Mist

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Mist

Mist and I lose my bearings:
men become trees become men
and the clammy damp
waves through my bones.

Hollow sound of my feet
where wraith-like white
pools in the street.

I whistle:
and the moon gleams bright
with whitened teeth.

Comment:

So much mist in town yesterday, all along the river, and winding out from the river to the road. Beautiful, and so mysterious. Shapes shifting, looming out from the trees, then fading back in again. Cars, so difficult to see, and regular landmarks magicked into never-before-seen monoliths so I had to slow, and squint, and double-check all those well-known streets and directions. A baffling world, it was: in its magic, truly mystifying. 

This poem is from my first poetry collection, Last Year in Paradise (Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1978). It was published by Fred Cogswell, a wonderful New Brunswick poet and editor who gave help and encouragement to so many young poets.

Friday Fiction: Clematis

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Clematis

The clematis unfolds its flowers: bruised purple on the porch. Beneath the black and white hammers of ivory keys, old wounds crack open. A flight of feathered notes: this dead heart sacrificed on the lawn. I wash fresh stains from my fingers with the garden hose while the evening stretches out a shadow hand to squeeze my heart like an orange in its skin. Somewhere, the white throat sparrow trills its guillotine of vertical notes. I flap my hands in the air and they float like butterflies, amputated in sunlight’s net. The light fails fast. I hold up shorn stumps of flowers for the night wind to heal and a chickadee chants an afterlife built of spring branches.

Pressed between the pages of my waking dreams: a lingering scent; the death of last year’s delphiniums; the tall tree toppled in the yard; a crab apple flower; a shard of grass as sharp as glass, as brittle as a bitter, furred tongue at winter’s end.

I know for certain that a dog fox hunts for my heart. Vicious as a vixen, the dog fox digs deep at midnight, unearthing the dried peas I shifted from bowl to bowl to count the hours as I lay sick in bed. I sense a whimper at the window, the scratch of a paw. I watch a dead leaf settle down in a broken corner and it fills me with sudden silence. Midnight stretches out a long, thin hand and clasps dream-treasures in its tight-clenched fist.

The lone dove of my heart flaps in its trap of barren bone and my world is as small as a pea in a shrunken pod. Or is it a dried and blackened walnut in its wrinkled shell of overheating air? Sunset, last night, was a star-shell failing to fire. Swallows flew their evensong higher and higher, striving for that one last breath lapped from the dying lisp of day. Its last blush rode red on the clouds for no more than a second’s lustrous afterglow.

I lower defunct delphiniums, body after body, into their shallow graves. Night’s shadows weave illusions from earth’s old bones. Rock becomes putty, malleable in the  moonlight. Midnight readjusts her nocturnal robes and pulls bright stars from a top hat of darkness. Winged insects with human faces dance step by step with circling planets and clutter the owl’s path. Night swallows the swallows and creates more stars. The thin moon hones its cutting edge into an ice-cold blade.

Thursday Thoughts: Why I Write III

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Thursday’s Thoughts
Why I Write III
Intertextuality
29 March 2018

            In exile, in La Torre de Juan Abad, the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo wrote a sonnet entitled Retirado en la paz de estos desiertos / Withdrawn into the peace of these deserted lands. The first quatrain reads:

            Retirado en la paz de estos desiertos, / con pocos pero doctos libros juntos, / vivo en conversación con los difuntos, / y escucho con mis ojos a los Muertos. Reduced to an instant rough and ready English translation, this reads: ‘Withdrawn into the peace of these deserted lands, / together with a few quite learned books, / I live in conversation with dead men, / and listen to them speaking through my eyes.’

Talking to the dead by reading their live words on the page: this was my first introduction to the theory of intertextuality, written words speaking to written words across the medium of written texts. Intertextuality, then, living texts talking to living texts, be it in print, be it in digital form on the computer.

How does this relate to Why I Write? Orwell writes an article entitled Why I Write. Joan Didion reads that article, replies to it, and also writes an article entitled Why I Write, and her article is, in certain measure, an intertextual dialog with George Orwell. I read both these articles and I, in my turn, join in the conversation, responding, in my own way, first to George Orwell, and then to Joan Didier. Now I have introduced Francisco de Quevedo (Spain, 1580-1645) into this tripartite series and he too has joined the conversation linking why I write intimately to the theme of why I read. For a fuller discussion of Why I Read, consult the full version of Quevedo’s sonnet, particularly the final tercet. As you read these words, you too are drawn into this intertextual conversation, one that has gone on for much longer than we realize.

So, why do I write? In part, it is to join in and continue these conversations and thus to honor the memories of those who have gone on before, Quevedo writing to González de Salas, Joan Didion responding to George Orwell. However, I see writing not only as a conversation, a sharpening of arguments, a learning process in which speaker (writer) and spoken to (reader) exchange ideas, but also as a construction, like the well-wrought urn of Cleanth Brooks (new criticism), or the polished work of art of the phenomenologists. I see the written work of art as a construction, and I want that construction to be as polished and as well-made as I can make it. In addition, I have things I want to say, poems I want to write, stories I want to tell, and I want these things, poems, stories (constructs all) to be the best that they can be. I want to reach out to my reader (readers, if there are two or more of you) and say “Hey, stop awhile. Read this. What I have written is well-worth reading.”

