Who lost track past midnight at the Spurlock Munitions Factory, near-river, 1917?

The lovely ladies of some munitions works

A poem from a couple years ago, inspired by the novel I’m working on, working title of which is The Eight Mile Suspended Carvinal.  This is the character Beede talking.  I can’t do line breaks right in html, so I think the word “vast” was originally on the line above where it appears, but below it’s an orphan, which makes sense in the story of the novel at least.

Who lost track past midnight at the Spurlock Munitions Factory, near-river, 1917? 

Oh yes Oh yes Oh yes
What you’re to see, boys, you dark, dirty skells, you
seen plenty spark here, what else, you’re thinking
you constitute yourselves of solids, you’re commanding
gentlemen, can take some things, maybe you’ve traveled, say
Illinois, Illinoise, farther, it does not take ambitious nature
to see the world, just a slick hand and some loose pocket. Rust is everywhere–
Davey knows my language. So you did time, who hasn’t, all we got is time in this vast
bum’s end of things, I’ve spit up wet gobs of coal, we’re all the same
just don’t get caught. Once saw a man dangling from a shagbark hickory, by the neck, all of it, tree bark and scales fallen from those eyes, all I can say is use the brain-pan,
don’t get caught
and you won’t end up with any fallen scales, don’t laugh back there, it wasn’t all
that amusing seeing that man up there, the weight of himself dead
meat. He didn’t have much luck.

But you’ve stepped up around here, all of you,
waiting on that kiss which makes us all breathe in, every crusted morning, for the long years we’ve got, a kiss humid and lovely like that mind-reader at the carnival,
she’s got curves, wait another day and maybe you’ll find that luck somewhere. Factory life got you groaning, you’re thinking anew, ready for this
fire? Let me take off my shirt now. The way I do it, you won’t even see the spark,
just watch. Lucien B. Dunavant will show you the light.

You count your breaths; I’ll count mine. That old sack granddaddy Spurlock
has not one thing on me.

Ready, boys?

“Nous Sommes Embarques”

The hands of Bruno Ganz and Peter Falk

I watched some episodes of “Columbo” as a child, but it was the Peter Falk of Wim Wenders’ breathtaking “Wings of Desire” that I recall, sad at Falk’s passing.  In the film, Peter Falk played himself, “Peter Falk,” come to Berlin to make a movie about the Holocaust.  In the clips on youtube, Falk (as “Falk”) politely puts off the media who want to interview him, complains to the costumer until he gets a decent hat, and draws a portrait of one of the extras on the fictional set.  He marvels at her face, and about the extras:

 ‎”Extras. These humans are extras. Extra humans.”

Later, “Falk” talks about drawing, the process of making a line, making art, being alive.  He says,

“Here, to smoke, have coffee. And if you do it together it’s fantastic. Or to draw: you know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line and together it’s a good line. Or when your hands are cold, you rub them together, you see, that’s good, that feels good! There’s so many good things! But you’re not here – I’m here. I wish you were here. I wish you could talk to me. ‘Cause I’m a friend.”

After we realized we both loved “Wings of Desire,” a friend sent me the poem which runs through the film.  It’s beautiful, and so I am sharing it here. (Thanks, and RIP, Steve B.)

Song of Childhood

By Peter Handke

When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.

When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one.

When the child was a child,
it had no opinion about anything,
had no habits,
it often sat cross-legged,
took off running,
had a cowlick in its hair,
and made no faces when photographed.

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just an illusion of a world before the world?
Given the facts of evil and people.
does evil really exist?
How can it be that I, who I am,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, I, who I am,
will no longer be who I am?

When the child was a child,
It choked on spinach, on peas, on rice pudding,
and on steamed cauliflower, 
and eats all of those now, and not just because it has to.

When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.

It had visualized a clear image of Paradise,
and now can at most guess,
could not conceive of nothingness,
and shudders today at the thought. 

When the child was a child,
It played with enthusiasm,
and, now, has just as much excitement as then,
but only when it concerns its work.

When the child was a child,
It was enough for it to eat an apple, … bread,
And so it is even now.

When the child was a child,
Berries filled its hand as only berries do,
and do even now,
Fresh walnuts made its tongue raw,
and do even now,
it had, on every mountaintop, 
the longing for a higher mountain yet,
and in every city,
the longing for an even greater city,
and that is still so,
It reached for cherries in topmost branches of trees
with an elation it still has today,
has a shyness in front of strangers,
and has that even now.
It awaited the first snow,
And waits that way even now.

When the child was a child,
It threw a stick like a lance against a tree,
And it quivers there still today.

And so, Mr. Falk, as the elderly Storyteller of the film says, at the final moment, “Nous sommes embarques!”

A fan back here is wishing on your wings, now returned to you.

In The Skin of A Lion

Cover of the first edition

I’m re-reading and pondering Michael Ondaatje’s book, In The Skin of A Lion.  I love this book. For me, this is a book to read again and again, to study and learn from.  This novel is an open apprenticeship.  Any good novel might be like that: think about which novel yours might be.  This one speaks to me.

Tonight, this passage from p. 157 seems like one definition of community:

“Alice had once described a play to him in which several actresses shared the role of heroine.  After half an hour the powerful matriarch removed her large coat from which animal pelts dangled and she passed it, along with her strength, to one of the minor characters.  In this way even a silent daughter could put on the cloak and be able to break through her chrysalis into language.  Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.”

Breaking, where to break

An important little symbol.

