Archive for June, 2009

Bright Regent of the Heavens

June 27, 2009

In case you missed it, our friend SwordLily shared with us this enchanting, original poem of hers in a comment on the last posting:

Midsummer Night

Under a silver moon

Heat sings the ground alive

Fey dance in rainbow shadows

Winter is only a fond memory of gray

 

Very nice, huh? We’ve just passed the solstice — did you all enjoy Midsummer’s Eve? I hope no one got your head turned into a donkey’s head — or if you did, I hope it got turned back. I spent the holiday writing away on The Sacred Woods, my new book. Today it broke the 40,000-word line, so it’s now officially a novel! 2,342 words today, 1,016 yesterday! How near am I to being done? I keep saying I’m about 2/3 done, but I realize I’ve been saying that for a couple weeks now.

But anyway, we’re in the last days of June, moving from early summer into High Summer. Deep Summer. The moon is waxing now, waxing toward the next full. Since the moon is such a big part of summer, I figured it deserved a posting all its own.

When I was a kid, my mom introduced me to the fun of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas — I balked at the idea until I realized how much they had in common with Monty Python. Here’s a quote (though not a silly one — sorry to have raised your expectations with that mention of Monty Python) from their operetta HMS Pinafore:

Fair moon, to thee I sing,

Bright regent of the heavens,

Say, why is everything

Either at sixes or at sevens?

And I don’t have a copy of Watership Down here, but I remember from it the line: O Slug-a-Moon, O Slug-a-Moon, / Grant thy faithful hedgehog’s boon! 

The moon rides the welkin. I suppose we’re more aware of it in the warm months because we have the leisure to notice the sky; we’re not huddled indoors. The moon has elicited the attention of man’s best friend — the dog — from time immemorial. That silver orb in the air is ever worthy of howls. And it has captured the attention of poets and writers, painters and lovers. We love the moon. It gives us a focal point in the deep blue. It casts a frosty, chromy light over a landscape that would otherwise be dark. The stars comfort us with their (relative) permanence, their fixed quality, their infinite number. But the moon is a more personable companion in a way: it’s so much closer, and it moves and changes all the time, like us. 

I remember my delight when I discovered that I could see my own shadow in moonlight, just as I could see it under the sun. It was unquestionably the moonlight: I was nowhere near any source of artificial light, alone among the fields, on the tar-and-gravel road near my Illinois house.

Here’s from Steven Millhauser’s Enchanted Night:

“She looks at the moon, up there in the sky. It’s almost perfectly round except for one side that looks a little flat and smudged, as if someone has rubbed it with a thumb, and she has a sudden desire to be there, in that blaze of whiteness, looking down unseen at the little town below, the toy houses with their removable chimneys, the little maples and streetlights, the tiny people with their tiny sorrows.”

Ah, Millhauser’s extraordinary book is filled with so many moon quotes I could be here all night:

“The moon, climbing so slowly that no one notices, shines down on Main Street. It casts a deep shadow on one side of the street and an eerie brightness on the other, where the sidewalk is bone-white and the little glass windows of the parking meters glisten as if they are wet.”

This is the time of year when I implore people to read Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser. It is a fantastic summer experience: a very short novel-in-discrete scenes, the adventures of a group of diverse people linked by their residence in the same New England town on the same summer night. The book takes place entirely within one night, under the almost-full moon. “This is the night of revelation,” says the Chorus of Night Voices: “This is the night the dolls wake. This is the night of the dreamer in the attic. This is the night of the piper in the woods.”

“From the woods in the north part of town there rises a sound of flute music, dark and sweet. It rises in slow ripples, falls, in slow ripples it rises, again falls, a tireless slow rising and falling, insistent, a dark call, a languorous fall. Perhaps it is only birdsong, there in the dark trees.”

And if you’ve read that book, and if you want more Millhauser, read The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories. From it, see especially the story “Clair de Lune” (though the whole book is amazing):

“The moon was so bright I could not look at it, as if it were a night sun. The fierce whiteness seemed hot, but for some reason I thought of the glittering thick frost on the inside of the ice-cream freezer in a barely remembered store: the popsicles and ice-cream cups crusted in ice-crystals, the cold air like steam.”

This is one of my favorite short stories ever. The main character, a 15-year-old boy, goes out walking late on a summer night when he can’t sleep. His steps take him, accidentally-on-purpose, past the house of a girl he likes.

“Oh, I knew where I was going, didn’t want to know where I was going, in the warm blue air with little flutters of coolness in it, little bursts of grass-smell and leaf-smell, of lilac and fresh tar.” . . . “I could not understand why no one was out on a night like this. Was I the only one who’d been drawn out of hiding and heaviness by the summer moon?”

When he gets to the girl’s house, he discovers her and three other girls playing ball in the backyard:

“They were playing Wiffle ball in the brilliant moonlight, as though it were a summer’s day. Sonja was batting. I knew the three other girls, all of them in my classes: Marcia, pitching; Jeanie, taking a lead off first; Bernice, in the outfield, a few steps away from me. In the moonlight they were wearing clothes I’d never seen before, dungarees and shorts and sweatshirts and boys’ shirts, as if they were dressed up in a play about boys.” . . . “The girl-boys excited and disturbed me, as if I’d stumbled into some secret rite.”

