Literary essay: Shakespeare – Choice & Fate, Fathers & Sons, 15 May 2016

9
On Shakespeare’s Drama,
Choice & Fate, Fathers & Sons

SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS ARE ALL INTRINSICALLY Shakespeare plays; yet with MacBeth, Shakespeare taps into a deeper madness, a madness rarely pulled off with lucidity in literary history. Shakespeare unravels MacBeth in much the same manner as he did with King Lear. Piece by piece the layers shed, layer after layer of human skin.

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At one point he was an honorable man, but is tempted by powers, and what justifies the need or want of power. This is a common reading, but I think the witches intend to be a sort of externalization, a way of seeking validation for the kind of the desires already there. As he rose to power, through each step, he deteriorated morally. The deterioration was such that another theme of internal / external heaven and hell becomes very apparent in the fact that he can’t even enjoy his kingship because of his internal struggle—in this he is much like King Henry IV, unable to enjoy the glory of his usurped throne.

Although Macbeth deteriorates slowly and becomes more and more vicious, his soliloquies, such as the one before murdering Duncan, invoke a sense of pity and awe in the audience simply because of how much he suffers. The great take-away for me is simple: Even monsters suffer. There is great ambition for social heights in MacBeth, but to gain it his morality is more and more cast aside.

MacBeth was once a highly respectable general in Scotland. He even witnesses to some degree the deterioration of his character as he notices his own choice for the social climb over moral goodness. He was respected by the soldiers and even King Duncan while in Scotland; however, this externalization of his greed and desire, the witches, will tempt him with the Throne of Glamis and Cawdor—and propose it will be Banquo, his good friend, soon to be a father of a dynasty of kings, and not he.

MacBeth’s ambition is the heroic flaw, a common theme in theatre,

“My thought, whose murder is yet fantastical, shakes my single state,” he reflects, regarding the prophecy. At first he rejects the idea of murder, shuddering as the witches mention what is to be his fate; he says, “If chance will have me king, chance may crown me, without my stir.”

Again the three witches, an internal peer pressure of sorts, make concentrated his murderous intentions, which he had yet to express. Again it is ambition goaded by temptation that drive him further when Duncan announces his intentions to make Malcom heir to the throne.

MacBeth says,

“That is a step on which I must fall upon, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars hide your fires; let not sleep my black desires: the eye that winks at the hand, yet that be which the eye fears, when it is done to see.”

In the end his ambition gets the better of him and his moral deterioration is complete; in the role of a desperate murderer, he doesn’t wish for the light to shine upon what he has done—it is too evil to be seen, and far too much for him to see, to be confronted with the evidence of your crime so graphically, as Claudius was in Hamlet.

The inner conflict that acts inside Macbeth from evil and moral virtue carries on through the entirety of the play and the struggle against the prophecies and temptations become weaker and weaker. The self-fulfilling prophecy is another popular trope in theatre. He reasons after multiple aversions to kill Duncan, showing his complicit choice at each stage, aware of the risks, and then, because of what it took to get there, is unable to enjoy his rule. His slow fall covers a noble man falling from the favor of fortune, through temptation and gradual capitulation to desire, until he is a base creature, in complete service to his indulgences.

Methought I heard a voice cry

“Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep,”

the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,

The death of each day’s life,

sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds,

great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Of many the recurring themes in Macbeth, sleep is focused on intensively. Macbeth thought that sleep made life worth living and thought that by killing the king in his sleep, that he had murdered sleep itself. This, of the many points in Macbeth, is probably the most provocative and widely discussed. He thought it to be soothing, “like a bath after a long day’s work.” In the passage, which is common to modern English’s “Sleep on it” – Macbeth is frustrated and distraught and sees no end to his troubles. Though he has a lot of troubles, he relates this with. “A ravell’d sleeve” – this is the metaphor he uses for having a tangled mesh, or string – or skein – of thread and yarn. Not unlike the tangled yard of the Weird Sisters (something else Shakespeare inherited from Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Before Macbeth murders king Duncan, Banquo says, “A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, and yet I would not sleep: merciful powers.” Something, though as of yet he doesn’t reveal it, is keeping him from sleep. Banquo shows beforehand that he is suspecting that Macbeth may have ulterior motives when Macbeth bids him a “Good repose” – which is the same thing as a good night’s sleep.

In one of the most popular of all the scenes in Macbeth, Macbeth hallucinates seeing a bloody dagger suspended in the air pointing towards King Duncan’s chamber; he thinks it’s appropriate to have the hallucination at that time of night and says, “Now o’er the one half-world, nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse that curtain’d sleep.”

Sleep, as he says, was curtained because many of the noblemen and personages high in the social hierarchy used four post beds and hung up curtains to keep out cold air. Macbeth believed the air of night could see through the curtains and through sleep itself.

“There’s one did laugh in’s sleep, and one cried murder,” – After King Duncan is murdered, he tells his wife this as he leaves the chamber and believed that the people, even though all were asleep, could see the blood on his hands.

****

Tragedy is of two popular forms now in the West. Modern tragedy and Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy is tied to the ideas of fate and the gods, and sometimes regular people too. A hero defies the gods, often due to fatal flaws which is the reason behind their eventual downfall; and English playwriting, in its early years, follows this tradition. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragedy is also identified as a story that ends unhappily due to the flaws of the protagonist, the tragic hero.

Romeo and Juliet – a broadstrokes tragedy – In Shakespeare’s other tragedies, such as Macbeth and Hamlet, although those characters are fated to die, this type of tragedy is different. Romeo and Juliet is a domestic type of tragedy, a tragedy of fate, despite the fact that other characters influence the result of the final tragedy; however only a few people are affected. In most of his work, the microcosm (Hamlet) along with the macrocosm (The fiefdom of Denmark) are affected equally, making the tragedy in microcosm and macrocosm, personal and universal.

Shakespeare tries to break down the rivalry and feud between two families; the Capulets and Montagues Many tragedies are been presented in the play including that of Paris, Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo, Juliet, and Lady Montague. These figures all lead to each other, each building up and abetting the next death or tragedy, which could have been caused by rivaling senses of authority, codes of honor, masculinity, rebellion, ambition, and – again, fate.

From the very beginning of the play, fate is constantly referenced, starting with the prologue,

“A pair of star crossed lovers take their life.”

This is Shakespeare working on a different type of tragedy, a tragedy in the face of time and destiny. Romeo and Juliet were meant to die, in that sense, because it was their destiny.  Therefore this is what fate had planned for their lives. So the audience recognizes even further that the tragic death of Romeo and Juliet was something which was definitely happening, something inherent and inevitable. Shakespeare’s job in convincing the audience this was due to fate was easy. As the audience at that point of time would have believed in fate.

Shakespeare tried to showcase the idea that to fulfill destiny and prophecy, you have to believe in destiny. Like prophecies, inasmuch as they are ultimately self-fulfilling, Romeo was shown to believe, saying, “I fear too early for my mind misgives, some consequences yet hanging in the stars shall bitterly begin this fearful date.”

Romeo knew—to that degree of belief, it transcends idea and becomes a physical reality—that his actions were not under his control;

“…He that hath steerage over my course, direct my sail.”

By believing that one’s actions are out of one’s control, one avoids responsibility and, for Romeo to believe this, he tried to defy what was already a self-imposed idea, to go against the tide that swept him to his end was to go against a tide he put in motion.

Fate was used by a number of playwrights, and Shakespeare used it well as a dramatic device, showing what fruit there is in believing one’s life out of one’s hands. Shakespeare was central to the progress of the play and its outcome; an example could be Romeo’s banishment and Paris’s engagement to Juliet. Both a modern and an Elizabethan audience would, despite the knowledge of the plays outcome, be interested in the play, and keep watching, and in a way Shakespeare uses the audience’s knowledge as a dramatic device.

Despite his own ambition, Shakespeare has a madness for condemning it; like MacBeth, Friar Lawrence could be an example of an ambitious person, believing that by marrying the lovers the feud would stop, alleging that the only reason he is marrying the two is to bring an end to the rivalry. Despite how well intentioned this action is, The Friars decision to marry Romeo and Juliet indicates his naiveté more than anything. The Friar is ultimately responsible for the ending. To persuade Juliet to fake her death, he attempts to reverse nature—to heal the wounds of the feud—but only succeeds in making everything worse.

The Friar was a man who did not believe in fate. As such, his decision-making leads to chaos. The unpredictable direction of events help to keep the audience attentive. Shakespeare used these techniques to build tension and make scenes more dramatic.

Youth’s Romantic Rebellion.

Romeo and Juliet both rebel against their families, as most young men and women do. They enhance and exacerbate the rivalry between them by marring one another, rather than taming it. The play presents numerous examples of youthful rebellion. Juliet disobeys her father by refusing to marry Paris, something unheard of in a society where fathers are the ultimate source of patriarchal authority, and authority in all things, moral and spiritual. As both rebel against their parents through their continued association, Juliet not only disobeys her parents, she encourages Romeo to do the same, saying,

“…deny thy father and refuse thy name.”

Things did not end well. For anyone, really.

Cont.

Shakespeare could turn out plays like Romeo and Juliet in his sleep. In Hamlet and perhaps more so in MacBeth, however, he pushes himself higher and higher. In Hamlet by bringing the drama closer to the personal and neglecting archetypal tragedy; Hamlet, the character, is proof of this, as his mental anguish is the subject of the entire play. Perhaps it was due to the death of his own son Hamnet, that Shakespeare’s interest would become deconstructing the relationships between fathers and sons.

After his son was carried away by the plague, we have the character Hamlet, a consonant shy of having the same name of his deceased son, looking into a mirror, contemplating suicide. ‘To be or not to be,’ is just a fancy way of asking, ‘Should I kill myself or what?’ That’s the question. It’s the same question Camus pursued in his philosophy of the absurd, in works such as The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus; and Camus stated,

‘There is one principle issue in philosophy, and that is suicide.’

Shakespeare’s own anguish and regret seeps into his characters, who, even when seemingly on top of the world – as Shakespeare had been himself, showing up to a coronation decked out in red velvet – find ways to bemoan the everyday life of the depressive:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

The way to dusty death

Out! Out, brief candle!

Life is but a walking shadow,

A poor player that struts and frets

His hour upon the stage

And is heard no more.

It is a tale told by an idiot,

Full of sound and fury –

Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare’s characters are all saddled by one form of loss or another in this period, and they deal with grief in different ways. His later work is a dissection of grief. Hamlet’s deliberation on his life, Macbeth’s lethargy and disdain for the noise and futility of the mundane, day to day, what is real and lasting, and what is ephemeral, just a passing storm, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Shakespeare’s guilt over his son’s passing seeps into his greatest play, King Lear, as the King mistreats his one honest daughter while at the same time giving lavishly to his other daughters, who are sycophantic and gratifying, incurring his good favor by building up his self-esteem, so when it’s time to parcel out the kingdom, Cordelia doesn’t get as much as those other assholes.

It’s hard to pin Shakespeare down and say with definitiveness what he believed, or wherewith he is speaking in his own voice, as himself. He used the past as a prism through which to enlarge the issues of the present, such as the problems with the monarchy and the many religious schisms of his age. But in his later works, the character of Hamlet is in keeping with more reflective, pensive melancholy – about the loss of his father – and his ghost is who tips him on to what Claudius has done; MacBeth might be a reflection of Shakespeare’s own transformation. From the highest of the playwrights in England to a grieving father; he had money and fame at a time when it meant less than it should have.

At the time King Lear was written, Shakespeare was English playwriting. Kip Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Kyd, his detractors and contemporaries did well, but fell out of favor, gradually. Kip Marlowe has retained a popularity that the former did not, but even his doesn’t rival that of Shakespeare, the Bard, inventor of words like puke and queasy. That’s a legacy.

When one considers the popularity of Hamlet’s conversation with the mirror and his thoughts of suicide, it’s easy to see one’s self before that same mirror thinking the same thing: what have I to lose by losing everything? Will it mitigate my loss? Will destruction save me from the torments of my conscience? These are natural questions to ask, to wonder if there is providence, and to wonder if we can actually defy fate on any meaningful level. If there be providence in this world, must this be the greatest lack of mercy? This denial of consolation the grave offers us all? No grace, no word of condolences from that undiscovered country. To ask these questions during a time of religious upheaval were questions in need of asking. It is no consolation that the dead stay silent, and grace is a spectre over our noblest endeavors.

The dead may silent, sure, but they may find their voice again; if the proper necromancer restored these spirits to our world, to live out their days in one folio or painting or another, this preserves the voice of voices we can’t hear and is unless by a proper necromancer restored to live forever in the folio or painting of a fine dramatist or artist. This is among the finer qualities of art—the preservation of what we are as individuals struggling with self-definition. Shakespeare was one of the first writers to give the English a hint at what that definition could be.

A Letter to Sidney, prose – 13 April 2016

For a person with very little, as I’m sure you’ll agree, a very little is a lot. Even friends who only come to smoke or get my pills, they act like my friends and pretend to respect me, and Benny is along that vein, the people who flatter my intelligence towards the end of getting something. Like Bonnie, which is sad, because it could have been so nice for her. I’m not a romantic, I’m a realist, and I know not all relationships can work all the time, but for me, love is one of the most wasted qualities in the world. It is lavished upon the undeserving while those who feel deserving just watch, like a drowning man staring at a picture of water, wondering what it must be like to actually drink, to drink that deep drug of falling, getting to know someone and their quirks, learning how to play with them, how to fight, how to live and die well together.

And in that loneliness, which is towards my bed, to be ashamedly honest, and my voice of encouragement, someone to tell me that it matters, the things I care about, books or whatever, to know someone responds on a sympathetic frequency is enough to keep the idea of romantic love alive from afar, if not in contact, because love starts with the idea of someone. And the consensus when it comes to me is, the man to ask questions, but not really pay attention to the person behind the trivia and all that, and Bonnie plays to that need of mine, to feel that sense of being loved, and not thinking it is being wasted on me. She knows I’ve been, very ashamed of my face after my disfigurement in November, and she plays that, you know, “You’re always beautiful” card, excusing my shame and trying to offer me consolation in the most fraudulent ways.

Not by talking or growing to know each other better, but by the vulgar attempt to skip the play and conversation and challenge of knowing someone and loving them for whatever that is, she wishes to skip that process with me, the best I think, better than anything, the gradual realization of love, felt or being felt, and she makes me feel like maybe I’m not deformed or disfigured, and that people don’t see me as a meth head because I lost a tooth. It started with me not being able to smile in public, then only in groups, and now not even in private. It’s easy to exploit my need for company, because of how long time is, how slow the minute when loneliness is the situation. And she preys on my weakness for those who claim to care about me or want to help me or know me or whatever. I don’t ask for anything or make demands, only meekly hope for some reciprocation in the event I earn it, and to earn favor and not feel ugly when I’m with someone.

She makes me feel like that is possible, but without funds, that process is impossible, because the loving of me is in service to something else, and me as a person is a commodity to be used towards different ends, the ends of another type of self-satisfaction. And I never expect to be loved or even liked, much less respected, because all my efforts are attempts to make deep personal and psychological ugliness harder to recognize, and I feel like even my eloquence is the ink-sack  of the lobster, shooting it out so I can slip away in the murky water between being fulfilled by the sincere love and respect of friends, knowing the love will be from afar, and not for my face or for my form, but for, if anything, something approaching sincerity and genuineness, and at best a kind of wisdom.

We all have good moments, when we get to see someone smile because we made them laugh, or to see someone think, or feel a new sense of companionship, and I feel like my obvious desperate needs for contact manifest themselves as easily manipulated people, whose need for friendship negates the knowing eventual pain of when it falls apart, making ever more desperate future attempts at being loved. That’s why all of my advice starts with learning how to swim on my own. Because no one may ever join, so to speak, and if drowning, without incentive, no one will be there to save me. So abuse against me is something I apologize to the abuser for.

I’m sorry you broke a promise to me and it hurt, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make you happy by being me. Sensitivity and the capacity for seeing love between others, or just friendship on a deep level, only reinforces the claustrophobia of my life, and anyone to break it, even if violently, has saved me from these silent spaces.

Sorry, she came by again, her hair smelled good
I think she washed up too
And now she takes my hands and says
How smooth! The smoothest hands!

The fraudulence of such emotion more than anything offends my sensibilities, to know those whom I feel worthy of their love waste it on people who either don’t deserve or if they do don’t powerfully return it, at least in a way that empowers. I just feel, I thought coming back, I thought I’d have something to offer, something to offer someone other than someone who doesn’t want anything but my pill bottle. Sorry for rambling, and you don’t have to respond, it’s nice to have a window, even if it’s bricked. I like the idea of a bricked window, because it engenders no delusion of being helped. That’s the hardest thing to accept, that no one’s going to turn the light on, and if you need the light on now, you’ve misunderstood how to see in the dark.

Brandon fucKing Nobles

‘The Obituary Writer’ first draft, 11 September 2015

THE OBITUARY WRITER

Copyright © 2015

BRANDON K. NOBLES

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

I Death in Isla Wor

 

My first paying job after finishing school was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games were of no consequence in the world but very important to our little town; it brought everyone together, and when my poor nephew died, a tight-end on the little league football team, the community rallied round our family. Since I wrote about sports, when my poor, dear Alex died, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well, the paper sales; and there was more interest in my work. When no one died, I’d fabricate it just to keep the momentum of my work going. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

Knock-knock.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column after my successes, and it was all good and fun. People started noticing me in public, talking to me about my work, my other work, work I was more proud of, and it was a nice feeling, when people care about you and your work, about who you are. I wrote more, more eulogies than obituaries, more and more, more dramatic, more poetic. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and grew more and more detached from the people; but when it was with old media, with the real newspaper, it was still impossible to distance myself completely.

