avoid the rush hour as any sane person would if they had a choice. He had a big book, Halldor Laxness’ World Light, he’d be fine to wait it out.
Within a few minutes, cardboard box with the completed proposals secure on the table in his room, car locked and silent underground, John Francis departed the hotel on foot. The day had elongated into a beautiful and fragrant evening. The sidewalks and streets were nearly vacant; who worked on Sunday night in government? Wherever he was in Washington, it was not near a lot of residences. Not that this bothered John. Walking around and between the stone gray buildings, he felt a strange sense of national vulnerability, as if the mechanics of the State were all dormant, the ones on the night shift all asleep at their posts. No one seemed to be around.
He purchased a Washington Post at a corner from one of those snapping-turtle vending machines that always made a deadly serious attempt to eat your arm while managing to retain the paper you’d paid for. Luckily, he won that battle. It cost him six quarters for the massive Sunday edition, but he’d been prepared. The only place he could find that was open and serving something was a Xando Cosi coffeeshop three blocks from the hotel, so he went in, paid $15 for a tandoori chicken sandwich and a miniscule Coke, and ate his meal in comfortable silence, perusing the paper at his leisure. Two men next to him were chatting rather openly about legal options for one of them having been fired from his job. Plenty of grounds, substantial damages, one man said. No, not my line of expertise, I don’t want to short-change you, but I have a colleague who can recommend a lawyer, a woman, a real hell-hound. Believe me, that’s the best kind.
John chuckled. How much did the guy have to shell out just to talk to his guy at Xando, he wondered.
It wasn’t until he walked out onto the sidewalk again into lingering twilight, leaving his paper behind absent-mindedly, that John began to feel strange, a bit unsettled. Perhaps it was the silence that started him thinking, wondering. What am I doing here? he asked himself. Your job, came the answer. Yeah but what’s the point? Who does stuff like this? Only the lowest man on the pole. But nobody knows I’m here, no one cares, except for my employers, my boss occupied with his children, Ed chillin’ at the shore. Grimm will get it done. They’d better hope so. Because if they win the contract it will mean hundreds of millions for the firm. And I will get precisely nothing out of that. Ed, however, could spend extra weeks on the beach in the future. What bullshit, John Francis thought. He didn’t want spend any more time thinking about it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #6

I can't believe it's taken me until the sixth week to post a poem from the man who is not only (if I had to pick one) my favorite all-time poet, but is also the one who almost single-handedly got me interested in poetry in the first place... one of the most lauded and respected poets in the world, Nobel Prize for Literature winner in 1995... and how great is it that he comes from a small farm in County Derry in northern Ireland? Of course I'm talking about the great Seamus Heaney.

Heaney's work has been for me nothing short of revelatory, and this selection is a perfect example of why that's so. This is without a doubt one of my favorite poems; I love it for its simplicity, its celebration of the stuff of earth, its near-sacramental vision. So simple, but so very profound. Heaney's Catholicism is inseparable from his poetry, yet it's never heavy-handed: he lets "God's grandeur" speak for itself as he sits by, quietly observing, and then powerfully recording the messages he receives in pure, crystalline, vivid images.

It is nothing short of wondrous to me that a poet of this magnitude would express that all that he has ever done in his writing career is merely an extension of his childhood games and explorations. To me, there is both great wisdom and great humility in such an attitude. That is exactly the attitude I would like to have towards the world, towards the gift of my own life and every day I've been given therein. I only wish I could express my own feelings about what I've observed as eloquently and powerfully as Heaney does in just about every one of his poems. Expect to see a lot more of his work on this site! The last four lines of this poem are about as inspiring to me as any lines I've ever read in my life... I don't understand why and probably never will, but they literally thrill my soul...

(Note: "Helicon" refers to Mount Helicon, which in Greek mythology was the mountain on which the Muses lived -- the Muses being the nine goddesses who were reputed to be the divine spirits of inspiration.)


Personal Helicon

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Start Something, Part II


Part II.

