Archive for July, 2008

Crouching Meaning, Hidden Meaning

July 26, 2008

Some years ago, a friend of mine, a native speaker of Japanese, was frustrated after a tough English test, and he said, “In Japanese, words just mean what the dictionary says they mean. In English, you always have to use your imagination.”

I thought that observation was so true — and so (unintentionally) laudatory of the English language — that I wrote it down. Probably every writer in the world would say this about his/her own mother tongue, but it seems to me that English is simply made for art. There are so many possibilities for expression — as painters-with-words, we have palettes that are miles-wide. In English poetry, a single word can resonate with two, three, or four different meanings at once, maybe more.

As a native English speaker, I’m forever applying imagination to my communication in Japanese when I don’t know the right word for something, and it either draws blank stares or cases of rolling-on-the-floor-laughing-out-loud. Once I was trying to express “turtleneck sweater,” and I had no idea what it was called in Japanese, so I said it literally — and boy, did people laugh! In English, our names for many objects tend to be descriptions of those objects made from combinations of words (phone + book = phonebook). But in Japanese, there’s much more often one specific word for every single concept. (You have to learn the word for “phonebook” — you can’t get by with combining “phone” and “book.”) Another time, I said, literally, in Japanese “chicken sandwich” — and people rolled on the floor again, because they pictured a clucking, full-feathered chicken thrashing between two pieces of bread. The special word for it in Japanese is, very specifically, “chicken-meat sandwich” — which gets no laughter at all.

But anyway, we live in this glorious language in which a word can have more scintillating facets than a jewel. Here’s an illustration from my book Dragonfly (hey, this is a blog, okay? — people expect you to talk about yourself!): the Untowards are teams of just-barely-domesticated (or maybe not) goat-like creatures. As large as horses, the Untowards are highly intelligent, wild as Faery, and when they’re hitched to a wagon, they buck and scramble and dance. Surging, rebounding off each other and off whatever may crop up along the roadside, they seem determined to tear the harness and the wagon into pieces and careen away in opposite directions. Yet somehow, they end up together at the journey’s end, with the wagon (usually) still intact. They’re called Untowards because, 1.) they’re difficult to guide, manage, or work with, as expressed by the English word “untoward”; 2.) a second meaning of “untoward” is marked by trouble or unhappiness; unlucky; not favorable; unpropitious — as reflective of the feelings any sane person might have when boarding a wagon about to be dragged away into the night by Untowards; 3.) they seem not to be heading in the right direction at all, and not interested in doing so: “un-toward” — not at all toward; 4.) but ultimately, they ward you unto your destination — they are “unto-wards.”

Thanks, folks! You’ve been great! I’ll be here all week.

Okay, here’s a more recent example that most people haven’t heard. In The Fires of the Deep (the book set in the dark underground world), a village is called a “paling.” There’s Lodin Umbir Paling, Sand Paling, Bridgend Paling, Dunsan Paling, Lost Echo Paling . . . you get the idea. That’s a purposefully-chosen word that indicates the Hurlim people’s relationship with their vast, lightless, silent, largely empty environment. In the subterranean realm, the darkness — or rather, the obscurity, since there is no light, and hence no “darkness” — is absolute and ubiquitous. It’s called Lachii, which means everything beyond what you can see; it is synonymous with “infinity” and “eternity.” The sea which has no farther side known to mortals is the Vooren Lachii.

Anyway — where people gather and live, there is a tiny, tiny circle of sound and motion in the Lachii — a “paling of the darkness,” in a light/dark analogy: only a paling or dimming of the dark, because the dark doesn’t go away; the dark is supreme. But people, in their little communities of warmth and activity, temporarily push the darkness back a little.

“Paling” also has the meaning of a stake or post, and by extension, a fence or perimeter you might build out of such stakes. Again, a good name for a community in the Hurlim world — a place where humans have staked out a small plot of ground.

Finally, “pale” has the meaning of a zone of influence — and so, in this story, a place where people exert a bit of control, for a time, over the eternal Lachii.