I got personal requests, too, and got paid for each. I named the price. It was cynical, and depressing, but that’s work. Knock-knock. It changed, to an extent, when I wrote the obituary for the son of a prominent town official, and the only doctor in that small town, Dr. Eddie Redding, the eulogy being for his oldest son, Marcus, whom I knew, but poorly, despite knowing his younger brother William, who was closer to my age. The paper ran it and it sold more copies than any paper in the company’s history; and from such popular success, the boy’s father reached out to me, first to my aunt, then to me personally through email. He invited me to a diner on a Sunday afternoon.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. Knock-knock. The reason for my work, by then, had bothered me. Of course it bothered me! Everybody hates their job, or at least some part of it. It was just a job, just business. I knew what I did. I wasn’t proud of it. No, that is a lie; I was extremely proud it.

He showed up in a modest suit, no blazer, no tie; button-up shirt, tucked in, a leather belt, no buckle. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively;

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I took a cab.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man, I could see it on his face, and warm hearted, the creases on the sides of his lip betrayed a man of many strained, false smiles. A doctor, that is.

“Would you like something to drink? Some coffee?”

“If you’re having some, I will, sure.”

He stood and approached the counter. I took my valise out of my satchel. A moment later he returned.

“She’ll be over in a minute to take our order,” he said. “So, where did you go to school? Did you go to high school here?”

“Oh, yes sir. I was in English IV with your son, with Marcus. He was a few years older than me, class of ’03. But I knew his little brother Will a lot better. We skateboarded before I went off to college.”

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I went to a childcare center until I was five, when I was adopted, and I remember story time the most. It was the best part of the day, the only fun I had. I was taught to read, and I went on to read the dictionary back and front. I started copying all the words that rhymed and then started making little lists of rhyming words. I liked Dr Seuss and copied his work quite a bit, learning the rhythm of it. And when I was adopted, my adoptive mother and father adopted another young boy, my little brother Christopher, and he’d call out words to me and I’d name all the words I could that rhymed with it. When I got into trouble at school, they punished me by making me copy out of the dictionary; my punishment might have helped me more than the schooling.”

He laughed a hearty laugh.

A young woman approached the table.

“How can I help you fellas today?”

“I’d like a BLT, a large iced tea,” he said. He thumbed the menu. “And a small salad.” He folded it and put it back on the table.

She looked at me. “And you?”

“Can you get me a cappuccino?” I asked. “Vanilla, if possible.”

“We can sure try,” she said with a smile. A lovely young lady, “Large, medium, small?”

“Large,” I said.

She wrote the answers on a small legal pad in hurried, slanting letters. Left handed!

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take that.”

She took our laminated plastic menus, folding them under her arm.

“I’ll be back with your order as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” I said, and Dr. Redding: “Thank you very much.”

She walked away. After a short but rather comfortable silence he turned to face me again.

“Well,” he said, “your punishment seems to have reformed you!”

“I’m sure it has,” I said.

The waitress brought Dr. Redding his iced tea, then a moment later my cappuccino.

“We’ll be over with your sandwich soon,” she said.

 

He took the glass of tea and thanked her.

“So what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I knew his brother well, but didn’t really get to know him.”

“He wanted to…”

The waitress came over with his sandwich on a serving tray, along with his salad. He grabbed the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He turned to face our waitress.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you fellas need anything else, just give me a holler.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away.

He took a sip of his iced tea, popped the plastic top off his salad, and unwrapped his sandwich.

“As I was saying,” he said after a bite of salad, “he wanted to be an engineer. He liked working on cars, but he never finished college, quitting after he started working at Nichols’ Tire.”

“That’s that body shop across the river, right?”

“That’s the one!” he said. “And the money was okay for the work, and having to take care of Leslie, his daughter, kept him showing up.”

I was silent. Didn’t know what to say; to admit I’d somewhat faked the obituary, the whole eulogy being a platitudinous exhortation of your most common, most stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest’ excrete. Knock-knock! That’s when it started, the knocking; in my temples first, it spread, following me to my home, then into my dreams.

“So,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin, having finished his small salad. “Do you work for the paper full time?”

“Well, I covered sports and town events first, then I wrote a eulogy for my nephew and put it on the internet. It got really popular and the newspaper got a lot of exposure. One of the editors for the newspaper saw it and asked me to take over the column permanently.”

“You do all the obituaries?”

“Yes sir. Every Wednesday. Well, that’s when we get in the information, from hospitals, from the internet, social media. Facebook, Twitter; we have people from the paper who overlook the messages from town residents, keeping up-to-date on the elderly and sick, scouring for updates to get a jump on the story…”

Later I would be sick in thinking back on this conversation, speaking so casually about what must have still been an open wound for that nice old man. Not an old man, not really, early to mid-50’s. I prattled on:

“I start the eulogy on Wednesday, with the goal to run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in later in the week and it’s a little more rushed.”

Knock-knock!

He ate his sandwich as we talked, mouth closed when he chewed. Very proper, pausing occasionally to dab his mouth with napkins. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling, that feeling of being good at your job, to believe you’re doing something good, something important; that’s how I dealt with it, how I justified the profession to myself each new night when a name came in with a number beside it.

“I’d much rather get into the business of writing fiction, or at least get some of my finished books and essays published. It’s a passion of mine, much more so than my job.”

A nervous laugh: “I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’.”

“What are you working on now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I’m… I don’t know enough about how it all works, I don’t know enough I don’t think; you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. “”You’ll figure it out!”

“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

Knock-knock.

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he gestured to my leather valise; it was a professional suitcase, a type of folder with a metal 3-ring binder along the spine, assorted compartments, two protected by zippers, and another slot for a larger, 8×12 legal pad, another compartment on the outside – for academic work, my studies in art and literature. The binder was reserved for current fiction projects, the legal pad for work, for obituaries and eulogies for my ever-expanding, ever-popular column. I kept my completed, hand-written work in one of the zippered compartments.

“Yes sir,” I said.

I dug around in one of the compartments for a moment until I found the original copy of his son’s eulogy and handed it to him. He took into his hands gently, almost lovingly, as though he held some relic of his son, if not his son outright. He called the waitress over again.

I took my wallet out. He waived it away. I relented, not wanting to be that guy. Instead I took laptop from my satchel and sat it on the table in front of me as he paid.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap that snapped in place, hole in the center for a straw.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he had a $100 bill between his fingers, folded.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done!”

“Your book on theatre maybe?” he said. Such a warm hearted man, he smiled.

Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“I’m sure you’ll get it right. Just don’t be hard on yourself. Maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’ve finally written that book of yours.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. … I’m sure you know that better than most.”

He had remained friendly and light, speaking with levity, no hint of any great weight on his shoulders, the great weight of death, no hint of that on his face.

“Here,” he said. He offered me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “I didn’t do it for money, despite that being my job; I did that one because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway, so if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand with a sense of embarrassment, almost shame.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new briefcase someday.”

I laughed it off, still uncomfortable with the money.

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it out wide-open to where I’d left off. Ashes everywhere, covering the surface, the leather covered in white scuff marks.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles.”

He took a sip of his iced tea through a straw.

“I will sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good-day!”

He walked away, out the door. It clanged the enter/exit bells, a gentle bing-bong! like metal wind-chimes.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)

 

 

2 Electric Purgatory

 

 

I stayed at the paper until it went out of distribution in 2012, when I was 28, having worked there for 5 years; but it spread to the internet, infernal machines, miasma of labyrinthine metal snakes with open mouths all sucking data or spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros already drunk but still drinking; my obituaries were broadcast worldwide. The newspaper ceased to exist in meatspace, in old media, becoming digital; the circulation possibilities increased beyond what anyone had thought possible in the early days, covering pointless, minor skirmishes between middling sports teams in the little town of Isla Wor. That stopped being important in the digital world, and the obituary column enhanced my reputation even further; I was finally able to do my theatre piece.

This success, the string of warm feedback and heartfelt thank yous, I imagined, might have been due in part to my over-wrought, faux-dramatic, faux-inspirational style of obituary: it was sermonizing, shameless masturbatory kitsch in arts’ clothes, all false, all hollow, paper houses gone digital. I had a high opinion of myself. The machine brought hundreds of names and numbers a day, deaths and dates, Daniel 22, Susan 17; and the more popular I got, the more famous would my fortunate unfortunate subjects become; musicians, then small-time movie stars, spreading through satellites to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer. A title I would not only hate, but resent, as the world knew me only as such, and most certainly of what I’d done to earn such a moniker.

As my popularity grew, young kids would find my house an amusing place for practical jokes. Practical joke is a kind word; they wanted to drive me out of town, to drive me mad; I was a bad omen, they thought, as death followed fast behind me, and in my trail were tears and terrible writing, the saddest parade. The knocking on the doors and running away, that bothered me the worst; it happened late at night when I did most of my work. It’s a tradition, at least where I’m from, to knock on someone’s door or ring their doorbell and run away. The satisfaction being that you inconvenienced someone, and as a child, that feels, man, just wonderful.

But it never stopped.

I tried to back away, to make it a colder process, so it’d be easier to handle. I was drinking, taking sleeping pills, drinking a lot actually. Surely much more than was healthy. I set to studying theatre, its origins and traditions; how they worked, how a character would make changes to the sets. I ran the column still, but I didn’t interact with the bereaved personally anymore; I’d get alerts on my computer, email alerts, with new deaths: the names and numbers selected at random using an algorithm written by an intern to select the most profitable, most tragic deaths, those that best played heartstrings–all for more traffic to the website, the digital mausoleum, electric purgatory: young and under 30, teenage girls in love, with a few kids maybe, single men.

It was easy to do the practical part of the job, as easy as it could be to write it up. I didn’t know anything else: names and ages, over and over and over. At the height of my popularity, I’d write five to ten eulogies a week for my column, and it had become much more than what it started out as, adjunct to a newspaper; it was separate now and distinct, and more successful for it. I eventually made out a form to expedite the process further:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died this Wednesday in a freak car accident when a deer ran out in front of her car on New Egypt Rd. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Harding and had two daughters, Lisa and Tammy. She was 34.

But that’d never fly in my column, no, no, no. It had to be dramatic, life-affirming, death-denying. So I set about writing it properly:  

          The lovely Sarah Harding, former cheerleader and passionate journalist, was taken from our poor town in a tragic car accident early Monday morning. Her parents received the call from a stranger, only to be told their beautiful daughter, 34, was dead, and they would bear the burden of telling Sarah’s two young children of her death. Lisa was 5 years old, a pre-school student at the Master’s Baptist Daycare, she loves coloring and singing. Her older sister Tammy, a 12 year old 6th grader and Carver Middle School, plays t-ball for the Isla Wor Wolverines and is in the chess club. I can say, in confidence, that she will be missed by all.

          The knocking at my door!

I flung my papers aside, knocking over a candle. Thankfully it went out. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting. This is beyond a joke! I yelled. The hallways were dark and derelict. Tables stood with disheveled stacks of unedited pages, existing solely to bear the weight of unfinished work to never be finished.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no middling kids with suspicious paper bags. I stamped off to my study, furious. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting; always late at night, always while I was busy. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working! But, like the old saying of New York City: “Nobody drives; there’s too much traffic.”

Knock-knock!

I went on to knock out mock-obituaries in my spare time, more often than not I’d only have to change the names, the pronouns, the setting, maybe. I just made it up, made them sound good, and the facts weren’t important. So I did: to spend time with my girlfriend, then my wife, I wrote thousands of them: each with a common male name or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. I ran the obituaries anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me and at the time I barely noticed.

Knock-knock!

I tried to ignore it. It kept on and on, pounding harder and harder. I would tip toe then, with a baseball bat, then later with a pistol. I never caught them. It beat in my temples when I woke and why I lay down to try to sleep to take my pills and have a drink; more medicine and more drink, more and more. Money affords you many things, nice suitcases and suits, but peace cannot be bought, nor love, at least not love that stays without being put on retainer.

Knock-knock!

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. Rationalizing those objections was only what the job as obituary writer was allowing me to do: I made enough money to study theatre, researching that book I’d so often talked about. Enough money to live comfortably, without financial worry. The stress of it all got worse and worse as email alerts flooded in with that terrible alert noise, the familiar bing-bong of metal wind-chimes clanging against a diner’s enter/exit door.

I remember the first nightmare. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer; nothing there. I had woke to the thought of getting my mother’s name, and sitting there in the dim light of my laptop, smoking a cigarette, I finally did hear that ever-ominous alert and saw the name come in, the result of an impersonal, neutral computer program, the Judge:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speaks, putting out my cigarette. I never wanted to wake to the sound of that horrible jingle again. But I did, over and over, all in my mind, imaginary like so much else. And in the bouquets left on tombstones all I’d see, no flowers blooming, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuff in their cold mouths like the horrible bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats, chasing invisible mice or attacking each other.

My dreams were disconnected bits of phantasmagoria; lists of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers, rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar and I thought it must be purgatory, and there I’d be forced to truly know all those whom I had so briefly summarized and put aside. All were familiar but ultimately unknown and dead, unknowable. The obituary writer – ha! What a dark star! how very dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I ran to the door to catch that miserable cretin, once and for all. And flinging the door wide I saw nothing, once again, then looked down, as I had never done. And there stood a little boy with a bleeding head, a football jersey. I woke up screaming.

I began to burn all of those old handwritten pages, all those falsities, hoping to appease whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction; you may recoil when you first jump in, but stay in long enough, and the ice cold water warms you up, somehow, and when you get out of the pool the warmth of the night air is cold.

I continued to study theatre, pushing all the death and gloom that was my day job from my mind, and I was making incremental progress. I learned of a character in early theatre that gave me pause; Hypokritos was a falsely righteous character who would wear buffoonish masks and feign divinity, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be sincere, to be profound, only to be a popular source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke of a solemn, thoughtful photo, sharp contrast and pretentious, black and white. Knock-knock-knock! The email alert – the one I finally removed – had always startled me, as it was the same as the bell that smote on the shivering prison air to let the inmates know that one of those unlucky souls had made it out. So I thought, naturally, I would turn the sound back on and capture what I looked like when I got the email alert; that way I’d have a sincere impression, not knowing that, instead of taking off the mask of the falsely divine Hypokritos, I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle, slightly easier to stomach, slightly harder to notice. The professional make-over had ended with a vast, fully searchable digital archive; a macabre, gaudy porno.

Knock-knock!

God dammit! I ran through the halls and out the door into the street and looked around. No one, not a raven, no obvious source; just the wind and dogs barking in the distance. I was exhausted by the time I made it home, and tried to get some sleep.

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire, less smoke. I felt that I would exhaust my fuel and become one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then larger just to get a cigarette lit, eventually striking it over and over in the vain hope that it might light once more, knowing eventually it would dry of fuel completely and never produce a flame again. I felt that I’d run out of fuel, having wasted my life as a profiteer of misery, death on my mind like a heavy crown.

 

 

 

 

3 Speaker for the Dead

 

 

I did few eulogies when work on my book began in earnest. I had given notice to my employer, resigning to finishing only one: the heading that disappeared, the obituary for myself. I kept working, working hard with the motivation, with the hope that, upon completion, I’d have dinner in that small diner with Dr. Redding again. I still wrote obituaries in the meantime, and never was I more distant from it, as they were cold and ever colder still, the popularity began to fade, and never had I been so happy to fail. Demand dropped off for my particular brand of obituary—though there was a remorse to it, to have invested so much time and effort to become such a good obituary writer; I was very, very good at my job.

Knock-knock!

Those early days were the best, when I wrote obituaries for the paper, the small town paper for Isla Wor, there were no email alerts, no nightmares, no knocking, broken ringing doorbells; and all were at least sincere, in the beginning—many being for family; after the eulogy for my Dr. Redding’s son Marcus, looking back, that’s when something broke, something mechanical, some part of the system that processed grief. It broke as I worked through it and continued breaking as I wrote more and it made me cold to all, more often than not I kept to that automated script completely, completely sterile, no passion for anything save for my book on theatre, and passion enough only to get the money needed to continue; it moved closer and closer towards publication.

Knock-knock!

As I wrote, I thought of my dead father, and I thought of him quite often, and the obituary, the eulogy he’d never gotten, not from me, not the celebrated obituary writer. I looked forward to seeing Dr. Redding again at that little diner, I’d take a cab. I’d order him his BLT and cold iced tea, a small salad too, and I’d pay for it all. I’d bring a new valise, toss out that old ash-stained leather volume, unsightly and assaulted by age, scuffed white and daily marked by time, by dust. I wanted to show him that I’d finally gotten it right.

Knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. He was a graphic design major; and his talent, like his degree, didn’t come cheap. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up.

Knock!

My book came out to little fanfare, just shy of my 30th birthday, with a reasonably warm critical reception, yet slightly colder commercial response. But there is no price to pay for a clear conscience, being able to tell the truth, if through fiction, it was a better way. There is a great element of truth in the worst lies and in the best of lies, and a great fiction in the most honest statement by the most trustworthy men.

I still had those dreams of waking to that electric death toll, the flowers of the bereaved sprouting monetary blossoms, that horrible knocking which seemed to drone on forever, but I’d dream that first I woke to find that mock-heading:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

And I set out to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in this dim dream in a dim room trying to write it out. I would receive more pressing emails from the machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, offering me more and more money to finish my obituary, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I woke cold and sweating, breathing heavily. I expected to hear the knocking, but didn’t; nor the doorbell which, though broken, sometimes near midnight tolled.

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail, it had some time since the initial, limited released, I called the doctor’s office to leave a message for dear Dr. Redding to call me when he got the chance. He did, and I had been out at the time; my brother took the message down. We were to meet at that same diner, again on a Sunday—his one day off. I got there early, uncomfortable. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth, a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me back to the booth we’d sat in last time we met. I found a cappuccino waiting for me; he had yet to order. Vanilla as I liked it, and cold.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from the new valise, much nicer indeed despite the signs of cigarette ash and age, dust collecting around the zippers. I handed him one of the galley proofs. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he handled it in that delicate fashion in which he’d once held the handwritten draft of his son’s eulogy—he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, but with delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is a sort of love, not a sort, that is love; to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from growing children, a lonely wife awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help.

I wondered for the first time, making the strange connection: how many names checked in at his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed? He was turning my book around, looking at the cover, holding it up to better see it in the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s fine, that’s very fine indeed. That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you’d figure it out.”

“Open it,” I said.