Mikhail Bakhtin uses the term chronotopos, referring to ‘man’s dialog with his time and his place’. I write so that I too may dialog with my time and my place. More, I write in part to establish my time and to cement myself in my place. Time and place are both variable. Is Quevedo (Spain, 1580-1645) a part of my time (20th / 21st Century) or my place (currently Island View, New Brunswick, Canada)? The moment I draw him into the intertextual conversation, as I have done here, he shares time and place with me, and with you, as you read this. So, among other reasons, I write to establish my place not only within this time in which I live, but also within the great chain of intertextual writing that flows backwards and forwards from the earliest times. Only I can do that for myself. Nobody else can do it for me. Is it important that I do so? For me, yes, it is very important. Sometimes, in this life, we walk a long way across a very lonely shore. But we leave footprints behind us, footprints that the wind will fill with sand, footprints that the tide will wash away … we are aware of that but we still walk on, and we still leave footprints.

Reading as dialog, dialog as a means to establish ourselves, writing as a way to cement our ideas, to polish them, to craft them into the shape of that well-wrought urn, that well-wrought urn placed in public where it can be viewed, or in a private place where only close friends can see it and admire it … but something tangible, something solid, something well-wrought, something that will say, ‘yes, I have walked this way’ and ‘yes, I have left footprints’, however dainty, however small, however temporal, however fragile in light of wind and tide … but a footprint, the footprint of Man Thursday, on an otherwise deserted shore … to leave footprints …  to sketch the silver points of Lucifer, the light-bearer, the evening star, as he stands strong against the encroaching night … that is Why I Write.

Wednesday Workshop: Why I Write II

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Wednesday Workshop
Why I Write II
28 March 2018

Joan Didion’s autobiographical note did not appeal to me in the same way that George Orwell’s did, but then, I was born on the same side of the Atlantic as Orwell, and yes, that does make a difference. So much in Orwell is familiar, so much in Didion is alien.

For Didion, Why I Write (borrowed from George Orwell) is composed of three short words, each of them emphasizing the first person singular I + I + I. She sees writing as an ‘aggressive, even a hostile act’ in which she, as writer, imposes herself on other people (her readers) saying ‘listen to me, see it my way, change your mind’. From this idea of imposition springs the second idea of the ‘aggressive, hostile act’. This, in some ways, can be seen as a sort of combination of Orwell’s first, third, and fourth points (1) sheer egoism; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose with possibly the first dominating.

That said, I like the idea Didion presents of ‘pictures in the mind’. She carries these pictures with her and then writes from them. She writes from the physical, the tangible, the ‘taste of rancid butter’, the ‘tinted windows on the bus’, the concrete nature of these things and her desire to describe them as accurately as possible, led her to discover herself as a writer.

When I apply her descriptions to my own writing, I gaze at my own memories of my childhood. They are like photographs, still, black-and-white photographs, like those we used to see when I was a child at the entrance to movie theaters. The skill for me in writing is to allow these pictures to spring back into life. Much of my writing, especially my stories about Spain, Mexico, or Wales, is autobiographical in its beginnings. However, as the pictures move and speak they tell me things and I write them down. What starts out as a story is very rarely the story that ends up on the page. A metamorphosis takes place. Words slip and shift and change their shapes and meanings according to the whims of characters and the situations in which they find themselves. In the beginning was the picture: that, I guess, is what Didion and I hold in common. But my writing is not her writing, and her pictures are not my photos, how could they be?

Interesting in my own original photos is the lack of sound, the lack of movement, the lack of taste and touch. First the figures are stiff and stolid. When I study them, they shift and move, and next they begin to speak. Alas, what they tell me when they speak to me in the shiftless shadows of my dreams at night is not necessarily what they lazily lisp in the full sun of my waking mind. A long time ago, I struggled to recall the exactness of that dream world and I tried to pummel the words and thoughts on my mind’s anvil and to hammer them into shape aided by the heat of my seemingly inexhaustible creative energy. Now I am more relaxed: I just listen to the daylight voices and allow them to shape themselves and their situations in their own way.

When I do this, background sounds and the tell-tale smells of time and place slip slowly in. Boarding school: the unforgettable stench of burned porridge. My auntie’s house: the whir of the cuckoo clock as it coiled itself up in preparation for the little bird to whip out and enchant the hours. My grandfather’s grandfather clock: the metallic lightness of the clock hands as I adjusted the minutes and the hours when the clock ran down and I sensed the tautness in the piano wires as I turned the key and wound the heavy brass pendulums back into their starting positions. My grandmother’s house: the bubble of water boiling on the hob, the warmth of constantly brewed tea, strong as a farrier’s horse and quite undrinkable without the second, third, or fourth watering and, of course, always the smell of boiled white fish cooling for the cats’ supper.

My best writing comes from deep inside myself. I find it  in the midnight coal mine of my mind where ghost-like figures drift and roam as they seek that special person, the one who will drag them to the surface and bring them back to life. Poor, pale, thin imitations of a reality that never was, I do my best to revive them. Often, my best is just not good enough and I must cast them away and drop them back into the depths to ghost away and prepare themselves for another day when perhaps, they and I will each be ready to deceive each other.