Okay, one final example, from a poem of mine written years ago, titled “I Am Looking at Lilacs”: in one pair of lines, I talked about “Traveling fernwise / The whispering hedge.” Fernwise can mean both “in the direction of ferns,” as in “clockwise” — and “with a knowledge of ferns, a wisdom born of ferns,” as in “streetwise.”

So — this could be the springboard for a great list. Has anyone else got good examples? No, no, they don’t have to be from my oeuvre! They might be from your own, or from the vast world of stories out there. Can you think of a wording that has stuck with you, an instance of a writer using a word to do amazing double- or triple-duty?

Words are fun, and they can wear many hats. We live in this language that always forces us to use our imaginations.

Light and the Writer

July 19, 2008

This is a quintessential summer night. The moon is just past full, and my electric fan is humming away, and I’m sticking to everything I touch. This is the sort of night for reading Millhauser’s Enchanted Night — just reminding you all. If you haven’t done so, that’s your homework — before the end of August. And read him at night. And read his story “Clair de Lune” from The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories. But seriously, seasons just don’t get any better than this. When people talk of severe weather in the winter — deep snow, record low temperatures, etc. — it’s just dismal and dismaying. But when people complain about the summer heat, about how they can’t sleep, about how plastic containers in their kitchens are melting and all, I get an excited tingle in my stomach. Yesss! This is the season. THE season. The imagination boils over, and dreams are born. The nights are electric, with whole worlds crackling in that residual heat. I LOVE the feeling of lying in bed when it’s far too hot for most mortals to sleep — you lie there as if in a frying pan, sizzling away, as outside the moon rides in all that velvet sky, and the wings of insects hum in the dark. Oh, read Enchanted Night! Read Lud-in-the-Mist and The Hobbit and . . . what else? Tell me your summer books! What else should we be reading in this most excellent of all seasons? It’s a good time to catch up on H.P. Lovecraft, if you like that sort of thing.

Also, just in case anyone is missing out, I invite you to look at the comments posted after the previous entry on this blog, where you’ll find the vindication of my Tolkien tantrum and the verdict on Cymbril.

But anyway, to the nitty-gritty of this posting — I came across the following quote earlier this evening. It’s talking about the cathedrals of Europe:

“The divine presence lives in nature, in space, and in light, and the cathedrals brought these elements together in such a magnificent way that even today modern man, so cut off from his own divine nature, can still feel them.” — Janet Brennan, “The Cathedral Code,” Fate, December 2006

When I read those lines, they resonated with me. I felt they provided a clear elucidation of the reason I love caves and caverns so much. Nature, space, and light. When I think of the most holy places I’ve ever seen (churches aside), I have to nod in acknowledgment. Those three elements are always present. The barn I played in as a child: a lofty, dusky space, scented with fragrant hay and old wood, suffused with the green glow of light falling through Virginia creeper leaves. The barn was built by man, but nature had embraced it and encroached upon it, peeking in at all its windows, skittering across its plant-sprouting floors. And then caves: Grand Central Station in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky — a place where soaring passages come together, an enormous space in the deep Earth, with towering boulders dim in the distance, a shadowed ceiling high above — a place made by the hand of God. Nature, space, and light. Some of my favorite places in Mammoth Cave are the grand stairways, where the path ascends flight after flight of stairs, all within a gargantuan chamber.

In The Lord of the Rings, my favorite setting by far is the mines of Moria. How I would love to have seen it when it was Khazad-dum, during the noontide of Dwarrowdelf, before Durin’s folk disturbed the Balrog! Nature, space . . . and light — for it’s the dim lighting that makes the place so alluring. The Chamber of Mazarbul: we’ve got indirect lighting filtering in from outside. That was an ideal I strove for in my years of designing dungeon for my Verralton campaign: echoing halls in the Earth, dimly-lit by filtered sunlight through fissures or from various haunting sources of light. (For anyone who may be going “Huh?!” right about now, I’m talking about Dungeons & Dragons.)