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, alas, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s might fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he interjected. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, a free copy of my book, but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be best remembered for and not my column and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, to tell me about who he was, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years and the man, your happy memories, the kind of stuff you can’t find online, so often the meat of life is picked away and what we’re usually left with, writing an obituary, is just the bones. And that’s what people seem to like. Short, thumbnail sketches, overly dramatic and declaratory. I wanted to do something real and honest for him. For you, for your family, to the extent, to any extent that I may. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must do so honestly.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother, when they were young. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco 33 fishing rods down there after church on Sunday, they’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks that let you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home them with after that, always protective big brothers. When they turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday and when you buy for one you have to buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved nothing more in the world. Riding around and doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus repaired them for Will and his sisters when they got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got his daughter Leslie one of those new bikes when she turned four, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And that’s when he started talking about wanting to build things, to be a builder, to be an engineer, working on cars, fixing things that broke. He was always fixing things. They rode the horses, he couldn’t fix those! Hell, neither could I! They played video games and monopoly. We were fortunate, but they weren’t much different than lots of good, kind kids. And they were very much loved. And he is very much missed. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. A loving father.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can write a eulogy to suit him and honor your family properly.”

And through that finish my own perhaps, the obituary writer’s eulogy—who better to write it?

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy, and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my other work. And I used it. I used it to advance myself, selfishly. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look, Brandon,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it in my line of work. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and alive for longer. Don’t be down on yourself. What you do is a public good, despite your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy, then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, as all of ours, as normal, kind kids, who are very much loved and would be very much missed.

He ordered the same meal, just the same; BLT, small salad, large glass of iced tea. I finished my cappuccino, took out my laptop, and went about my work, typing away as he ate his sandwich and drank his tea. And I picked up the tab.

After that the conversation mellowed, teetering out but still pleasant; with little left to say, we talked about upcoming projects. He dabbed a napkin at the corners of his mouth, ever-creased from a life of forced and honest smiles. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer once last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary, and live out the true purpose of my title, that we both might rest. He opened the door to leave.

Bing-bong!

Hawthorne & the Cult of Judgment

In the Scarlet Letter, Hester Prim has a daughter out of wedlock, Pearl.

“For Peril~”9780671510114

And for the Puritan society, for that culture, this is a sin. They were too civilized to burn her at the stake and kill her, they wanted to kill her and make her live with it. So they burned her while she was still alive, forcing her to wear the eponymous Scarlet Letter – ‘A’ for Adultery. (The worst segment in Sesame St. history, if you ask me.)

This type of punishment, this very demeaning sentence, not least of all to Prim, but to an absolute innocent, the child, caters to a culture of judgment, a culture that instructs not through hands’ on education, but through shame and judgment.

The purpose of this public ridicule is a revenge, in this case, a revenge against a woman’s transgressions, despite their not knowing of the situation in its entirety. Because in a culture of encouraged judgment, a psychological condition plays an important role: you are more likely to excuse your own behavior because you know the reasons behind your behavior, if you run a red light, there are justifiable reasons. If someone else does the same, or cuts you off in traffic, may they burn in hell. And there is another issue: confirmation bias. It is the tendency to seek out that which reinforces what you already believe while at the same time avoiding anything that might contradict those beliefs, even to the extent that contradictory proof will only solidify your position further.

After Hester is lettered, put on display for all to see – for the old to pity, for the young to fear themselves and their own desire – it is to the sole benefit of a culture too busy judging a Rembrandt to learn to paint. There’s a large audience for popular criticism, the criticism of film, music, and literature, and people. Yes, people. That thing you are. Self bias doesn’t extend to other people. Why, that’d be crazy. But they have a word for that: empathy. The excuses we make for ourselves are excuses we’d never accept from somebody else.

There are different types of judgment, to be fair, and not all judgment is vindictive. Literary criticism is more explanatory than dismissive in most cases, looking to expand upon the story’s merits rather than burn it for its flaws. I see the appeal: understanding is hard. It takes time. And burning is easy and fun. Whereas literary criticism and traditional film criticism expand on the story to show its relevance and applicability, this is in furtherance of teaching and preserving the intellectual culture of humanity.

With dismissive criticism, it makes it easy for someone without time or ability to create and contribute, even if it’s only to the detriment of harder working people. only to join the dehumanized spectators on the sidelines, never a part of the defense or prosecution, with nothing to lose, contributing only to the chorus of other blunt and feeble instruments without losing the delusion that they could make music, much better in fact, if they tried. Not trying is how you fail without doing anything, and it’s easier to redirect that judgment, to focus it on someone who did try. By distance and cynicism are the jaded excused, only by themselves, for those like them, without empathy, are making similar excuses, and those excuses don’t apply to other people. 

Hawthorne makes less of a case for the removal of Hester’s scarlet letter than advocate a world where there’s no hunger for this kind of public disgrace.  as all who live fall short of their goals, fuck up, make mistakes, some large, some small, and the encouragement of lettering doesn’t stop more people from failing, it stops more people from trying.

Arthur Miller touched on many of the same themes in The Crucible: 

“Ours is a divided empire in which certain ideas and actions are of God, then their opposite are of Lucifer. A political party is equated with a moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence.”

This was an injunction to share more and hide less, a call to mpathy, to understand a shared humanity, to use a gray approach when considering people, not thinking of things in good and evil, wholly so, or black and white, guilty and non-guilty, implying that you are purely and only one or the other. It’s easy, I get it, to understand contrasting ideas when using exaggerated, extreme examples but it comes at the cost of subtlety and nuance (two endangered species of bird found in French Polynesia.)

the-crucible-nooses-hand

The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a similar tale, another warning against public condemnation and judgment, in instance using the same political machinery to brand someone with a scarlet letter. Miller’s allegory is a treatise on the morality of society’s collective need to see someone hurt, to stab someone solely to see their blood, not for justice or in furtherance of truth, not truth, but a revenge against their difference, a poison, to make someone’s name synonymous with their mistake, like Hester’s A – by the end of the story it changes from a totem of shame to be angel, to the young women she seeks to help and angel, even.

What starts as political opposition becomes, through manipulation, a moral, emotional opposition. This allows an issue to be addressed in the easiest but least appropriate manner: emotionally and personally. When you treat one set of people as inherently better people, how kindly then should those less fortunate be treated, those with the disadvantage only of having been born different, or different by choice? They become morally repugnant, and as such the process of judgment becomes not only a necessity but moral, even righteous. A sense of pride, a sense of responsibility – the responsibility to judge. Whenever you pull a scab off someone’s wound and point a camera at it, you’re embroidering a Scarlet Letter,

Hawthorne’s novel is as relevant now as it was when it was released and is a poignant, profound reminded of the nobility of humility in the face of criticism and dismissiveness, slander and shaming. Though we may not see another’s heart, nor others ours, surely if we only looked for scarlet letters, through confirmation bias and osmosis, we’d find one in everybody, and place it on them publicly and forever, as Hester’s gravestone is emblazoned with that same A that marked her shame, to remind the living, in perpetuity, the penalty of making a mistake. There’s a scarlet letter for every mistake you can name, but keep in mind, in the court of history, the jury is on trial, and the world is not full of bit players only, extras with varying degrees of plot and development, but full of tars, all the lead character. Don’t be the antagonist. be the person who shows up when the screenwriters have no other way to move forward.

The Silent Circle, short story – 2 November 2015

There are times in life when all you can do is walk. Arriving home, that’s all that I could do. Just walk, just think, watching ants crawl over the stones that led to the porch. Thinking leads to nothing but trouble and I felt that trouble coming on when I found Bullet asleep in front of the sliding glass door that led into the kitchen. When I stumbled over one of the loose rocks, he roused a bit, grumbled, and licked his gums. Within a minute, he had drifted back into sleep.

     I threw my keys on the kitchen table, locked the sliding glass door, and then prepared Bullet’s food. To fix his food, I normally fill a bowl of dry food and then run water on it, stir it, then spoon each bite into his mouth, rub his throat, to help him swallow it. That night the pantry looked empty, barren in each cabinet and cupboard. His food was gone. The implications made me shudder as I passed into the living room. Grandmother sat in front of the antique television with crocheting needles. Under her breath she conversed with my Grandfather’s portrait on the wall behind her. In the corner a small fire tapered off in the dark, embers faded when the hollow logs burnt and charred. As always the room was stale and close, full of antique cabinets and dresser drawers with antique candelabras atop them. Inside each a dying candle flickered. There was another single candle burner in front of me on the coffee table, making my grandmother look like a frail, skeleton type figure, a flower on the day before winter.

     “Where’s Bullet’s food, grandmother?” I asked. “I’m about to go to sleep and I thought I’d feed him first. He seems quite fond of food.”

     “I done threw all that food away boy,” she said. “Can’t ya see the poor old dog is sufferin’? I don’t want him to suffer no more. Tomorrow we takin’ him to town to the vet so they can put him down. He won’t suffer no more.”

     The twinge, that needled type of numb feeling, went through my arms, my chest. I sat on the couch opposite of her, beyond the reach of the fireplace’s last embers. “So,” I mumbled, “you’re going to murder your dog? What good will that do? That won’t end his suffering; it will end yours. What’s it going to help to have him killed? There might be some more food in the pantry. I’ll find something for him.”

     “We gone have him cremated,” she said, nodding. “After we put him to sleep, that is. We picked him out one of them bottles too, those gold bottles. He’s gone be so pretty in his new bottle. It’s made out of gold.”

     “Why do you soften the language like that?” I asked. “You’re not going to ‘put him to sleep’ and ‘have him cremated.’ You’re going to murder him and then you’re going to set him on fire. Does it sound as humane when you use the right language? It’s not fair. Let nature run its course.”

     “They have some kind of special at the vet,” she said. “If you put two animals to sleep, you get a discount on the third. Ain’t that a good deal?”

     “I’m not even going to reply to that shit.”

     “I was readin’ some letters ya father sent me from across the ocean,” she said after a brief pause. “They all from your daddy. Never any from your mama, though. She sure was a pretty woman. Look,” she raised her bony finger to point across the room to a dresser on which a leather bundle rested. “Some of the letters your daddy sent. He sure was proud of you.”

     “When are you taking Bullet to the vet?” I asked.

     “Sometime after supper, I suppose,” grandma answered. “After I get my hair done.”

     “I have to go into town tomorrow for some groceries and notebook for school before it starts. I can drop him off on my way. He can ride in the camper on the back of my truck. That way you won’t have to go out in the cold.”

     “That ‘a be fine, I reckon. But you best go to sleep tonight, Roger. School ‘a start soon, and if you don’t get some rest how you gone be able to get them kinda grades your daddy knew you could get? He always said you was a smart boy, smart as a whip. Your grandpa was smart too. So was your daddy. He had a lot of problems, but he did love you. After the accident with your mama, his mind started going. Understand what I’m saying?”

     “Understand?” I laughed. “He was cruel to me and he got what he deserved. If my mother hadn’t done it, I would’ve done it myself. I wish none of this would have happened because my mother had to suffer for the crimes of someone else. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay there forever.”

     “It broke his heart to leave you, Roger. It broke that old man’s heart. His mind was going. It started when his father died, and being in that war, getting in that land mine accident, and all of that sure made it worse. But once your mama shot that girl, he knew he had to leave. At the time he thought it was best for you. It broke his heart when he saw your mama with that rope around her neck.”

     “What do you mean?” I asked. “He didn’t leave! You think he would abandon me just to hang out with his fishing buddies? Am I that big of a disappointment or a let down? He got what he deserved. He wouldn’t just abandon me; he enjoyed being cruel to me, but he would never have left me like that. He didn’t disappear. Not with a woman, a man, nothing. He got what he deserved.”

     Grandmother shrugged and then nodded off to sleep. Snatching the bundle of letters, I grabbed Bullet’s collar. After getting his food down, I went to the front door with him behind me, wobbling on his last legs, panting as he hobbled along. I lugged him into the camper of my truck. I mixed some more food, what little I had in my truck, and spoon fed small mouthfuls into his toothless gape. He gummed it down as I rubbed his wrinkled neck to help him swallow. I wiped the food off his mouth, dislodging a little that had sprinkled into his whiskers. He went to sleep in the back of the truck, having been fed, and I crawled through the camper into the front seat. By the time we reached the end of the road, Bullet was snoring loudly in the backseat. With a flick of a small control panel, the silence disappeared, replaced by the tranquil sounds of Schubert.

     At the end of the turnaround, I parked my truck near a path that led to a small river. I helped Bullet out of the back, saying, “Come on, man. Just a little ways to go now.” Placing him on the ground, I closed the camper. I connected his leash and collar. His wrinkles looked thicker than they had in the glow of my headlights, his limpid eyes a glowing flicker in which the headlights reflected a tiny spark. His legs wobbled as I led him behind me, to the center of the gravel circle. The end of the road was a barren circle of gravel, covered in empty packs of cigarettes, torn slips of paper, beer bottles, and papers that drifted in silent circles with the wind. A thick forest surrounded the turnaround. Off to the right a trail to a small pond tapered into the high grass, and beyond the trees I heard the trickling sounds of water, calm as the mind of Buddha when Mara approached him deep inside his mind. I went through all of my studies in Buddhism, in an attempt to ‘take out the poisoned arrow’ as Buddha once put it to the intellectual Malunkyaputra. But as the dog walked on, breathing heavy and too tired, the arrow twitched inside my chest.

     “Come on,” I urged. “Please. You just have to walk a little bit. It’s not too far now. They want to set you on fire, buddy. I’m not going to let them do that. I respect you, buddy. You don’t deserve to die.”

     With the song that I had hummed for my mother, when our outstretched fingers touched in the hallway of that Syrian prison, I rubbed his fleshy pink stomach. It had helped in the past, to numb, not to deal, but to tolerate the laws of life and nature. It was failing, and I knew it; not even the songs of Galilee could help me leave a dog to die in the woods alone. In my head, the same familiar procession of broken images came and went, my cats, my birds, my mother, and my father, in a continuous procession of dim shapes, like shadows behind a dingy glass, small at the end and beginning of each procession, but high up on the wall in the middle, coming into focus.

     Bullet fell to his stomach, closed his eyes, and I knelt beside him in the loose gravel. Puffs of dust roused as he breathed against the dirt. I sat his food bowl in front of his wrinkled face. His eyes remained closed as I went to get another bowl for water along with his bag of food. With the bowl of water full, filled with some tap water I’d brought in a bottle, I sat beside him again. His hind legs twitched a bit. His spotted head with isolated tufts of hair lilted as he rolled onto his back, as though to stare up to the stars. For a moment I remained there with him, pointing out constellations in the sky to him, telling him about the history of the universe as revealed by man. I spent half an hour comforting him on his death, on the meaning of his limited life, but it seemed as though I was never trying to convince him. It seemed as though I was trying to convince myself. And I failed, as I had before, to make sense of anything. With that lump in my chest, I left him there, in the middle of the turnaround, and went back to my truck.

     I sat there for a moment with my eyes transfixed on Bullet’s red figure, glowing in the glare of my dull brake lights. Inside the car, the hum of the engine pulsed under the seat. Other than that, it was silent, and I sat there in the dark with Bullet’s dying body behind me, glowing red in the glare. After an hour of sitting there, in constant torment, I left him there. Alone in the sand, cold, and hungry as I had been for so long in Galilee. The same tufts of smoke gathered around his nostrils as he struggled to breathe, took heavy breaths, then rolled onto his back again for one last look up to the stars, the likes of which he’d never see again, a beauty that would disappear for him forever. Did he ever know what sucked the energy from him and made his legs lame and lazy, that which turned his bones to dust? He would never know he lived. He’d never know the feeling of being again. That saddened me more than anything, I think; I realized that he would never even know he lived. That’s what hurt the most. It’s not fair; I remember thinking, parked at the end of the dirt road. I pictured the little glow in Bullet’s eyes, and in my mind, even then, I gleamed what it would be that I would dedicate my life to. My mind strayed forward to a time when I too began to become frail, to wither, to see the same winter that the flowers see before they fade. I thought to when I’d take the same lonely walk that Bullet would take to the stream and underbrush before he died, if he made it through the woods at all.

     I never went back to that road, probably because I feared I’d see Nature’s Garbage Men on the scene, waiting for their chance to eat, as they had for Casey, as they had for my father. Bullet never knew what took him from this world, but I thought then it was not the hand of god, but the invisible hands of time, the hours. The hours took him. That was a scary thought, to me as a young man, to think of time as such a heartless killer.

     How much had the hours taken? I wondered. Sammy, mother, father, Entae, Hiroshima, Pompeii, Julius Caesar, and the other countless billion ghosts that now inhabited the earth. Those same hours had me by the throat, dragging me from one place to another regardless of how much dust I kicked up. There was no control, no antidote, no way to sever the leash on which we’re taken to the landfill, where everything else is taken to the past, the boulevard of bones and broken images. How much had they taken? The hours like giant dump trucks, lugging everything to landfills of years of wars and dead presidents, the renaissance, the revolutions, and all the deaths and guillotines and tyrants, leaders who in the end rest with the commoners beneath the surface of the Earth. They take emperors and peasants, all to the same place. Together in the end, time does not discriminate.

     On the way home, as the dark trees that lined those roads swept by, I saw myself as Bullet, on all fours, crawling around in a puddle of dirt and dust, toothless, walking in circles, just waiting around to die. What else was there? My chest went cold. I filled my pipe again, as I had grown accustomed to doing, with the gun firmly in my mouth. Those blacktopped roads were lonely that night, and the only pedestrians of night that came out were solitary deer that sometimes fledged the lip of the roads before going back into the woods. The roads and trees kept me company along with streetlights and disconnected telephone cables that hovered above the trees. A disk of classical guitar music forced that terrible silence out. Nothing is more terrible than the infinite sound of silence. Human life is temporary, but silence lasts forever.

     When I walked into the attic, to put Bullet’s collar away for good, I ran across a pile of paintings, all of them my own, snacked in neat order and preserved by a thin film. A fish bowl sat on top of them, with stagnant water in it. An address had been scribbled on the under side of it in a thick black marker. I wondered what it was for, if it was for anything.

