Sunday, March 23, 2014

“The Stone Surgery” by Bosch

Doctor
cut the stone of folly
from my skull
make me a rill
for kingdom’s coming.

Bring down the engines of the sky
to nail and helmet me
funnel me
beneath a metal mouth
an eye.

Fill my simple mind
with wisdom of the stars
give me knowledge
pure, celestial
like yours.

Take up the scoring blade
Doctor
and core the stone from me
the less, the more

than me.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


My Link in "The Next Big Thing" Blog Chain


What is the working title of your book?

“Fayettenam: A Memoir”

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Several years ago I was preparing to drive back to Texas with my wife and son after a Christmas visit to my mother’s home in Fayetteville, North Carolina – home to Fort Bragg, where I had lived three different times myself as a boy. As I was packing up the car, my mother gave me a tin box filled with letters my stepfather had sent home during his third tour of Vietnam, 1969 – 70. I had known about the box since I was a child; it was one of several artifacts in a deep drawer in a tall chest that had traveled around with us through the many moves typical of a military family.

After I got back to Houston, I opened the box and re-stacked the 145 airmail envelopes on the desk in front of me. I recognized my stepfather’s handwriting, and my mother’s as well: she had numbered each one as she’d received it. Her own letters, probably twice as many, must have been discarded 13,000 miles away and nearly forty years earlier, in the jungles of III Corps, in the vicinity of Long Binh, where my stepfather had served his tour as CO in a Ranger battalion.

I opened the first few envelopes and unfolded the letters inside. My stepfather, who disappeared in 1982, had been a terrifying man to me. He was charming, violent, intelligent, domineering, heroically responsible, brutal – oversized, in my mind, even today, though I am many years older than he was when he went missing. When he wrote these letters, he was young enough then to be my own son now. (That chastens me, and deep down, confuses me: how can a father be younger than the son?) A junior officer, he was, on the other hand, an “old man” to his troops; and from the letters, and other documents I eventually gathered, as oversized and fearsome to them as he was to his family.

I read the letters, a few at a time over many days, because it was too much to take in all at once. They represented the body of the man who had disappeared all those years before, but whose ghost still occasionally visited my dreams: in the dreams, the only recurring sort of dream I’ve ever had, my stepfather has just returned; he walks through the door as if he’d been gone a short while, out for cigarettes or just back from the field. In the dreams, I am not pleased to see him return. The dream would echo into my waking moments, my anxiety and ambivalence slowly converting to the knowledge he was still long gone; “dead” by default and by legal declaration, but still disappeared. My relief, as I realize the dream was just a dream, is always tinged with guilt, or my guilt with relief.

The letter formed a narrative, or one recursive, insistent point of view in a narrative I’d always known, that had always been a part of my own sense of self: the War, now no longer “the War” – we always have another one, after all. My stepfather managed to lead his company that year, while managing by mail our home affairs half a world away; the letters are filled with minutiae of family budget, childcare, discipline ( the same thing in his mind, essentially), gossip about his comrades and their spouses, current events, his desires, his hopes for the future, all woven into occasional references to the war around him: who had been wounded, who killed, whom he’d dressed down, what engagements they’d had, etc.

I spent a few weeks re-reading the letters, then typing them out, then photocopying them, and later scanning them, so that I could fold each one back into its envelope, re-stack them in the cookie tin with Victorian Christmas scenes on it (a gift from someone, perhaps another Army wife, decades ago), and ship it back to my mother, so she could place it back in the drawer where it belonged. For a missing man, such relics must reside in their reliquary; more than relics, they are a series of cenotaphs, or effigies, or the man himself.

After I had completed my archival chores, or rather my ritual procrastinations, I started writing around the letters. The first plan was to co-write a memoir with my stepfather: to use his own letters as one half of a dialogic story, not only of that single year, but of my growing up, our family travels, and the era. It worked well enough as a siphoning or invention strategy. Simply to fill the gaps, to digress into small corners of memory or find my way in the vast, open fields of it, writing between his letters helped me find the raw matter for a memoir.