He is invited to play Wiffle ball with them, which he does, and they all have a great time, an enchanted time that is totally apart from their mundane lives and the societal roles they play out at school. He talks with one of the girls in the kitchen. And finally, he makes his way homeward:

“. . . All this was as unique and unrepeatable as the history of an ancient kingdom. For I had wanted to take a little walk before going to bed, but I had stepped from my room into the first summer night, the only summer night.”

[Don’t you love that?! “The only summer night”! That brings to my ear echoes of Doc “Moonlight” Graham’s line in Field of Dreams about the one single half-inning that he played professional baseball, how he didn’t know then that that was the only time he’d play. And so it is with so many moments in our lives — those moments that Shieldmaiden calls “flow moments” and I call chairos, a Greek word for “the eternal now.” The same one won’t happen the same way twice, so we’d better be watching and always in full absorption mode. Or again, it’s like the line Marquee Movies cited from Casualties of War: what we do in this moment matters, because it may be the only one. As Bilbo wrote: “In every wood, in every spring, there is a different green.” Or Robert Frost, choosing between his two famous roads in the yellow wood: “Oh, I left the first for another day, / Yet knowing how way leads on to way / I doubted if I should ever come back.” The blooming of the sakura is precious and transcendent because it is so brief!]

But “Clair de Lune”: I won’t tell you precisely how the story ends, though it’s pure magic and virtuosity of storytelling. Again — it’s one of the best I’ve ever encountered, and Steven Millhauser (in these two books, anyway) is Mr. Summer Night. I get the books out nearly every year at about this time. Read them by night, when the moon is in the sky. That’s what you must promise me. (You’re allowed to use artificial lights, and you can be indoors. I’m a reasonable man.)

Here’s a poem of mine:

Eclipse Enigma

They say a mirror is the Moon;

How strange it seems to me!

It’s silver-brilliant for the Sun

Who gazes in when day is done;

Yet when Earth takes the place

In front to see her shining face,

The silver mirror of the Moon

Is dark as dark can be!

 

I like that one because it’s mindful of the science of a lunar eclipse: the moon is a blazing silver mirror while the sun is “looking into it” — but when Earth crowds up in front of the sun to “look into” the mirror, her own shadow blocks the light and makes the mirror black. (As I said, I like this poem a lot, but the one time I sent it out, it came back with a form rejection. Well, well.)

In my early twenties, before I’d made any real professional fiction sales, I was writing stories that wanted so badly to be there but weren’t quite. There are three or four I remember that went pretty much like this: A character in the story (not the narrator) is odd, eccentric, but hauntingly admirable and seems out of place in this world. The character teaches the protagonist a thing or two about how to live better. At the end, the character vanishes under highly mysterious circumstances, leaving the protagonist to conclude that s/he has passed beyond the fields we know into another reality, the one in which s/he belongs. Ta-duummm!

Yeah, I know. That’s why they weren’t getting published. But isn’t it significant that I kept returning to that theme of passing through the doorway out of this world and into one where things are better? And, yep, I’m still writing about that: in The Star Shard, Cymbril and Loric want to escape from the world of slavery into the Fey Country. In “The Bone Man,” Conlin essentially steps through a doorway of sorts into the Hallowe’ens of his youth. In Dragonfly, you get two for the price of one: a trip down a laundry chute and a lot of stairs into a kingdom of dark magic, and then the struggle for passage back into the world of air and mercy, which turns out to be the better place after all — or at least the place you want to live, though Harvest Moon is nice to visit. (While we’re on the subject of Harvest Moon: there’s the moon again! That fiery moon balloon, the Jolly Jack, casts its lurid shine over the ground.)

But here’s what I was getting to when I brought up those early stories of mine: There was one called “A Tale of the Moon.” I remember writing it in one evening (it was quite short) outdoors on a tiny verandah (in Japan), with my word-processor set up on a folding table, and using an oil-burning camping lamp for light. Yes, I certainly went to a lot of trouble having fun in those days! The story had a somewhat fairytale-like tone to it — not grittily realistic. It described the plight of a group of children in a town who feel oppressed and overburdened with school. The world of the outdoors and adventures and books-for-fun calls to them, but they have to suffer through lessons and lectures and piles of homework.

One by one, individually, the children begin to notice (peering out from the high windows of their house-prisons) that the moon every night seems to be getting bigger in the sky — as if it were coming closer. At school, they whisper about this together when they get a chance, before some teacher orders them back into line. They all agree: the moon is coming closer! Somehow, it gives them hope, because they know the moon is coming to save them, but they don’t know how.

One night, the moon lands in a big field at the edge of town. The kids all break from their houses. [In the story, we get no glimpse of loving families — all the adults are Oppressors. I was exploring one narrow aspect of childhood, not going for a balanced picture.] They climb out of windows, scramble down trellises, burrow under hedges, hoist themselves over walls — and all, from near and far, from every corner of town, converge on the field, where the gigantic, glowing, beautiful moon sits.