Oh, where to break the paragraphs, how to expunge some one sentence paragraphs, justify some two sentence paragraphs, avoid too many short paragraphs, how not to be jarring, or coy, and how to trust the reader to know where I mean to place emphasis, how to trust my intuition, the flow of the words, the lightning bolt that tells me to end or begin a paragraph…

Understanding, maybe a little bit, how poets work.

Shut up and sing the song

Jack Hardy’s (magic) green velvet coat

When a songwriter at Jack Hardy’s weekly songwriters group would explain what he or she was about to sing, Jack Hardy would say, “Shut up and sing the song.”  Abrupt, and to some, rude, but a valid procedural point for a workshop, even more notable in its good advice to the writer.

Let the work speak for itself.  If something is  important enough, yet is not on the page, or in the lyrics, put it in there.  Rework or revise it later if you need to, if what you mean is not conveyed through your magic lattice of words, sounds, syllables.

I’ve stolen Jack’s  line when approaching fiction workshops: it applies.  I feel very rude ever telling someone to “shut up,” and usually preface it with context.  As an imperative to action, “Shut up and sing the song” is simple and worth doing.  (I’m talking to myself, too.  For years, I whined about how I wanted to write and yet was not doing it.)  Shut up about what you want to do, wish you could do, mean to do, intend to do.

Shut up and sing the song.

Everything’s so easy for Pauline…

Neko Case, looking cool as usual. But I think she's still "Margaret."

This song haunts me.  Neko Case is amazing from any angle: musician, poet, strong survivor of life’s trials.  But this song sticks with me, and I can’t shake it off.  I’m sure the story is not as simple from Pauline’s point of view, but still…  This song seems as much a poem as any of Simon and Garfunkle’s poetry.  Here are the lyrics.

“Margaret vs. Pauline”

Everything’s so easy for Pauline
Everything’s so easy for Pauline
Ancient strings set feet a light to speed to her such mild grace
No monument of tacky gold
They smoothed her hair with cinnamon waves
And they placed an ingot in her breast to burn cool and collected
Fate holds her firm in its cradle and then rolls her for a tender pause to savor
Everything’s so easy for Pauline

Girl with the parking lot eyes
Margaret is the fragments of a name
Her bravery is mistaken for the thrashing in the lake
Of the make-believe monster whose picture was faked
Margaret is the fragments of a name
Her love pours like a fountain
Her love steams like rage
Her jaw aches from wanting and she’s sick from chlorine
But she’ll never be as clean
As the cool side of satin, Pauline

Two girls ride the blue line
Two girls walk down the same street
One left her sweater sittin’ on the train
The other lost three fingers at the cannery
Everything’s so easy for Pauline

Antioch Writers Workshop July 2010

Embroiled fully in this year’s Antioch Writers Workshop.  I love being around writers, talking about writing, writing with writers, the world cracking open before me.

Before the keynote on Saturday, I was driving to campus and feeling guilty, semi-taking a week off from child, home, life, to do the workshop, because sometimes it seems like choosing to be a writer is a silly luxury (but is it even a choice? I ask myself).


Then I realized (it’s so easy to REALIZE things while driving, isn’t it?) that all writing is really about life.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, a person (who is alive) puts something on paper (or screen, or sand) and it means something to at least one person.  What else is life, if not that?

Where to break things

I have been thinking in a very gestural and unscientific way about how poems, short stories, and novels are similar and different, both for reader and writer.

Something comes to mind about pacing, tempo, and where to break things.

When working on a novel, finding the right chapter break is crucial. It’s also important to think about where to end paragraphs. Is the question of where to end paragraphs even more important in writing short stories? And decisions about line breaks, even in the very occasional poems I’m working on, seem similarly intuitive and challenging.

I am not claiming that sentences, or words, are not crucial in novels. But there does seem to be a point of comparison among the forms, with the question of chapters, paragraphs, and lines, and where to break them.

Now the question is: how to end this post?

The Interweb (a poem)

The Interweb
is like a big, bright store
that I enter to buy just a couple things, like
the pizza delivery number, or
the definition to a word
but I can’t find the right aisle
and other carts keep bumping into my cart
and my cart bumps into other carts
and all the carts are singing arias
in various strange languages

which are very interesting, in a way,

and I keep getting distracted by aisles that are full of things like
an AP headline
or virtual bubble-wrap

and then

I look at my watch:
I don’t even wear a watch but
an hour has passed,
an hour

which I will never regain,
even if I keep the tags on
and don’t lose the receipt.

On not being a poet

Writers of all forms say they feel not simply drawn, but called to write.  But when I was in grad school, I noticed something about the poets.  Many seemed more mystically attached to what they did than the writers of prose.  Those poets were not pretentious, but watching them, I got the feeling there was something purer, maybe gnostic, about the practice of poetry.  Could poetry be a more athletic practice than prose, if only in the necessary distillation and economy of words?  (I don’t mean to make too many generalizations about forms and writers: there are certain novelists who are or might as well be poets, or whose prose feels like poetry.  I love reading a novel that feels like it was written by a poet.)

I’ve written poetry most of my life, but I always feel timid taking my poetry seriously.  When it comes to poetry, I know I am a hobbyist.  Not a real poet, but someone who visits the land of poetry on vacations, wearing garish clothing and the wrong shoes, talking too loud, and taking snapshots of the pretty sites.  With a straight face, I can call myself a writer, but not a poet.

I need to work some light into that dark corner.  I need to read and write more poetry.