The letters are, I suppose, of interest only to me and my family; they’re documentary, like all soldiers’ letters, or other letters salvaged from a significant past; but they’re not, by themselves, compelling to an audience. Part of me doesn’t understand why not, of course. But it took a while to allow myself to edit the letters, to rearrange them, condense them, or consolidate them. Still, the dialogue wasn’t working the way I’d hoped; I didn’t have an engaging story that strangers would care about – and that care matters much to me. If this book fails, it’s a second disappearance.

I loved and hated the man. I hate the military, but I love being an Army brat. I feel pride in my stepfather’s heroism, which has been written of at length by Michael Lee Lanning in The Only War We Had, and for which he was much decorated; but I loathe the very idea that the Vietnam War, that our wars now, have had anything to do with a true defense  of values. Everyone has the right to take on history; but taking on history at the same time I was trying to take on my stepfather’s ghost was proving too difficult and too painful.

So, the letters have disappeared from the book, first by a slow attrition, then by complete abandonment.

At this stage, busy with teaching and other matters of the present life, and suffering as well from a lack of courage, I have let “Fayettenam” sleep in its own drawer for a few years now; I write poems about horses, about my wife, about other things. But writing this blog post has made me take the pages out of the drawer; it’s sitting on the corner of the desk. Let’s see if I get some courage today.

What genre does the book fall under?

Memoir; creative nonfiction; confession; history; lyric essay; possibly a dense sort of  prose- poem sequence, before I’m done with it.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in the movie rendition?

They’d have to clone the man himself. I’d insist on it as a contractual clause. Maybe the rest of us should be Claymation figures.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

“In searching the cosmos for a missing man, the author time-travels through the Sixties and Seventies, with cameos from the Fifties and Eighties.”

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I tried a hundred literary agents and got nowhere a few years back; a conspiracy to keep the man hidden, no doubt. If I can finish a new draft, I’ll enter the small-press contests. Then, in a few years, I’ll publish it online and move on.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Three years, as a series of blog posts. A few long-lost relatives came across it and got in touch – uncertain, I sensed, about exactly what I was up to. Memoir is treason.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy is fiction, but a landmark book for military families; then there’s Sarah Bird’s The Yokota Officer’s Club, and Patricia MacInness’ Last Night on Bikini: Marines, Air Force, and Navy, respectively. In memoir, perhaps Danielle Trussoni’s Falling Through the Earth, about her father’s troubled postwar life and her discovery of his past; or William Jay Smith’s Army Brat, about a military family’s peacetime, indeed rather idyllic experience of the pre-WWII years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The letters; my stepfather himself. Also, my friend Phil Brady, who has written of his Irish-American family in a beautiful memoir called To Prove My Blood: A Tale of Emigrations and the Afterlife; my mother, who has keep faith, suffered long, and held the center of our far-flung and much-troubled family, all of us haunted by my stepfather’s and my first father’s ghosts (another soldier, long dead, who had gone missing from my life long before he died; he has his role, though, in the story).

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Disappearance fascinates me – obviously. I don’t know about other people; but if I can tweak my solipsism and various neuroses, my father-fixation and my overly-dense lyric prose style, I hope fans of mystery will give the book a try.

Also, it’s a document of the subculture of military families. There are novels, as I’ve mentioned, but few memoirs, about us. It’s a facet of American life (and in other countries, I suppose) that deserves more attention (See Mary Edwards Wertsch’s thorough, somewhat-sociological study called Military Brats; and a celebratory film on DVD narrative by Kris Kristofferson called Military Brats: Our Journey Home.) 

*

I was invited by Philip Brady; his blog post is here

Excerpts published online can be found at Prick of the Spindle and Drunken Boat.