That got me to thinking about my writing. Dragonfly was written when I was in my early twenties, and (I’d like to believe) it still holds up pretty well. My second novel, called (in various drafts) Lachii or The Fires of the Deep, was an absolute disaster. I labored away on it for five years before I ever showed it to anyone. When an editor and two agents rejected it, I went on laboring away on it in isolation, striving to bring it to “perfection” before I ever let it out of the nest again. And it became, as I later described it, “like a clan of inbred hillbillies” — worked over, re-worked, and re-worked so many times, with no input from anyone but me, that it got to the point where I couldn’t even see it anymore. The world in which it’s set had become intimately familiar to me. But that world is vastly different from our own, and the more I lived in it, the less capable I became of communicating it to people who didn’t live there. In the draft I eventually let some friends read, I realized that, in a single sentence, there might be four or five specialized terms of which only I knew the meaning. Oh, I provided a glossary, yes indeed, a magnificent opus that I worked on night and day. But as one friend commented, “Do you realize that a third of this book is glossary?” Um, oops.

What was missing from the book, I now know, was light. The “nature” was there: a subterranean world, echoing and epic in every way, built directly upon my childhood love of caves. The “space” was there: endless, miles-wide corridors called dulons, large enough to fly airships through without getting anywhere near the world-walls (Shur) or the ceiling (Ra). The world was built — elaborately built. Just as Inuits have all those words for different kinds of snow, my Hurlim people have many different words for stone: lodin are the dry boulder fields; kalodin are the huge, dry boulders; lys is wet, living stone; lysshur is a wet, living stone wall; losshur is a dry wall; los is dead, dry stone. There were abundant folk sayings that made sense in the context of the Hurlim world: “He’s on a skurl under the needles.” “That’ll happen when los becomes lys.” “Hey there, all! What’s in the bucket?”

Yes, the world was painstakingly built. Yet it still didn’t feel alive. Somehow, it seemed all merely academic — a theory.

I know now what was missing.

Light.

I’m not saying this is true for all fantasy writers, but what’s revealed in that Janet Brennan quote above is certainly true for me. The triangular equation is nature, space, and light. When the three are present, I can build a setting that feels real, that invites the reader to come in. (The hot Orcharan sands of the Arena seem to work for test readers of “Here About to Die.”) But in my Hurlim world of Ama, I was trying to manage without light. The Hurlim people rely on a sense called yla, which is also an energy that flows through the Earth, emanating from the core. It passes through all spaces and solid objects, bearing a record of all it has passed through. Hurlim eyes, attuned to the yla, can read in it the distances and the surface textures, but it is a sense wholly apart from color. Water appears opaque: if calm, it appears as a flat surface; if rippling, it appears to ripple — but nothing can be seen beneath the surface; hence, the Hurlim fear of water, which seems solid, but which can swallow the unwary traveler who sets foot on it.

In contrast, look at Dragonfly — also set in a subterranean world — yet one in which the descriptions (though often horribly overdone — hey, I was a kid, cut me some slack) are vivid. Dragonfly, for all its dimness, is full of light: torchlight, jack-o’-lantern light, firelight, balloon-light, moonlight, starlight. . . .

The lesson to be learned is this: when a writer doesn’t have light to work with, his/her hands are tied. Imagine an artist trying to paint a picture of a landscape without light! Take any book in which the settings are vibrant, in which you can picture everything so clearly that you feel you’re there, living inside the scene — and then notice how light makes those descriptions possible. See what I mean?

Maybe it seems elementary to you, a principle that we wouldn’t need all these words to arrive at. But for me to realize it, I had to write draft after draft of an enormous novel. The hardest thing I’ve ever done as a writer was trying to tell a story without light. In the next draft of The Fires of the Deep, you can be sure I will have found a way to introduce light into the Hurlim world — and we’ll have the shadows and the dimness and the glimmers and the silhouettes — to give the characters a vivid setting in which to live and breathe.