A door opens in the moon’s side, a stairway folds down, and the children all pass inside. Then the stairway retracts, the door closes, and the moon lifts off again, gliding up into the dark sky.

Every day, the cruel old teachers sit alone in their classrooms and fiddle with their soulless teaching equipment, or pace the empty hallways in a daze — and every night, the moon seems a little smaller, a little farther away. [The End]

Heh, heh, heh! Yes, in a way, this story was a form of sweet revenge against the public school system. Don’t misunderstand me: I had many a wonderful teacher, and good friends, and I think the administrators meant well. But . . . you know. I was a kid. I’d rather have been reading and climbing trees.

Editors hated the story. (They were probably parents. Any parent, I think, on some level would be horrified by this story — it’s basically “The Pied Piper.”) It certainly wasn’t very well told. I remember one editor sending me a note that said it seemed like “much ado about nothing.” After all, school isn’t that bad, is it? [Well, yes. For some of us, it’s that bad.]

But . . . now we’ve got the idea of the moon as a doorway — my, how these posts interlink, an endless chain of daisies!

I recycled that idea, partly, in a story that did sell, “Ren and The Shadow Imps.” This story tells of a time when the moon was much closer to Earth, and if you were really determined, when it passed over a high mountain or the top of a tall building, you might just manage to get aboard the moon . . . and of course, there’s a frosty, magical kingdom inside . . . which Ren has to reach in order to secure help to save the world below. (Interestingly, the story provides a reason for why the moon is much higher in the sky now.)

Well. . . . This post is longish, and it’s more a ramble than anything coherent. But moonlight is like that, I suppose. Here’s the main focus for discussion (though you’re not limited to these questions — I think we’re often better off when you have minimal direction — so go ahead and clamber out the window and don’t listen to the cruel old teachers):

1. Are there uses of the moon, moonlight, or moonlit scenes from books or movies that you’d like to talk about?

2. I don’t want to invade anyone’s personal life, but are there any of your own moonlight experiences that you’d care to share with us all? (I realize some stories will be intimate and private — I’m not after those! Just the ones you see fit to tell us about: maybe the view from your window as a kid, and how the world looked different at night; maybe a restless walk you took in your student days . . . you get the idea.)

Finally, here are a few pictures:

I discovered an amazing place today -- within about a ten-minute walk of my apartment!

I discovered an amazing place today -- within about a ten-minute walk of my apartment!

 

This is the Toyano Inverted Bamboo Grove, declared a government designated natural monument on October 12, 1922.

This is the Toyano Inverted Bamboo Grove, declared a government designated natural monument on October 12, 1922.

 

It's "inverted" because, whereas most bamboo has branches that angle upward, this extremely rare variety, called <i>hachiku</i>, has branches that bend sharply downward.

It's "inverted" because, whereas most bamboo has branches that angle upward, this extremely rare variety, called hachiku, has branches that bend sharply downward.

 

According to legend, this priest, Shinran, founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, was spreading his doctrine here, in the Toyano region. . . .

According to legend, this priest, Shinran, founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, was spreading his doctrine here, in the Toyano region. . . .

 

In this very grove, Shinran thrust his walking-stick into the earth, and it took root and sprouted -- yet with down-bending branches, as if the bamboo were growing <i>backwards</i> out of the ground.

In this very grove, Shinran thrust his walking-stick into the earth, and it took root and sprouted -- yet with down-bending branches, as if the bamboo were growing backwards out of the ground.

 

Hence, the "inverted" part of the grove's name.

Hence, the "inverted" part of the grove's name.

 

This deep, dark grove, right here in my own neighborhood, is officially classified as one of the Seven Mysteries of Echigo! (Echigo is the old name for Niigata, just as Tokyo used to be Edo.)

This deep, dark grove, right here in my own neighborhood, is officially classified as one of the Seven Mysteries of Echigo! (Echigo is the old name for Niigata, just as Tokyo used to be Edo.)

 

Enchanted doorway, anyone?

Enchanted doorway, anyone?

 

It's surprisingly dark within: this picture was taken at about 3:00 p.m. today.

It's surprisingly dark within: this picture was taken at about 3:00 p.m. today.

 

There are springy, well-maintained paths all the way through it, and not a scrap of litter.

There are springy, well-maintained paths all the way through it, and not a scrap of litter.

 

Here's the temple half-engulfed by it near one end of the grove: the Temple of Inverted Bamboo.

Here's the temple half-engulfed by it near one end of the grove: the Temple of Inverted Bamboo.

 

The shadowy corners lookin' good. . . .

The shadowy corners lookin' good. . . .

 

This dragon presides over the water devout Buddhists drink (with the dipper provided) as they enter the temple grounds, to purify themselves.

This dragon presides over the water devout Buddhists drink (with the dipper provided) as they enter the temple grounds, to purify themselves.

 

So, yes, this dragon is definitely more "wise, powerful guardian" than "brute beast."

So, yes, this dragon is definitely more "wise, powerful guardian" than "brute beast."

