Saturday, July 19, 2014

Hum, Shiver, Repeat

Oh, time makes men grow sad
And rivers change their ways
But the night wind and her riders
Will ever stay the same...
 

 
Reading The Hum and the Shiver by Tennessee expat Alex Bledsoe. It is set in Tennessee, but not in the '40s or '50s, the time some authors choose for that region. It takes place today, though I can attest the further out you go into that wild, the further back you go in time. The book has me thinking of family, particularly to bloodlines, about which I have never given much thought. While my father has researched our family's history admirably, I have but a vague sense of the family thread - a mutt pedigree that thins and fades like fog. Stories and words that twist themselves toward meaning. Small children watching affairs end with both barrels, limbs lost as a matter of course, men whose iron bones turned back invisible tides in the Civil War. Surnames break and split like streams to creek. Counts. Tucker. Bobo. Back further still. Signposts barely legible. Huguenot and nomad. 
 
All of this floats through my head as I read about the book's main character, Bronwyn Hyatt, and her return home, the blood that welcomes her as one of their own, but forever changed. I sit in my Minnesota home, hundreds of miles from the air the story makes me long for wanting to feel the arms of my mother around me strong, assured of something I cannot name, something known only to us, with small, mystic gestures like the Tufa in the story. We were born in the middle, neither urban nor remote enough to grow native traits I might later use to identify me in the us. I have trouble finding deepblood traits to distinguish us from the progression my parents moved outland to abandon. O how we seek to be special in the face of the tide.
 
Bronwyn's return comes through sacrifice, through heroic acts appreciated by her place and people. Today I find myself devoid of such, whatever potential cultivated in youth now leveled out and on display for those to only wonder after. At some point or another, I guess we all want to be a hero, have our mother's praise be vindicated. Perhaps sometimes it goes dormant as we enter the flow and tide, as we learn that just about everyone has potential, and that it is up to us to make it an active thing. Sometimes it takes hitting bottom to activate it. Maybe the feeling of a god's light upon our upturned face. Hell, maybe sometimes it just takes a story, a parable of sacrifice and humility before the immensity of the world, something to remind us that there is a difference between what we are handed and what we choose to do with it. We'll see. I'm not done with the story, neither one.
 
 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Independence Day

I get nostalgic this time of year. It was 19 years ago this year that I decided to pack up my broken heart and pet rabbit and leave my small town life for God knows what in a strange northern place called Minnesota. I was leaving Kingston Spring, Tennessee, a town that once offered the Ce Bon Motel (pronounced See Bonn) and the Dixie Doodle, a burger joint that would, sadly, change its name to the less colorful I-40 Truck Stop. It was a place that reared, damaged, and taught me. I learned to love deepest nature. I learned to watch my back.

Born of deep rocked pain, for which that tender heart was hardly prepared, was the need to move, a hunger for everything that was not my severed life. The pain of love failed, love taken, created first a resounding hum like a cuff to the ear or a touch of almost lethal live wire. That it did not kill me immediately should have been a sign. But in such situations, we are too deep in that well to have any kind of needed perspective. When your heart is broken, the world can, in an instant, become a violent kaleidoscope seared to the face, its colorful menagerie the product of outside chaos and of the soul sick rising up through the guts of your heart. When I would come to look back on the night in question, the night when it all changed, what I recall most are the sharp lines around her face and around the gaudy pictures filling the wall behind her. Before that moment, they had all been a part of a harmonious whole. Face, family, future, all tethered seamlessly by what could only have been that place, that time, that sense of fortune I felt had finally found me in adulthood.

For years after moving I wanted novelty without excitement, something to keep my mind from thinking about what was left behind, but I wasn't ready to feel. My new Minnesota landscape was just that, a minimalist backdrop onto which I splattered activities to make it seem like movement. I feared the opening of wounds, the revivification of life proper, the warming glow of the machine that makes us feel so much. But soon the past begins to fade as you start taking steps. I felt the need for fire. Flushing the pipes with salty air and stinging truths. I found myself opening up to new people and to old ones. I listened to Flannery O'Connor and cried while she laughed. I shook hands with the words of William Gay, from Hohenwald, TN and felt a kin. With them I wanted it. I wanted pain. I wanted their articulation of what I sensed but to which I could put no good words. I soaked up their sweat and sorrow and watched with them how the day stretched shadows to the edge of the town. I wanted them to hurt me, and with each eloquent barb, I laughed, a little more saved. It was a welcome comfort to discover I could once again feel without having to die.