The Obituary Writer – short, 11 September 2015

I Death in Isla Wor

My first paying job after finishing school was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games were of no consequence in the world but very important to our little town; it brought everyone together, and when my poor nephew died, a tight-end on the little league football team, the community rallied round our family. Since I wrote about sports, when my poor, dear Alex died, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well, the paper sales; and there was more interest in my work. When no one died, I’d fabricate it just to keep the momentum of my work going. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

Knock-knock.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column after my successes, and it was all good and fun. People started noticing me in public, talking to me about my work, my other work, work I was more proud of, and it was a nice feeling, when people care about you and your work, about who you are. I wrote more, more eulogies than obituaries, more and more, more dramatic, more poetic. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and grew more and more detached from the people; but when it was with old media, with the real newspaper, it was still impossible to distance myself completely.

I got personal requests, too, and got paid for each. I named the price. It was cynical, and depressing, but that’s work. Knock-knock. It changed, to an extent, when I wrote the obituary for the son of a prominent town official, and the only doctor in that small town, Dr. Eddie Redding, the eulogy being for his oldest son, Marcus, whom I knew, but poorly, despite knowing his younger brother William, who was closer to my age. The paper ran it and it sold more copies than any paper in the company’s history; and from such popular success, the boy’s father reached out to me, first to my aunt, then to me personally through email. He invited me to a diner on a Sunday afternoon.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. Knock-knock. The reason for my work, by then, had bothered me. Of course it bothered me! Everybody hates their job, or at least some part of it. It was just a job, just business. I knew what I did. I wasn’t proud of it. No, that is a lie; I was extremely proud it.

He showed up in a modest suit, no blazer, no tie; button-up shirt, tucked in, a leather belt, no buckle. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively;

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I took a cab.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man, I could see it on his face, and warm hearted, the creases on the sides of his lip betrayed a man of many strained, false smiles. A doctor, that is.

“Would you like something to drink? Some coffee?”

“If you’re having some, I will, sure.”

He stood and approached the counter. I took my valise out of my satchel. A moment later he returned.

“She’ll be over in a minute to take our order,” he said. “So, where did you go to school? Did you go to high school here?”

“Oh, yes sir. I was in English IV with your son, with Marcus. He was a few years older than me, class of ’03. But I knew his little brother Will a lot better. We skateboarded before I went off to college.”

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I went to a childcare center until I was five, when I was adopted, and I remember story time the most. It was the best part of the day, the only fun I had. I was taught to read, and I went on to read the dictionary back and front. I started copying all the words that rhymed and then started making little lists of rhyming words. I liked Dr Seuss and copied his work quite a bit, learning the rhythm of it. And when I was adopted, my adoptive mother and father adopted another young boy, my little brother Christopher, and he’d call out words to me and I’d name all the words I could that rhymed with it. When I got into trouble at school, they punished me by making me copy out of the dictionary; my punishment might have helped me more than the schooling.”

He laughed a hearty laugh.

A young woman approached the table.

“How can I help you fellas today?”

“I’d like a BLT, a large iced tea,” he said. He thumbed the menu. “And a small salad.” He folded it and put it back on the table.

She looked at me. “And you?”

“Can you get me a cappuccino?” I asked. “Vanilla, if possible.”

“We can sure try,” she said with a smile. A lovely young lady, “Large, medium, small?”

“Large,” I said.

She wrote the answers on a small legal pad in hurried, slanting letters. Left handed!

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take that.”

She took our laminated plastic menus, folding them under her arm.

“I’ll be back with your order as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” I said, and Dr. Redding: “Thank you very much.”

She walked away. After a short but rather comfortable silence he turned to face me again.

“Well,” he said, “your punishment seems to have reformed you!”

“I’m sure it has,” I said.

The waitress brought Dr. Redding his iced tea, then a moment later my cappuccino.

“We’ll be over with your sandwich soon,” she said.

He took the glass of tea and thanked her.

“So what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I knew his brother well, but didn’t really get to know him.”

“He wanted to…”

The waitress came over with his sandwich on a serving tray, along with his salad. He grabbed the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He turned to face our waitress.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you fellas need anything else, just give me a holler.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away.

He took a sip of his iced tea, popped the plastic top off his salad, and unwrapped his sandwich.

“As I was saying,” he said after a bite of salad, “he wanted to be an engineer. He liked working on cars, but he never finished college, quitting after he started working at Nichols’ Tire.”

“That’s that body shop across the river, right?”

“That’s the one!” he said. “And the money was okay for the work, and having to take care of Leslie, his daughter, kept him showing up.”

I was silent. Didn’t know what to say; to admit I’d somewhat faked the obituary, the whole eulogy being a platitudinous exhortation of your most common, most stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest’ excrete. Knock-knock! That’s when it started, the knocking; in my temples first, it spread, following me to my home, then into my dreams.

“So,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin, having finished his small salad. “Do you work for the paper full time?”

“Well, I covered sports and town events first, then I wrote a eulogy for my nephew and put it on the internet. It got really popular and the newspaper got a lot of exposure. One of the editors for the newspaper saw it and asked me to take over the column permanently.”

“You do all the obituaries?”

“Yes sir. Every Wednesday. Well, that’s when we get in the information, from hospitals, from the internet, social media. Facebook, Twitter; we have people from the paper who overlook the messages from town residents, keeping up-to-date on the elderly and sick, scouring for updates to get a jump on the story…”

Later I would be sick in thinking back on this conversation, speaking so casually about what must have still been an open wound for that nice old man. Not an old man, not really, early to mid-50’s. I prattled on:

“I start the eulogy on Wednesday, with the goal to run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in later in the week and it’s a little more rushed.”

Knock-knock!

He ate his sandwich as we talked, mouth closed when he chewed. Very proper, pausing occasionally to dab his mouth with napkins. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling, that feeling of being good at your job, to believe you’re doing something good, something important; that’s how I dealt with it, how I justified the profession to myself each new night when a name came in with a number beside it.

“I’d much rather get into the business of writing fiction, or at least get some of my finished books and essays published. It’s a passion of mine, much more so than my job.”

A nervous laugh: “I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’.”

“What are you working on now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I’m… I don’t know enough about how it all works, I don’t know enough I don’t think; you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. “”You’ll figure it out!”

“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

Knock-knock.

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he gestured to my leather valise; it was a professional suitcase, a type of folder with a metal 3-ring binder along the spine, assorted compartments, two protected by zippers, and another slot for a larger, 8×12 legal pad, another compartment on the outside – for academic work, my studies in art and literature. The binder was reserved for current fiction projects, the legal pad for work, for obituaries and eulogies for my ever-expanding, ever-popular column. I kept my completed, hand-written work in one of the zippered compartments.

“Yes sir,” I said.

I dug around in one of the compartments for a moment until I found the original copy of his son’s eulogy and handed it to him. He took into his hands gently, almost lovingly, as though he held some relic of his son, if not his son outright. He called the waitress over again.

I took my wallet out. He waived it away. I relented, not wanting to be that guy. Instead I took laptop from my satchel and sat it on the table in front of me as he paid.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap that snapped in place, hole in the center for a straw.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he had a $100 bill between his fingers, folded.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done!”

“Your book on theatre maybe?” he said. Such a warm hearted man, he smiled.

Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“I’m sure you’ll get it right. Just don’t be hard on yourself. Maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’ve finally written that book of yours.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. … I’m sure you know that better than most.”

He had remained friendly and light, speaking with levity, no hint of any great weight on his shoulders, the great weight of death, no hint of that on his face.

“Here,” he said. He offered me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “I didn’t do it for money, despite that being my job; I did that one because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway, so if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand with a sense of embarrassment, almost shame.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new briefcase someday.”

I laughed it off, still uncomfortable with the money.

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it out wide-open to where I’d left off. Ashes everywhere, covering the surface, the leather covered in white scuff marks.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles.”

He took a sip of his iced tea through a straw.

“I will sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good-day!”

He walked away, out the door. It clanged the enter/exit bells, a gentle bing-bong! like metal wind-chimes.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)
2 Electric Purgatory 

I stayed at the paper until it went out of distribution in 2012, when I was 28, having worked there for 5 years; but it spread to the internet, infernal machines, miasma of labyrinthine metal snakes with open mouths all sucking data or spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros already drunk but still drinking; my obituaries were broadcast worldwide. The newspaper ceased to exist in meatspace, in old media, becoming digital; the circulation possibilities increased beyond what anyone had thought possible in the early days, covering pointless, minor skirmishes between middling sports teams in the little town of Isla Wor. That stopped being important in the digital world, and the obituary column enhanced my reputation even further; I was finally able to do my theatre piece.

This success, the string of warm feedback and heartfelt thank yous, I imagined, might have been due in part to my over-wrought, faux-dramatic, faux-inspirational style of obituary: it was sermonizing, shameless masturbatory kitsch in arts’ clothes, all false, all hollow, paper houses gone digital. I had a high opinion of myself. The machine brought hundreds of names and numbers a day, deaths and dates, Daniel 22, Susan 17; and the more popular I got, the more famous would my fortunate unfortunate subjects become; musicians, then small-time movie stars, spreading through satellites to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer. A title I would not only hate, but resent, as the world knew me only as such, and most certainly of what I’d done to earn such a moniker.

As my popularity grew, young kids would find my house an amusing place for practical jokes. Practical joke is a kind word; they wanted to drive me out of town, to drive me mad; I was a bad omen, they thought, as death followed fast behind me, and in my trail were tears and terrible writing, the saddest parade. The knocking on the doors and running away, that bothered me the worst; it happened late at night when I did most of my work. It’s a tradition, at least where I’m from, to knock on someone’s door or ring their doorbell and run away. The satisfaction being that you inconvenienced someone, and as a child, that feels, man, just wonderful.

But it never stopped.

I tried to back away, to make it a colder process, so it’d be easier to handle. I was drinking, taking sleeping pills, drinking a lot actually. Surely much more than was healthy. I set to studying theatre, its origins and traditions; how they worked, how a character would make changes to the sets. I ran the column still, but I didn’t interact with the bereaved personally anymore; I’d get alerts on my computer, email alerts, with new deaths: the names and numbers selected at random using an algorithm written by an intern to select the most profitable, most tragic deaths, those that best played heartstrings–all for more traffic to the website, the digital mausoleum, electric purgatory: young and under 30, teenage girls in love, with a few kids maybe, single men.

It was easy to do the practical part of the job, as easy as it could be to write it up. I didn’t know anything else: names and ages, over and over and over. At the height of my popularity, I’d write five to ten eulogies a week for my column, and it had become much more than what it started out as, adjunct to a newspaper; it was separate now and distinct, and more successful for it. I eventually made out a form to expedite the process further:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died this Wednesday in a freak car accident when a deer ran out in front of her car on New Egypt Rd. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Harding and had two daughters, Lisa and Tammy. She was 34.

But that’d never fly in my column, no, no, no. It had to be dramatic, life-affirming, death-denying. So I set about writing it properly:  

          The lovely Sarah Harding, former cheerleader and passionate journalist, was taken from our poor town in a tragic car accident early Monday morning. Her parents received the call from a stranger, only to be told their beautiful daughter, 34, was dead, and they would bear the burden of telling Sarah’s two young children of her death. Lisa was 5 years old, a pre-school student at the Master’s Baptist Daycare, she loves coloring and singing. Her older sister Tammy, a 12 year old 6th grader and Carver Middle School, plays t-ball for the Isla Wor Wolverines and is in the chess club. I can say, in confidence, that she will be missed by all.

          The knocking at my door!

I flung my papers aside, knocking over a candle. Thankfully it went out. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting. This is beyond a joke! I yelled. The hallways were dark and derelict. Tables stood with disheveled stacks of unedited pages, existing solely to bear the weight of unfinished work to never be finished.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no middling kids with suspicious paper bags. I stamped off to my study, furious. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting; always late at night, always while I was busy. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working! But, like the old saying of New York City: “Nobody drives; there’s too much traffic.”

Knock-knock!

I went on to knock out mock-obituaries in my spare time, more often than not I’d only have to change the names, the pronouns, the setting, maybe. I just made it up, made them sound good, and the facts weren’t important. So I did: to spend time with my girlfriend, then my wife, I wrote thousands of them: each with a common male name or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. I ran the obituaries anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me and at the time I barely noticed.

Knock-knock!

I tried to ignore it. It kept on and on, pounding harder and harder. I would tip toe then, with a baseball bat, then later with a pistol. I never caught them. It beat in my temples when I woke and why I lay down to try to sleep to take my pills and have a drink; more medicine and more drink, more and more. Money affords you many things, nice suitcases and suits, but peace cannot be bought, nor love, at least not love that stays without being put on retainer.

Knock-knock!

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. Rationalizing those objections was only what the job as obituary writer was allowing me to do: I made enough money to study theatre, researching that book I’d so often talked about. Enough money to live comfortably, without financial worry. The stress of it all got worse and worse as email alerts flooded in with that terrible alert noise, the familiar bing-bong of metal wind-chimes clanging against a diner’s enter/exit door.

I remember the first nightmare. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer; nothing there. I had woke to the thought of getting my mother’s name, and sitting there in the dim light of my laptop, smoking a cigarette, I finally did hear that ever-ominous alert and saw the name come in, the result of an impersonal, neutral computer program, the Judge:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speaks, putting out my cigarette. I never wanted to wake to the sound of that horrible jingle again. But I did, over and over, all in my mind, imaginary like so much else. And in the bouquets left on tombstones all I’d see, no flowers blooming, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuff in their cold mouths like the horrible bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats, chasing invisible mice or attacking each other.

My dreams were disconnected bits of phantasmagoria; lists of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers, rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar and I thought it must be purgatory, and there I’d be forced to truly know all those whom I had so briefly summarized and put aside. All were familiar but ultimately unknown and dead, unknowable. The obituary writer – ha! What a dark star! how very dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I ran to the door to catch that miserable cretin, once and for all. And flinging the door wide I saw nothing, once again, then looked down, as I had never done. And there stood a little boy with a bleeding head, a football jersey. I woke up screaming.

I began to burn all of those old handwritten pages, all those falsities, hoping to appease whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction; you may recoil when you first jump in, but stay in long enough, and the ice cold water warms you up, somehow, and when you get out of the pool the warmth of the night air is cold.

I continued to study theatre, pushing all the death and gloom that was my day job from my mind, and I was making incremental progress. I learned of a character in early theatre that gave me pause; Hypokritos was a falsely righteous character who would wear buffoonish masks and feign divinity, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be sincere, to be profound, only to be a popular source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke of a solemn, thoughtful photo, sharp contrast and pretentious, black and white. Knock-knock-knock! The email alert – the one I finally removed – had always startled me, as it was the same as the bell that smote on the shivering prison air to let the inmates know that one of those unlucky souls had made it out. So I thought, naturally, I would turn the sound back on and capture what I looked like when I got the email alert; that way I’d have a sincere impression, not knowing that, instead of taking off the mask of the falsely divine Hypokritos, I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle, slightly easier to stomach, slightly harder to notice. The professional make-over had ended with a vast, fully searchable digital archive; a macabre, gaudy porno.

Knock-knock!

God dammit! I ran through the halls and out the door into the street and looked around. No one, not a raven, no obvious source; just the wind and dogs barking in the distance. I was exhausted by the time I made it home, and tried to get some sleep.

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire, less smoke. I felt that I would exhaust my fuel and become one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then larger just to get a cigarette lit, eventually striking it over and over in the vain hope that it might light once more, knowing eventually it would dry of fuel completely and never produce a flame again. I felt that I’d run out of fuel, having wasted my life as a profiteer of misery, death on my mind like a heavy crown.
3 Speaker for the Dead
I did few eulogies when work on my book began in earnest. I had given notice to my employer, resigning to finishing only one: the heading that disappeared, the obituary for myself. I kept working, working hard with the motivation, with the hope that, upon completion, I’d have dinner in that small diner with Dr. Redding again. I still wrote obituaries in the meantime, and never was I more distant from it, as they were cold and ever colder still, the popularity began to fade, and never had I been so happy to fail. Demand dropped off for my particular brand of obituary—though there was a remorse to it, to have invested so much time and effort to become such a good obituary writer; I was very, very good at my job.

Knock-knock!

Those early days were the best, when I wrote obituaries for the paper, the small town paper for Isla Wor, there were no email alerts, no nightmares, no knocking, broken ringing doorbells; and all were at least sincere, in the beginning—many being for family; after the eulogy for my Dr. Redding’s son Marcus, looking back, that’s when something broke, something mechanical, some part of the system that processed grief. It broke as I worked through it and continued breaking as I wrote more and it made me cold to all, more often than not I kept to that automated script completely, completely sterile, no passion for anything save for my book on theatre, and passion enough only to get the money needed to continue; it moved closer and closer towards publication.

Knock-knock!

As I wrote, I thought of my dead father, and I thought of him quite often, and the obituary, the eulogy he’d never gotten, not from me, not the celebrated obituary writer. I looked forward to seeing Dr. Redding again at that little diner, I’d take a cab. I’d order him his BLT and cold iced tea, a small salad too, and I’d pay for it all. I’d bring a new valise, toss out that old ash-stained leather volume, unsightly and assaulted by age, scuffed white and daily marked by time, by dust. I wanted to show him that I’d finally gotten it right.

Knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. He was a graphic design major; and his talent, like his degree, didn’t come cheap. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up.

Knock!

My book came out to little fanfare, just shy of my 30th birthday, with a reasonably warm critical reception, yet slightly colder commercial response. But there is no price to pay for a clear conscience, being able to tell the truth, if through fiction, it was a better way. There is a great element of truth in the worst lies and in the best of lies, and a great fiction in the most honest statement by the most trustworthy men.

I still had those dreams of waking to that electric death toll, the flowers of the bereaved sprouting monetary blossoms, that horrible knocking which seemed to drone on forever, but I’d dream that first I woke to find that mock-heading:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

And I set out to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in this dim dream in a dim room trying to write it out. I would receive more pressing emails from the machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, offering me more and more money to finish my obituary, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I woke cold and sweating, breathing heavily. I expected to hear the knocking, but didn’t; nor the doorbell which, though broken, sometimes near midnight tolled.