The act of writing any story, to use Tolkien’s term again, is an act of sub-creation. We rearrange elements God has provided and stack them up in our own way, in our own tiny corner of the universe. Looking back to our prime model, the original Creation: it began with “Let there be light.” Seems to me that’s the way to begin.

Perspectives and Punctuations

July 17, 2008

“So what I said was true,” says Obi-Wan to Luke, “from a certain point of view.”

A friend of mine is making a whole bunch of hats to sell. She has her sewing machine humming away, and every day she adds to the mound of hats, each one a unique design. It’s looking very Bartholomew Cubbins-like around her place.

Well, the  other day when I stopped by, she asked, “Kyou no mitai?” — meaning, in Japanese, “Do you want to see today’s?” — that is, did I want to see the hats she’d made that day?

But here’s the way my mind made the word-breaks: “Kyou nomitai?” — “Do you want to drink [alcohol] today?” To which my response was, “Huh?!” (That’s not the sort of question she would typically ask!) We eventually had a good laugh over it. Or at least I did. Her reaction was more a rolling of the eyes. But it all ended well as I admired the day’s hats.

The experience reminded me of something I heard last week. Supposedly a scientific study was done (though it wasn’t verifiably cited — I suspect maybe someone made up the part about its being an actual study) in which a teacher wrote the following sentence on the chalkboard and asked students to punctuate it:

A woman without her man is nothing

According to this tale I heard, the male students mostly did it this way:

A woman without her man is nothing.

And the female students rendered it as:

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

 

Next story: my dad used to tell me about a prisoner in the old Soviet Union who was set free because the jailer in charge of him received orders without punctuation. The commander sent this telegram:

RELEASE IMPOSSIBLE TO BE SENT TO SIBERIA

The commander had intended: “Release impossible. To be sent to Siberia.”

The jailer understood: “Release. Impossible to be sent to Siberia.”

Again, as the old Italian proverb goes: “It may not be true, but it makes a good story.”

 

Finally, another story of my dad’s: A traveler wandered into town and got along pretty well there, but one feature of the antique setting always mystified him, and no one seemed inclined to say much about the subject. In the center of the ramshackle town where the dusty streets converged, visible to all like some icon of a long-forgotten religion, was a weathered standing stone, tall and narrow, its surface pitted with untold years of sun and rain, freezings and thaws. And still clearly visible, these letters etched into it:

TOTI

EMUL

ESTO

Some travelers who came into the town seemed to understand the signficance of the inscription and would nod or even walk away chuckling, perhaps at some esoteric spiritual enlightenment. Others, like the first traveler, could only scratch their heads and go look for clues in Leonardo’s paintings.

The message for us as writers in all this: have fun with words. Be aware that what you take for granted about a sentence you’ve written may be understood in a nearly opposite way by your readers — do all you can to cover all bases, which normally means bouncing your stories off lots of test readers. And finally, as an editor’s rejection letter once brusquely advised me: “Learn standard punctuation.”

Oh! One more somewhat related note: In “The Star Shard,” now appearing monthly in Cricket Magazine, the main character’s name is Cymbril. I know how I pronounce the name, and I never imagined anyone would think to pronounce it any differently. But during the editing process, the editor asked me whether the C was hard or soft — was it “SYMbril” or “KYMbril”? (The editor, by the way, was pronouncing it the opposite of how I was.) I told her my way, but I suggested the Bugs in the margins of Cricket not tell the readers how to pronounce it. The editor agreed.

So then, on Cricket‘s Web site where readers are writing in with questions (www.cricketmagkids.com/corner/frederic-s-durbin), I put the same question to readers: How do you pronounce Cymbril’s name? So far, the results are 50/50 — the Symbril school and the Kymbril school! What do you think?

