Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #23

This week's poem, stunning in its simplicity and originality, comes from the contemporary American poet Paul Mariani (one of my personal favorites). It is the kind of poem that makes me shake my head slowly in wonder, amazed at the fascinating connections that poets are able to make between concepts or occurences that appear on the surface to have no connection whatsoever.

All real poets seem to have an innate sense of metaphor. Aristotle said as much a long, long time ago in his Poetics, and I think it has always been the case. If a poem were to be judged on the strength of its chosen metaphor alone (not that one should be), this one would be hard to beat in my opinion. To me, the image of the lonely spacecraft drifting out into cold and empty space, beyond the reach of any machine or technology we possess to communicate with it and into a fate completely unknown to us, is a jaw-dropping metaphor for the death of a loved one. I vividly remember following the discoveries and trajectories of the two Voyager spacecrafts in grade school in the late 70's/early 80's, and I also have a faint recollection of a news story I heard one day saying that the first Voyager craft had "drifted out of range forever." Even as a kid I remember thinking to myself, "I wonder what's going to happen to it now," and feeling a strange sense of sadness about it. I'm not making this up. I always wondered what might have happened to those things. Are they still out there, drifting? (More intriguingly, are they still sending signals back home, even though the party at the other end of the line dropped off a long time ago???)

So when, years later as an adult, I read this poem, I felt the emptiness and utter loneliness that Mariani is trying to convey acutely, even though I had not lost my mother or anyone truly close to me (with the exception of some of my grandparents). I love the haunting way in which Mariani weaves the strands of humanity and technology together, writing of machines anthropomorphically ("to bend her shattered wings across her breast for warmth"), and of human beings as if they were machines ("just how many years ago she logged off"). And on that last chilling line, we are left to wonder, Did she log off before or after she had died? And was it willingly, or unwillingly? Mariani doesn't make these things clear, and it adds to the already-profound sadness of the poem.

This poem is Mariani at his very best: deeply personal, inherently spiritual, and profoundly human. Despite its somewhat despairing tone, it awakens in me a vivid appreciation of how precise and powerful a tool poetry can be in our efforts to sort out the tangled mess of our inner lives.



Beyond the moon, beyond planet blue
and planet red, each day further
from the sun she floats out toward

the empty dark of X. Having done
what she was sent out years before
to do, she gave up sending even

the faintest signals back to earth,
to bend instead her shattered wings
across her breast for warmth. It is

late, he knows, and knows it will only
go on getting later. He shifts alone
in the late November light before

her grave, as so often he has done
these past five years, to try
and finish what he knows to be

unfinished business and must remain
that way: this one-way dialogue
between the self, and--in her absence--

the mother in himself. Epilogue, perhaps,
to what one man might do to heal
the shaken ghost which must at last admit

just how many years ago she logged off
on her journey. So that now, as darkness
drops about him like some discarded coat,

old but useful, such as his mother used
to wear, he takes it to him, much as
she did, to ward against the cold.

Monday, January 30, 2006


Mutt brought this to my attention and I have to share it here, just on the basis of principle. For those of you who have been following the whole Oprah Winfrey/James Frey A Million Little Pieces scandal, David Carr of the New York Times gives the whole affair some badly-needed perspective in an editorial running today. The essence of it, as Mutt pointed out, is captured in the first line and paragraph, and the last line. His piece is worth reproducing here in full, not just to highlight the differences between mediocre and great books, but also to shine a bright, hard spotlight on the way in which we turn celebrities into gurus, without bothering to check their supposed credentials. (How is it that Oprah Winfrey gets to publicly rebuke an entire industry because of her own poor judgment?) In our time, if a brand gets popular enough, it becomes a source of authoratative wisdom!?! I guess this is what happens to a culture once it's jettisoned all of its traditional and historical sources of authority... pretty sad...


How Oprahness Trumped Truthiness
(by David Carr, New York Times, January 30 2006)

FOOL millions, make millions. Fool Oprah, lord help you.

James Frey, the author of "A Million Little Pieces" — which could yet become the first book ever to lead both the fiction and nonfiction best-seller lists — reported to the set of "Oprah" on Thursday to complete his public abasement. Ms. Winfrey turned on him with calculated efficiency, using him to mop up the floor and clean up her reputation at the same time.

She did not stop there, going on to lecture Nan A. Talese, the head of Doubleday, about the need for the book industry to be more careful in choosing what to stand behind — good advice, from someone who should know. Her show was a tutorial in how to take responsibility and deflect it to others at the same time; by the end, the truth and Ms. Winfrey were aggrieved in equal measure.

But the battle cry to reform the book industry was really just an effort to repair the specific damage to Ms. Winfrey's own lustrous brand. Last year, Ms. Winfrey had put some Oprah's Book Club lightning on "A Million Little Pieces" and it ended up selling 3.5 million copies. Even after the Smoking Gun (
http://www.thesmokinggun.com/) blew giant holes in Mr. Frey's version of his life, Mr. Winfrey continued to defend him — calling in during "Larry King Live" in his defense — until it was clear that it was not just his reputation that was taking a pounding.

How was it that "A Million Little Pieces" came to pose an asymmetric threat to both the book industry and Ms. Winfrey? The book never seemed to be a big issue among people I talked to who were recovering from addictions — most of them thought he was full of beans. But for a broader aspirational audience, his triumph over addiction was both unbelievable and totally believable.

And no one knows the cycle of triumph, abasement and rehabilitation better than Ms. Winfrey, who embodies bootstrap excellence. Perhaps that may be part of the reason she fell so hard for James Frey, who threw off his chains without, as Newsweek pointed out, any of those "wussy 12-step programs."

ALTHOUGH Mr. Frey, unlike Ms. Winfrey, was a child of privilege who had to walk a long way to find trouble and inflict it on himself, his book's underlying message about the strength of individual will and stubbornness — he seemed to sober up out of spite more than anything else — was too compelling to put down for Ms. Winfrey, who had been told that she was doing it the wrong way ever since she started to build her media empire.

But, in her own way, in her own time, she came to understand that she had been had by Mr. Frey. Thursday, she opened the show by looking directly into the camera and saying, "I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter. And I am deeply sorry about that, because that is not is what I believe."