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail, it had some time since the initial, limited released, I called the doctor’s office to leave a message for dear Dr. Redding to call me when he got the chance. He did, and I had been out at the time; my brother took the message down. We were to meet at that same diner, again on a Sunday—his one day off. I got there early, uncomfortable. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth, a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me back to the booth we’d sat in last time we met. I found a cappuccino waiting for me; he had yet to order. Vanilla as I liked it, and cold.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from the new valise, much nicer indeed despite the signs of cigarette ash and age, dust collecting around the zippers. I handed him one of the galley proofs. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he handled it in that delicate fashion in which he’d once held the handwritten draft of his son’s eulogy—he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, but with delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is a sort of love, not a sort, that is love; to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from growing children, a lonely wife awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help.

I wondered for the first time, making the strange connection: how many names checked in at his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed? He was turning my book around, looking at the cover, holding it up to better see it in the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s fine, that’s very fine indeed. That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you’d figure it out.”

“Open it,” I said.

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, alas, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s might fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he interjected. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, a free copy of my book, but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be best remembered for and not my column and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, to tell me about who he was, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years and the man, your happy memories, the kind of stuff you can’t find online, so often the meat of life is picked away and what we’re usually left with, writing an obituary, is just the bones. And that’s what people seem to like. Short, thumbnail sketches, overly dramatic and declaratory. I wanted to do something real and honest for him. For you, for your family, to the extent, to any extent that I may. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must do so honestly.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother, when they were young. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco 33 fishing rods down there after church on Sunday, they’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks that let you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home them with after that, always protective big brothers. When they turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday and when you buy for one you have to buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved nothing more in the world. Riding around and doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus repaired them for Will and his sisters when they got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got his daughter Leslie one of those new bikes when she turned four, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And that’s when he started talking about wanting to build things, to be a builder, to be an engineer, working on cars, fixing things that broke. He was always fixing things. They rode the horses, he couldn’t fix those! Hell, neither could I! They played video games and monopoly. We were fortunate, but they weren’t much different than lots of good, kind kids. And they were very much loved. And he is very much missed. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. A loving father.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can write a eulogy to suit him and honor your family properly.”

And through that finish my own perhaps, the obituary writer’s eulogy—who better to write it?

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy, and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my other work. And I used it. I used it to advance myself, selfishly. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look, Brandon,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it in my line of work. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and alive for longer. Don’t be down on yourself. What you do is a public good, despite your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy, then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, as all of ours, as normal, kind kids, who are very much loved and would be very much missed.

He ordered the same meal, just the same; BLT, small salad, large glass of iced tea. I finished my cappuccino, took out my laptop, and went about my work, typing away as he ate his sandwich and drank his tea. And I picked up the tab.

After that the conversation mellowed, teetering out but still pleasant; with little left to say, we talked about upcoming projects. He dabbed a napkin at the corners of his mouth, ever-creased from a life of forced and honest smiles. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer once last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary, and live out the true purpose of my title, that we both might rest. He opened the door to leave and the bells clanged,

Bing bong. 

Poetry, its Forms and Traditions: 10 September 2015

Part 1: Forms and Traditions

As poetry is a type of music, there are, as in music, many different varieties, or styles, of writing poetry. I will briefly enumerate them in the following vignettes; some of which are undoubtedly familiar to western audiences. But others might not be as familiar. If this is a book from which you are to take instruction, I implore you to experiment which each of the following techniques and forms as you read.

          As you can trace different types of music to different parts of the world, poetry is no different. Different styles of music bear the stamp of the culture from which they come. Jazz is a distinctly American production, a production which later led to what is titled punk rock, when of course one wishes to resign expression to names. Classical music that behaves led to blues; blues evolved into rock ‘n roll, rock ’n roll into metal, and metal into a myriad of different species of music. Poetry is no different.

          Poetry has been around since the beginning of writing itself. It is an echo of the time where humans understood one another by tone alone. An example of this, to a non-German speaking listener, one can still fathom the emotional expression that is put forth in Mozart’s opera; therefore, tonal value is of great quality in getting the ambience and tone just right and then, upon revision, turning it into an atmosphere, an atmosphere in which the tone is the movement of the clouds, and the sounds become the rain that touches the reader’s heart and soul.

          As valuable as expression is, it is important to know the difference between expressing and stating. To express sorrow, the tone of the language and the contrast between happiness and sadness must be apparent. It is also important not to be entirely obvious, but it is important to be relatable. To be personal and relatable is not easy to attain. Throughout this book, after detailing the most famous of poetic forms, I will analyze historical efforts as well as modern, and to give legitimacy to my thoughts on poetry, I will not avoid showing how I put my philosophy on what poetry should be into practice.

FRAME ONE:

ABECEDARIAN

A recent example of an abecedarian poem is Anna Robinowitz’s ‘Darkling.’ This book-length acrostic sequence details the experiences who family went through during the Holocaust. ‘The Darkling Thrust,’ by Thomas Hardy is used as a palimpsest for its structure.

          For people new to writing novels or poetry, a helpful way to begin is to map out another poet–preferably a good one–and use the length of lines and quatrain arrangement and substitute their words with your own. As one learns to play piano by learning how to play pieces by old masters, by using a palimpsest approach, by changing only the words and keeping the structure, it will become easier for you to branch off into your own territory.

          The abecedarian form of poetics is ancient and is identified by its form of usage according to alphabetical arrangement. As it is to be expected, the first line begins with first letter of whichever language it is you are writing in and succeeding lines are begun with the next letter in your chosen alphabet.

          The history behind this tradition is semitic and can be found in the religious poetry of the Hebrew peoples. It was traditionally used for compositions considered sacred; hymns, psalms, prayer. There are many examples ot the abecedarian to be found in the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 118 is highly regarded. It is composed in twenty two eight line stanzas, each for one letter of the alphabet. Another example, fast forward several centuries, and the abecedarian can be found in the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘An ABC.’ As it is one of the works of literature that would signal to the world that English was a viable language for beautiful expression. ‘An ABC’ is crafted from the translation of a French prayer (the translation being of his own doing it is thought.) It is composed using twenty-three eight line stanzas following the alphabet, excluding J, U, V, and W.

          Abecedarian poems are wonderful tools for children and can make poetry fun by turning the composition into word games. Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey are children’s book authors who have used this form in modern times, even if it’s a modified way of doing so. Among adults still using this ancient form, it is a mnemonic device. Contemporary examples of can be found in Blue Hour by Carolyn Forché, and in Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullet. In Forchés forty-seven page poem On Earth, the alphabet guides not just the stanzas, but the words as well.

          Languid at the edge of the Season     

          Lays itself open to immensity

          Leaf-cutter ants bearing yellow trumpet flowers along the road

          Left everything left all usual world’s behind

          Library, lilac, linens, litany.

A poetic form know as the acrostic, which spells out names or words through the first letter of each line, was developed through abecedarian poetry. In a perverse sort of effort, the intention is to reveal by hiding. In William Blake’s London, he recalls the way in which the pain of the people come to people as he wanders the shore of the Thames (a River that runs through London, among other cities in England.) In the third stanza of his poem, Blake uses the acrostic in the third stanza to emphasize jarring, terrific sounds.

          How the Chimney sweeper’s cry

          Every black’ning church appalls;

          And the hapless Soldier’s sigh

          Runs in blood down palace walls.

The way this works is that within the stanzas he is communicating with sounds and through acrostic getting the message ‘hear’ across. This is an interesting technique, despite the fact that is built on an edifice of rules, and, normally, I’m opposed to any sort of edifice in which expression is forced into a corset unable to contain its voluptuousness. Practice with me. I’ll mimic the four line quatrain of Blake’s, and within the acrostic use the lines themselves the first letter word to convey the hidden but intended to reveal word that echoes the theme:

          Looking for someone in the dark     

          Old as the wind playing the Lark

          Someone somewhere just may help

          The child climb from the darkened well.

         

That might not be the most eloquent of verse to which my name has been attached, but I think the acrostic’s lettered word is well-connected to the content of the verse. It’s an easy way out, admittedly, to speak of being lost only to then use the acrostic lost. So, out of solidarity, I’ll put a little bit of effort in this next one:

          To hurt is how we know we live,

          Ruin is what heaven is;

          Under a pale sky’s looking glass

          Thumbnails from some distant past–

          Helpless we ne’er seem to last.

FRAME 2:

ANAPHORA

Anaphora’s etymology can be traced to a Greek term meaning, ‘To carry.’ The intention of anaphora in poetry is parallelism; parallelism can also lead to something called non-complement anaphora. Successive phrases or lines beginning with the same word is the essence of anaphora and can be as simple as just a word or as complex as a complete and musical phrasing. Anaphora is an ancient poetic technique, and is familiar, even if by the name of anaphora, to Christians due to the usage of ‘And’ in successive lines of devotional, religious poetry–especially in the Psalms.

          Poets in the time of queen Elizabeth during the Romantic period, a period including Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (author of Faust,), Philip Sidney and Edmund spenser (author of the Faerie Queen.) Shakespeare used anaphora in his plays and sonnets. Line 66 demonstrates anaphora to its utmost, as he begins ten lines with ‘and,’ which is the most common repeated word associated with using anaphora.

          Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,

          As to behold a desert beggar born

          And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,

          And purest faith unhappily forsworn,

          And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,

          And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,

          And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,

          And strength by limping sway disabled,

          And art made tongue-tied by authority,

          And folly–doctor like–-controlling skill,

          And simple truth miscalled simplicity,

          And captive good attending captain ill:

          Tired with all these, from these I would be gone,

          Save that to die, I leave my love alone.

To continue our discussion of anaphora, it is important to remember that the intention is to produce a rhythm, a rhythm of reiteration that deepens the content by stacking words, building more and more pressure on the content. It can also intensify the emotion of a poem, make it more sporadic, make it seem more desperate. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Tears, Idle Tears,’ does this in repeating ‘the days that are no more,’ at the end of each stanza. The end line variation of anaphora is termed epistrophe, as it is an echo of a phrase instead of the voice that speaks it.

          Here is an example of a poem I wrote that demonstrates the epistrophe variation of anaphora. In these frames I won’t attempt to go into theme or meaning, only the demonstrative qualities of form. This poem is called the Malfunctioning Robot and is published in my poetry collection Counterpane and Other Poems. The classical variation of anaphora is evident in the some of the stanzas, but the epistrophe variation is used in others.

          Error, error,

          We have a problem here.

          The robot is malfunctioning;

          The warranty is void.

 

          It’s stuck in an endless loops,
asking the same questions,

          Getting the same answers,

          Repeating the same line:

          Wrong place, wrong time.

         

          Error, error,

          We have a problem here;

          The robot is malfunctioning;

          The programmer won’t answer the phone.

  

          It’s stuck in the same place,

          That stutters back and forth;

          Wires flicker in his brain,

          Disconnected data goes nowhere;

          In one side and out the other:

          ‘Wrong place, wrong time.’

 

          Error, error!

          We have an emergency;

          The poor robot is shutting down,

          Not knowing why, not knowing how:

          The programmer isn’t home.

          The robot does not know what’s wrong;

          He wants to go to somewhere safe;

          He’s never had a home.

          Random command lines drift around,

          A broken fish-bowl brain:

          Random numbers, random letters,

          Faces without a name.

          Ten seconds of power remains.

          Find another power source,

          Or you’ll lose everything.

          The malfunctioning robot repeats the same line:

          ‘Wrong place, wrong time.’

          He falls back in a chair, offline.

This poem (the merit of which may be questionable) has many elements that represent the elements of anaphora. Anaphora doesn’t always have to be a direct replica; it can be a replicated reference that evolves within the story. For example, the ‘programmer’ references would technically constitute as anaphora, although they deviate and change as the situation for the robot changes. It is important throughout the progression of a work of poetry that the refrain alter, or evolve to suit new and changing conditions within the composition. Anaphora can also be thematic without being true to repeated lines or words; it can be repeated leiit-motifs. Within the poem, although it is not classical anaphora, the repeated references to the programmer, although his position in relationship to the eponymous ‘robot.’

          The obvious anaphora in the poem, the ‘error, error, the robot is malfunctioning’ and the ‘wrong place, wrong time,’ is obvious. The reason I chose this poem of mine to represent the poetic form of anaphora is to show that it doesn’t necessarily follow the Biblical concept of ‘And,’ after ‘and’ after ‘and’ which we will discuss in turn. The point in discussing this poem is to show the versatility of anaphora within your own writing as it can reinforce thematic elements.

          There are many famous poets who use anaphora to reinforce the rhythm and cadence within their works. Howl, by Allen Ginsberg is one, as is Walt Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. It is also used by T.S. Eliot in ’The Waste Land,’ in second V; Mark Strand–all are great examples of modern poets who have found creative ways to use anaphora. In a book length by Joe Brainard, I Remember, anaphora is used in recalling his childhood in Oklahoma by starting each phrase with ‘I remember.’

          I remember when one year in Tulsa by some freak of nature we were invaded by millions of grasshoppers for about three or four days.

          I remember downtown, whole sidewalk areas of solid grasshoppers.

          I remember a shoe with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green.

          Kenneth Koch was so influenced by Brainard’s technique that he adapted the process to teach children how to compose verse. The method has maintained its popularity with English composition teachers for students of all ages since.

          A popular usage of anaphora among English readers of poetry who are by necessity uncultured and unaccustomed to variety and therefore drawn to what they consider macabre, in Edgar Allen Poe’s strictly superficial work The Raven, which is given more depth by those who explicate it than by the author who penned it, the repeated refrain ‘Nevermore,’ is an example of anaphora.

         

FRAME 3

THE BALLAD

It is thought that the composition of ballads began in the European folk tradition, most often accompanied by musical instruments. Centuries old in practice, ballads were not originally put to parchment, but preserved as oral lit for future generations, with the intention of being passed along through recitation. The subject matter dealt with religion, love, tragedy, domesticity, and even took shape of political propaganda.

          The prototypical ballad is defined as a plot-driven ones, with one or more characters that drive the narrative to its conclusion. Traditionally, a ballad does not intend to reveal what is actually happening and instead relying on detailing crucial moments that lead to the conclusion. Quatrains are the typical method of stanzas in ballads; this technique is often employed to convey emotional urgency–wherein there are three to four stresses and rhyming either the second or fourth lines, or of all alternating lines. This style of composition is most common in the forms of poetry one encounters, as it is in the ABAB style, and, as such, provides a palimpsest which allows the transposition of one’s own ideas into an established form of poetic expression. Due to the nature of the ballad’s hidden happenings allow for abstractions throughout the composition that are to be resolved with its conclusion.

          In the fifteenth century, English ballads began making their way into print and have remained popular since. Ballad broadsides were a rich source of cultural income during the Renaissance and because of this became a popular practice, though rarely earning the respect of other authors because those who wrote ballads were referred to as ‘pot poets,’ a pejorative used to demean the ‘lower classes.’ It was considered a cheap form of poetry, easy in the sense that it didn’t require the complicated rhyme schemes or the sceptered iron mood music of bombastic blank verse, like that of Shakespeare.

          The ballad would later evolve into a sort of sport. Samuel taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth would make the ballad a respectable form of poetic expression and both wrote numerous ballads during their careers. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ the tale of a cursed sailor aboard a ship caught in a tempest, is a revered ballad in the English language. It opens: (Take notice of how syllable count and line separation allow the reader to keep the fluidity intended by the author while reading–we will analyze this further in another section):

          It is an ancient mariner,

          And he stoppeth one of three.

          –’By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,

          Now wherefore stoppest thou me?

          Te bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,

          And I am next of kin;    

          The guests are met, the feast is set:

          Mayst hear the merry din’

 

          He holds him with his skinny hand,

          ‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.

          ‘Hold off! Unhand me, grey-beard loon!’

          Eftsoons his hands dropped h.e

 

          He holds him with his glittering eye–

          The wedding guest stood still,

          And listen like a three-years’ child:

          The Mariner hath his will.

 

Writers of early ballads, such as Thomas Percy, and later W.B. Yeats, contributed to the english tradition. The ballad evolved into folk songs in America, in compositions such as ‘Casey Jones’ and the old time cowboy favorite, ‘Streets of Laredo,’ and ‘John Henry.’

          In France in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, the ballade was the principle form of music and poetry. It is distinguished from ballad, as a ballade contains three main stanzas, each with the same rhyme scheme, plus a shorter conclusion stanza, or envoi. Each of the four stanzas have identical refrain lines. The tone of the ballade was most often solemn and form, using elaborate symbolism and classical references to further its narrative.

          François Viillon was one of the most influential writers of early ballades in Renaissance France. His exacting form was checked by his limited rhyme, although he was capable of creating intense compositions about poverty and the frailty of life. Inspired by vagrancy and poverty and the vagrancy of his criminal life, his work offered up eviscerating attacks on the bourgeois and declarations about the injustice imposed on people ranked lower in the caste system.  It was a sort of ‘poetry for the poor,’ that would later be claimed of Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist about whom Nietzsche said, ‘[He[ was the only psychologist from whom I ever learned.’

          Ballades were also written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. It would become popular again in the nineteenth century after being revived by Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne. Ezra Pound, a major figure in the post-modernism and a person for whom James Joyce has to thank for the publication of works that would change the world of literature (Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses), would later compose variation of Villion’s ballades. This poetic form is used for light verse in modernity and there aren’t many examples from which to cite as successful.

FRAME 4

AMERICAN BLUES

What is, in America, called the blues poem, is an extension of another type of poetry that has been around since poetry began, the lamentation. But in this chapter, I would like to discuss the tradition of American blues. It began as an oral tradition among slaves in southern America, it is believed, and is imbued with weighty themes like struggle, despair, though some of it does lighten up enough to include sex–which usually is the outcome of struggle and despair or, inversely, the cause of it.

          It has an inherent form, but it’s not set in stone. Its formal shape is an individual statement, modified by the second, and the third is usually an ironic alternative.

          It is about struggle and despair

          And can be light, about sex:

          Which sometimes is the cause of it.

See?