Nomination

July 12, 2008

We interrupt the ordinarily somnolent flow of this blog to announce that it is official: my story “The Bone Man” has been nominated for the International Horror Guild Awards for mid-length fiction! You can read about it and see what else is on the ballot at:

http://www.horroraward.org/

There’s also a little more information about “The Bone Man” on the blog of John Joseph Adams, the assistant editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction, at:

http://www.johnjosephadams.com/?p=1301

Also, while I’m doing commercials, Cricket‘s tech people got the bugs ironed out on their site, so the replies there are once again nicely paired with the reader letters they’re answering:

http://www.cricketmagkids.com/corner/frederic-s-durbin/

Now, back to our regularly-scheduled blog. . . .

Summer Nights and Reading Spaces

July 11, 2008

I remember the first time I noticed that a bright moon can throw your shadow as sharply onto the ground as the sun can. I made that discovery because I was out in a summer night, reveling in the cool breeze, the warmth rising from the land, the symphony of the crickets, and the smells of mown grass and horses and leaves.

In Japan, autumn is said to be the time for reading. Of course it can be done year-round, but for me, books and stories called most insistently when the world warmed up in spring, and when the spring unfurled into glorious summer. Naturally, there was the pragmatic reason: kids are burdened with school for most of the year, and it’s summer that offers the freedom to read unchecked, unhindered by that travesty that is organized education. In Japan, to describe hot, perfect summer weather, I still use the phrase bunshou no tenki — “writing weather” — which, yes, raises some eyebrows, since most people see no correlation between sweating profusely and a celebration of the arts. Sigh.

But as a kid, warmer and longer days meant that it was time for me to grab a book and go outdoors. Out in the shade of trees, out in that immemorial green light, was the truest and best place to escape into the worlds of stories. I can recall reading The Martian Chronicles in the open doorway of the barn’s hayloft, my bare feet swinging in space. I read Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign and Rogue Dragon (a “double-feature” book that flipped in the middle, one novel beginning from each end) sitting cross-legged atop a barrel on the grounds of our local historical museum, where my mom was ever active. I read some of the post-Jaws rogue animal books there, too, on the steps of the courthouse where Lincoln himself once practiced law.

I had a “reading grove” in the northwest corner of our front yard (where my dog Hooper was later buried). I would sit there on a folding chair with my feet propped in the fork of a young oak, reading Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. In the same spot, using a lapboard, yellow legal pads, and a soft mechanical pencil, I wrote a great deal of The Threshold of Twilight, my first full-length novel manuscript.

Ooh, check out this picture! This is in the backyard of my house in Illinois: the gate from a long-gone corral, leaned against young maples in years gone by, half-swallowed by the growing trunks. This tendency of nature to reclaim human artifacts has always fascinated and thrilled me. I was thinking of such things in college when I wrote the lines, from “Urban Requiem”:

“In the rainy end of days the satyrs

Came and rolled on spools the broken wires,

Rekindled the old infernal fires,

And scooped clean soil over oily matters.”

But I digress. I read a whole lot of Lovecraft in various places in the yards. I read most of Stephen King’s It on the banks of our pond and on the back porch. I read on shed roofs, in trees, on the hoods and trunks of cars, in the tire swing, atop the root cellar, and everywhere in between. When darkness forced me indoors, yes, I read there, too.

When darkness fell, though, sometimes I’d wander back outdoors, not reading now, but marveling at this wonder that was summer. As a teenager, I was quite taken with celebrating Midsummer’s Eve. It’s a big deal in Tolkien’s works, and I think those are what introduced me to the concept. “Elvish singing is not a thing to miss, in June under the stars. . . .” Pretty much all folkloric sources agree that it’s probably the most favorable time of year for encounters with the Good Folk. The question arises, though, as to when exactly Midsummer’s Eve is. Some say it’s the night before the solstice — June 20. Some prefer the night of the solstice — June 21. Some Christians choose to go with June 24, the eve of the celebration of John the Baptist’s birth. I say that whole week is fair game. Go with whatever night it isn’t raining.