Of course he knew it was ridiculous. No one ever read poems, and most people who attempted to write them ended up producing pretentious laughers about trite subjects like the beauty of the lilies or the dog they had when they were six years old. Spare us, the world begged. Yet John would find himself awake at night with blank slabs of white paper in front of him and a mechanical pencil in his hand, poised on the edge. The images he’d collected from the day bursting like fireworks across the firmament of his consciousness, frequently gone the next day.
Needless to say he told no one that he was thinking of beginning. He went to the library and withdrew books by contemporary poets. It gave him an intense pleasure to into a section that no one ever went to and pull books with dust on their edges and faded, brittle pages, even the ones from two or three years ago. He felt like an archeologist on the hunt for treasures everyone else had missed. When he found what he was looking for, he’d know it. And no one would be around to share the discovery. That was how he wanted it.
The books themselves didn’t make a great deal of sense to him. But he liked the way the words were arranged, the scattered pieces on the page. He’d squint over them, as if looking for the pattern among lines casually discarded. After a short time of reading these slender volumes he began to feel that only on these pages would he find anything that even remotely resembled the kaleidoscope of colors and sounds and movements that seemed to ricochet in his own head every night when he got home. These are the only people who seem to be seeing the things that I see, he thought. But how do they get it down?
Yet nobody cared, nobody listened to these poets. The thought both saddened and electrified him. He wanted to be the sort of person that did things that few people bothered with. Poets are the true loners, he thought. They face it all individually and are the only ones among us willing to acknowledge the silence, the sadness, the sorrow.
Then there would be the occasional odd phrase or stanza of words that flew forth from the page and crashed into him like a large stone hurled at glass. It didn’t matter if it was related in any way to his experience. On the contrary, it was better if it wasn’t. He nearly stumbled across a long-dry well of tears under layers within himself when he read the Vietnam veteran poet’s words

Thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.

He could not imagine the sensations, the guilt-ridden but relieved anguish of living with that long descent, but he could feel its truth when he read those words, and he could see it, the small green pear-shaped object, rolling underneath the curled leaf of some fern in a thick jungle, startling in its failure.
That is what he wanted to do. Present a reader with a clear visual image, something that they could grasp, and then give them a sense of the immensity of that thing, that moment, that they would not have understood without his lines. The only problem – he didn’t know how to begin. He had never written a finished poem. He composed them in his mind but could not translate them onto the page.
It was only a strange coincidence that, late on that same Friday night, unable to sleep as he contemplated his maligned weekend, he had tried for an hour to come up with some lines to capture some of what he had seen and felt that day, and, failing in this, had turned on the television. And one of the first things he saw on the screen was the face of Charlie Rose, that late night interviewer guy, whose next words happened to be, ‘We’re back with Clayton Grassley, the youngest Poet Laureate of the United States in many decades. The official title, by the way,’ Rose added incidentally, ‘is the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.’
The television revealed a wiry man with a mostly barren, small head, tightly cropped graying hair on either side, thin wire glasses and multicolored stubble. He looked young at first, but as varying expressions inhabited his features, visible deltas appeared at the corners of his eyes where time had coursed through, perhaps for longer than observers might have expected. Mid- to late-40s? it was difficult to say. The poet wore a black t-shirt with white capital letters reading DON'T GO on it; this went unexplained. He looked slightly uneasy, but there was a measured calm about him as if a better judgment had prevailed over the forces of his anxiety. He expressed himself clearly and simply, as one might expect given his vocation, although that expectation might have been unfair.
Rose had asked him a question concerning how his life had changed since he was selected to succeed J.P. Floyd as Poet Laureate. Grassley was in the process of responding when John’s attention turned from his physical appearance to his words.
‘ …. my feelings are primarily gratitude and wonder. I have my own office, I have time to work and a little bit of financial resources. None of those things I ever had before. It’s a bit of a waking dream. Suddenly people are interested in what I have to say. I get invitations to talk to people. These are new experiences for a poet! It can get overwhelming.’
‘What would you say that it has cost you?’ Rose asked. ‘If anything.’
‘My boredom,’ said the poet, without hesitation. ‘I was accustomed to being only occasionally employed, frequently ignored, and unrecognized. Now that has changed to some small degree. I am not complaining about that, but obscurity is good for poetry.’
‘You want to recapture your boredom?’ Rose inquired, laughing.
‘Yes,’ Grassley joked. ‘It sounds ridiculous, but when this is all over, I want my boredom back.’
The screen went dark, the laughter of the men fading.

