Thursday, October 27, 2005

EXCLUSIVE, Coming Soon

Secret Thread readers, who ever may have seen my previous post on the novelist Stephen Wright (see 'A Great Writer is Set to Return....' in the archives), it's a great pleasure to be able to say that by virtue of some great advice from my friend and fellow writer RICHARD HOROWITZ, I managed to procure an ADVANCED COPY of Stephen Wright's new novel, 'The Amalgamation Polka'. I have read the novel, which represents a new direction in some ways for Wright, and is a book that I hope and believe will finally bring Wright the readers and the accolades that he so richly deserves.

In a short time, I will be posting here a review of the new novel, which I hope will generate interest in whoever might see it to pick up their own copy of the book, which is due in February 2006. Wright is clearly among the finest novelists working today, and this novel is a startling, at times searing, and ultimately redepmptive new chapter in a literary career that is quickly taking on the unmistakable aura of legend.

Be on the look out for Mutt Ploughman's Exclusive Advanced Review of Stephen Wright's 'The Amalgamation Polka'.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #12: A rare double-dip!

That's right folks, this week I am featuring 2 poems from the chosen poet. This is primarily because I love both selections and had a hard time choosing between the two... but it's also my way of paying homage to a man who, if we can speak (figuratively) of the "relationships" we form with our favorite writers, has been my longest and most trusted "friend." I have been reading and heartily enjoying his works since the second grade -- and I still have the old book reports in my files somewhere to prove it! He was a brilliant thinker and world-reknowned literary critic, philosopher, theologian, essayist, novelist, orator, Christian apologist and, last but certainly not least, writer of childrens' books. I believe every single one, or darn close to every one, of his scores of books are still in print. His name? Clive Staples (better known as C. S.) Lewis.

"Uncle Jack" (as I jokingly refer to him with Mutt) is not as well known (or well regarded) for his poetry, though he did actually write quite a bit of it. His first book was a collection of poems (Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics), and throughout his entire career he would publish, always either anonymously or under a pseudonym (my favorite of the pen names he used is "Nat Whilk" -- old English for "I know not whom"), poems in various literary journals and such. Although his poetry has not always been treated kindly by the critics, I personally find it to be heartfelt and earnest, often very moving, imaginative, and (perhaps most interestingly, to me anyway) deeply insightful into the private hopes, doubts, fears and joys that motivated this great writer at the very core of his being.

The first poem here was a selection largely inspired by my recent (and first) viewing of the BBC film version of the hit play Shadowlands, which (as many will already know) was based on the late marriage and deep love shared by Lewis and Joy Davidman, an American poet and critic. If you've seen the later Hollywood version but have not had the chance to see the earlier BBC film, I highly recommend you try and find the latter. It gets much closer to the thought and writings of the actual man (read: an infinitely superior script), and seems to portray the love between the two much more accurately in every way. This poem could almost work as a perfect synopsis of the entire play/film. Lewis suffered greatly in sitting by helplessly and watching her die of cancer (obviously this was written either in the midst of or just after her dying), but he also came to realize the extent of the gift God gave to him in her love, and seems to have learned something quite profound about grace and redemption in the agonizing process. (I love his witty, honest self-effacement here too: "I talk of love -- a scholar's parrot may talk Greek".) I find the last two lines deeply moving, and worth reflecting upon for anyone who is bound by the chains of love to another person. ("Love is not blind; it is bound." -G.K. Chesterton)

As for the second, it is just one of my very favorite poems from Lewis. I find it a fascinating take on the psychology, for lack of a better word, of faith and prayer... an imaginative expression of how it feels at times to pray, to receive pardon and grace in small quantities in the midst of our doubts and fears. It seems to me to be very honest and real in terms of the way prayer often feels, and yet, it is also somehow encouraging, urging us not to give up on the practice, but to "consent/To weariness, and pardon's watery element". I'm not even 100% sure what that means, but it feels and sounds authentic to me, when I think about what a struggle prayer can be at times, and how necessary it is to believe in its efficacy even when it seems to be moot and powerless. "Arise, my body, my small body, we have striven/Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven."

I hope you will find these poems of Lewis' as inspiring and interesting as I have... or, at the least, that this post will provide a somewhat new or different glimpse than what you'd seen previously into the extraordinary genius of mind/meekness of heart of the great C. S. Lewis, one of my all-time literary heroes.


As the Ruin Falls

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love --a scholar's parrot may talk Greek--
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.