And so years later I sit, having met wonderful people that would change my life forever, even one I helped create. I can look back on my Tennessee roots not with rose glasses nor bitterness. I can see it for what it was and appreciate it for same. To me Independence Day will always mean not being tethered to that which makes you less, but being a part of that which helps to make all of it more.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Drafting




"Yep, about four sentences and I'm off."

He takes another pull and looked around the bar. It was only 8:00, but we always show up before 9:00 to avoid the cover. I've known Chris for about 8 years, and we have talked about books millions of times, but this is the first I had heard about this.

"Four sentences...really?"

"I know. It's nuts. It doesn't matter if it's a novel, a short story, or what. Four sentences."

"That's the shittiest attention span I think I've ever heard of."

"But it's not like I lose interest or because my eyesight is bad. It's about the stuff that starts popping out of the shadows in response to what I'm reading. I grab a book, open it up, and things start to go online."

My eyes squint. From behind someone yells "Bullshit, he is."

I could see he was starting to go to his mind palace, or as he called it, mind garage. He looked right at me, but was only seeing what was churning in his head.

"The first sentence, and I can almost hear the hum somewhere deep. Lead word, follow up verb or adjective, flavoring second sentence. Lights flicker behind my lids. Switches snap. I imagine a furnace coming alive. At..."

"Man, this is the"

"AT SENTENCE THREE my eyes start focusing on how the curves of the letters buttress against one another. A voice, a small, little voice, begins to wonder as deep machinery begins to warm. I can feel it starting, like its right beside me, closer even. I wonder how the words got here,  how they were chosen, THESE words, how were they picked and ordered, amidst all of the permutations and combinations, the literally (ha ha) dizzying array of linguistic choices for this. very. sentence here. It's a funhouse? Why these?..."

Chris' eyes were dazed as he stared down at the etchings in the table, though I really don't think he was referring to the FUCK YOU scrawled just north of his beer.

"Hey, man, that's the way it is. It's the choices that separate those that are and those that want to be. I would think you eventually get to the point where you feel more and more comfortable making the choices and stringing shit together."

"I guess." he mumbles, scratching at the edges of YOU. "When it's good, each sentence seems so natural, a natural thing grown. By the time sentence four reaches its subject verb agreement, the book goes down like it's on fire. Whatever I've just read, whether its a descriptive scene or bone bare fact, whatever I've read starts a cryptic chemical reaction that makes me grab a pen and paper."

"A fountain pen, I'm guessing."

"Hell yeah, a fountain pen. 'Yes, of course,' I say to as I find a notebook. All the lights are on now, and the pistons are slamming smooth. The taste of the last sentence is still on my tongue, and with a peal of rubber I'm gone. Sometimes it looks like what I just read, and sometimes the words take off on their own. Just a push. The momentum carries them, like drafting in car races, passing dust fields and highway dives. Neon seems to be a good power source.  Hooo! Over 3% grades, down valleys of pure energy, and shot fast through long stretches of asphalt and glass. They roadtrip into the night. Sometimes I wake up at the table. Think I'm in a speeding car, diamonds still on my windshield."

And with that last sentence I notice that it is, indeed, Tom Waits on the jukebox and smile.