But what started as a mea culpa soon turned into j'accuse. Both Mr. Frey and Ms. Talese were snapped in two like dry winter twigs. A Greek chorus of media types (including from The
New York Times), ostensibly on hand to provide third-party context to examine Ms. Winfrey's enthrallment with a con, mostly fell into step as well. Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist who had written that Ms. Winfrey was "deluded," was beaming and describing her as "mensch of the year."

By the time the program was over, she was surrounded by carnage, but she did not have a hair out of place. "I believe the truth matters," she concluded to thunderous applause.

And so it does. With network news crippled and major newspapers suspect, Ms. Winfrey is regarded as a bulwark of veracity. But as this episode proves, she can be had when a narrative bends to her belief system or touches on her sense of moral outrage.

Just last September, she visited New Orleans after the flood and spoke with Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Chief Edwin P. Compass III about life inside the Superdome. "We had little babies in there, some of the little babies getting raped," the mayor said. "They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."

Not much of that was true either, but there was no well-considered corrective, no royal summons for the mayor and police chief to come to Chicago and explain themselves. In that case, the damage done was to the reputation of a flooded city, not the Brand Called Oprah.
How strong is that brand? Consider that Ms. Winfrey is about to set new standards and principles for an industry that she does not belong to. "The book industry has been deeply embarrassed and I think that her show pointed up the disconnect between publishing and the real world," said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly.

If Mr. Frey is the pathogen, then Ms. Winfrey will be the catalyst. Look for a great deal of noise about fact-checking and the book industry's sacred trust with the reader.

"I think whether it is going to be a fig leaf or an honest attempt to make sure we are a bastion of accuracy, something is going to happen," said David Hirshey, executive editor of HarperCollins (a subsidiary of the
News Corporation).

But Ms. Winfrey will not fix the book business any more than she fixed television when she dumped the tabloid elements of her show years ago. She is a cultural Dustbuster, someone who cleans up messes by living her values and focusing on what is good and right. Her willingness to put both her wealth and her mouth on the line has improved lives in South Africa, raised much-needed money for New Orleans and made any number of afflictions household names.

She is also a force for good because she reminds people staring at the television that there is a big wide world of words out there. Sales of "Night,"
Elie Wiesel's holocaust memoir, are already beginning to soar as her next book club selection, demonstrating that her taste and title-making abilities are undiminished.

But she won't repair the book business by a wag of the finger. The most important thing that Ms. Winfrey can do for publishing is pick better books.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Thoughts on Chuck D, and specifically, 'Martin Chuzzlewit': Part II

Consistently referred to as one of Dickens' weaker novels overall, there is still a great deal to recommend the novel "Martin Chuzzlewit" to those who appreciate the full-throated, maximalist experience of a 19th century novel. Of these, there is certainly no writer who deserves more merit than Dickens.

This novel was published in 1843, on the heels of his "American Notes", the nonfiction account of his first visit to the United States as a literary celebrity. Despite his great popularity in America, which he continued to enjoy until his death, Dickens was evidently rather disillusioned with this country. I have not read his "Notes", so I can't comment on them, but if "Chuzzlewit" is any indication, he was not terribly impressed with our citizens or our system of government, and was fast to point out disparities, as he saw them, between the ideals this nation was founded on, and Americans' abilities to live up to those ideals. As I stated in my previous comments, this novel is not for strict patriots who don't want to see our country dissed. It gets dissed good in this novel; and yet, interestingly enough, the American portions of the book are almost inconsquential to the rest of the story. The story goes that he shipped his character, Martin Chuzzlewit the younger, and the namesake of the book, to America just because the sales of the serialization of the book as he was writing it lagged. So, he sent them to America to take some pot shots at us to stir up some interest in the story. Whether it worked or not, who knows. But in any case, the characters return 3/4 of the way through the book and join the rest of the cast for the novel's conclusion.

Dickens novels are hard to summarize, but this one is about two elderly brothers, Martin and Anthony Chuzzlewit, and their sons, Martin (the younger) and Jonas, respectively. Martin the elder is a rich man but has disinherited his son at the novel's outset; many of the other characters in the novel spend much of the time jockeying for position to inherit his money, including the reprehensible buffoon Mr. Peckniff, a sham 'architect' who takes Martin the younger in as his pupil. When Pecksniff and his pupil have a falling out, Martin (younger) shoves off for America with his assistant, Mark Tapley, in search of his fortune, which leaves Jonas in place as Chuzzlewit's relative to make his name. The novel contrasts the journeys, both literal and metaphorical, of the younger Chuzzlewits, Jonas and Martin. Martin experiences disease, poverty and defeat, ultimately forced to return home, but learning valuable lessons and salvaging his character in the end. Jonas, on the other hand, merely an irritating, spoiled child at the beginning, descends into a vortex of his own greed and connivance, and is corrupted into something wholly evil, capable of just about anything to advance his own ends.

The book contains numerous subplots and the usual assortment of memorable Dickens characters: the aforementioned Pecksniff; the childishly innocent Tom Pinch, who remains loyal to the Chuzzlewits come what may; Mary Graham, who tends to the health of old Martin and is betrothed to Martin the younger; Nasgett, the undercover police officer who serves Martin the older; Mrs. Gamp, the blustery nurse whose main purpose is the collection of gossip.

The great thing about Dickens novels to me are the way his long, ambling plots ultimately tie in at the end with great flourish and sudden twists and turns. Dickens' flair for the dramatic serves his long novels well, as each surprise, when it comes, carries the punch of a great stage entrance and a trumpeting of music. You're not going to find a lot of subtlety in his books, but what you always do get is great storytelling, entertainment, social commentary, rich humor, and above all for me, incredibly vivid and diverse characterization. Many Dickens novels have over 50 characters. In this particular novel, there is an outstanding murder scene in which Dickens ratchets up the tension considerably for many pages, creates a cinematically chilling scene of the murder itself, and convincingly evokes the desperation and tormented conscience of the killer after he performs his deed. This character ultimately receives his comeuppance, but not before he struggles mightily on the hook in a series of episodes that might have done Dosteovsky proud.