I'll update to include links of the five I invite, when/if they follow through...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Donald Barthelme's Reading List ca. 1984

I'm a pack rat; lately, I've become a digital pack rat. That is, I'm taking every scrap of paper I've saved over the years and scanning it. (It's something to do between grading stacks of student essays.) Here is one of the more pleasant finds from my roach-eaten old banker boxes: the reading list Donald Barthelme gave to his writing students back in the early eighties. The original is even more wonderful -- it's a mimeograph handout! (I used to love that smell).

So, the list is obviously dated -- everything's thirty years old or more. But it gives a sense of Barthelme's tastes (no big surprises for anyone who knows his work) and what he expected of his writing students. You can see works by colleagues and friends, too - but I expect he genuinely admired their works listed here. DB was a great teacher, a man of integrity, and someone who expected rigor of thought. This list was an invitation; what might he have added to it, had he lived into the current moment?

*

IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER...


AT SWIM TWO-BIRDS, Flann O'Brien
THE THIRD POLICEMAN, Flann O'Brien
COLLECTED SHORT STORIES, Isaac Babel
LABYRINTHS, Borges
OTHER INQUISITIONS, Borges
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, Garcia Marquez
CORRECTION, Thomas Bernhard
NOG, Rudy Wurlitzer
GIMPEL THE FOOL, I. B. Singer
THE ASSISTANT, Bernard Malamud
THE MAGIC BARREL, Bernard Malamud
INVISIBLE MAN, Ralph Ellison
UNDER The VOLCANO, Malcolm Lowry
BECKETT ENTIRE
HUNGER, Knut Hamsun
I’M NOT STILLER, Max Frisch
MAN IN THE HOLOCENE, Max Frisch
SEVEN GOTHIC TALES, Isak Dinesen
GOGOL'S WIFE, Tommaso Landolfi
V, Thomas Pynchon
THE LIME TWIG, John Hawkes
BLOOD ORANGES, John Hawkes
LITTLE DISTURBANCES OF MAN, Grace Paley
ENORMOUS CHANGES AT THE LAST MINUTE, Grace Paley
I, ETC, Susan Sontag
TELL ME A RIDDLE, Tillie Olsen
FALLING IN PLACE, Ann Beattie
IN THE HEART OF THE HEART OF THE COUNTRY, William Gass
FICTION AND THE FIGURES OF LIFE, William Gass
THE WORLD WITHIN THE WORD, William Gass
ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF, Norman Mailer
CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Anthony Burgess
JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT, Celine
THE BOX MAN Kobo Abe
INVISIBLE CITIES, Italo Calvino
A SORROW BEYOND DREAMS, Peter Handke
KASPAR AND OTHER PLAYS, Peter Handke
NADJA, Andre Breton
CHIMERA, John Barth
LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE, John Barth
THE MOVIEGOER, Walker Percy
BLACK TICKETS, Jayne Anne Phillips
COLLECTED STORIES, Peter Taylor
THE PURE AND THE IMPURE, Colette
WILL YOU PLEASE BE QUIET PLEASE, Raymond Carver
COLLECTED STORIES, John Cheever
I WOULD HAVE SAVED THEM IF I COULD, Leonard Michaels
COLLECTED STORIES, Eudora Welty
THE 0RANGING OF AMERICA, Max Apple
COLLECTED STORIES, Flannery O'Connor
MUMBO JUMBO, Ishmael Reed
SONG OF SOLOMON, Toni Morrison
THE DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ, Carlos Fuentes
BOOK OF LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING, Milan Kundera
THE RHETORIC OF FICTION, Wayne C. Booth
HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, Joseph Campbell
HENDERSON THE RAIN KING, Saul Bellow
THE COUP, John Updike
RABBIT RUN, John Updike
PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS
HOW WE LIVE, edited by Rust Hills
SUPERFICTION, edited by Joe David Bellamy
PUSHCART PRIZE ANTHOLOGIES
THE WRITER ON HER WORK, edited by Janet Sternburg
MANIFESTOS OF SURREALISM. Andre Breton
DOCUMENTS OF MODERN ART, series edited by Robert Motherwell
AGAINST INTERPRETATION, Susan Sontag
A HOMEMADE WORLD, Hugh Kenner
FLAUBERT, Letters
SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO, David Mamet
THE CHANGELING, Joy Williams
THE NEW FICTION, edited by Joe David Bellamy
GOING AFTER CACC1AT0, Tim O'Brien
THE PALM-WINE DRINKARD, Amos Tutuola
SEARCHING FOR CALEB, Ann Tyler
THANK YOU, Kenneth Koch
COLLECTED POEMS, Frank O'Hara
RIVERS AND MOUTAINS, John Ashbery
TRAGIC MAGIC, Wesley Brown
MYTHOLOGIES, Roland Barthes
THE PLEASURE OF THE TEXT, Roland Barthes
FOR A NEW NOVEL, Alain Robbe-Grillet