"And then it ends. Out of gas, just like that. Wad shot. Feels like the words, language has been demolished somewhere back in time. They begin to fade and blend into the landscape. Nothing fits, and I am left with a pile of melting puzzle pieces whose edges no longer jive. The combinations don't come. I've forgotten how to arm the device, and there's so little time. The vehicle slows, as the rest of the world zooms by. I lose lap after lap. I get out and push in some pitiful act of desperation, but it's hopeless. I creep to an impotent halt. Crickets chirp, and what once felt like a child's trip to the moon has become a deadfast stump, immovable for centuries in the heart of a forest, beauty be gone. And like an addict I start looking for another hit. Wolfe. Capote. Bataille. Varese. Eiseley if I'm feelin' rich. Crews' hard scrabble plans or Mallarme's diaphanous vision of the opposite of hell. I scramble, scramble for something that might shoot me forward again. I feel fake or worse. I sit, staring ahead and feeling like some no-trick pony who can't even remember he's supposed to compete..."

And with that, Chris looks at me like his dog just died. I think there are tears in his eyes. He drains his beer and sits back, spent, empty, whole. I get up to get the next round, but he gets up, too. I figured as much. Happens every now and then. He's headed home, ready to try again, drafting weightlessly on the words I can still see floating in the air.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Moving Blackbirds

So far I do not like "Blackbirds" by Raymond Carver. It is one of his later stories, and I don't think I'm strong enough. I want to like it, but its center of gravity is elsewhere in comparison to the style he had built to this point. Yes, a lack of strength. Thin genes are to blame. Nights of sleep when there should have been words. I never grew big, not big enough. I was stronger in college. With a meal card and a 24-hour gym, I could bench press Kafka and curl Dostoyevsky at the drop of a hat. It helped to have no social life. I was thick with it. I could feel the blood coursing through, especially in summer when classmates have you flexing against the weight of better judgment. My arms were brown. I slept well at night. I wrote letters to myself in a foreign hand.


Right off the bat, the guy doesn't think it's her handwriting. It is a letter that has been slipped under the door of his study. The setup is good. Mystery in the familiar home. What's not to like? He pauses to venture down a side narrative about his memory, filling some lines and questioning the questionability his own narration. He lapses into an inner monologue fans of Carver recognize, only to return to the present and begin to transform the simple act of receiving a letter into a muted psychological thriller. Returning to confusing letter, and a noise down the hall, his house - this place of comfort and a buttress against the outside world - is suddenly a place not entirely known, a distrusted other. All the lights are on, but soft, subtle noises are slowly transfiguring it from a place of solace to a reluctant funhouse, something he must confront. But too soon the jig is up, and we see the letter is, indeed, of his wife's hand. Like the protagonist, I am distraught as the story strays further from me, soon just outside my reach and pledging never to return. It is of no use, I fear. Like his wife, it has decided and is already walking away. I want to stop it, but I am not strong enough. If I could only call on others to help.


With Barth, the house would become the thing, a true funhouse, a backdrop brought forth and converted, imperceptibly at first, into a catalyst. To venture down the hall, not in fear, but as an act to challenge the bravery of the mind. Corner shadows harbor cave entrances to worlds, not monsters. Shut doors are reasons to wait for the colored lights to snap on at dusk. The memory of the moment in the den connects to the same of 8 years ago, understated to the point of being nearly hidden from sight, muted, like reluctant phone calls - the news of death, the beginning of an affair.


Maybe Calvino. Yes, the hall, the murderous phone, not some inner angst to turn inward and double with his own. No, rather the walk outside to see his wife standing there - the crux of the piece, not postponed but met head on - flattened and again only to be layered within itself as he recalls a play he once read that unfolded the same way. The line of oak in the distance blurring to include editors' marks, on the leaves - page numbers tentative at best. His wife stands by the clothesline. She doesn't see him yet. He watches her talking to herself. As he closes the gap to confront her about the letter, she retrieves a packet, reads some lines , then repeats them looking up. "Oh, I didn't hear you come out." She repeats them verbatim to him as she turns to see him. First, a suspicious letter, now scripted lines to guide the evening's discussion? His knees weaken. Not merely confused to the bone, but the scene unfolds precisely as it does in the play he remembers, from which this scenario has undoubtedly been lifted. He would have thought it Gadda, had her cousin, or his, suddenly died at this very moment of a heart attack, after seeing this very scene transpire in the swirls of her coffee.