In the end, all of the secrets are revealed. Thrillingly, in "Martin Chuzzlewit", the power of sheer storytelling and the triumph of goodness over selfishness and greed are once again vindicated by a great novelist and a 'grandfather' to all of us who attempt to write stories.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #22

This week's selection reminds me of an ant: it may not look like much at first glance, but upon further scrutiny, it becomes clear that the little thing can carry a lot of weight. The 20th century poet Jean Follain was well-known and admired for his brief, dream-like verses (he liked to call them "miniatures") which capture simple moments and inbue them with universal significance. That is certainly the case with t his little gem, which I really admire for the way it transforms an act as simple and common as the kicking of a can along a frozen road into a comment on, of all things, man's lonesome place in the universe. What could the kick of a discarded can possibly tell us about the human condition? In the hands of the right poet, quite a bit indeed. Somehow, the emptiness of the can reminds us of the "God-shaped vacuum" inside every human heart (Pascal).

If this poem first strikes you as being about nothing, read it again. Then again. Imagine that dark, frozen road without a soul around. Think of how you'd feel listening to the echo of the can dissipate into the night. Now, in the picture in your mind, don't those stars seem to shine a little colder?


Music of Spheres

He was walking a frozen road
in his pocket iron keys were jingling
and with his pointed shoe absent-mindedly
he kicked the cylinder
of an old can
which for a few seconds rolled its cold emptiness
wobbled for a while and stopped
under a sky studded with stars.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #21 -- Two from Szymborska

Interestingly enough (and very much unplanned), this is the fourth different Polish poet to be featured in my regular POTW series... and the second Polish poet to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1996): Wislawa Szymborska. I readily admit that I am not all that familiar with her work and actually own none of her works; however, the few poems of hers (relative to her entire output of them, I am sure) that I have read have struck me with their grace, honesty and deep humanity. You only need read one or two of them to know immediately that you are in the hands of someone with a very unique and interesting take on the world, and some of her lines cut and chill to the bone. I have no doubt you'll recognize some such lines here.

There are several of her poems I really wanted to share here, but in the interests of space, I settled upon two very different ones... what fascinates me about the first one is not so much the inventiveness of it, but in the various questions and phrases she selects to represent this well-known myth. We can all find ourselves in there somewhere. As for the second, I just love the atmosphere of it, which is hard to describe, but it hits me as both frightening and yet, faintly optimistic in some way. It may not have occurred at precisely 4 A.M., but I know that I (for one) have experienced at least one "hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us"... and lived to tell about it. Wit and wisdom abounds in what I've seen of Szymborska's poetry.


The Tower of Babel

"What time is it?" "Oh yes, I'm so happy;
all I need is a little bell round my neck
to jingle over you while you're asleep."
"Didn't you hear the storm? The north wind shook
the walls; the tower gate, like a lion's maw,
yawned on its creaking hinges." "How could you
forget? I had on that plain grey dress
that fastens on the shoulder." "At that moment,
myriad explosions shook the sky." "How could I
come in? You weren't alone, after all." "I glimpsed
colors older than sight itself." "Too bad
you can't promise me." "You're right, it must have been
a dream." "Why all these lies; why do you call me
by her name; do you still love her?" "Of course,
I want you to stay with me." "I can't
complain. I should have guessed myself."
"Do you still think about him?" "But I'm not crying."
"That's all there is?" "No one but you."
"At least you're honest." "Don't worry,
I'm leaving town." "Don't worry,
I'm going." "You have such beautiful hands."
"That's ancient historv; the blade went through,
but missed the bone." "Never mind, darling,
never mind." "I don't know
what time it is, and I don't care.”


Four in the Morning

The hour from night to day.
The hour from side to side.
The hour for those past thirty.

The hour swept clean to the crowing of cocks.
The hour when earth betrays us.
The hour when wind blows from extinguished stars.
The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us.

The hollow hour.
Blank, empty.
The very pit of all other hours.

No one feels good at four in the morning.
If ants feel good at four in the morning--
three cheers for the ants. And let five o'clock come
if we're to go on living.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Thoughts on Chuck D, and Specifically, "Martin Chuzzlewit": Part I

CHARLES DICKENS, who I like to call my man Chuck D, truly was the man. "The master of the novel in English" is a legitimate catch phrase to use when you're talking about Chuck. Although his style of writing would never fly today (he'd get shredded by agents and publishers in trying to sell his voluminous manuscripts in our time), his epic stories are the ultimate standard to measure any novel of some heft against, and if there are better novels out there that combine social commentary, satire, characterization and plotting, I haven't come across them. Dickens novels have it all. It takes a while to appreciate how truly brilliant they are, just as it takes a serious time commitment to read even one of them, but what I have found since around 2000 when I re-discovered Dickens is that one's efforts are substantially rewarded when they commit that time. Ok, so about a hundred million other literature fans already knew this, but hey: it takes me a while to come to the table sometimes.

I could get an entire blog going on Dickens alone, and I am sure they exist. But this being the time of year when I am completing my annual Dickensfest (I make sure to read one Dickens novel per year, usually in the late summer or fall - I started late for the 2005 version, and it skipped over), I wanted to write down some thoughts about his work and about this year's selection, which as I have already mentioned about eight hundred times on this blog, is Martin Chuzzlewit.

My unimpressive history reading Dickens is nothing to crow about. I haven't always been a fan. I know for a fact I was assigned to read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities while a freshman in high school. I also know for a fact that I completely blew those assingments off. I couldn't stand a single word of the books and barely tried. I saw a lot of versions of A Christmas Carol, of course, growing up, even watched my sister act in one of them, but I had never read the story. I don't think I actually read a Dickens book before I turned 30 years old.