Friday, April 30, 2010

Poem # 30: The Distance

The distance from one side of me to the other
was too far to cross
so I stayed here, where the words are,
but no pictures
and not very many other folks
worth chatting up.

Food gets in somehow;
not much sex.
Water is everywhere
because the self is like an amniotic sea,
fortunately fresh
if a little rotten-eggy to the taste;

and all the light I need,
given how cozy it is here anyway
(just me and Shakespeare
in the front row,
and millions of Elvis Preseleys
in the back),

comes through the many, many cracks
caused by the pressure from outside.

*

Maybe not a bang-up conclusion to this month-long sojourn, but I kind of like my little (obvious) allegory. It's a bit exaggerated, at least as an actual study in my own alienation. I was reading a little-known poet named Hunt Hawkins, who published one book in the early nineties. It's an odd tome: a little like Cheever or Carver in its simple drawings of "The Domestic Life" (the book's title), but only if Cheever and Carver had never heard of Chekov. Sometimes the vignettes fall flat; sometimes the flatness is perfectly framed. Overall, though, there is a lack of tension -- which might have come from a different series of formal strategies, perhaps -- as in Larkin, for instance. But I like the book: possibly, I have yet to delve into it sufficiently to appreciate its charms. In any case, my little poem above most certainly came out as a response to reading Hawkins, though it is very different, and in now way (that I am aware) an answer to his style or sensibility. A spark -- merely a spark, and who knows where they come from?

Read, read, read; and don't be afraid to write, to fail. Let that be the main lesson (which I must have already known, but let go of) from this thirty-day marathon.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Villers: Young Woman Drawing

This is the painting I must have remembered; mis-remembered, naturally. Perhaps I've conflated this one with others I've seen over the years:

young woman drawing

Posted using ShareThis

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Adam before His Mirror

(by Ned O’Gorman, 1929 - )

You are my glove and waistcoat,
my boot and diamond pin,
my starched and pleated blouse;
my anchored collar, my scarf
and woven stocking. You are
the buckle on my hip,
my lacquered heel, my mask
for bees. You are my alb,
my amice and my hood, my walking
stick. You are my lute and drum,
my arbor and my bell, my rain
and sun, my season and my zoo.
You are circle of my hoop,
my scissor and my loom, my junction
and meadow, my sign, my darkness
and my light. You are hyssop
and mint, my crown, my hurdle.
You are the stillness
and the moving in my brain.
You are the span and fathom
of my chest. You are the arch
and vaulting of my skull. You are
root of my hand and exultation
in my reins. You are my image.
I am stress and raiment of clay.

*

From one of the books I purchased at Half Price earlier today (actually yesterday, by now). I love the catching back and forth of sounds; and the collage, that is somehow out of snapshots by a young man circa 1960 of the environment around him (an existentialist sort of Christian man, in New York, who spent a lot of time in churches, museums, and books). And yet, somehow, in the linkages and accumulation, he captures a brief liaison between History and Myth;

– and I hope he won’t mind me posting this here.