I want my boredom back. The thought echoed in John Francis Grimm’s head as he traveled under water on the PATH train on Sunday morning into New York again. Once on the sidewalk and making his way up Lexington to the office, reluctance weighing down every stride, he admitted that it was a ridiculous thought for him to have, since the truth was that his life was packed with barrels of boredom, oceans of it. But anything seemed preferable to what he was presently engaged in.
He made it to the office, alerted the doorman, who took a moment to scan the list his colleague had left for him with a skeletal finger. ‘Go ahead,’ said the old timer. ‘No one up there. I’ll have maintenance fire up the air conditioner.’
‘Thank you,’ John said. Fire up the air conditioner. He considered the paradox. Hurry up and wait. I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
Twenty minutes later, Ed called the office and found John Francis waiting, as expected. He was calling from a cell phone, that much was clear, and John could hear the occasional rustle of a brisk wind strafing the receiver. Like one might find on a coast or a beach.
‘Thanks for coming in,’ said the firm’s president, as if John had elected to do so on his own initiative.
‘It wasn’t a problem.’ John answered dutifully, and technically this was not a lie.
‘How are you going to deliver the proposal?’ Ed asked him.
‘I am producing it here and driving it down myself tonight. I will hand carry it in the morning to the Institute.’
‘Have you made the arrangements?’
‘Yes sir,’ said John, the formality reflecting his intimidation. ‘Uh, I have the car, directions, all I will need to is edit and produce. I have your signature on the letter and cover sheets.’
‘Great, great. That’s quite an effort you are making. We’ll have to build in some kind of comp time ….. expression of our gratitude for your hard work …..these opportunities require effort, teamwork …. appreciate the dedication.’ John was formatting his files, but heard most of what was said, more or less.
‘Thank you.’
‘Well, let’s go ahead and get started. I have numerous edits I’d like to ….. hey, Griffin, any idiot can see it’s burning on that side, flip it over ….excuse me.’ John heard papers rustling, or possibly more wind.
‘Ed, do you mind if I put you on speaker phone?’ John asked, out of courtesy.
The president chuckled. ‘Absolutely not. You’ll need your hands free. Besides, who else would be there on a Sunday morning?’ More laughter.

Ha ha ha, thought John silently.

Thoughts on reading The Aeneid (19 B.C.) for the first time in 2005

Awkward, long title for a post, I realize. But it gets the idea across, I hope. OK. The only purpose of this post is to throw out some of my random, scattered thoughts on what it is like to be reading an epic poem written in 19 B.C (a shot of perspective: that's some 700 years after Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey were written, or first told I should say -- from which The Aeneid borrows liberally, of course) in 2005, an age of smart bombs and identity theft and nanotechnology and multiculturalism and, well, blogging on something called the Internet.

Not that I am going to touch on any of those subjects. The point is, it's an interesting experience, as I was telling my wife the other night, to be reading something so old and (laying my cards right out on the table here) getting so much out of it. All I'm doing in this post is musing on why that's so, if such a reason can be found and/or described.

I run into my first difficulty right away because it's tricky for me to describe exactly what it is I am getting out of it. Is it practical life experience or knowledge? Not really. Reading an epic poem like this may help you out if you're at a party playing Trivial Pursuit or something (make you look cultured and all, I guess), but it certainly won't separate you from the pack in your next job interview, and (if you're single), it DEFINITELY won't impress the ladies. No, unless you find yourself touring the netherworld, founding a new empire or battling a mythical beast, The Aeneid isn't going to help you out too much in a practical sense. But of course, that's not at all why I'm reading it in the first place.

Is it for insight into human nature? Ah, that's a lot closer to the mark, I think. To me, it has always been fascinating to read works from different time periods and cultures (Mutt's great post a little while back on world literature hits on similar themes) to see how people around the world are different but, more significantly, how they are the same... and to read about how different cultures with different points of view tackle the old thorny questions we all struggle with (and always will). For example, in these ancient Greek and Roman myths, there are frequently long monologues from lovers either spurned, or brokenhearted due to the deaths or disappearances of their loved ones -- and it's fascinating to hear them relay their anguish, and to recognize so much of what they express from your own personal experiences. If you've loved you've probably lost, in one way or another, and when this kind of loss is accurately and poetically described, you'd have to be made of stone to not have it affect you in some way.

Most of us, of course, are not made of stone, and so it follows that most of us would have much to gain from reading an epic like The Aeneid, simply in terms of recognizing bits of ourselves in the characters and the very human emotions they struggle with. And yet, most of us can't imagine having the experience of gaining anything from a work like this. Why? Well, to put it very plainly, you can't gain anything from what you don't read, and wouldn't even consider reading. That sounds so obvious it borders on the superfluous, but I think it's worth articulating and thinking about anyway. The vast majority of people out there, of readers even, would never even think of finding an old dusty edition of The Aeneid or of, say, Ovid's poems and cracking into it to see what they might discover. This is not a put-down of any of them in any way, nor is it intended to somehow backhandedly prove my superiority to "most of us" because I happen to be reading one of these works. Rather, it is (or, it is now!) simply an honest exploration of the question, why do we feel these works aren't worth pursuing anymore?