Yes, I haunted the yard on Midsummer’s Eve. I’d take along a lantern — an oil-burning lantern, not just a mere flashlight, though I usually had one of those, too; I’d take a wooden staff I’d found in the woods, a fallen tree branch that I’d sanded and varnished. I’d take a copy of Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder and another book, the front cover long gone, so I don’t even know the title; but it was a collection of stories and poems about fairies. And I’d take stationery and a pen.

I’d wander along the hedgerows, run my fingers over the oak bark, gaze up into the trembling firmament of leaves and stars; I’d raise my lamp and stoop beside the knothole among the roots of the two-hundred-year-old oak, which seemed indeed a likely place for wee magical folk to live. I’d sit on the picnic table and read from the books. Then I’d write myself a Midsummer’s Eve letter, describing the sights, sounds, feels, smells — the whole of the night, as best I could; and I’d tuck the paper into an envelope, to be kept with the books and read again on the next Midsummer’s Eve, along with the other letters from previous years.

After coming to Japan, for three or four years I dragged a group of good-natured friends along and combined this letter-writing custom with the practice of reading poetry aloud, a la the movie Dead Poets Society. But that’s moving on into another set of stories.

Finally, I should add that summer goes on for a long time: there’s no need to confine the celebration to one week in June. July brings what I call the “Deep Summer,” and August brings the grand Dog Days. It’s the best of all seasons, and we shouldn’t miss a moment of it. Garrison Keillor advises, too, that we should make the absolute most of it: “Don’t try to sleep in the summer. You can sleep in the winter.” I remember a particularly nice June Eve, the last night of May, when I celebrated by watching Field of Dreams with my dad. If you’re blessed to still have your dad with you on this side of Eternity, that’s a really good movie to watch with him.

So, the discussion questions are two:

1. Does anyone care to tell us what is your best/favorite place to read in, either now and/or when you were a child? (It doesn’t have to be outdoors. Indoor reading is also condoned and encouraged.)

2. If summer nights are magical for you, what’s a way you’ve found to capture and enjoy that magic? What do you do (assuming it’s fit to print) to enjoy a night in summer to its fullest?

Enchanted Night

July 7, 2008

First of all, I wanted to include a visual or two as a kind of follow-up to the “Glory Day” posting. This is the view westward from the end of my driveway in Illinois. So the fireworks were happening in this direction, and more importantly, every evening, the sunset happens in this direction. Twilight has always been one of my favorite times. Perhaps it’s the edge-ness of it: it’s the boundary between day and night, so it seems a natural time for the boundaries between worlds to go all thin. I’ve always thought that one might see anything at all in the twilight. That thought fascinated me as a child — and scared me a little — but then and now (when I’m back there), every single twilight hour that I’m free, I’m wandering about outdoors. In rural Illinois, there are still fireflies winking in abundance. Lord Dunsany wrote a poem about wanting to go inside, because the evening is getting cold, but being held by the thought that he might miss something if he doesn’t stay to watch the whole sunset until it’s over. You never know what’s going to unfold in the sunset.

It may be those colors, too, that make the hour so magical. The sky throws off its responsible blue that it wears to work in all day. The sky does extraordinary things in the hour of dusk. And the Earth responds, dimming its own hues to black in awe. My parents told me that one of the words I learned to say very early on in my life was “silhouette.” I’d point at the oak trees in the gloaming, gazing at them in round-eyed wonder, and proclaim “Silhouette. Silhouette.”

Anyway, this is the time of year when I have to recommend the perfect book for this season:

Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser.

I discovered this book in a Tokyo bookstore. It was the title and the cover that compelled me to buy it. The moment I saw it, there was no question of not buying it. On the cover, we see a low-aerial view of a small-town neighborhood in the beautiful blues and purples of moonlight, punctuated by the warm yellow glows of some lighted windows and the effulgence of a big round moon in the sky. All over the picture are the characters from the book, some in the windows, some out in the dark. All the people and poses are suggestive of story threads that will intrigue and delight.