 

This picture has no caption. Or . . . it <i>didn't</i>, a minute ago.

This picture has no caption. Or . . . it didn't, a minute ago.

 

I'll let this tree have the last word.

I'll let this tree have the last word.

Something Like a Dragon

June 19, 2009

By grace, 2,015 words written on the new book today! Whenever I throw word counts around, it’s not my intention to boast. And sheer numbers of words, of course, mean nothing: enough monkeys with enough typewriters could bang out an enormous number of words. I mean only 1.) to demonstrate that there is forward progress, and 2.) to establish credentials. What gives me the right to hold up my head and talk about writing as if I know something is not the things I’ve published: it’s the fact that, today, I’ve been walking the walk, with my fingers on the keys, choosing certain phrases over certain other phrases, figuring out how to get a little more of the story out of the excavation site without damaging it too severely. So the book is on track and moving ahead nicely. (Or, as Spock says in the recent excellent film: “Thrusters on full.”) Soli Deo gloria! [The story is told that J.S. Bach wrote that phrase on every manuscript when he composed music: Soli Deo gloria — Glory to God alone.]

That “excavation” theory of writing is set forth clearly by Stephen King in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I think he’s exactly right. How about this [my own variation]? — “Writing is bagging the smoke.” It’s attempting to throw a curtain around the misty shape that coalesces — just for a moment — within your reach. If you can get the curtain around it, you can preserve it (or at least its shadow) in a fixed form for yourself and others to enjoy. If you can’t, it’s gone again, because it’s always drifting, always changing, like the clouds in a summer sky. Ooo, I like that! (This cloud motion theory explains why, if you would tackle the same idea at different times of your life, you’d get significantly different stories.) Though you may not believe it, I am still on topic here. . . .

So it’s high time we talked about that dragon! To refresh your memory, and so that you don’t have to go back to a previous post to see the poem in question, here again is “Glory Day.” (The term “Glory Day” refers to the Fourth of July, which for me has always been a symbol of the height of summer . . . the time of freedom and imagination, the season “better-than-which-it-does-not-get.” I wrote this poem at some point during my college years. Specifically, I remember that I wrote it on a 5th of July, the day after Glory Day, sitting on a folding chair facing north across the field between my house and Chris’s house, in the shade of the maple trees at the northeast corner of our yard, with the barn directly behind me. The barn is gone now, but most of those trees are still there.)

“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.

 

That’s sort of a sonnet: it has 14 lines. But look at the strange rhyme scheme: ABBABBA ACDCDAA. In a departure from normal sonneting (sonneteering?), I compressed the part before the break and expanded the part after the break. See the overlapping effect in what’s normally the first eight lines (now seven)? — ABBAABBA has become ABBABBA. With that overlap, and by carrying that A-rhyme through as I did, I was trying to emphasize unity, that all these elements of the poem are inextricably woven together (“seamless throughout,” like that garment the soldiers didn’t want to tear but cast lots for instead).

In other words, the dead cat is the dragon. The beans, the heat waves, the maple shadows, the creeper, the tracks of time-snails: all these are the dragon, and they are the thunder, and the thunder is the cat, and the dragon is the image of the invisible wind mirrored in the beans that sway. All these things are part of growing up on a farm, where death and life are bound up together; where life bursts from the soil every spring . . . where fragile green things grow from the cracks of old dead fence-posts . . . where everything goes to sleep in the winter, blanketed with snow . . . and where there’s always the smell of something dead wafting from behind some hedgerow (“In ahind yon oul fail dyke / I wot there lies a new slain knight. . . .”) Moreover, it’s all bound up in “Glory Day,” the A-rhyme, the phrase found in the title and in the first and final lines of the poem. “Glory” is freedom and celebration and fireworks in the sky; it’s wonder and youth and being alive, learning and growing; but it’s also a word lodged in the Beyond, isn’t it? Believers in Christ live in “the hope of glory.” We speak of “the glory to be revealed in us.” . . . “We have beheld His glory.” . . . “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” . . . We often set “glory” as the condition opposed to the here and now: there are those of us alive now, and there are “the saints in glory.” So it’s a loaded word — and, I hope, a loaded poem.

Thank you to everyone who put forth a theory as to what the “something like a dragon” is! I appreciated them all, and every one of them was a good answer. A couple of you “went public” and gave us your ideas in official comments; a couple more slipped them to me by e-mail. Your theories about the dragon included:

a rumbling train, the sounds of its progress echoing the thunder;

a row of hills undulating in the distance;

a river, stream, or the Flatbranch Creek;

and even the “raccoon lugging a knapsack” from Maxine Kumin’s “The Presence”!

One might also say a tractor — a solitary tractor crawling across the distance in the vastness of a field can take on a mystical aspect. All these answers are good, and all can be right together.

As for me, I wasn’t thinking as literally as you all were. For me, the dragon isn’t necessarily anything physical or material. It’s more an abstract concept, suggested by those amazing and unsettling shadows the wind leaves in grain fields, which motif I’ve used again and again in my writing. [From my poem The Horror in the Wind: “The wind in shapes / and shadows masks / the dreadful footfalls of the gods.” And from “Seawall”: “Across the slopes, the wind stirs the green asili stems in vast wandering arcs, as if unseen creatures larger than dragons are playing there.”] Jesus mentions this phenomenon, too, doesn’t He, when He’s talking to Nicodemus?