Is it simply some form of mass cultural amnesia? We simply forget these works are out there, that they exist? I don't think that's it. Hell, every two years or so Hollywood is repurposing one of them for a new summer blockbuster, or they're being watered down into some cheesy made-for-cable TV miniseries. Then is it just the daunting time and effort that seems to be required to read such works? No doubt that's part of it, and to some degree it's certainly understandable. Notice how long the column on the right there says I've been reading The Aeneid -- and it's not because someone has been too lazy to update it. I don't know why in this day and age it seems like we all have less time to ourselves than people ever have before, but it does seem that way... it's almost as if there's some kind of inverse relationship between technological progress and time available to spend. (Which is ironic, since one of the drivers of technological progress is out instiable appetite for speed -- we want to not onle be able to do everything, but to do it faster.) At any rate, there's no doubt that reading a classic like this is going to require at least some kind of minimal commitment, or else there's not much point. The person who picks up Homer needs to be at least somewhat committed to finishing it, or else they're never going to see the end of it. And of course, we're not used to reading epic poetry either, with its rythm and meter and lyric way of expressing things, so there is effort required as well -- we need to "slow down" our minds as it were, to train ourselves not to keep looking forward for the payoff, for the action, but instead to savor the richness of the journey, the beauty of the language, and the wisdom of the storyteller.

Generally speaking, as a people (or as a culture), we're not being raised to appreciate stories anymore, especially long and meandering ones. There was a time when people would sit around camp fires and listen to these long tales of men and women locked in combat (actual and spiritual), grappling with monsters both without and within themselves, testing their mettle against the elements and the gods. Now, if you sit down and read one of these epics, you almost feel like you can't share the experience with someone else without them wondering whether you're working on a master's degree dissertation or a research project or something. If you were to tell them that you were reading it just to enrich yourself, to glean whatever human insight and moral wisdom can be found there, they might like at you as if you were from Mars. They might think to themselves, "You must have too much time on your hands." The idea that someone might actually set aside time specifically to read a classic today seems pretty odd to most people. Not too long ago, it would not have been considered odd, it would have been considered wise. You have to wonder when the decision was made that such practices are, in fact, a waste of time. You also have to wonder whether our forebears, as C. S. Lewis wondered, were actually smarter than we are, and whether progress means anything at all if it's not towards something worth having.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Something different: Mutt's first ever SERIALIZED short story

I hope the readers of this blog, of which there seem to be two of us, will allow this indulgence. I, Mutt Ploughman, am taking the liberty of conducting a literary experiment. I will be posting in numerous parts, on this blog and in the next several weeks, my first ever SERIALIZED short story. It may seem silly, since no one is really reading this anyway, but after discussing this with Duke Altum, who has given the concept his endorsement, I thought to myself that it achieves two things: 1) it pays tribute to the mighty Chuck D, a.k.a. Charles Dickens, who serialized his novels in magazines before they were published, and since I plan to take on 'Martin Chuzzlewit' soon, I am sort of in my annual Dickens spirit; and, 2) more importantly, it provides an interesting new way to motivate me to finish the writing of this story, which is only about 1/3 done with a first draft as of this morning. It will be an interesting experiment to me to try to push on with the story, which I don't even know that much about myself right now, knowing that I must keep abreast with my regular 'serialization' installments. One note: this will be presented as I write it, with very little editing. I would probably work on it more afterwards and hopefully it would become better than it will be here. That's the process.

Call me crazy, nerdy, silly, whatever - but if you want to read a new story, one you've never read before, stay tuned to this blog, and follow along as the creative process unfolds. Once it is complete, it would be great to get comments, but that's up to The Secret Thread readers, not me: my work, so to speak, will be done!

Without further ado, I give you:

START SOMETHING, a short story by Mutt Ploughman.

(Dedicated to my brother, Duke Altum.)

Part I.