But by that time, it was dawning on me that I was really dropping the ball, if I was interested in writing novels or stories myself, not to read and appreciate Charles Dickens. I started to reluctantly accept the fact that I would have to slog through at least the high points of his catalogue. Then, when I turned 30, leave it to my man & twin brother Duke Altum to set me straight: he purchased the novel A Tale of Two Cities for my birthday. That was one of two events that permanently got me on board the Dickens train. Shortly after my birthday that year I happened to travel to London for the first time. During the trip, I brought and devoured Tale, which I loved, FAR more than I thought I would. I was already hooked, but then something REALLY exciting went down. I happened to be in London with a friend from work who was into the theater. So he was a Dickens fan too. While we were still in London, he suggested, insisted in fact, that we take advantage of a "Charles Dickens Walking Tour" they offer there, in which a character actor, dressed in Dickens-era clothing, meets you at a particular location, and proceeds to guide the group on a tour throughout various parts of the city, stopping at numerous sites that are featured in Dickens' novels. I remember the guide clearly, an older woman who had an exceptionally good presentation style and an encyclopedic knowledge of Dickens' works. I suppose it was a combination of her skills and the locations themselves that drew me into the world of Dickens' novels forever, but the tour changed my outlook permanently on Charles Dickens. We saw the chancery court featured in Bleak House, a bank from A Tale, various street locations from Oliver Twist, prisons, factories, and a wharf area from Our Mutual Friend, the actual model for The Old Curiosity Shop, among other things, and it totally fascinated me. The London of the Dickens era can still be seen in the buildings, and my mind was filled with images that have stayed with me. After these experiences, there was no more looking back: I was going to read Dickens. I was going to read EVERYTHING.

After that, I went on to read Our Mutual Friend in 2002, Bleak House in 2003, and Dombey and Son in 2004. So far my favorites are probably "A Tale" (shorter Dickens read by his standards) and "Our Mutual Friend" (his last completed novel; NOT short!). Which brings me up to the book I am 3/4 of the way through now, "Chuzzlewit". "Chuzzlewit" is in some ways unlike all of the other Dickens books I know about. It is the only one of his novels partially set in America. It was published immediately following his first visit to the USA in the 1840s, where he was treated like a rock star. But his admiring treatment didn't have a positive effect on his view of our country. "Chuzzlewit" contains numerous overt and exaggerated slams on American society and government. If you are a sensitive patriotic type, to the extent that anti-American slurs written in the 19th century would upset you, stay away from "Martin Chuzzlewit"!!

More on this novel, which is very interesting and worthwhile despite the above, in Part II.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

St. Justin Martyr (A.D. 100? - A.D. 165): A Worthy Patron for "The Thread"

In the book I am currently making my way through (The Church Unfinished: Ecclesiology Through the Centuries by Dr. Bernard Prusak), I found a fascinating passage on the great pillar of the Early Church and martry for the faith, St. Justin. Now St. Justin is a figure that I have been interested in ever since I returned to my Catholic roots -- about 5 years ago, to be exact, when I read an astounding passage from his First Apology in Defense of the Christians that practically knocked me off of my feet (that in itself is another long and interesting story... the passage I'm referring to there describes the celebration of the Eucharist that Christians in the 2nd century would engage in on "the Lord's Day," that is, every Sunday -- what blew me away about it is that it is almost an exact description of the Catholic Mass still celebrated in the same way all over the world in this, the 21st century... it was a moment of breakthrough for me about the value and continuity of the Catholic tradition across two millennia... to think that we are engaging in the same liturgies as those early heroes and martyrs!... all of a sudden the strange concept of the "communion of saints" that transcended the boundaries of space and time became a lot more clearer to me... but I digress!). I've always wanted to read his Apology along with his justly famous Dialogue with Trypho, although I have yet to do so.

Anyway, the passage in Prusak's book is worth quoting in full, because it describe's St. Justin's passion for truth and commitment to seeking it out wherever it can be found, which is a passion that this blog also tries to cultivate and encourage. To be a serious reader of great literature is, in our book anyway (no pun intended!), to be a serious seeker of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. Needless to say, this is an old concept, as this commentary about St. Justin makes clear:

"As a philosopher who had become a believer, Justin remained in dialog with the world beyond the Church and critically accepted the positive insights he found. In his view, all truth reflected a participation in the divine Word or Logos, which had seminally permeated the created universe as the source of all life and rationality and then became incarnate in Jesus (John 1: 1, 14). Justin's openness and his efforts to explain Christian faith in ways that were intelligible and attractive to the nonbelieving intellectuals of his time initiated a further Hellenization of the Jesus movement, beyond its original opening to the Gentile world. His irenic worldview was also open to an ongoing exchange with Judaism, reflected in his Dialogue with Trypho. Justin was open to every expression of truth in his search for it."

Prusak's description of the great saint's mindset really resonated with me, especially in terms of this ongoing project... to be "in dialog with the world" in the form of its great books, and to "critically accept the positive insights" we find there, sound like worthy goals for The Secret Thread to me. May we, then, following in the footsteps of the great St. Justin and invoking his patronage for our feeble enterprise, commit ourselves to being "open to every expression of truth" in our search for it. For we know that literary truth serves as one of a great many "secret threads" in our world, that invariably lead us back to He who is "the Truth" that we may "know" and that will "set us free."

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 5

This is a quiet period in my 'preparation' for working on this new story, if it has even begun yet, since I have not even starting doing the reading research required to immerse myself into the material. So what is there to really say? Is there anything that I can write to justify its own posting in this 'journal' leading up to what I hope will be work on this new idea?

Just that my mind is sort of milling it over before I start on anything. And as I have indicated before, this is a process that has been going on for some time. It's been a while since I last visited the area that I want to write about, in western Indiana. 1999 was the last time I was there, and I chronicled that visit, which I made with my Dad, in a nonfiction writing called A Father I Am. But I still see images from that trip in my head often, especially when I am thinking about working on this fiction idea. I can see the little town my Dad was born in in my head, and I can see the other small town he grew up in, a handful of miles down the highway from the latter. I can picture the house he was born in (no hospital), the street he lived on, the little graveyard where his parents, maternal grandparents and his brother are all buried. (Ronald Lovell, my father's second brother, was a twin to his sister Donna, but he died one hour after birth, and has his own small tombstone in the graveyard in Kentland, Indiana.)

I used to visit Kentland from time to time when I was a kid - we all did - so it was certainly not the first time I had been there. My Dad's mother lived there until she died in 1985. She had a tiny little ranch house on a very quiet little street; in fact, that is where my parents decided to get married a long time ago. I remember going around the corner from her house to the Nu-Joy restaurant, which my Dad's family owned until it went out of business sometime in the late 80s I think.