The dragon-like thing crawls south. For me, south is the direction “toward warmth, toward imagination, toward enchantment.” South is the “good” direction. At that time in my life, “north” meant college and cold, hard work and the big city; “south” meant home and freedom.[Treebeard has the line in the LOTR movies about how he’s always enjoyed walking south, because it always feels like he’s walking downhill. I hear you, ‘Beard!]

My intention in this poem, then, is that on the day when all these elements are present: the green, the tree shadows, the dead cat needing to be buried, the heat waves, the passage of time, the thunder — on this day, the wonder and terror and joy and grandeur almost manifest themselves in a tangible shape. That thing crawling south is wonder itself. It’s the shape of something that has no shape; it’s the expression of something that cannot be expressed. (Heh, heh! Sounds like I’m talking about Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith!) All you can do is get the general idea.

Whew! That’s more than anyone ever wanted to know about “Glory Day”!

I was thinking about this use of a dragon to represent something abstract and larger, and it occurred to me that animals — in particular, big animals — are sometimes used this way. It seems to be an ancient and fundamental device.

I need to quote again from my story “A Tale of Silences,” which appeared in Cicada, January/February 2006. This tale is set in a mountain village in Japan in 1970, about 25 years after the war. The main character is an old man named Jii who has lived all his life in the village, which is now slated for obliteration through the construction of a new dam which will flood the area. The story tells of Jii’s last year in the village.

One night, he is awakened in total darkness by strange sounds, and he realizes a bear has gotten into his house and into the very room where he’s been sleeping. For a long time he lies there, not daring to move, and eventually the bear (for reasons unknown) goes away. Jii ponders what this encounter has meant. Here’s the excerpt:

As Jii sawed, chopped, and bundled sticks, he watched the forest, wondering if his bear would return. At times he was sure he could feel eyes upon him, peering from the underbrush. Once he thought he heard husky breathing nearby, but it might have been a breeze in the pine branches. And once, just as a broken limb he’d sawed off dropped into the decomposing leaves, he saw a bear on the next ridge. It was black against the dull sky and huge, bigger than any he’d ever seen. Slowly its head turned in his direction. When the eyes found him, Jii was somehow sure this had been the bear in his house. It gazed at him for a long time, then ambled into the trees.

Later, at dusk, the bamboo swayed in the wind. Sipping hot tea, Jii watched from the window. He envisioned human figures coming and going among the grove’s shifting shadows: himself and Fusa, sometimes middle-aged, sometimes young, once hand-in-hand for the first time. . . .

Paler each day, the sun sought to warm the land by showering more and more thin light, the last of its summer store. It sparkled from the few sere leaves, blazed on the streams, and suffused morning mists like a golden forgetfulness. Jii felt an urgency in the clamoring light; soon all the bears would go into their dens. Before they began their long sleep, and all the land with them, something must be done. Some secret, Jii began to think, must lie hidden near at hand, some riddle of dying leaf or unturned stone that, if solved, would bring peace and clarity. He became convinced that the bear had come to call him out before the valley was lost, to awaken him from his den in the deep years, to lead him to an answer for which he did not quite grasp the question. All he knew, as surely as he knew the sun sank earlier each evening behind the purple height, was that time was running out.

Later, Jii again encounters the bear up close:

The great bear had come — the mountain’s nushi. As if sunlight were shining on his back, Jii felt a comfort, his fear melting away. The terror of the nushi’s first visit was gone, but still Jii could not turn around. A sense of his own insubstantiality kept him unmoving, as if to stir in the nushi’s presence might cause him to dissolve in light. He lowered his head, filled at once with weariness and a peace he had not known since childhood — the earliest days and nights of consciousness, the only time in mortal life that one rests completely. Sinking to the floor before the nushi’s gigantic paws, Jii slept.

Do not fear, said a voice to him in his dreams.

This Japanese concept of a particular area’s nushi  or “lord” — the guardian and master of a certain mountain, forest, or river — has to some degree been introduced to western audiences through the film Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) by Hayao Miyazaki, in which the Shinto gods of the forested mountain take the forms of gigantic animals.

It’s interesting, this manifestation of things powerful and divine in the forms of animals. . . .

In Lord Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder, I recall that one of those haunting, enthralling black-and-white pictures shows a pathless forest, and the hind parts of some huge, bear-like animal just visible as the creature passes behind a tree. I don’t have access to my copy of the book right now — anyone out there with a copy, can you confirm this memory? I was intrigued by how the artist chose to depict only part of the animal — and not the head.

In my own first, unpublished novel The Threshold of Twilight, I included a great Well called Twilintarn, which was a point where worlds intersected. Some tremendous, powerful Presence moved over the water there — the Keeper of Twilintarn — so terrible that to see it directly was death, as some unfortunate villains found out. From the glimpses we get of the Keeper, it seems to be a four-footed animal, though of colossal proportions.