After Prayers, Lie Cold

Arise my body, my small body, we have striven
Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven.
Arise small body, puppet-like and pale, and go,
White as the bed-clothes into bed, and cold as snow,
Undress with small, cold fingers and put out the light,
And be alone, hush'd mortal, in the sacred night, -
A meadow whipt flat with the rain, a cup
Emptied and clean, a garment washed and folded up,
Faded in colour, thinned almost to raggedness
By dirt and by the washing of that dirtiness.
Be not too quickly warm again. Lie cold; consent
To weariness' and pardon's watery element.
Drink up the bitter water, breathe the chilly death;
Soon enough comes the riot of our blood and breath.

Monday, October 24, 2005

An African-American 'Ulysses': Duke's scattered reflections upon getting halfway through Ellison's 'Invisible Man'

As the title to this post indicates, I am halfway through my first read of Ralph Ellison's monumental American classic, Invisible Man. It is a book that has long intrigued me, and yet for some reason I don't ever remember seeing on a syllabus for any English course in high school or in college. I am sure that is still being taught in schools; at least, I would hope so. But I don't recall ever hearing much about it beyond its title, author and famous first line (simply, "I am an invisible man."). When I learned as an adult that the author, when writing the book, was heavily influenced by such Western-canon epics as Moby Dick, In Search of Lost Time and Notes from Underground, my interest was piqued, and when I found that it was really the only major work of fiction Ellison ever wrote, I was downright fascinated. I knew it was a large tome and I began to have the impression that Mr. Ellison poured all that he knew into this one massive work, that when he had completed it he had said nearly all he had to say. He had given almost everything in producing this one towering epic that is still widely known and discussed today, some fifty years later. What was in this book that gave it such lasting influence and power? And why did it seem to cost Ellison so much to write? I remember having such thoughts a good ten years ago, but, for whatever reason, it wasn't until now that I finally took the plunge and cracked the spine of Invisible Man, very curious as to what I would discover and learn there.

There are other reasons that I wanted to read the book, of course. One of the reasons I am, and always will be, constantly reading is to educate myself, to open up whole worlds and ideas to my mind that would otherwise be foreign to my experience. Certainly the experience of the African people and their descendents in this country falls firmly into that category. Slavery, of course, is The Great, Permanent Blot on our young country's record, the shame of our nation that will never leave us entirely, despite attempts to ignore or dismiss it as simply a less-than-admirable chapter in our history. Being a child of Western Europe myself, I have often wondered what it must feel like for those who carry around the awareness that their ancestors were bought and sold like cattle in this country... how this knowledge must, even today, shape their thoughts about their own identity and calling in this nation that claims to lead the world in democracy, justice and human rights. The suffering of an entire race of people pumps through their veins every day. How would that realization affect the way that I lived my life, if I were an African-American? (Although I must mention here for balance that my own ancestors, Catholic immigrants in the Midwest, weren't exactly welcomed with open arms either in this Protestant country -- Catholics too knew something of the pain of discrimination.)

Ellison bravely took on this immense, painful topic -- the experience of the African-American in this country in the days after the Reconstruction. He seemed to want to write a bildungsroman with this monumental theme serving as the dark backdrop, the ever-present reality that colors every single experience and encounter of his hero, no matter how insignificant they may seem. This is the first of many similarities, in my opinion, between Ellison's work and another sprawling epic that marks the experience of a people -- James Joyce's Ulysses. If Ulysses could be characterized as an attempt to express what it felt like to be an Irishman in Dublin in the early half of the 20th century, Invisible Man certainly seeks to portray what it felt like to be African-American in the South and, later, in Harlem in the second half of the same century. And both books, though they follow a single character as he goes from encounter to bewildering encounter, trying to make sense of all that he takes in through his senses, undoubtedly are about more than that person's individual life. (Chronologically, the experiences of the unidentified narrator of Ellison's book cover a lot more ground than one day; nevertheless, as I go along with him through a series of strange, disjointed, jarring experiences, I am powerfully reminded of what it felt like to "walk" alongside Leopold Bloom through the tangled streets of Dublin on that ordinary June day in 1916.)

On the surface, the narrative of the book seems pretty simple (again, like in Ulysses): a nameless black man recounts the experiences he has lived through as he graduates high school, secures a scholarship to a negro college, goes to the college, and then enters into the working world. However, just like with Joyce, these details are merely the scaffolding upon which a much larger, more ambitious structure is built. As is often the case with Bloom, here we live in the mind of the narrator, experiencing his fears, doubts, anxieties, anger and confusion, which usually result from the humiliation he experiences at the hands of people who don't understand him (interestingly, these people are black just as often as they are white). We follow him through a series of bewildering scenes and experiences in locales as diverse as black-tie galas, university campuses, sharecropper farms, brothels, Harlem neighborhoods, high-powered corporate offices in glittering skyscrapers, factories, union meetings and street riots (remember, I am only reporting on half of the book!)... and all the while, our hero puzzles over questions of memory, racism and identity as he struggles to find his own place in the world and live up to his own fierce ambitions and expectations.