The entire town, in fact, was a very small, quiet, unassuming place, and that is one of the things I remember the most about it - the sense of isolation from the rest of the world you have there, the silence, the slowness that seems to permeate everything. When you see the house that my father was born in in Kentland, it's on the end of a short, tree-lined avenue that stops at a T intersection. Beyond the intersection is a large field of soy plants, and beyond that is an endless sea of corn. Within sight is the highway, the two-lane expressway that breezes through the small hamlet, but you can only just barely hear the trucks whizzing by in the distance. During the summer it is blazing hot there, dusty, and a thick and hazy silence settles over everything. I remember standing on that corner, staring at the lovely, formidable brick house where Dad was born on the second floor 75 years ago. The wind was rustling through the trees that lined the street and there was no sound except for its passage and birds. It is a very tranquil place, but it also has a sense of being rooted in the past and not having much of a future. It's the kind of thing that is hard to describe unless you are standing there, and yet that is the task I have before me, to put readers in a town like that, where there is practically nothing to do, no where to go, and, when everyone was poor, no means of breaking out.

That is not the town Dad grew up in, however. He grew up in Fowler, which as I said before was down the highway, but the situation there is almost exactly the same. I don't know which town is actually bigger, but they are more or less two versions of the same idea, and time has cruised by them both. At least that was the sense I had in 1999, I am sure it is only that much more like that now. Again, the house my father lived in there is large (eight people had to live there) and full of 'character', almost Victorian a little bit (although when I saw it, it was painted a noxious mustard-yellow color), and the street is just as picturesque and charming in a small-town way, but it has the same feeling: stuck in the past, nothing to offer, no where to go. The rest of the town, only more so. There is a little movie theater in down town Fowler (or there was seven years ago) that was a holdover from when Dad was a kid, and it looked like it had been around since at least 1930. I wonder if it is still there. I remember driving by it and noting its decrepit look, which at the time was depressing for Dad. It was showing the film The Matrix at the time, which I still remember clearly.

These are just musings, reflections and memories that I wanted to make about the areas I hope to write about. I can see them vividly in my head, and I wonder what it must have been like to live in such small places as a child, with no means of escape, no great prospects for the future, and practically no money. My Dad used to work numerous jobs as a kid, just to have pocket change to go down to that same movie theater and watch the old serial features of the 30s and 40s - the only means of filling his head with fantasies and dreams that the rest of the town must have been doing its best to snuff out of him. But it wasn't just the movie theater that offered him escape, or he wouldn't be my father - it was the library. This was the place he went to for a way out. This was where he went to learn about other towns, other ways of life, other people. It was the key to his eventual escape. But his own father never read much, never visited the library, he stuck to his work, stayed in the town, and more or less worked his fingers to the bone until he died, on the job. He never found a way out of those small places, from the day he was born to the day he died.

What the lack of escape routes did to a man like that, what it must have been like to live and die in small town America, never once tasting the luxury of any other kind of lifestyle, always working, providing, digging into the earth for more oil, straining at the chains that would never break as long as he lived - that's what I am going to be writing about.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #20 -- First in 2006!

After a longer hiatus than I would have liked, Duke is back here with another great poem that cries out to us from foreign shores. Regular readers of TST will recognize the name of Tarjei Vesaas, the great Norwegian novelist and poet whose novel The Ice Palace made both my & Mutt's list of notable books for 2005. Vesaas was nominated in his lifetime for the Nobel Prize, and his poems are very highly regarded in poetry circles, although they have not been translated extensively into English. The exception to this is a wonderful collection of some of his verse, translated and edited by Roger Greenwald and published by the Princeton University Press under the title Through Naked Branches: Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas. Not so long ago Mutt was able to track down a used copy of this collection for me (an awesome gift, thanks Mutt!), and this remarkable poem is included in the anthology.

I can't offer much by way of commentary because I don't pretend to fully understand what he's even getting at here, but my heart responded to it immediately, in a way that's hard to convey. All I can say is that, although I don't have words to express why, this poem hits me as deeply profound, wise and sad at the same time. It just feels true, on some level of the heart safely hidden away from the prying hands of logic and explanation. (Also, the call of the loon is a sound that has always struck me as mournful and mysterious...)

Suffice it to say that it just strikes in me a rich chord that rings of Beauty and Truth.


The Loons Head North

So high they're dots against the clouds,
lonely even if they're two,
the loons head north
and are gone.

Only one cool cry
reaches down from them
to where we're stuck
in our great muddle.

But out of sight
they steer straight down
into an ice-cold lake
that's aroused hidden warmth.

This we'll gladly hear --
a lonely, wild heart
that in limitless freedom
still finds its way to us.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On Boyle's 'Tooth and Claw', with additional thoughts on his work....

How maddening for Christian writers and readers is the work of T. Coraghessan Boyle, who I have already posted on once before on this blog, but feel the need to comment on again? How can you avoid this guy, who is everywhere, constantly appearing in papers and magazines, cranking out new books at an inhuman pace, in possession of a nearly infinite stream of ideas for novels and stories and the will and talent to produce them? I have learned a lot about Boyle and his work in recent months, partially because he interests me, not only because of his prolific output and interesting stories and novels, but also because of his public persona, his extraordinary arrogance, his supreme confidence in his own greatness, his callous rejection of anything governing the universe beyond 'accident' and 'chance'. What I have found about him is that he's a paradox - irritating and maddening on one hand; engrossing, impressive and intelligent on the other. Whether I like it or not, this is one of the most respected writers working today, who shares the admiration of thousands of readers as well as critics and peers, and you can't very well ignore him if you want to get into his game.

For the moment, I will put aside further thoughts of a general nature on Boyle and his work in favor of some discussion of his newest book, the short story collection 'Tooth and Claw', which I have just finished hearing in unabridged audio form, read by the author. I mention that Boyle himself reads the stories because Boyle is famous for his readings of his own work, which he turns into theater, imagining himself to be a kind of modern-day Dickens. But again, it must be stated that he is very amusing and fluid when he reads his own material, and he makes it enjoyable. I give him credit for that, and for seeking to make literature an entertainment to everyone. There's nothing wrong with this, although it does feed one's overall impression that he's a guy who wants attention and craves the public's adoration without limit. He'd be the first to say this is the truth, in fact.