He had only been working at the financial services firm in New York City for two months when John Francis Grimm’s boss stopped by his cubicle late on a Friday afternoon to inform him unofficially that his weekend was, in a word, shot.
‘The pricing discussions are nowhere near complete,’ said his boss. ‘Plus, Ed would like to review the final draft.’
There it is: my first weekend casualty, John observed inwardly. It didn’t take long.
‘Ed?’ John asked incredulously. Ed was the president of the firm. ‘I thought he was gone for the weekend.’
His boss slumped against the cubicle wall, as if trying to make things more casual. A pinned photograph of John’s 2-year-old niece dove to the desk surface. ‘Technically,’ he replied, ‘but he’d like a copy overnighted to his house in LBI. I have the address. Big opportunity, he wants to give the proposal his personal approval.’
John swallowed and nodded.
‘Not to worry, John. I’m looking it over. You’ve done fine for this early on.’
He nodded again, but was pondering another potential difficulty, and had not yet completed the equation in his mind, the resolution of which would have enlightened him about some of what he was in for in the next few days.
‘But the bid is due Monday morning in D.C.,’ he pointed out to his boss. ‘Assuming I can make changes tomorrow or Sunday in the document, and produce copies, how do we get it to the Institute by 9:00 a.m.?’
‘Someone’s going to have to hand deliver it,’ said his boss.
John just looked at him.
‘Look, John, I’m really sorry about this, but it’s part of the job. You know that. You can take the company car. I am going to have someone from Finance stop over in a bit with a credit card and the keys. Keep your receipts for the expense report.’
‘All right,’ John said. This would be a first for him, yet somehow he was not surprised.
‘I would love to come in and help you on Sunday maybe, but there’s this thing with my kids …. chaperone ….. you know the drill.’
I don’t see how I would, thought John. He was 29 and single, without prospects.

Great thing about these financial services firms – once they have determined to take over your weekend, they have the benevolence to allow you to go home just as soon as the logistics are put in place for your extra hours, and you can enjoy your Friday night with their patronizing assurance. Hence, John merely had to complete working on the ‘final’ draft of his proposal, talk to Finance about using a corporate card and filling out expense reports, consult Jerome in the physical plant about where to get the car, box up a copy of the draft and overnight it to the president, make arrangements with his boss to receive Ed’s revisions by phone on Sunday directly, and stop by the security checkpoint in the lobby to inform them of his expected arrival on Sunday morning. And by 7:00 p.m., 11½ hours after he had shown up, he was a free man.
True, by the time he made it home after his commute to Jersey, it would be past 9:00, but he could enjoy whatever was left of his evening.
As he emerged onto the street in New York, coming out of the high rise in which he worked, John pushed these matters out of his mind. Dwelling on them would cost him his sanity. Instead, he was determined to take solace in his observations of the urban summer evening unfolding around him. He was fascinated by the arrangement of images that could be found only in this city and in this time and place. A couple materialized in front of him out of a curtain of steam that groaned forth from a sewer; underworld retchings that remained unnoticed by most passersby. The man and woman held hands while both blathering into cell phones secured by the other hand.
Sunlight refracted from the polished glass on the Met Life tower fell directly onto a bed of purple flowers encased in concrete in an island in the middle of Madison Avenue. Taxicabs screamed in acceleration on both sides of the island. A rectangular bronze plaque in the midst of the flowers made sure onlookers recognized that their presence, the flowers’, was due to the ongoing commitment of JPMorganChase to keep the city beautiful.
Over the noise of the cars and the voices John heard the bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral tolling as they would have done when the cars were brougham carriages drawn by horses and the sound of hooves were the music of rush hour in another time. How wonderful that the bells still rang and that the church still stood. That every once in a while someone would enter into it for some private reason and put a quarter in a slot next to a red flame so that someone else would not be forgotten. While a few feet away next to the rich wood of a steadfast pew polished smooth by the repeated clutching of faithful hands, an old man on his final leg of the journey bent his afflicted knee and made the Sign of the Cross.
John’s mind, having drifted freely for a while as he walked to the PATH station, settled once again on what was for him a fundamental concern. The preservation of these images. The archiving of moments that, like the old man he’d imagined, would not last. Ever since he had left college life behind and had gone to work and to live on his own he had felt a desire to collect fragments of the world around him as he experienced it and to bundle them like wheat into some form of personal expression. It was only when he had begun working in New York that he had discovered a way he might do this, through his visits to book stores and coffee bars and readings at libraries.
This is how John Francis Grimm first began to compose his poems. He assembled them in his mind, if not yet on the page; for that was a leap he had not yet learned how to make.