No doubt about it: this is a strange, rich, exhaustive, at times frustrating, complex book, with many layers and symbols and themes running through it like so many colored threads in a tangled ball of yarn. But it's also one of those books that accumulates power and force as it goes along, establishing a rhythm and a voice that gets underneath your skin and lodges itself into your mind and heart, refusing to let go. The title character, at least so far, seems to be totally confused as to what's going on around him for most of the book, and that's pretty much how I've felt reading it (in all honesty). And yet, I am fascinated by the raw emotion, the energy, the pure passion that is driving Ellison's narrative, a passion that hurtles and howls like a freight train. It is so very clear that this man opened every vein he could find and let it bleed, rooted through every dark place of his heart and mind haunted by the spectre of racism and drug all of his fears, hopes and frustrations into the light. Ellison said that the plight of his people in America, the journey from the frying pan of slavery into the slow-burning fire of discrimination and segregation, was material that would rank right up there with that of the 19th century Russian and European novelists, if someone had the guts to explore it without compromise. The sheer struggle of the black man fighting first for freedom and then for dignity in America is an epic in its own right, but it lacked a Homer to present it to our imaginations. Which brings us back to my comparison to Ulysses. Joyce used The Odyssey as his template because the whole story he wanted to tell was, he knew, much larger than the sum of its parts. The same could be said for Invisible Man, and if Ellison can't be called the Homer of the African-American experience, I don't know who can.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #11

Denise Levertov was an extraordinary voice in modern American poetry. An adult convert to Christianity, her spiritually-charged poetry is at its most powerful when musing on the wonders of the natural world, and the mysteries of faith. Her take on the oldest story in the book (literally) -- that of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden -- is fresh, insightful and wise. She reminds us of the profound truth that things are not as they were meant to be, that we are drunk on ourselves... and that, despite all this, there is still hope for us. Intriguing title too, is it not?



The tree of knowledge was the tree of reason.
That's why the taste of it
drove us from Eden. That fruit
was meant to be dried and milled to a fine powder
for use a pinch at a time, a condiment.
God had probably planned to tell us later
about this new pleasure.
We stuffed our mouths full of it,
gorged on but and if and how and again
but, knowing no better.
It's toxic in large quantities; fumes
swirled in our heads and around us
to form a dense cloud that hardened to steel,
a wall between us and God, Who was Paradise.
Not that God is unreasonable – but reason
in such excess was tyranny
and locked us into its own limits, a polished cell
reflecting our own faces. God lives
on the other side of that mirror,
but through the slit where the barrier doesn't
quite touch ground, manages still
to squeeze in – as filtered light,
splinters of fire, a strain of music heard
then lost, then heard again.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #10

This week's poem comes from an all-time master of the craft, Rainer Maria Rilke. I chose it not only because it seems to be appropriate for the season, but also because, though I can't claim to fully grasp (as with most of Rilke's deep, profound poetry) its meaning, I really like the mood of the thing -- the potent mix of wistfulness and expectation... appreciation for beauties found and mourning for beauties lost. The miracle of this poem is that it somehow manages to capture in words the gift and the pain of autumn -- that final fireburst of color before the world slips into the gray pall of winter. And of course, it seems to say something profound about our lives too, although it's beyond me to describe exactly what that is. I just sense it at the level of the heart (not the head) when I read the words of the poem.


Autumn Day

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Troubled Guest on the Dark Earth

And so long as you haven’t experienced this,
To die and so to grow,
You are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "The Holy Longing"

I'm not sure if it was coincidence or what, but coming across these famous final lines of Goethe's poem just a day or two after having finished the remarkable stories of Breece D'J Pancake seemed almost too perfect to be an accident. "A troubled guest on the dark earth"... anyone who reads the stories from this amazing writer and then immediately goes on to lament, as we all must, his tragic suicide at the age of 26 will understand why the phrase fits. One slim volume of short stories is all the world ever got from Pancake before he took his own life -- and while I would never call it "enough" (the word could never be even considered when describing art of this magnitude), I will say that as soon as I had read them, I knew why they were still in print and still being read, and also why they will continue to be read as long as there is a recognized category known as "American literature."