But not, we are already at reality, the mystery diluted by the deft strokes of Lish. He has his reasons, as he always does. As I write this I am convinced they are tied to this very attempt to remix his world of constricting possibilities. Like replaying the night she broke your heart and changed the way you view the future, it has happened. The letter was hers. Magic dies. The real world floods the remaining passages to ensure all embers extinguish before sunrise.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Time or Something Like It

 

It's a big, wide open field. Alone. Night. Frustrations and stars above and distant. Your smallness is clear. In it, maybe wisdom. But mostly you feel alone. you are sure if you only turned to your left or right, you would be able to remember a story that would help make ithis make sense. Crickets are chirping, and something in the horizon moves, and you want the loneliness to feel good. It moves again, but it doesn't. Maybe if you walk toward it.

It's more like floating. Maybe you're sick. Oh, a dream. That must be it. But you can't remember your fingers being this cold asleep. It doesn't matter. A small, nostalgic sting as you leave your spot for new ground. You've done this before, or at least that's the feeling. The new space you enter, the way the old one ages without you. Things die when you leave them. But you always leave. You want every option at once. Impossibility itself. You are a part of neither, just the space in between, like calling the airport home.

The distance you approach on the horizon isn't made of space. That much feels true. You're drifting from even your own thoughts, as they become part of the left behind. The distance you approach is made of time, or something like it. You feel too old to reach it in time. You've been here for so long, but the music has always been nice and has never stopped, but now, for the first time, it has stopped.

"New music." you say, first words in a long time.

But all you hear are your own feet, anyone's else's feet, shuffling toward the dark with the bravery of a child.

Murmur turn
Ascend and enter
All at once

Yes, things are falling around you. You've felt alone before, but not like this. Things are falling from you. Words like Earth and Dimension and Starfield seem more intimate now, less cliche. World, City, Time Zone are bougeous. You know you've changed, or the world has.

You are now landscape to everyone you have ever known, lover and family included.
Why is it all so distant? The question you wish made sense.
But this, too, just bubbles to the surface and is released into the night.
Just words coupled and offered in fear. They have no place.
Not here.
Not for you.
Not now.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

(River) Lesson Learned

Happy to hear that my poem "River Lesson" will be published Jan. 5 over at Jellyfish Whispers.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Muscle Memory

Read a story at the cool journal, Still: The Journal the other day. I didn't think I was going to enjoy it. Haven't read in a while, and it felt like returning to some hip secret club where you forgot all the rules and handshakes and inside jokes that make being a part of such a group satisfying. I just read the words like I was assessing the first colors of the day. I didn't sense what was coming. A year ago, I would have. I would have winked at the foreshadowing, put it on the inner clipboard, and waited to see how well it was utilized to drive the theme home. I looked for gimmicks and techniques used like jazz hands pressed into paper. But now the words just came, one after another, and I didn't care where they went. Joy ride. Lazy stroll. But it was good. The story. It had a William Gay flavor to it I liked. Slow and southern with rust. Made me feel like my parents reading Faulkner for the first time or something. Felt like I was missing all kinds of easy ones.



But slowly the old feeling returned. There. Yep, I see it. Oh, and there. I started to recognize imagery and symbol. The story never rose above its intent, and it was appreciated. Years ago I would have disparaged it for feeling it was trying hard enough. But now, here, I appreciateed it, its theme and the way it was being carried out, achieving a kind of harmony with its nod to the past (literature and life), the tenuous present (with our hands covering our eyes), and the future, which for many of us growing older against our will, seems slowly to be arriving in shiny trucks and guns mounted and always loaded.

Some of the observations from this story started turning it back in its reader. Chig doesn't partake in dinner. He is the hermit, not ready to return. Rick has become a part of the world, which distances himself from Chig. The missing step on the stair, the danger of passing time. A hand over the face and the unwillingness to see what's out there. Takes the chance to leave his Eden only to try to return, before it is too late. So yeah, you see where this is going. I started to see myself as Chig. You leave the world long enough and you find yourself unable to go back. The dance continues, but when you decide to join in again, the feet don't move like they used to.

But like Chig, sometimes you find yourself being pulled back. You go because you feel it. You may no longer have what it takes to survive, but if you gotta' go, go trying.