But, to the new book of stories. 'Tooth and Claw' is Boyle's seventh collection, amazing in itself. That's into Updike/William Trevor territory. Combine that with his ten novels and you can guage how impressive that is. However, we all know that cliche about quantity versus quality. It's an insult to Boyle to suggest that he just cranks out the quality but provides no quality, in addition to not being true. But one gets the impression sometimes that he's racing to keep pace with his own self-imposed quotas. On his web site he is constantly talking about ideas for the 'next collection' or the 'next novel' as if those are the only options he has in the future, either another novel or another collection. I find myself sometimes wondering if he should break his own pattern sometimes. But that's neither here nor there. The story ideas keep coming to this guy, and every time he puts out a new collection, there are anywhere from 15-17 new ones to add to his catalogue.

I found 'Tooth and Claw' to be somewhat of a letdown. Especially having had exposure to his earlier collections 'Without a Hero' and 'Descent of Man'. It's not that Boyle lacks ideas: each story is different from the one before, each scenario is different, and although he favors the first person-male narrator the most, he does write from the point of view of women, and he does write third-person narratives as well. One can't knock his ability to assume other voices or imagine characters who don't resemble himself. Nor can one ding him for originality: in this volume, there are stories concerning falling meteors, women who literally go the dogs, blizzards, a trek across 18th century Connecticut, extreme sleep deprivation, heroin addiction, and an African serval (form of cat). There is plenty there to retain a readers' interest.

On top of that, Boyle's language and dialogue remain as sharp as they were earlier in his career, possibly with more restraint and less haughtiness. Boyle has a gift for modern dialogue, idiom, and the like: he listens to the way people talk and replicates it in his narratives. His vocabulary is excellent, and his tone is frequently humorous, in a wise*ss kind of way, the sort of tone that is slightly grating but rarely unfunny. Yet Boyle can and does, on occasion, serve up a dollop of emotion into his stories, and the tragic, sorrowful existence that lies underneath the outer veneer of many of his characters has a way of coming through in the conclusion of certain stories, not without a punch.

The problem with these new stories, I think, lies deeper. It's in their overall effect. The way many of these stories end is unsatisfying and in some cases, I am surprised to report, even predictable or 'pat'. These stories sweep you up in them (literally, in 'Swept Away'), carry you along, but don't necessarily take you anywhere. I found this to be particularly true in the stories 'Chicxulub', 'All The Wrecks I've Crawled Out Of', and 'The Doubtfulness of Water'. In the first story mentioned there, 'Chicxulub', the final line was borderline cliche, something I felt I could have written: always a bad sign. I think the core of this problem lies in Boyle's worldview, his fatalistic outlook on our existence, his mocking denial of God's presence and or action in the world. He frequently asserts in interviews that 'we don't have God' and 'all is voodoo', so, he argues, how can our existence lead to anything, how can we do anything other than die and rot? Hence, what is the point?

Given this outlook it is easy to see why his stories lead an inquiring reader no where. His hapless characters frequently dig themselves into holes they can't get out of and then seem to wonder how they got there. In other words, Boyle's stories lack a certain depth because they don't pursue ultimate truths, in fact they deny that these things exist. Because of that, his work is ultimately unsatisfying to people such as the founders of this blog who enjoy works of art and literature that probe the deepest questions and dig into spiritual or at least philosophical or existential matters. It may be true that this is just a matter of my tastes. But I think it is still ultimately unsatisfying that many of Boyle's characters are losers who stay losers. There is a noticeable lack of redemption, hope and Grace in most of Boyle's stories, which is ironic indeed for a writer who has said that he discovered Flannery O'Connor in his early years and recognized her as a kindred spirit. How could this have been the truth, if one refuses to accept the possibility of Grace?

Another thing about T.C. Boyle that I think is worth pointing out is that to me his work seems to be declining, although this is a strong statement to make, and I caution myself that I have not read quite enough of his catalogue yet to be able to make this proclamation with assurance. Nonetheless, in my view, based on what I have read so far, his earlier books outdistance his later ones. As I indicated in my previous post on Boyle's work, 'Water Music' was one of the most imaginative and consistently engrossing novels I've read in many a moon. This was published in 1981. 'Descent of Man', Boyle's first book (1979) contained an impressive spread of diverse stories that were more expressive and zany than any of the stories in 'Tooth and Claw'. I can still remember hilarious moments from the title story of 'Descent of Man', and yet the chilling, brutal conclusion resonates in my mind at the same time. The goofy 'Heart of a Champion' which tells a PG-13 story about a randy Lassie is at least creative and funny; the hilariously titled 'Quetzalcoatl Lite' chronicles avid collectors on the hunt for an ancient Mexican beer can. One could sense the brio and the hunger in these earlier books. Whereas I recently read 'Drop City' - which critics honored with a National Book Award nomination - and found it to be impressively written and structured, well-paced, and as serviceable as any Boyle book, but less interesting and less ambitious. Yet 'World's End', Boyle's third novel, was a stunning accomplishment, a wild ride shifting effortlessly between 17th century New York, the 1940s, and the 1960s, and it obviously took a great deal of effort and drive to write. It was a deserving recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award. I think Boyle is not putting out work quite on that level these days, but in conclusion I would say that I reserve judgment for the present, and will not finalize my opinion: for Boyle's forthcoming novel, 'Talk Talk', is centered on the concept of identity theft, one of the more interesting themes that he has selected in recent years, and I want to see how that turns out before I say he can't play at the level he used to any longer.

In any case, T. Coraghessan Boyle is the standard bearer, the charlatan and the hero, the outcast and the savior of modern literature all at once in the eyes of many people. If you are interested in contemporary fiction you should read some of his books and make of him what you will. Draw your own conclusions, but understand that for most people in the literary world today, this is what represents the best we have to offer in America.

Can we do better? Can I do better? With all respect to Boyle, I am working on it.....

Friday, January 06, 2006

Victor Hugo on Perseverance

I have just finished reading Victor Hugo's remarkable, and widely unheard of in our age, epic novel The Toilers of the Sea (hats off to the Modern Library folks for rescuing this amazing tour de force from almost total obscurity, and restoring it to its rightful place as one of Hugo's most powerful works). Other than Moby Dick, it is probably the greatest novel I have ever read about the sea, and while it is not quite as great a work as Melville's in my opinion, it certainly reminded me of that monumnetal classic at times (especially with its voluminous philosophical passages and moral/spiritual themes running through the work like threads in a tapestry), and is without a doubt one of the most gripping tales of "man vs. nature" I have encountered.