Why I Write

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Why I Write

In the online creative writing course that I am currently taking, we were invited to read two articles on why I write, one written by George Orwell and the other by Joan Didion.  Both articles set me thinking: why do I write? My response to these articles, borrowed from my course notes and suitably doctored for my blog, follows. Note: this is the first of three planned statements. The second, on Joan Didion, will appear tomorrow on my next Wednesday’s Workshop.

George Orwell … where do I begin?

Homage to Catalonia is, in my opinion, one of the great personal memoirs written about the Spanish Civil War. Orwell fought on the side of the Republic, the legally-elected government, but fell foul of the Russian-backed Communists as they tried to unify the left under a banner of total Communism. The other side in the Spanish Civil War was, of course, the solidified right of the Spanish Falange and the Fascist Party. Orwell was targeted by the Communists and, wounded at the front, escaped across the French border with falsified papers. As he himself says in Why I Write, the political realization of the nature of totalitarianism led him to his stance as a writer. Animal Farm borrowed heavily from his Spanish experience, as did 1984.

Orwell sets out four reasons for writing. (1) Sheer egoism; (2) aesthetic enthusiasm; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose. I personally identify most strongly with #2. Above all, in my case, I write my poetry in praise of nature and in sorrow for how I see us failing the natural world around us. However, I must admit that I also write out of sheer egoism (#1) and yes, I enjoy thumbing my nose at all those who have in one way or another slighted me and upon whom I want literary revenge, even if it be posthumous. Several of my older friends also write this way, though many of the younger ones seem to be more interested in money than in art for art’s sake. I guess retirement and a small but relatively reliable pension added to the gradual onset of a blighting old age make me realize that there is not much time left in which to amass a fortune. This in turn also makes my professed credo of art for art and not for money more acceptable.

Having come to the conclusion that I never have, and never will, make any money through my writing, although publish or perish has walked side by side with me throughout my academic career, I now embrace the fact that I do not write for money. In fact, I usually give my independently published books away to my friends. Nor do I want the sort of fame that causes the paparazzi, with their microphones and videos, and camerasto flock to my doorstep, like starving sparrows or winter’s chickadees, in search of the breadcrumbs that fail to sufficiently nourish. To be appreciated, in my own small corner, like a well-loved local cheese or a craft beer, welcomed on a cool night for its fragrance and body … that is enough for me, although I must admit, that for one of my metaphors or images to be sniffed at, as if it were a glass of rare liqueur or specialized port or a welcome New Zealand Pinot Noir, also has its attractions.

This doesn’t mean that I am satisfied with who I am and how I write … I am not. I hope I never will be. I do want to be the very best that I can be. That’s why I keep writing and why I keep taking courses and workshops on writing. It’s also why I read and re-read, and why I keep reaching out to you and my other friends, and why I am so over-joyed when you, in your turn, reach out to me with the occasional word of praise for one of my stories or one of my poems.

However, warm as is the friendship of the beginning, failed and faltering writers’ support groups to which I belong,  most, if not all, writing is done in isolation: me and my memories, me and my invention, me and my keyboard, me and my blank page, me and my pen, me and a-penny-for-my thoughts as I refill that pen with Royal Blue ink in the hopes that something regal will actually fall from the nib and grace one of my pages, even though I am really wondering yet again whether I should start that first paragraph all over, just once more.

Alas, me and the cat and the keyboard do not share a healthy working relationship, especially when she walks across the keys, sticks her kitty-littered rear end in my face, scratches her itchy chin against the computer’s sharp edge, and purrs wildly for kibble while adding oft-repeated letters and deleting so many of the wonderful words that I have so carefully accumulated.

Monkey Teaches Sunday School

 

 

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Monkey Teaches Sunday School on Mondays
(With apologies to Pavlov and his dogs)

Younger monkeys e-mail elder monkey
and expect an answer within two minutes.
Elder monkey drools and writes right back.

He is turned on by the bells and
whistles of his computer.
“Woof! Woof!”
His handlers hand him a biscuit.

Elder monkey has grown to appreciate
tension and abuse:
the systematic beatings,
the shit and foul words hurled at his head.

The working conditions in his temple
kennel are overcrowded.
Elder monkey is overworked.

Yet he has managed to survive,
to stay alive and fight
what he once believed was the good fight.

Now he no longer knows:
nor does he drool anymore
when bells and whistles sound
and his handlers bait him with
an occasional, half-price biscuit.

Catching and Caging

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Catching, caging, and making them sing

We track them through their courting ceremonies

hunt them down by the noise they make

clutch them tight between anxious fingers

We weave glass jails

sentence them one by one to green imprisonment

At day’s end we ferry them to city apartments

incarcerate them like canaries in their cages

and wait for them to sing

At first they are silent in this strange environment

we feed them with bread dipped in brandy and wine

and sooner or later they sing in their captivity

Now they will not eat

they await the liquor that burns them

into fiery tongues of song

Our midnights are haunted by their spirituals