          Ralph Ellison once said that the blues, though they are often about struggle and depression, it is also about determination to overcome difficulty through strength of character. Making it through the struggle is what defines the blues poem, as it begins with tragedy, and ends in ironic bemusement after it has been overcome. This can be seen as a way of differentiating between traditional lamentations and American blues poems.

          Among the many famous poets who work in this category, among them Sterling Brown, James Johnson, and the more popular Langston Hughes. In high first book, the eponymous poem, ‘The Weary Blues,’ is an wonderful example of an America blues poem:

          Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

          Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

                   I heard a Negro play.

          Down on Lenox Avenue the other night,

          By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

                   He did lazy sway…

Another good example is Brown’s ‘Riverbank Blues,’ which begins:

          A man get his feet in a sticky mudbank       

          A man get this yellow water in his blood,

          No need for hopin,’ no need for doing,’

          Muddy streams keep him fixed for good.

Kevin Young is a contemporary poet who has continued the tradition. In his book, Jelly Roll, he presents a collection of poetry steeped in the tradition of American blues poetry. Apart from that, he attained success as the editor of the anthology, Blues Poems.

          Try it out yourself. Begin with a line that states the issue; modify it in the second line, and then finish it with it being overcome.

          Sisyphus tied to his rock,

          Pushed it up all day and night,

          Until he realized he could stop.

FRAME 4

THE BOP

The bop as a poetic tradition is relatively recent, originating from Afaa Michael Weaver during a summer retreat at Cave Canem. The bop is not unlike the sonnet in its framework; it is a form of poetic argument, rigidly constructed; it consists of three stanzas; the first is followed by anaphora, or refrain, each mutating to reveal a different facet in the overall composition; the first stanza is six lines long and states the issue; the second is eight lines long and enumerates on the issue. If there is a resolution, the third stanza, which is traditionally six lines long, attempts to find it. If a resolution can’t be made, the third stanza is the reflection on the failure to overcome the proposed problem introduced in the first stanza and modified / expanded upon by the second.

          Despite its youth, the bop has engendered many variations. Adding to the three stanza bop, six line fourth stanza, refrain-ending bops have appeared. A good example of how a bop introduces a crisis before attempting to resolve it is a poem by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, whose book Black Swan features several bop poems. The most popular, Bop Haunting begins:

          In the evening she comes, her same unsatisfied self,
with the hard, smug look of salvation. Mama,
stop bothering me. When we argue, she says
What you’re saying is not scriptural

          You need to get back to your Bible.

          In one dream, I slap her. I’m tired of her mouth.

          I hate to see the evening sun go down.

         

The refrain in this piece, ‘I hate to see the evening / sun go down’ appears at the end. It is, what is called in blues guitar, the blue note; the tone of the speaker has not found a solution to the woes conjured by the invocation.

In contemporary criticism, the bop can be looked at as a formalized way of recounting a life: it begins with an issue, the issue evolves, and the issue is either resolved, or the failure to resolve it is lamented. To do your own bop poem, extrapolate an issue from your life that you have been struggling with, show the evolution / modification / growth of the issue, and then show its resolution, or lack thereof.

          I’ll give it a shot.

          My mother left me at a door,

          At a home for children poor;

          To me, to live, is such a chore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FRAME 5

CENTO

Cento is a Latin word for ‘patchwork,’ and the cento is a collage poem, a poetic form made from lines cobbled from other poems and other poets. Poets often ‘borrow’ lines or leif-motifs from more imaginative and skilled writers, a cento in its true form is composed entirely independent from the composers own poetic sensibility, though it can definitely reflect it in his / her choice of juxtaposition of foreign and imported sources. Examples of this can be found in the most respected of poets, including Homer and Virgil, who wrote the Odyssey and The Aeniad, respectively.

          The composition of a cento consisting of other poet’s lines can do as much to reveal the intended expression of the collaborator as that of the original writer. You can make psychological deductions regarding the arrangement and selection of verses and the poetic voices included in the arrangement of the cento to find the individuality in the voice of the person’s compilation of the work of others. You can find out if they’re a novice, weekend warrior poet–if, for example, they’re canto is littered with Edgar Allen Poe (ugh) and Sylvia Plath.

          Sylvia Plath actually had great poetic ability, and to put her in the same sentence as the morose and monotonous Poe is a sin, I’m sure, but the compilation of one’s favorite poetry can do as much to express one’s self than writing one’s own verse, if that person is without the talent or inclination to construct their own verse. William S. Burroughs went through a copy, cut and paste period that is similar in style to what falls under the heading of canto, as defined by this chapter.

          The Academy of American Poets, with lines from Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, Charles Wright, and Marie Ponsot, composed the following canto, which can serve as an admirable example of the psychology and individuality that typifies the poet who composes cantos consisting of other poet’s work.

          The the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-eyed man is king

          Brute, spy, I trusted you; now you reel and brawl

          After great pain, a formal feeling comes–

          A vulturous boredom pinned me to this tree

          Day after day, I become less use to myself

          The hours after you are gone are so leaden.

Not to be confused with the division of Dante’s Divine Comedy’s division into cantos, which were of original composition, the modern cento is less weighty in tone and often ironic, witty, or humorous, humor which comes from juxtaposition of idea and representation. This is something we will come to in due course. Contemporary examples of centos are John Ashbery’s The Dong with the Luminous Nose, and Peter Gizzi’s Ode: Salute to the New York School.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FRAME 6

VARIABLE OPERATIONS

Variable operations, or the more common name ‘chance operations,’ are methods of generating poetry independent of the author’s will. This can be done by throwing darts, rolling dice, chopping up and juxtaposing pieces of newspaper articles (as Burroughs did in his ‘cut and paste’ period), and the laying of yarrow stalks, which dates back to the Chinese divination method used to make sense of the Oracle, or book of changes, the I-Ching. Sophisticated computer programs have also been designed to randomly select disparate and seemingly incompatible work to put it together by using encyclopedias, almanacs, or famous works of literature.

          The purpose of this method is to separate intentional contrivance and allow the nature of your variable methods to speak for you; it is the poetry of chaos, and it creates unusual syntax, disjoined images and odd correlations. This sort of chaos is intended to be extractable, that is to say meaning is imported from the chaos while there was no intended meaning in its composition.

          The Dada movement in western Europe are generally credited with the development of chance operations in the early and mid-twentieth century, Paul Eluard, Phillipe Soupault, Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, and Tristan Tzara are notable. The prominent focus of Dadaism is the subconscious as they believe that the mind would create meaning and association from any text, even randomly selected juxtapositions in variable operations. Tzara’s Dada Manifesto on Feeble and Bitter Love offers instructions on how to compose a Dadaist poem, here translated from the original French: (The translation is mine, so any errors are entirely my fault.)

          Take some newspaper.

          Take some scissors.

          Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.

          Cut out the article.

          Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up the article and put them [all] in a bag.

          Shake smally [gently.]

          Next take out each cutting one after the other.

          Copy with conscience in the order they [are] left in the bag.

          The poem will resemble [you.]

          The use of chance operations in contemporary poetry has been used by the avant garde group Fluxus, poet Jackson MacLow, and the poet / composer John Cage. A good example of a poem written using chance operation is MacLow’s Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of a Justice Chair, which includes, also, MacLow’s explanations of the methods he used he used to compose the poem.

          Considering futurism, Dada, and concrete poetry, if a language is to support a highly literate culture, claimed rhetoric scholar Richard Lanham has argued, then the language must be composed of more simplistic parts. That is to say, characters which are to be the building blocks of language must be easily comprehensive and written in unobtrusive calligraphy. This is primarily due to the fact that because language is an external device that requires internal recognition, a reader must be able to internalize the alphabet and see through the characters to differentiate between representation and meaning. When reading a book, it is not often apparent that one is simply looking at marks on a paper; the awareness of the ideas that the words represent under the surface of language.

          Typographical philosophy, simplicity, clarity and transparency, dominates printed culture and has since the advent of the printing press, Lanham has argued. The twentieth century has seen many movements in art and poetry has called this philosophy into philosophy into question, using typography itself for a medium for meaning, preventing people from looking through words, and forcing readers to look at them. This is to disconnect idea and representation and make representation and idea the same thing.

          A movement of Italian futurists, led by F.T. Marinetti, in a 1909 manifest, rejected traditional expressions of art as ‘borrowed dresses.’ (The English idiom would be second hand clothes.) Among their critiques was the book itself. Marinetti called the book stale and oppressive, a symbol of what the futurists called the ‘old guard,’ which they [the futurists] were striving against.

          In the Electronic Word, Lanham wrote: ‘In a literate culture, our concept of meaning depends on this radical act of typographical simplicity. No images, colors, strict left to right then down one line, no type changes; no interaction; no revision. In attacking these conventions, Marinetti was attacking the literary totality of humanity.” Marinetti would begin by experimenting with unusual typography, creating textual and visual oddities, such as the 1919, SCRABrrRrraaNNG.

          At the same time, Dadaism was gaining strength as a coherent artistic movement in Europe, due partially because identity is adapted in three manners: alignment with the culture, rejection of the culture, or an independently evolved set of ethos and sensibilities, commonly found in orphans and the displaced. As a rebellion against traditional art forms, it had its appeal. The Dadaists were keen on spotaneity, something which I believe is of great value in poetry and prose, along with automatic writing and variable operations.

          Collages were important elements in both are and poetry until the futurist movement, and it remained important in typography. The Dadaist Tristan Tzara urged poets of the futurist movement to cut out of newspapers as in variable operations, and anthropomorphic letters were also used; Kurt Schwitters used the character ‘B’ with feet and arms, for example, and the style was also interested in poems that were ephemeral and erasable, such as poems written in sand or on a blackboard.

This sort of interest in transience is reminiscent of a poem I will come into in a later section, Masters and Masterpieces, which is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The image of a poem written in the sand along the beach, to me, has poetic, dreamy power to it. It establishes an important element often addressed in poetry across cultures, transience and mortality. I can’t think of a more poetic way to describe life than in terms of a poem written on a beach, or on a blackboard, however passionately, it is finite, it will go away.

          Although the futurist revolution never really took over the old regime of classical forms of expression, public interest would reemerge in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s in the form of concrete poetry. These are poems that take visual shapes and can only be appreciated when seen. Reinhard Dohl, for example, wrote a poem in the shape of an apple made entirely of the word apple, save for one instance of the word worm.

          Another example of a concrete poem is Eugen Gomringer’s 1954 poem Schweigen, the German word for silence, was composed of entirely of typographical representations of schweigen, which surrounds an empty, silent space in the third line. The silent space in the third line is the most important part of the poem, as scholar Roberto Simanowski in Concrete Poetry in Digital Media, because, in practical terms, silence can only be articulated by the absence of words.

          Concrete poems continued the typographic experimentation begun by the futurists, requiring readers to look at and through language. As Simanowski wrote, ‘Concrete poetry deals with the relation between the visible form and the intellectual substance of words. It is visual, because it adds the optical gesture of the word to its semantic meaning.’

I’ll give you an example from one of my own poems:

          The Glass Umbrella, one of my most popular works of poetry, was one of the first poems I wrote after becoming somewhat fluent in Italian. And sometimes it’s necessary to orient the subject-modifier-article in manners which reflect the normal diction of other language to maintain the music of what you’re trying to convey. Another good way to maintain the music of what you’re saying is to keep time. This can be done by line by line syllable matching. This is a good way to keep tempo; to break it into faster reading, making shorter, even one to two word lines, will increase the speed with which the reader takes the music of the piece in. Another important aspect of getting poetry read at the intended tempo is ‘rolling’ from one word to another.

          It is easiest to roll words when a following word begins with a phoneme that could attach to the ending of the previous word to form an independent word. This will be important to consider when we’re considering first line beginnings for end line rhymes. When done properly, the reader will read the poem in the manner you intend it to be read in, while poor poetry may work when read in certain ways by the author, it is rarely rendered in a consistent tempo, or universal meter that makes it possible for everyone to attach to it the tempo at which it is intended to be read. Another important aspect of a good poem is intimacy. While it is amateurish to rhyme about how you feel, it is not so to, by tone and imagery, isolation of ‘blue’ phonemes, to convey a type of sadness. Theme is usually something that is threaded throughout the poem; it is reinforced by repetition, but made poignant by reconciliation and furtherance through moderation as the poem progresses. In making a poem universal and also personal, it has to be open to extraction / allegory application for those who read it. If it’s an elegy (a poem for the deceased), a personal approach can be more universally applicable as one’s own lens through which death is seen can remind one of their own and enrich it, making the poetry more relatable and stronger. Let’s consider the mentioned elements in an analysis of my narrative elegy, the Glass Umbrella:

          We are the footprints by the Sea. (8 syllables)

          The waters come

          The waters leave. (8 syllables)

          Miss Sea, you see,

          your children taken. (9)

          Children of the Sea forsaken. (8)

By keeping a running syllable count, it ensures that the lines will be read at the same speed. Using words that allow one word to roll into another adds to the music of the work, although ‘come’ and ‘and’ could not be attachment phonemes, they can be said as one word. Like ‘miss Sea, you see,’ it can be pronounced as one word, an extended phoneme that allows for appreciation of tonal quality. Repeated consonants, of the same delension, such as Sea and see, give an element of completed rhetoric to a basic statement. Independent clauses, beginning with ‘the waters’ employ a poetic construct called anaphora; anaphora is a device in poetics where certain words are repeated, usually at the beginning of the sentence, and is most obvious example of anaphora usage. Mnemonics in poetry is the usage of a term to represent an abstract; in the Glass Umbrella, the Sea is represented as a proper noun and preceded by a definite article because it is being used as both a literal sea and a place to which life goes when gone, and whence life came. The waters come; the waters leave also echoes this biological truth, thus linking the poem to the natural workings of the world and, as a eulogy, enforces the thematic elements regarding the wax and wane of natural processes. The reference to forsaken children introduces the idea of the eulogy in the first stanza and sets it up for the coming story.

          It is important to import music into your poetry to invite atmosphere. The sound of waves gives atmosphere, and footprints disappearing hints at the element of passing, and as mnemosis, it is, the footprints, our lives, and the waves are death, the death that take us back to whence we came. This cyclical nature is central to the poem. Let’s take a look at the next line, where syllogism is more direct than symbol-idea association, though the syllogism is without an unstated contrast, the conclusions drawn from this natural cycle pervade the work, and thus the apparatus of syllogism is just as important as that of mnemosis, which has a soporific effect and adds to the atmosphere. When writing poetry, to fully immerse the reader in the world, a certain part of the story’s completion relies on the reader’s ability to fill in the gaps, to fill in implications and open ellipses (which we will touch on later), and the scenes should be painted with broadstrokes, allowing for fine details to be added by the imagination of the reader. The author creates part of the work, but it is completion is only accomplished by the reader’s coloring in between the lines and synthesizing the words into a complete portrait. Another important part of poetry is telling a story that can be about yourself, but also can be extracted to be about any aspect of any person’s experience with similar experiences. The poet paints the picture, but the reader puts the frame on it. Let’s look at how the Glass Umbrella develops (remember this is a elegy written when I was 21 upon the death of a friend.)

          See me, see Miss Galilee (7)

          Bring back what she took from me; (7)

          Bring back what you swallowed whole. (7)

          The yawning old,

          And wide-mouthed urn, (7)

          Lolled on but never turned,

          Her deaf ear,

          To me,

          To hear,

          My confused shouts at her. (19)

The first line is an invocation, a request for the murderer to look me in the eyes. My friend, her name Diane, had taken a lot of pills and walked into the New Jersey shore, and Galilee was the name of a church we once went to when she visited me in South Carolina, so that’s where the title of the Sea comes from. The next two lines are anaphoric, pleas to something that can’t hear, the first being a request for what ‘she’ took from me–this is an instance in which the reader’s participation in the work is vital. When someone is gone, what is lost varies from person to person. Instead of naming something precise, the ambiguity allows the reader to substitute their own feeling of loss, and what it was they lost, and this allows them to feel with the poem instead of feel it on an intellectual level. Age is another thematic element referred to over and over again, in adjectives such as ‘yawning’ and ‘wide-mouthed’ and the lazy, lolling about. The sea is mnemonic in this stanza for death again, being a wide-mouthed earth, and is described in a way that would befit death–never turning her deaf ear, to me, to hear, my confused shouts at her. Using ‘at’ instead of ‘to’ furthers the unfeeling nature of what has taken away my friend. Confused, as a modifier, indicates the nature of how we react to loss. We don’t understand it, the why, the where they may be going, if they’re to be going anywhere, and we’re often reduced to unintelligible shouting, either in our heads or at something that can’t hear us. The shortening of the ‘her deaf ear, to me, to hear,’ lines are designed to keep the tempo read at the proper pace by the reader. It quickens the pace and brings about the conclusion to the stanza. Within the stanza, the sea is referenced to an urn; this is a way of expressing what was taken into the sea–a person–although nowhere in this poem do I explicitly say it is about someone who has committed suicide. The abstract artists of the 20th century who followed in the tradition of Vincent van Gogh believed that there was more passion in the strokes and fury of the execution than the accuracy of photographic replication, and therefore a report unedited from nature was not the highest calling of an artist, but simply a way to paint rich and famous people as accurately enough to flatter them because they didn’t have cheap and affordable photoshoots in those days. The abstraction in this poem is mostly embodied in the characteristics given to the sea which is by mnemonism addressed as the Sea. In looking for the music of a line of poetry when written in Victorian classic verse, my preferred method and the preferred method of W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and, more famously in America, Edgar Allen Poe, it is useful to read a sentence as one word and attempt to ascertain whether or not it would not sound inappropriate, or disjointed, if it was a single word in some other language.