There is so much I could say about this great and gripping book, but rather than bore you TST readers with yet more Duke Altum commentary, I thought this time around I might just let the author speak for himself. Novel concept, I know (no pun intended). Now there is one passage in particular in this novel that just screamed out at me to be shared, and I set it off right away with bold pen markings in my book, thinking I might just quote it in its entirety on this blog... the reason being, it is a passage that seems to be to exemplify what this blog is all about: reading the great works of literature in search of nuggets of wisdom, by which we might lead better, more principled, more moral, more deeply spiritual and truthful lives. I read this book of Hugo's for many reasons, one of which was simply that I had enjoyed Les Miserables so much; but I did not expect to find as much insight and wisdom in it as I did. Yet this is the glory of literature that is truly literature (and not just entertainment): it instructs us, it challenges us, it leads us to truths and insights about ourselves, about the world we live in, and sometimes even about that which transcends us, be it natural or Divine.

A little set-up is required before you can dive into the passage, but I'll keep it very brief: basically, in this novel set among the Channel Islands between France and England, a major plot element is the spectular wreck of a steam ship (under mysterious circustances) out on a reef in the middle of the sea. The owner of the ship is convinced that if the engines of the ship can still be salvaged, he will not be ruined and will be able to start his business (it was a ferry boat) anew, and so he challenges the local fishermen to see who might be willing to go out, find the wreckage and salvage the engines, though he knows it to be basically an impossible task. Well, one man, a humble, poor fisherman and something of a recluse named Gilliatt (a typical Hugo hero), decides to attempt it, and in this passage, he has been out there at sea for months on his own trying to salvage the engines by himself, and has yet to succeed. He is being mercilessly pounded by the elements, is living out on the open sea with very little for clothing and shelter, and has essentially run out of food and water. His situation, in a word, is desperate.

And now, Victor Hugo... on perseverance. See if you don't find this to be a remarkable passage! Yet one more example of The Secret Thread, running through all the greatest of books...


"...The empty waste, the boundless expanse, the space in which there are so many forms of rejection for man, the mute inclemency of natural phenomena pursuing their regular courses, the great general law of things, implacable and passive, the ebb and flow of the tides, the reef, this black constellation of stars in whirling movement, the focal point of an irradiation of currents, the mysterious conspiracy of things against the temerity of a living being, the winter, the clouds, the besieging sea -- all this enveloped Gilliatt, surrounded him, seemed to be closing in on him, separating him from living beings in the manner of a dungeon building up around a man. Everything was against him, nothing was for him; he was isolated, abandoned, enfeebled, broken down, forgotten. His stores gone, his tools broken and defective, he suffered thirst and hunger by day and cold at night; covered with rags, his clothes threadbare -- rags over festering sores, holes in his clothing and in his flesh, his hands torn, his feet bloody, his limbs emaciated, his face pallid; but there was a flame in his eyes. A proud flame; a man's will made visible. A man's eye reveals his quality. It shows how much of a man there is within us. We declare ourselves by the light that gleams under our eyebrows. Petty spirits merely wink; great spirits emit a flash of lightning. If there is no brilliance under the eyelid, there is no thought in the brain, no love in the heart. A man who loves exerts his will, and a man who exerts his will radiates light and brilliance. Resolution puts fire in the glance: a noble fire that results from the combustion of timid thoughts.

Sublime characters are stubborn. A man who is merely brave has only one method of action, a man who is merely valiant has only one temperament, a man who is merely courageous has only one virtue; greatness is reserved for the man who is stubborn in pursuing the right course. Almost the whole secret of men of great heart is contained in one word: Perseverando.

Perseverance is to courage what the wheel is to the lever; it is a perpetual renewal of the fulcrum. Whether the objective be on earth or in heaven, the only thing that matters is to make for that objective; the former case is for Columbus, the latter for Jesus. The cross is mad: hence its glory. To achieve suffering and triumph, it is necessary to leave no room for argument with one's conscience and to allow no relaxation of one's will. In the sphere of morality a fall does not exclude the possibility of a soaring. A fall is the starting point of a rise. The second-rate allow themselves to be put off by apparent obstacles; the strong do not. For them the prospect of perishing is merely a possibility; the prospect of conquering is a certitude. You can offer Stephen all sorts of good reasons for not allowing himself to be stoned. Disdain for reasonable objections engenders that sublime victory in defeat that is called martyrdom.

All Gilliatt's efforts seemed to be concentrated on the impossible. Success was meager and slow in coming, and much effort was required to obtain very little result. This was what showed his greatness of spirit; this was what was so poignant about his situation."

(pp. 292-293, Modern Library version)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Journal of a "Novel" - Entry 4

When I last posted on here concerning this project in gestation, I was musing on larger questions about why I am going to try this at all, what chances do I have to succeed, what were the consequences of failure. Those questions still linger, and hopefully the third one will stay way "out there" in the ether, and never be answered. As for the second question, I realize that I'm not all that interested in the odds, for this is no way to approach a writing project, by considering at length the prospects of success or failure. But it is nonetheless a natural way to think, in our weaker moments.

Over the weekend, right at the beginning of the year that should mark the great leap forward on this effort that I have been envisioning, I made two significant steps regarding this: actually, one was a 'step' and one was more of a key acquisition. The 'step' was that I broached this subject in a quick conversation with my Dad, and told him I was interested in writing about his father in a fictional context, and about the Depression. His childhood, more or less. He could not have been surprised, for he must have heard me express interest in this stuff a thousand times before, but he was pretty enthusiastic about it, and seems more than willing to help. In fact, I suggested possibly getting together with him on a future weekend (hopefully this spring?) to delve into as many details as possible in lengthy conversations with him about his hometown, the 30s, the Depression, World War II, whatever else he can remember, and of course, his father. He said he would "love" to do that, and who wouldn't, if their own child came up to them and said, pretty much, "I want to know everything you remember about growing up and about your parent(s)." I can see why he would want to do this, but I am still glad he is willing to help. He doesn't fall over laughing when I talk about wanting to write a novel or write fictionally about his own life, or at least the environment he was raised in. So I guess that is a good thing!