It’s a slim novella told in short episodes, glimpses into the lives of its diverse cast — all linked by the town they’re in and by the single summer night in which it all unfolds. Millhauser is a virtuoso. The writing is breathtakingly beautiful, the elements vibrant, nostalgic, and haunting. Here is a writer who understands that a summer night is something sacred, a time like no other. The book reminds me of how wonderful it is to be alive, and to be able to go through summer every single year.

I first started reading the book at 11:57 p.m. on Thursday, June 29, 2000 — a hot, clear summer night under a waning moon. I finished it at 2:04 a.m. on Saturday, July 29, 2000 — also a hot, clear summer night under a waning moon. I read the book entirely during late nights, and not a single word by the light of day; this is a book for summer nights. The hotter the season when you read it, the better.

I’ve also read Millhauser’s The Knife Thrower and Other Stories and loved it, too.

By the way, since I’m writing this on July 7: this is the Star Festival (Tanabata) here in Japan. According to an ancient legend, a prince and princess (not related to each other) were deeply in love, but circumstances kept them apart. They became stars in the sky, and once each year, the two stars meet; once a year, on 7/7, the lovers come together. So this is the time of year when what people desperately long for may be granted. In Japan, hopes and requests are written on strips of paper, which are then tied to the branches of a delicate bamboo tree. These aren’t pleas for objects (like a Christmas list), but generally less material things, such as prayers for healing, or for wisdom, or to pass an all-important test . . . or, in the spirit of Tanabata, to find true love.

Glory Day

July 4, 2008

Those of you who went to school with me will remember this poem, written one July 5th during my college years. I remember it was a July 5th, the day after the 4th of July. I took my chair and paper out to the northeast corner of our yard, where an old raspberry patch had gone back to nature, and a grove of fairly young maples whispered and dreamed together at the edge of the field. Behind me, the north wall of the barn was covered with Virginia creeper, that ubiquitous vine of the Midwest. I think this is probably my favorite of my own poems.

“Glory Day”

We found the old cat one hot Glory Day

In the steamy weeds, swelled to twice his size;

Green glory thunder echoed in his eyes

As we laid him out where the smell of hay

And green maple shadows would make the flies

Forget him; and watching the heat waves rise

From the wind-mirroring beans we covered him with clay.

There was lightning low in the sky away

Off, and a distant rumbling down the road;

The Virginia creeper whispered to the wagon

It covered like time-snails’ tracks, the old load

Of bricks for building; something like a Dragon

Crawled south in the blur of wheat’s golden sway

When we buried a tomcat on Glory Day.

 

Hallowe’en may be the most fun, but the summer months are the most numinous. Hope Mirrlees sort of dismissed trees in summer, saying they are silent. For me, there’s nothing like a summer tree: that bright sunlight hammering on the visible surface of the crown — while within, below, there are the darkest and coolest of green and blue shadows.

The cornfields are present in the Deep Summer: those green mazes that come with the hot months and are taken down in the fall. Now, in this season, they stand as the portals to other worlds. If you don’t believe me, watch Field of Dreams. But we knew about it long ago, long before the movie. Farm kids have always known.

The best part of July 4th, of course, was the fireworks. When I was little, we had a ring-side seat: the country club to our west had an extravagant fireworks show, and we could see it all from our front yard. We’d gather in the dusk — family, friends, neighbors, we kids with fireworks of our own (loud, explosive things during the day, beautiful and fiery glowing things saved for the night). The adults sat in lawn chairs and noticed the mosquitoes. We kids wandered barefoot, from the road’s day-long-baked tar, now soft and warm, to the sharp gravel at the verge, to the cool grass of the yard’s edge.

The loud reports of the noise-bombs would roll clear around the Illinois horizon, 360 degrees; we could turn ourselves and follow the sound. The brilliant fire-blossoms unfolded in the sky like benedictions over the dark world.

“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Nobody that matters, that is.”

On Glory Day, we were all alive. The night was warm and full of visible miracles. And the summer stretched on and on ahead, waiting for us, full of promise.