In that same book, there is a wild Stag running through the fantasy world: a noble animal which is the embodiment of our own world, this one in which we live. Yes: in that world, our world runs around as a wild Stag. If the Huntsman with his black arrows kills the Stag, our world will perish. And already as the story begins, the Stag is wounded, its steps faltering.

How about Melville’s Moby-Dick? Isn’t the white whale really more than a whale? Doesn’t it represent something bigger?

Lurking in the shadows behind the Old Testament are Leviathan and Behemoth. Both halves of the world have their dragons, some good, some bad. Looming large in my childhood was King Kong: an animal of gigantic size, ruling his lost island of wonder. It’s not a stretch to say that Kong is a symbol of what is wild, free, beautiful, and should not be touched by humankind.

And then there’s Aslan, a lion and the Lord. There are humans and humanoids in Narnia; C.S. Lewis might easily have given his Christ figure a human shape, but he did not.

Back to that picture from The Book of Wonder, of the great beast moving among the trees, and only its hindquarters visible. . . . Since childhood, I’ve been intrigued by the passage in Exodus 33, in which Moses has asked to see God’s glory. God reminds Moses that no one may see God’s face and live, but He offers this alternative:

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

I quoted here from the New International Version. I checked four or five different translations of the passage. A couple say God’s “back”; one said “from behind”; and two used the phrase I remember hearing/reading as a child: God’s “back parts.” As a wide-eyed child thinking of this encounter, I always imagined that “back parts” sounded more like part of a quadruped than a human figure. (Yet God has a “hand,” too, that He puts over Moses’s eyes.) It’s pointless to read too much into “back parts,” which is only a translation. [Hey, you guys who have studied Hebrew — I know there are at least two of you! — This would be an excellent time to help us out!]

But what is clear is that Moses had a “Glory Day” experience here! We can’t see the face of God . . . or that of the Keeper of Twilintarn. Jii’s bear comes to him in the pitch blackness. We can’t see the wind, but we see its shadow in the grain, and we feel its power. We can’t clearly see what crawls south, but we know it’s something like a dragon, anyway! We behold God’s glory, and we press on toward glory. And we write, attempting to throw the sheet over the ghost.

Grrooinnkkk! Hey, it’s Midsummer’s Eve this week! There may be Good Folk dancing in your garden! When the Eve falls precisely is a matter of which you prefer and when the weather is best: I’d place it on Saturday night or Sunday night if you prefer the solstice, or Wednesday night if you want to go with the eve of the birth of St. John the Baptist.

Grrooiinnkk again: Are you ready for this? My agent has given me the green light to make this announcement. Through the outstanding work of my amazingly incredible agent, we have found a publisher for The Star Shard as a book! Though some details are still being worked out, and more revision is coming, Houghton Mifflin has graciously agreed to give the book a home.

So it’s truly a happy Midsummer’s Eve, and Soli Deo gloria!

Doorway Characters

June 13, 2009

We’ve talked about enchanted doorways that take us into fictional realms of wonder. But the simple truth is, the single most powerful thing that pulls us into a story is the characters. Right? If we meet on page one a character we identify with — someone who feels what we’ve felt, someone who may seem “just like us” on some level — that’s a character we want to go along with.

For the term “doorway characters,” I give full credit to our friend Marquee Movies [not his real name] — you know, the guy who feels a responsibility to always leave Bilbo in a relatively safe place? He came up with this excellent term during an impassioned discussion we were having about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was talking about how Willow and Xander were such doorway characters, providing a perfect portal through which we tumble headlong into the story.

At the last Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference, fiction workshop leader and author Jim Bennett said, “Character is always the most important thing, because there are only a few plots, but characters are infinite.” It’s true. Can we not name quite a few stories that are often anthologized for college students to focus upon, stories hailed as treasures of our culture, in which very little happens? But their characters are fascinating people, people we feel right along with.

All in all, for me as a writer, characters are my Achilles heel. I’ve never paid enough attention to people, just as Saruman never paid enough attention to animals. I think it partly comes from being an only child. “Others? Who needs others?! Oh, you mean the audience?” So this posting is 1.) fraudulent, since I’m no one to be talking about characters, and 2.) sneaky, because I’m hoping to learn something from you all that will help me write better.

I don’t know if I’ve ever created a “doorway character” with any main character of a story or book, but I would like to introduce you to one minor character that I’m particularly proud of. She’s from the Agondria story “Seawall,” and she’s a lemnach, not a human.

The lemnachs are little women — about half human height — with blue skin and wings like a bat. They are uncivilized, monstrous, and serve a sorcerous old king named Agetychus. (It’s unclear whether he created them or bound an existing race to his service somehow.)