The key acquisition I made was not actually something I procured myself - it was a gift from my ever-searching, tireless brother Duke Altum, who knows that I am immersing myself in this project. True to form, he started keeping an eye out for portentially good resources in used book stores, and he probably found the mother lode......he got me a used, beat-up old copy of a volume of an out-of-print Time Life series called 'This Fabulous Century'. Specifcally, the volume he found for me, and immediately purchased for $9, was '1930-1940', and it was an extraordinary find that will give me a superb amount of background for my project. It is a hard cover book featuring hundreds of photographs and exhibits detailing the 1930s in the United States. It has nearly everything I could want in one place - photos, text, charts detailing how much things cost, how much money people earned, advertisements, information on culture, radio, movies, sports, politics - EVERYTHING you could want from the 30s. With this book I can craft credible scenes where children listen to radio programs or sporting events that will ring true with authenticity. I cannot not thank Duke enough for finding this and IMMEDIATELY purchasing it on my behalf. This is exactly the kind of thing I will need if I am going to make my story believable, and I am very thrilled to have a resource like this to use in the future composition of scenes. I showed it to my father, who looked through it at length, it was truly a trip down memory lane for him.

I don't have much of a story carved out yet; I think that will be some time later. I want to begin formulating my mental impressions of the character (to add to the ones I already have). I talked with my Dad a bit about some of the stories I know about Floyd Lovell, and some of the information that I thought was more or less apocryphal is true: he DID extend credit to his oil customers without his company's (Sinclair Oil) permission, and it DID cost him his job. I think it is interesting that this is true. However, my Dad told me that he didn't do a lot of that until the 40s during the time of World War II. Whether my story will extend into the second World War or not, I am not sure. My original thought was to confine it to the 1930s, but we shall see.

I see Walter Brogan as a guy who would lend a hand to a man who was down, just because he was a man who was down. A guy who enjoyed other people, particularly the company of men, who would do 'business' at the bar over a beer or a whiskey, who would work very hard on principle and on stubbornness, but who would have difficulty expressing himself emotionally or showing tenderness or being gentle with anything or anyone. Probably an impatient man. A burly, red-faced man with gray hair, fair skin, and a bit of an apish lope to his walk.

At this point I am just sketching randomly, which probably does not make for an interesting post but it is how I want to proceed, writing as the spirit moves me so to speak, hoping to stumble on the fragments of the treasure that in the end it's my job to unearth. The mental coalition of thoughts/images/ideas continues.

Resolutions, 2006

"I invite my partner in this initiative and sounding board for all things literary, Mutt Ploughman, to post on some of what he'd like to see for the blog in 2006." - Duke, see below

Thus summoned, the gauntlet forcibly hurl'd, I now contribute what "I'd like to see" on the blog, which to me means more like "what I'd like to post for YOU to see". In the year 2006 on this blog, you can expect from Mutt, if you're looking, the following:

1. Continuous entries charting the development of my new fiction project, and the writing thereof when it begins, in the feature titled 'Journal of a "Novel"'. Entry #4 is coming soon.

2. More posts concerning spiritual reading, which I plan to increase my efforts toward in the year ahead. Right now as I am reading the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, I plan to post on that some time soon. But, they will not be ambitious analyses: they will be journal-esque in nature, musings prompted by the readings, etc.

3. Continued commentary on books read throughout the year. Since I average around 40 per year, I will probably post frequently on books I'm reading, but certainly not on every book read. Look for commentary on Dickens' 'Martin Chuzzlewit' in a few weeks.

4. Comments and reactions to Duke's exceptionally enriching series, his Poem of the Week feature. This is an excellent poetry series which I highly recommend to those who don't want to read the long posts on here, but do want to take a few morsels of the best stuff on this proverbial plate, so to speak, from time to time.

5. In general, I hereby resolve to read as many books as possible, to write as often as possible and as well as I can throughout 2006, insofar as I am not neglecting the Lord, my beautiful wife or my two precious, adorable daughters.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Happy New Year from The Secret Thread!

Duke Altum here, wishing all of you faithful readers of and contributors to The Secret Thread a happy 2006, filled with the Lord's blessings and graces (whether immediately recognizable as such or not!). We certainly hope that in this new year, you'll continue along on the journey with us as we seek the good, the true and the beautiful through the eternal treasure trove of great literature...

Just for fun, I'm going to throw out some new year's resolutions for The Thread going into 2006... like most resolutions, these may or may not be achieved. But it's fun to take stock of where you've been and where you're going when a new year dawns, and so here is what I, as founder of this blog, resolve for the 12 months ahead:

1. Continued discussion and commentary on the very best that literature has to offer, with a healthy mix of classics and contemporary works, from both your scribe and from Mutt Ploughman

2. Speaking of, we also resolve to regularly report on Mutt's ongoing fiction project, as discussed in his 3 'Journal of a "Novel"' posts from last month.

3. My Poetry of the Week feature will continue to highlight intellectually stimulating and spiritually nourishing/challenging poetry from all time periods & cultures.

4. A new intiative for the blog this year, I hope, will be periodic entries about spiritually and morally important films, along with recommendations for renting/viewing from TST contributors. Keep an eye on the right hand column for a new feature related to films.

5. I, Duke, personally resolve to continue to read and discuss classic works that have slipped off of the mainstream's radar screen, in keeping with my post from last month ('Read Farther,' December 15, 2005).

6. I also hope to highlight and discuss more non-fiction works in the coming year, and to diversify the subject matter so as to keep TST readers guessing and expand the scope of the blog (as well as, hopefully, my own knowledge). This is of particular importance as Mutt is our resident fiction authority and will probably be posting and discussing mostly on worthy classic and contemporary fiction.

I invite my partner in this initiative and sounding board for all things literary, Mutt Ploughman, to post on some of what he'd like to see for the blog in 2006, if he is so inclined... or, to just comment on the above list. And of course, as always, reader comments are not only welcomed, but enthusiastically encouraged!

May the coming year be one of moral, intellectual and (most importantly) spiritual growth for all of us. Enjoy the blog, all you fellow book nerds out there!