          The poem has been given sound, anthropomorphic characteristics (related to swallowing and blindness), and deafness. The poem, being about deaf, is just as concerned with shutting down the stimulation of the senses as it is with stimulating them in the livelier sections. In later, less ambiguous narrative segments, the senses will be fully engaged and for it to work so well, to contrast death and life, is to shut down reference frames that one can avail oneself to in part, and then make them accessible when the character becomes alive again in memory. The deafness of the lost is reinforced in the next stanza:

          Without a word at all to say (8)

          She waves at nighttime and the day (8)

`        She rolls about within a dream (8) –

          The carousel goes by overhead (9)

          To it she turns her mirrored head (8)

          She simply looks to it, and all, (8)

          As we, like leaves,

          Around her fall. (8)

The silence is reinforced again, the silence from that side of this veil of tears, and movement is introduced to give the mnemonic representation characteristics of the idea’s dressing. Introducing movement gives fluidity gives it a natural feel to it, and the addition of our comparison to leaves keeps the natural feel to the whole implied cycle. To extract this and apply it to the physical process of lives, we sprout from seeds, grow and flower, and produce leaves and seeds of our own. To this sea, this urn, we’re universally the same watchful, fearful eyes, unheard and afraid of her ‘mirrored’ head; the mirrored head is not a poetic device without implication. When we look at someone dead, part of the revulsion we fear is our own mortality and this is what gives us pause, trepidation. In giving death the face of a mirror, the expression is open to debate, as it should be. There are those who believe once a mystery is solved, it is no longer interesting. Being a fan of Sherlock Holmes’s detective stories and Agatha Christies serial works, I don’t necessarily agree with this when it comes to art. Art is an elaborate door and there is no skeleton key, and sometimes the person who understands it the least is the person who wrote it. So it can be said that instead of defining what it means, I’m interpreting it. Finished works of poetry rarely begin and end in one sequential writing. When I first compiled this poem, when I sat down to put it together, I had to gather it from non-linear and disparate sources, notebooks, scraps of toilet paper. I don’t intend to speak for all poets, but it’s rarely a straightforward, linear process. And at the time, while I was generally aware of what was being said, I didn’t have the kind of understanding of poetics I have now. One thing I’ve learned from the study of aesthetics, you can use philosophy, if you’re good at it, to make something mean anything you wish depending on the quality of your rhetoric. When I wrote it, what I was conscious of was the symbols of the footprints and the sea–the footprints being us, the sea being where we’re from and where we’re going. The best place to hide a tree is in a forest, and subtlety is not used purely to understate your ideas; it’s a means by which the attentive are rewarded. And subtlety, to be honest, is most often accidentally done by the author being in tune with his subject.

          Whenever you go back to your refrain, the glue that keeps your narrative strings together, the narrative changes and evolves and your refrain has to reflect the growth of the narrative. The best way to execute a refrain and keep it memorable is to, although it’s slightly modified, is to keep it recognizable.

          The beach we leave our footprints on, (8)

          The waters come,

          And then they’re gone. (8)

          We are but footprints by the Sea; (8)

          The waves come in,

          And then we leave. (8)

          Miss Sea, you see,

          Your children taken. (9)

          Children of the Sea forsaken. (8)

The importance of rolling in tonal value cannot be understated. Internal rhyme, instead of completely relying on the end of sentence rhyme, although it is the most common. The anaphora of the first two sentences gives stability to the stability. ‘The beach we leave’ opens the refrain with two compound syllable rhymes, and if pronounced together as ‘thebeachweleave’ doesn’t sound disjointed as a word, and thus retains the music. The same is true of the delayed anaphora of ‘the waters come, and then we leave.’ In this delay, a transition article is used to denote a brief passage of time–one word is used, in this instance, is used to separate the tide coming in (our lives) and the tide receding (our death.) The next stanza addresses this in a manner intended to break the fourth wall, as it is a direct line of questioning–questions for the king in black. The pain is in the appeal to something that cannot grant your wish, nor even hear your plea. Remember the elemental mirror of looking into death and seeing oneself, this stanza presents an inversion of that idea–wondering if that king in black can look at us.

`        Ancient Sea, Miss Galilee (7)

          Can you see yourself in me? (7)

          As I see myself in you – (7)

          Glowing white and tinged with blue (7)

          Can’t you see what you have done? (7)

          The lolling sea-saw none. (6)

In matching syllable counts to keep control of the tempo at which you wish for your poem to be read, breaks between articles and end stanza lines are not always necessary. Sometimes an abrupt stop can add tension and make the closed quatrain jarring, which is something you might want to employ in horror or suspense.  The lolling see saw, which is non-perfect anaphora but effective in playing with the up and down nature that has been a thematic element with the tide, the waves, the sprouting of trees and falling of leaves; lolling was an attempted casual benevolence, not a mockery, although to a heartbroken person screaming at a loved one dead can make a world feel as if it’s turned into a mockery of your need to love and be loved.

          Passing through the stages of grief from confusion and denial and anger, we get to acceptance in the next stanza, the gradual coming to terms with something that’s almost impossible, and would be impossible if not for it’s lack of other options. When Diane died, it opened a wound, and the poem I’ve spent this chapter analyzing is just the shape the blood happened to take. Sometimes apophosis is a good way to tell a story that allows the reader to put the pieces together on their own, like a magic eye test, by telling one story through apophosis, you get your expression across, and allow the reader to make it an extracted allegory of their own personal experience.

          I see, I said, and that was that, (8)

          Standing at the shore of black (7)

          I hear my own words echo back: (8)

          In that mirror,

          I saw me, (7)

          Just  a reflection in the Sea. (8)

Continuing with the stages of grief, this stanza begins with facing the ‘shore of black,’ which was intended to be the equivalent of looking into the face of someone dead. The double anaphora of ‘I see, I said’ and ‘that was that’ is a seven line consonant non-complement anaphora and it serves, in this case, to further the see-saw / up and down of the nature de’ monte so persistent throughout the poem. Looking in the mirror–seeing someone dead from a drug overdose–was the first time I saw what would happen to me if I continued to abuse medication, and as painful as this process was, it had the effect of healing me, and seeing myself as just a reflection in the sea, in writing it, I intended it to connect me with the rest of humanity, as we are all alone in facing this natural process of our life.

Poem: One Summer in the Sun (Shakespeare tribute!)

One Summer in the Sun

Sweet lights, sweet candle,
burning far away and slow –
Candle in our music box,
Spotlight upon this cancelled show,
Light each path that in my past
in one form or another torn,
From Yesterday 
Each new day born,
Sweet mother may it glow –
That we sweet orphans
though unimportant
have the fingertips of light to keep us
on that road.

For their summer in the sun,
one yawn before the winter’s breath,
a ring of smoke blown through the gates of nowhere.
And life, the beautiful nothing,
a candle for its own sake lit,
begins to blur and fade,
another song from the record played.
Once so great, and now so small,
now a whisper in the hall.

Once to live, and wonder why,
to rise and fall under the sky.
Summer rises;
summer sets.
One summer in the sun is all we get.
The sun will smile,
and sun will fade;
a single dash, between two dates,
poor written by the hands of fate.

One moment caught inside a bulb,
our destined hour to abide,
with all the living things trapped inside.
Lighting for but a moment,
snow scattered on the desert’s dusty face-
glimmer in the hall and go their way.

One after another, into the sky for miles;
a blind caretaker, with a hammer,
forever walks the aisles.
His calloused feet to scratch path,
to on occasion tap the glass–
releasing light back in the air,
to Saturn’s seat without a care.

Destiny behind the veil will play,
with all the vessels on the waves.
Slaves to the lighthouse, in the rain,
Miss Destiny, the ball and chain;
until she folds, and counts her pay,
and, in silence, walks away.

No more moments from the box to take,
from the fountain by the waste.
Life, brief candle,
one summer in the sun.
Tomorrow and tomorrow,
then there are none.

Life itself, a momentary scream,
amidst the sea of nothing gleamed,
a murmur in the ivy by the well,
one verse in the narrator’s Book of Tales.

The title of our story is,
“One Summer in the Sun,”
Tomorrow and tomorrow,
then they are done.
One chance to bloom,
one chance to shine;
to rise and fall under the sky.

One summer in the sun in winter’s way.
All of those who to the light have went,
when their pocket watch of time is spent,
turn brittle in the air, fall to the ground.
The sun rises.
The sun sets.
A summer in the sun is all we get.

The finish line, same as the start,
oh what a nobody has in his heart.
A thousand roads to nowhere,
lost highways to the sun.
The finish line is the same place,
the human race begun.

And in that race together,
we all finish last;
those faceless watcher’s, in the crowd,
recline their heads and laugh.
Again and again, the cars go in,
desperate circles round and round.
sometimes they brush against each other,
seldom to make a sound.
And blind they pass each other by,
in a tempest tossed around.

Before the blind man, with his hammer,
turns to face your aisle,
laugh with the best of them, and smile.
And this is just graffiti,
scrawled on time’s unending walls,
by no one left for nobody,
a fragment in the stall.
Tangles in the Earth’s coiffure,
for life— a limited time offer.

Another verse, another song,
some sort of old-time sing-along,
of pebbles lost in sand and foam,
who sing alone, and murmur make,
while they their ride on the carousel take.
And then they sleep, once more to dream-
of all the things that flashed by the screen,
patterns in the ivy and their seams,
an arabesque oft told before,
of those who run blind on the shore.
With all of them on their way to see,
the Wizard of Oz for sympathy;
the highway is long, how awful to know–
the door at the end of the road is closed.

Let the hands wind up another,
song for the music box.
And let the shadow shapes around the candle,
play till the melody stops.
By candlelight or dark of night,
their path forever paved;
every second of their life,
the same sad song is played.
Again and again we figurines spin,
a lullaby loud for no one to hear,
turns static into silence, fades,
as dust upon a mirror.

Another poor player, whose hour forgot,
those passionate words on the stage.
Another soliloquy, the sound and the fury,
bit player lines erased.
Characters live; characters lie.
Some do nothing, instead wonder why.
All of them are together lost,
together to laugh and to cry.

Some of them love,
and some of them hate;
some look out, some in.
For a moment fleeting contact made,
another to begin.
There’s no such thing yesterday,
no tomorrow, and no then–
just a now that never ends.

Poem: The Glass Umbrella

We are the footprints by the Sea.
The waters come,
and waters leave.
Miss Sea, you see,
your children taken;
Children of the Sea forsaken.

See me sea Miss Galilee.
Bring back what she took from me;
bring back what you swallowed whole.
The yawning, old,
and wide mouthed urn,
lolled on, but never turned,
her deaf ear,
to me,
to hear,
my confused shouts at her.

Without a word at all to say,
she waves at the night and day.
She rolls about within a dream,
the carousel goes by overhead;
to it she turns her mirrored head.
She simply looks to it, and all,
and we, like leaves,
around her fall.

The beach we leave our footprints on,
The waters come,
and then they’re gone.
We are but footprints by the Sea;
The waves come in,
and then we leave.
Miss Sea, you see,
your children taken.
Children of the Sea forsaken.

Ancient sea, Miss Galilee,
can you see yourself in me?
As I see myself in you,
glowing white, and tinged with blue.
Can’t you see what you have done?
The lolling sea saw none.

II

“I see,” I said, and that was that;
standing at the shore of black.
I hear my own words echo back.
In those waters,
I saw me;
another reflection in the sea.

This was after ten years passed:
I returned, sat in the grass,
thinking of all who walked that shore.
Never did I see her face,
a glass umbrella had replaced,
the girl whom I adored.
My love would walk the shore no more.

But nothing else, and nothing more;
no more of who I once adored.
No more to God could I implore,
or to the umbrella in her stead.
The face of the mourning sun turned
red;
the glass umbrella, from the sea,
rolled ashore and laughed at me.
Then I knew,
and saw it all,
inside the glass umbrella fall.
I saw myself again, alone,
forever by the Sea to roam.

On that day I watched her play,
with birds about the shore.
I heard her laugh and nothing more,
as the Sea,
came and took my love from me.
Buzzards circled overhead,
like nature’s garbage men.
I heard them call,
and heard her laugh,
and felt the kiss of Caiaphas.

III

A finch had washed up in her place,
from the well amid the waste—
who floundered by the Sea,
and then flew on.
The bird fluttered for a moment,
and was gone.

As beautiful as the Sea might be,
her own face she cannot see.
In my dreams, she comes to me,
and sees her picture on the wall.
By my family, and me,
a portrait of Miss Galilee.

As wondrous as she looks, at night,
shimmering with the silver light,
she looks sadder in the dawn.
When the sun shines in her face,
when daylight takes the nighttime’s place—
she yawns again, and sighs.
Children of the Sea walk home.
Deaf, Miss Galilee rolls on.

Earlier in my life, I went,
found a home which I could rent.
I called my child to say:
“Come see me, come see the sea;
we’ll have some lunch,
then get ice cream.
You have to come;
you have to see,
the face of lady Galilee.”

IV

A while we stood,
where lolled the waves,
under a sky where seagulls played;
for her, my world, for once, to see,
the lovely face of Galilee.
From the waters, walked ashore,
played a while,
bonne nuit, amore.
She splashed about the waves, my
child,
and then she splashed no more.

I remember she flew in.
We had some sandwiches, and then,
hand in hand walked with a grin.
She laughed the day away.
She wore a blue dress, made of lace,
and had a smile upon her face.
At night she walks my dreams this
way—
for when she splashed,
that faithful day—
the Sea took her away.
The waters took my living dream,
and left me here to stay.

The Sea looked into me, you see,
and saw what she could take from me;
my dreams could not just let it be.
And when it looked, at me, it saw,
the same thing when it looks at all.

How could she tell us what she sees?
The way she sees all things go ’round,
she speaks in whispers barely sound.
She sees us dance,
and hears us call,
all at once,
but not at all.
The glass umbrella falls.

We are the footprints by the Sea;
the waters come,
and waters leave.
Miss Sea, you see,
your children taken;
Children of the Sea forsaken.

Essay – Proust’s Way: Life and Romance in a Search for Lost Time

WHEN I WAS 12 YEARS OLD I READ SOMETHING more terrifying than anything I had read before. The only book series any of the kids in my year ever read of their own choosing was Goosebumps by R.L. Stein. It was a ridiculous pop-horror book for kids. The book that would keep me up for nights was recommended by my librarian after I shared a poem I wrote. She responded with the recommendation that I read Crime and Punishment.  I was twelve. I have since reasoned that this was a punishment in and of itself.

I don’t know if individuals can explain why they like the things they like, or why red is better to most Russians than the color blue. My own theory is that after so many centuries of fighting off the most dangerous armies in history, they have ironically fell in love with the sight of blood. And to a young man, it was the first book that ever made apparent to me that murder and violence is not always motivated by clear-cut villains who sing a song to explain why they’re the bad guys.

In our culture, the villains often have their faces masked, or hidden, covered in black—or they are aliens or terrorists or, for nostalgia, communists, and they’re all reduced to identical thoughts and attitudes and looks. Dostoevsky was the first author I discovered who made the killer the main character; he made the killer a hero. I wasn’t used to that. It changed the way I looked at motivations and my attitude towards simplistic depictions of good and evil. If Dostoevsky changed the way I looked at the nature of good and evil, Proust changed the way I looked at everything.

The more I read the more enamored I was. I was very fond of the Russian literature I read; Chekov, Turgenev, Lertmentov, Bulgakov (especially Master and Margarita,) Tolstoy, Pushkin, Nabokov, and Gogol. The explosive characters, the madness, the psychological complexity, all had a tremendous influence on how I would write novels.

When I was almost finished with this book, I was fortunate enough to go through a profound moral crisis and tragedy. I was put in the same situation as Ernest Hemingway was, at twenty-five, when all the work he had to show for his entire life was lost at a train-station because of a misplaced suitcase. Everything about Hemingway’s formative years that could have given us a better understanding of his method didn’t exist.

Hemingway was the antithesis to the bombast and platitudinous method of Shakespeare and the high drama of Goethe and I never found another writer who could write so gently with such force. The most important thing about Ernest Hemingway was how he made the ordinary seem almost mythic. After I went through pupation I discovered that I had no real affiliation with post-modernism. It seemed to be more focused on what can only be called more form and less art. It was a type of masturbation, a way to use words as a maze to amaze with flair of language and verve of the freedom that came with abandoning the rules of composition. There is a freedom in that kind of work, but cleverness is no substitution for tenderness, and genius is no substitute for beauty and true poignancy.

I had been writing for twenty years when I discovered In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. The first thing to strike me was how understated and natural it all was. There was no sense of bombast or overt melodrama. It is another case in which the deepest of meaning is achieved because life is shown in all its forms and from such scenes so much can be taken.

Proust’s epic is hard to relegate to a category. If I had to say what it was about, I’d say everything; time and space, love and loss—everything in the human sphere of experience.  In Search of Lost Time or alternatively, Remembrance of Things Past, is one of the longest popular novels in history. It comes in at over 4,000 pages. And not a word is wasted.

The importance of the unimportant is a unique characteristic of the French school of romanticism and naturalism among the more prominent of French novelists; Balzac, Flaubert, Chateaubriand. Stendhal. But none of them managed to reach the  heights of literature I had discovered in Proust. It’s a cliché now to say that reading Proust will change your life. However, in this case it has become cliché because it is true. And he does it unremarkably, conversationally, even recounting the seemingly unimportant details of his house in the fictional town he made immortal at the end of The Past Recaptured. The titles are literal.

Proust was a sickly and anxiety ridden man when he turned thirty and had but one newspaper publication to his name. This was before he found himself capable of pulling such a masterful tale out of that famous teacup. In doing so he fashioned what I believe to be the best work of literature of all time. It’s all a disappearing act;  a whole life in one book, wherein there is no death; time is defeated in these silent pockets of eternity in which Proust found that precious hawthorn bush; the sound of skipping rocks, the sound of toast; the heavenly music was the fountain of not only youth, but that which he had found in his search through time and self-diagnosis—a gradual undressing of the superficial and the shallow. The layers of characters fall away until you see bone

Proust not only unmasked himself. He unmasked the entirety of human history. Along with the Geurmentes, an idolized, almost deistic conception for Proust’s French universe made immortal by his hand. Balzac’s The Human Comedy collection is more decorative, concerned more with unedited nature than Proust and external translation, settings, set-pieces; Proust’s setting is the landscape of malleable memory.