This particular lemnach is named Gehennabel the Reliable. She’s fierce and steady and eats all manner of disgusting things, and the king knows he can depend on her to get the job done. She has a catastrophe of wiry black hair. Her name comes from “Gehenna,” another name for 1.) Hell, or, according to Webster’s, 2.) “a place or state of misery” — and “-bel,” a feminine sort of ending. Here’s an excerpt:

The lemnach had flown farther than ever she’d flown before in her relatively short, toil-laden life. Following the woman-tiger, she’d gone all the way to where the world ended in a Wall across the sea. Somehow she’d avoided all those flying arrows in the humans’ battle, many of which had been aimed at the lemnach, for both armies knew she was no friend of theirs. Gehennabel had watched from the shadows all that had taken place, and then she’d made the long return journey alone.

She’d learned many things in her travels: that hot sand burned the feet; that too much sun burned the skin, even if one’s skin were dark and blue; that most melons in Shandria were sour; that there was very little to eat on Alcyaea, except the gull-droppings which were savory if a bit salty; that the birds of Vorcyra had interesting tales to tell once they got to know you; that the Sunken Land could be dangerous at night; and that lemnachs were entirely unwelcome in Cheleboth. After all, home was best. But one wouldn’t know if one hadn’t gone.

Now her long mission was accomplished. Well, almost accomplished — there remained only to deliver her report. She had good news and bad news, bad news and good. Fluttering in through the window, she hopped and stumbled, borne by her momentum, and rolled heels-over-head along the stone floor. Ah, home! Gehennabel kissed the dank stone and patted it with her palms.

Which news to tell first, the good or the bad? The bad or the good? Which? She clasped her hands and considered deeply as she hurried along. Other lemnachs saw her and raced off in a flurry of wings to tell the king she’d returned. A few paused to scoop up rocks and hurl them at her to show they’d missed her; Hebbenebah the Still Worse swooped onto her back and gave her shoulder an affectionate bite.

She’d tell the bad news first and get it out of the way. Yes, that was how big, wingless people preferred to do things. Fluffing up the fright of her hair, the lemnach composed her wings and peeked around the doorframe into the thronehall.

King Agetychus hunched on his throne, dwarfed by the seat’s high back. The six lemnachs who had arrived first crowded around him, three on the throne’s arms, two on the back, one between the king’s black boots on the floor, rubbing her face against his knees. All the six looked enviously at Gehennabel. The king stretched out a pale hand and anxiously waggled his claws to beckon her forward. “Come, come!” His voice was a hoarse whisper. As the lemnach slinked into the firelit hall, Agetychus coughed violently into a bunched cloth.

He looked bad, even for a Chalybe; his health had clearly gotten much worse while Gehennabel was away. Even before she’d left, he’d taken to sitting here, usually alone, with only the fire for light; he could no longer abide the activity and noise of his grand upper thronehall, the place of many forges. Sad, for the ringing of hammers had once been the sweetest music to his ears.

“Well?” said the king, leaning forward, his dark-rimmed, reddish eyes wide and staring. He reminded the lemnach of a spider she’d eaten not long ago, an old spider shriveled at the edge of her tattered web, her legs curled up upon themselves and no longer able to move. By eating her, Gehennabel had done her a mercy.

“Dear King,” said the lemnach with heartfelt compassion, “I would eat you if I could.”

How’s that? Do you get a feel for lemnachs? I think it would be fun to write a book from the point of view of a lemnach. Gehennabel needs her own book: Confessions of a Lemnach . . . or something.

Anyway, I can think of no better example of doorway characters than those we see in the movie Jaws. Remember that phenomenon that swept our culture back in 1975, the “Summer of the Shark”? I would argue that Jaws is an extremely rare case in which the movie is better than the book that preceded it (the only other example I can think of offhand is Field of Dreams) — and I’d contend that the difference mostly has to do with the characters — well, that, and the focus of the writing. Peter Benchley has said he wrote the book based on the premise, “What if there were a killer shark that wouldn’t go away? What if it staked out a territory right off the coast of one town and just stayed there?” The movie has that premise, too, but into the mix it adds the screenplay, the directing, the incomparable musical score, the heroic efforts of hundreds of people trapped on Martha’s Vineyard for much longer than they wanted to be or were budgeted for — and of course the immortal, inimitable performances of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw.

Doorway characters: Scheider as Brody is Everyman. He’s us. Two examples, from very early in the film. He’s just woken up, he’s getting ready for a routine day of work, and the phone rings. The Brody household has two phones on the wall, presumably because he’s the chief of police: one phone is the family’s phone, and one is a “police hotline” (that’s what I’m guessing — I don’t know). He picks up the phone that he thinks is ringing (they’re installed one right above the other); he hears only a dial tone, and he pulls the receiver away from his ear and gives it a “What the heck?” look before hanging it up and picking up the other phone, which is the one that’s ringing. Right there, I think, “I know this guy.” I’ve experienced morning chaos, too.

Later, when Brody realizes there’s been a shark attack and he’s doing his job by closing the beaches immediately, he goes into a store to buy paints, brushes, and signboards to make “Beach Closed” signs. He grabs at a brush or two in a canful of brushes on the shelf, and the can topples over, clattering and spilling brushes. Brody winces and tries to catch it. Again, I know him. He’s me. I’ve been there.