Reading The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake was, for me anyway, one of those incredibly rare experiences in which your mind is re-calibrated, your understanding of what fiction is capable of doing forever expanded. In my reading life, I can think of only three other writers whose short stories have had such an impact on my imagination: Flannery O'Connor, Franz Kafka and Eudora Welty. The cumulative effect of reading the 12 stories (the whole of his entire ouevre) in succession went far beyond the emotional realm for me and almost into the physical. The dark, gloomy, lonely mood of the stories feels like it's settling on you even as you read them, like a wet fog. You feel like shuddering as you read some of them, and you're not sure if it's because of the emotional power of the writing, or because a cold draft just went through the room.

Pancake's stories were recommended to me by a friend and colleague of mine at the office, and though I had heard of him once or twice (a name like that is hard to forget), I didn't know a darn thing about him or his work. I always figured the name was just a crazy nom de plume or something, so my first surprise (as it must be for most people new to his work) was that it was indeed his real name -- well, almost. His given name was actually Breece Dexter Pancake, but when one of his stories was accepted by The Atlantic Monthly while he was in college, he received a proof back from them and there was a typo in his name. He was so amused by it that he asked them to leave it as is, and that's how the name Breece D'J Pancake came to be.

Pancake was born and raised in rural West Virginia, and all of his stories focus on the landscape and the people of his native state. His knowledge of that landscape seems to run so deep that it actually plunges below the surface, surveying not only the farms and factories and workers that reside upon the land, but also the geographic and geologic history trapped within the earth itself (as in the well-known first story in the collection, 'Trilobites'). And he was somehow able to so identify with the poor, working-class people of the region -- mechanics, coal miners, amateur boxers, dock workers, organizers of illegal cockfighting -- that his expressions of their struggles, heartbreaks and worries seem almost impossible, as if he just knew their lives in a way you couldn't possibly know them by simple observation. After all, he was not the poor hillbilly he sometimes put himself off to be in his days as a graduate student at the snobbish University of Virginia -- his background was solidly middle class. And yet, he obviously took to heart the loneliness and struggle of the lower class in his home state, and poured out this pent-up frustration and hopelessness in stories so well crafted, so desolate and moving, that you find yourself wondering just how it was that a 20-ish kid from Appalachia could express such deep anguish with such, well, amazing grace.

The stories are bleak, spare and uncompromising in their portrayal of human loneliness and yearning. In 'Hollow,' a coal miner tries to counterbalance his miserable existence in the mines by drinking (and brawling) in the local biker bar one night and trying to keep his girlfriend from leaving him, all the while remembering his father who never made it out of the mines either. He wakes up hung over, lying on his trailer floor, his girlfriend gone and a new day of work dawning. The nameless protagonist of the haunting 'A Room Forever' is a lonely tugboat worker with a dangerous job who drifts through sorry river towns searching for someone to connect with. He leaves his $8-per-night seedy hotel room on New Year's Eve looking for some kind of human contact, sleeps with a teenage runaway and later finds her half-dead in an alley behind a bar, but does nothing to try and help her. 'The Scrapper' is a violent and unforgettable tale of an amateur boxer who refuses to hang up the gloves, even when he's beaten half to death in some back-alley slugfest. He seems to have a hunger for violence he can't let go of. 'The Honored Dead' powerfully portrays the guilt of a man who returns home to West Virginia after running away to avoid the Vietnam draft, only to find that he's unable to escape the memory of his best friend who went and was killed there. And in the final story, the heartbreaking 'First Day of Winter,' a young man who yearns for escape finds himself struggling to keep afloat the failing family farm while caring for his two elderly parents, receiving no help or sympathy from his older brother and falling into the prison of bitterness and regret.

These descriptions sound conventional enough, but the stories themselves are anything but. I wish I could convey how remarkably written and emotionally jarring these stories are, but I just can't find the words. I've re-written parts of this post 3, 4 times but I just can't seem to get across the atmosphere and the harsh beauty of Pancake's writing. In these simple, economic stories he somehow seems to capture the essence of human longing, loneliness and desire for communion and forgiveness. And by all accounts, he was a man who struggled for connection and acceptance himself, yet somehow never found what he was looking for (despite, interestingly, his conversion to Catholicism about a year before his death). You feel his tragic and untimely death, of course, as you read his work, almost as you would sense someone looking over your shoulder, and it only adds to the power of the experience.

There's so much more I could say about Pancake's work, and yet, for some reason, I can't find a way to say it. These stories are absolutely remarkable. Both they and he (not literally, but the thought of his incredible talent and obvious moral and spiritual seriousness being lost to his unfulfilled needs) have haunted my thoughts almost non-stop since I finished the book. Suffice it to say that I can't recommend these stories forcefully enough. You may or may not enjoy them, but I guarantee this: you will not forget them.