His search for immortality became immortal; it is, in this regard, a precursor to Fellini’s 8 ½; both now considered untouchable works of art, beyond reproach. Another interesting fact is the reading within Proust’s books; his characters are always in the middle of one book or another, and art and affectation in the highbrow culture of the period was ripe for satire.

In a book I recently read, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the author [Johah Lehrer] makes a convincing case for the triumph of art over science in demonstrating discoveries of scientific truths in art long before conventional science could verify the discoveries. Proust presaged the findings of modern neuroscience intuitively. He understood the distortions and the way a building by memory could change in color, in form, in location; bringing up the obvious question as to how much of our lives are as we remember it to be. It’s a heavy question, and perhaps the most unanswerable. But tthese ideas are in the back seat, of characters and character moments. The mundane is transformed by its telling.

In Swann’s Way, a peculiar aspect of Marcel’s family is revealed: they come to dinner an hour earlier on Saturday than they do the rest of the week. It’s almost a throwaway line, but resolves itself in a memorable subplot. The lack of over-description, the lack of meaning to the overall plot, and its lack of importance is what makes it so important to consider when reading and interpreting naturalism. Despite the number of scholars who have made their careers discussing and interpreting Proust, he’s not particularly hard to interpret; it’s all right there. If you read the entire story, you’ll find the narrator happy to explain every detail of his conscience. This is what gives Marcel, as a character such nuance. It has been said that every disguise is a self-portrait. And because he says so much, he attempts to hide much more; whenever the story gets too close to the author we are deferred to another aspect of his consciousness, or another explanation. If ever a book was more adequate in describing what it is to be alive, I have yet to read it.

 

Other than that, it’s pretty good.

Essay (Literary criticism) – Lo-lee-ta: The exorcism of Vladimir Nabokov

LO-LEE-TA;

THE EXORCISM OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV

There’s no doubt that literature and writing is a form of catharsis. While that is certainly true, I believe that it can be much, much more. Not only is it a form of healing, or an escape, it can be considered an exorcism. We’ve discussed the biological nature of words and ideas and how they can possess; yet, once possessed, how does one rid themselves of this possession? As we saw with Dostoevsky, his exorcism of the doubt and sickness in himself was possible through Smerdyakov’s suicide in The Brothers Karamazov.

When artists have these addictions and impulses it is not uncommon for them to use their art as a means of exorcism, as a means of ‘killing off’ the part of themselves that returns to addiction. Lolita, as Nabokov once said, was more than his affair with the romance novel, it ‘…was a romance with the English language.’

I think it’s much more than that; it was a way for him to exorcise what he believed, either consciously or unconsciously, to be possession. Lolita was that obsession, that idea. Remember Marco Polio, I illustrated how it could be contracted, but for the purpose of this essay, how can it be cured?

In a course at Yale University in May of 2008, American Novels Since 1945, professor Amy Hungerford spent three lectures talking about Lolita, although the second was a guest lecture by Andrew Goldstone, and only freakin’ one lecture talking about a much more complex book by Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. The first thing she discussed was Vladimir Nabokov’s idea on the autonomy of a work of art, the idea that it could be alive and, transversely, if it could be alive, it could be killed. This reminded me of another of Nabokov’s novels, Pale Fire.

Pale Fire is a lesser known work from later in Nabokov’s career, yet it is revealing. The book is framed as a 999 line poem, the eponymous Pale Fire, by deceased poet John Shade. The poem is between an introduction and a critical study by Shade’s friend, Charles Kimbote; a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Zembla.  This has a close is similar to Nabokov’s own experiences as a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Russia.

In Pale Fire you have can see Nabokov’s identification with the character of a professor. His annotations of the poem reflect his published works Lectures on Literature, in which he writes about James Joyce, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Franz Kafka. He also produced Lectures on Russian Literature, which included Gorky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekov, and Bulgakov. Nabokov was very well read. As a sensitive connoisseur of world literature and essayist, Nabokov shows his acuity and understanding; he understood that art and literature placates a myriad of human needs myriad of human needs.

The best books and works of art allow us to better understand ourselves. By casting Charles Kimbote as a professor of literature in Pale Fire, he inadvertently, albeit subtly, confesses to a guilty secret: although the main character in Lolita may not be Nabokov himself, it is, at least, the personification of Nabokov’s guilt. The confessional nature of the novel is belied by the introduction by John Ray, Jr., Ph.D; in it, a psychologist named Blanche Schwarzmann, is quoted: Blanc is the French word for white while Schwarz is German for black. For linguists, this isn’t even subtle; Dr. Whiteblack. This is thought to be a slight on Freudian interpretations of the novel. I think it could be a playful way of commenting on and circumventing any potential over-analysis of the novel’s content. Nabokov loved these little word-games: a well-known bit of trivia about Lolita is also revealing: Quilty’s mistress is also famously implicative: Vivian Darkbloom—an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov.

Although Nabokov is believed to have gotten the idea for Humbert Humbert’s unique name from Edgar Poe, which may be consciously true, nconsciously, however, I believe it to be an accidental allusion to a more subtle attribute of the relationship between the books’ characters and its author. Quilty, the eccentric counterpart, also falls in love with Lolita. The difference between Humbert Humbert’s reserved obsessions and Quilty’s obsessions are their attitudes; Humbert Humbert is ashamed of his own behavior and sees Quilty as what he is in danger of becoming: indulgent, perverse, hedonistic, and unashamed.

A hint to this possibility is easier to identify in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel, the screenplay being co-written by Nabokov himself.  Kubrick did nothing without purpose and the same is true of his shots. So when you see elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home, it is there for reason, a very precise reason. ou can see the elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home. It’s filled with the kind of artifacts one would expect to find in the home of a history professor’s house—in Humbert Humbert’s home.

The last novel I wrote was written during a tumultuous period in my life. I had struggled with addiction to sleeping pills and painkillers since my early teens and had developed a seriously unhealthy habit. The book was originally conceived about six years before it was written. The idea was to do a story about a con-man; he would go from city to city, always giving a fake name and history, and the idea for the novel was for this conman to forget which of his life stories were true and he gradually forgets who he really is.

For me, the title is the impregnation; it gestates in your mind over time. Once I have a title, the novel is conceptually complete in my head within an hour and then, once I have the book cover, to continue to metaphor, I go through a grueling birthing process. You don’t need to have an outline. The important thing is to have a sense of where you’re going, not the exact directions. What came out half a decades later was Nobody, the story of a slave who kills his master, his master’s wife, and runs away, escaping to the north. Along the way, he encounters many manifestations of his slavery.

For the purpose of this essay, I looked for (and found) a paper from a former student in which Nobody is being analyzed:

The name of the slave Neddy is taken from the Sanskrit term Neti Atma, which means Not Myself. Begins to feel guilty after seeing photos, is tormented by the memory of what he has done (murdered the Master and wife) [sic] … Neddy experiences Nirvana for the first time. … The narrative changes from straightforward prose into fragments of Neddy’s thoughts are right over another, disconnected and out of order. … Nobody is beginning to talk as his thought processes begin to break down.

Begins fabricating stories about who he is, feels ashamed (he is trying to escape from what he has done. … Halfway through the book the author began withdrawing from heroin and morphine leading [to] further paranoia and disjointed images. …

All of these obvious associations weren’t so pronounced in my mind during the writing process; none of it was directly connected to drugs; but each character that acts as an intermediate protagonist (the protagonist itself is not an external person or system) can be seen as embodying characteristics of different feelings related to withdrawal.

I’ve said that one of the benefits of schizophrenia is to understand your subconscious.

On the 22nd chapter, I took my last shot. For the first twenty-one chapters, the novel is somewhat straightforward. Once I started writing while going through withdrawals, it inadvertently became an homage to Dante’s metaphysical journey through hell. Except I didn’t have Virgil as a guide; I had one person, my editor Katie Chiles, a bed and a bucket and a notebook. What came out of that pen was not something one would consider coherent writing, but it changed my philosophy in regards to metaphysical writing in creating the inner-world of a character’s mind. When I realized how this was done, Finnegan’s Wake began to make a lot more sense.

The novel ended three weeks after I took my last shot with the Slave committing suicide. I later realized that this was a way of using literature as means through which one’s demons could be excised; it’s how I externalized the addict and killed that aspect of my character, that slave inside of me.

I didn’t think this was a common practice in art and literature. I believed that Dostoevsky’s externalizations were ways of contrasting philosophical perspectives. While that is certainly true I didn’t know at that point the extent of writing’s. Looking back with this perspective made me further consider the idea that Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha, as the mind, body and soul, were intended to parallel the Christian trinity. When I first shared the essay with a friend, a creative writing major, she thought the essay was incomplete. And it was. Smerdyakov’s exclusion in the representation made his character something else: it made him an antagonizing agent of the trinity and most importantly—the lamb on which all sin is leveed in order that its sacrifice brings redemption of the rest of the flock. It was a thematic echo of the Biblical account of Jesus and it made sense for Dostoevsky to draw this analogy; his whole schtick is the necessity for suffering in salvation—something even casual fans and non-readers of Crime and Punishment know about Dostoevsky by now.

Dostoevsky wasn’t fond of the epileptic bastard and atheist Smerdyakov because Dostoevsky was all of these things: he was an epileptic, his father was murdered by servants, and he was an atheist for a time. As such I wasn’t particularly proud to continue selling all of my nice things for drugs or hanging out in rundown apartment buildings where groups of less dead people robotically move from the floor to the flame throughout the day. And Nabokov, being a charming emigrate and professor in upstate New York at Cornell, surely found himself the object of attention and respect of many young and lovely female students.

In the film, the first sign of attraction occurs while watching a horror film when Lolita grabs his hand. It the book, however, the attraction begins because Humbert Humbert of which Lolita was fond. Another difference is substantial in giving credence to this theory: the hotel at which Dolores and the stage-play by Quilty, which Dolores prepares to perform at her school is called The Enchanted Hunter in the book, a reference to Humbert Humbert; in the film, the play is renamed The Hunter Enchanted. This changes the dynamic between Humbert Humbert and Dolores. The Enchanted Hunter puts more emphasis on the hunt; The Hunter Enchanted puts more of an emphasis on the hunter’s enchantment. By enchanting the hunter, it puts a distance between his condition and his goal; while in the book the focus is more on his goal as caused by his condition. In the book Lolita is only used by Humbert Humbert as a pet name, as prey; she is the object of his pursuit. In the film Lolita is a named used by more than one of the characters and the title change alleviates some of Humbert Humbert’s guilt, making the focus on Lolita as a seductress, not Humbert Humbert as a hunter. This title actually suggests she may be conscious of what she is doing, while the other title is only indicative of Humbert Humbert’s desire. With the combination of these two titles, both of them are responsible for what happens.

This isn’t just the result of Stanley Kubrick’s desire to put a personal touch on the adaptation. Nabokov co-wrote the screenplay so, while it is possible that it didn’t occur to Nabokov that Lolita was a confession when he was writing the novel, it is also possible that, upon reflection, Nabokov realized this and shifted the emphasis and blame to the object of desire.

Vladimir Nabokov was a professor of Lit 312 course at Cornell University in upstate New York. Nabokov, as an aging author and academic, would have been highly susceptible to a friendly face, a flattering young woman. Writers, more so than perhaps any other workman, are particularly susceptible to flattery. And there are some very, very lovely young ladies in at Cornell University.

It’s also possible that this assessment only serves to further demonstrate the problem with allegorical extraction and application in the interpretation of popular literature. Lolita is a great book, a work of art and, as I’ve said, the best works of art mean what we, as readers and evaluators, need it to be. And Lolita succeeds for this very reason; it reminds us that our sin is impermanent, soluble through that unique witchcraft art.

Bite Sized Philosophy, 24 July 2015: Writing

Big questions, small answers: Bite Sized Philosophy for 24 July 2015: Writing

(A little late on this one, was lulled to sleep by the dulcet tones of a Jack the Ripper documentary before posting.)

To be a writer is not a conscious choice I remember making. I liked rhyming words together as far back as I could hold a pen. Just stringing same-sounding words together as a 5 year old, that’s how I started. Original stories wouldn’t be finished until I was 11 or 12. Nothing that I would be consider properly written stories. I made the choice to write for a living after selling a science-fiction stories when I was 17. It was craft, from that point, and to be good at any given craft, you have to see the craft done well. I’ve read a lot, and extensively. Seeing a thing done well helps an aspiring writer, to help them understand what makes great books great books and how to tell one’s own stories well.

To be genuine is as important as it is to be talented, as it is to be hardworking. The quality of hard work is as important as talent because without hard work, none of that talent comes out; it is of no use. I don’t know why I continue writing. It takes forever to do something substantive, and the research and revisions and drafting — this is all laborsome stuff, none of it tremendously fun. When I don’t get something down, however, I feel like a day is wasted. So I feel that I must get something done every day, and I always do; there are on-going projects, one-off essays and – what I still enjoy – writing down words that rhyme, things we in the biz refer to as ‘poems.’

It has a higher calling, that of art, of course, and the literature of a culture greatly shapes and help define that culture. And it is a great source of catharsis for the stereotypical tortured artists of the world. It is one of the most persistent, long running traditions in sedentary human culture, that of chronicling, since the early epic of Gilgamesh and Holisheads chronicles of the English, a source of history from which Shakespeare took ideas for plays and poetry.

If it gives you a purpose, to write, to partake in the creation of art, of whatever form it takes, then it is a profession of nobility and purpose. It is to me personally, and in aggregate, historically. For me, the restlessness of needing to write is like the persistence of having to take a shit. It is a great motivational feeling, leaves you feeling nauseous and uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable when you can’t find somewhere to get it done. It is sometimes a long and painful process. You can feel great relief, even if you’re not always proud of the result. After all, sometimes it’s just shit.

Siamese Solution – short, 22 July 2015

Marie and Jean were conjoined twins born into a society that had never before seen such an oddity: Marie was in control of all physical function, hand-movement, motor-control, and, though Jean had ambitions and desires of her own, as she could feel all of the same sensations as her twin, she could not act on them independently; they had the unusual arrangement that when Marie was feeling kind, she’d let her twin, head poised to the side – on her left shoulder – she’d do what Jean found exciting and pleasurable, but only to the extent to which she found it pleasurable as well. If Marie held a flame to the palm of a hand Jean couldn’t control, she still felt the fire; if Marie had indigestion, Jean felt it in her stomach, the nausea. Though they shared the same physical receptors, their responses to pain and pleasure, what one would love the other would hate, were sometimes wildly inconsistent. As were their attitudes towards the murder of another person.

One night as Jean slept, unaware that Marie was moving through the night – a barely lit figure, a cape and cowl disguising the sleeping head that rested on her shoulder – she had uncomfortable thoughts, images of a woman shouting out and suddenly being silenced. She woke to find herself beneath the cape and desperately trying to move the hands she felt but could not control, as her sister Marie stabbed their mother repeatedly; Jean’s shouting woke their sleeping father, who had been drugged. Marie stuffed the linen cape into Jean’s mouth to stop her shouting, but she was too late to stop her father from over-powering them both, locking them in a small closet, and calling the authorities.

They were put in jail, trial arraigned, and all along – Jean was there beside her, suffering the effects of malnutrition from the prison food, the traumatic stress of being locked away from human contact, and Marie, talking to her jovially at first before, soon tired of Jean’s cries and, finally, refused to write the letters to their father, to say the things Jean most desperately wanted to say; to apologize, to ask for forgiveness. At long last, Marie, annoyed with Jean’s struggles to attempt to take control, began to make a series of cuts along Jean’s mouth, stopping her from speaking; she threatened her inside their cell, threatening to cut the head from her shoulders. So she went quiet until her voice got softer and softer still, and finally her vocal-chords atrophied, leaving her unable to speak.

When the trial came along, Jean was unable to protest the sentencing of her sister – despite what a sentence would due to her, as a feeling, thoughtful human being – as Marie was unrepetant in her mother’s death, and she was unable to speak on her behalf. Her father appealed to the conscience of the jury, asking them to consider the ‘mostly’ silent suffering of Jean, who could not speak, control her sister’s movements, or those actions:

‘Should she – dear, sweet Jean – be put to death along with her sister, cruel Marie? She had no control over the death of her mother and my wife and had she not screamed, I surely would have died as well. I urge you to not put her to death to revenge the death of my wife through the death of my Marie. Is this justice?’

On Inspiration – 24 July 2015

Inspiration is a great motivational force in the creation of art, in the performance of duty, in writing and painting and music. We hear about the Muse, Calliope for writing poetry (there are nine according to Hesiod — including Clio, discoverer of history and guitar. Seriously) and we assume that all great art is great because of inspiration, genius, or prodigious skill. Mozart’s music is often seen as inexplicable works of effortless talent and ability. This may be true of some of his music, but it does a disservice to what was surely the product of a life of endless hours of practice, time, and effort put towards the creation of such works as Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and his piano concertos. It makes an excuse for any failure on behalf of the practitioner of creation, to think that all such work is the product of nature’s endowment, an endowment not afforded everyone at birth. It is an excuse.

This assumption of prodigy can misplace the admiration in the creation of such work: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, took nearly 20 years; of course he had great natural talent and ability, but talent is nothing without being willing to put that kind of effort into a work of art, to spend that much time getting it right. Surely there was great inspiration behind the movement that brought those works to our attention, but to admire only talent or genius is misplaced: the admiration of study, hard work, and dedication should be just as important.

If everyone in the business of creating art was waiting on the dictates of the muse, we’d might have less terrible artwork but assuredly we’d have less great works too. less works we assume to be the products of great inspiration and motivation. Inspiration, then, is less a divine flourish that spills purely and perfectly onto a page and more of a constant factor in pushing someone towards the completion of their work. Do not wait for Calliope by the time she arrives, you should be too busy to notice. After all, no great work of art has ever been accomplished by thinking really hard about it. 

Essay: The Doctor is Sick – Dissecting Dostoevsky (2015)

FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY IS NOW PARTLY MYTH.
He is perhaps as popular in the English speaking world as he is in his native Russia. His work is that of an exaggerated naturalist by tradition and a psychologist in practice. He is deservingly famed for his intensive, microscopic analysis of the human condition and the psychological insight that is be found in his more fleshed out characters… Continue reading