Then Dreyfuss as Hooper: who can forget the scene in which he comes uninvited to the Brody household the evening that Brody is depressed because he knows Alex Kintner is dead because Brody gave in to political pressure and didn’t close the beaches? Hooper comes into the kitchen, sits down at the table facing Brody, who hasn’t touched his supper, and Hooper asks, “How was your day?” (He was there earlier when Brody was slapped in the face by Mrs. Kintner, Alex’s mother.) Both men laugh at the irony of the question, and Brody says, “Swell.” Hooper, a scientist who’s come to town alone because of the shark problem and is staying at the hotel, sees the plate of uneaten food and asks, “Is anyone eating this?” Without really waiting for an answer, he pulls it toward himself and begins devouring it as Mrs. Brody dazedly answers, “No.” Awkwardness, comradery, and a stomach that clamors regardless of the crisis at hand — doorway character. That’s a real person, just like us.

And then Quint, the shark fisherman (Robert Shaw): though we glimpse him earlier, his first close-up entrance in the film is during a town council meeting, when the crowded room is in pandemonium, people all talking and arguing at once. To command attention, Quint slowly, agonizingly rakes his fingernails down a chalkboard, on which he’s drawn a shark eating a human victim. It’s a sound that universally sets human nerves on edge. When he has the full attention of everyone in the room, Quint casually eats something (a cracker? — celery? — the debates have been many and furious) as he delivers his offer of his services to catch and kill the shark. This is a character we simply can’t get enough of.

I don’t know of any other film that brings three such different and equally balanced, developed, delightful characters together and then isolates them in an environment (alone together on a boat with only the open ocean and the shark) in which they can interact. They have become archetypes of the “monster panic” genre: the Knowledge Guy (Hooper), the Experience Guy (Quint), and the vulnerable Everyman (Brody), who kills the monster against all odds and lives to tell the tale.

So we come to the question: Who are the greatest doorway characters you’ve met, in film or in written fiction? Who are they, and what did they do that made you tumble through them, deep into the world of the story? (“What did they do?” is the more important part of the question!)

[News: It’s been a fantastic writing week, by God’s grace — great progress on the new book: 2,300 words Thursday, 2,684 Friday, 1,612 today! Oh, and one more thing, in case anyone missed it: it’s worth going back for a look at the comments on the previous post — I responded to them just before writing this, and I had a pretty good story to tell in response to Chris’s!]

Where the Corn Was Spilled

June 6, 2009

That title will make sense by the time we’ve come to the end of this entry. I’m going to quote first here from a wonderful comment that came into the blog today from Shieldmaiden. (You should definitely go back to the two previous entries, “Trees” and “Dark Doorways,” to read the latest reader comments! It seems there are often a few that come in just before I post a new entry, and I don’t want anyone to miss these extraordinary contributions from readers. In every way this is our blog, not just mine. Be sure to revisit the comments to “Trees” as well as “Dark Doorways”!) So, anyway, quoting from Shieldmaiden:

“Speaking of dark or magic doorways I don’t think it gets any more magical than the picture I saw on one of the blog posts last summer. The one of an old gate leaning against the trunks of maples and partially swallowed by their trunks. I couldn’t help but imagine that on a certain midsummer night when the moonlight fell just right, and several other elements lined up, that the gate would swing open and when you went through it you would step into an enchanted forest of another world.”

Eeeee! Shieldmaiden, I hope you’ll let me use that in a story someday! That picture is the new header for the blog, but since I change headers from time to time, I’ll include it here, too:

This old gate has been here for as long as I can remember. It's just behind our house in Taylorville, facing south toward the Big Woods.

This old gate has been here for as long as I can remember. It's just behind our house in Taylorville, facing south toward the Big Woods.

Now I’m going to quote again from The Green and Ancient Light, that unpublished, homemade book of vignettes and recollections from my childhood, printed in September of 1990:

“Beneath the living blanket of green leafy vines was a barn. Down among the roots of the high weeds going to seed were bricks and a concrete slab. At the heart of the hedgerow was a rusting fence, hardly recognizable as such. Only a nail and a chain remained, dangling against the peeling bark, of some iron thing the maple tree had swallowed years ago.

“This relentless march of the sprouting, encircling, all-consuming Earth is essential in understanding my childhood. Nature guarded its secrets well, its rough-edged relics of days gone by; they were tucked away in shady, whispering hollow places where only the folk of the hedgerows could readily find them, the cat and the rabbit, the dog with his nose to the dewy ground, the sleepy opossum, the raccoon with his humanlike hands. These folk climbed over and around the treasures in the gloomy hedgeheart — the forgotten gate leaned against the young maples, its boards bleached and bone-hard, its metal fastenings eaten with rust; the roll of fencing behind the tin shed, half-sunk in the earth, down between the treetrunks, a tunnel for foxes and a rusty trampoline for little  boys; the mysterious odds and ends of glass and tarpaper, the dimly-remembered toys of earliest childhood, sheltering now beneath the dusky hillocks of the grass; the several corroded things in the delightful hollows of the man-made cliff behind the cellar.

“All these things and a thousand more called out to two little boys, called out in voices soft and mellow as ripened rust, orange in the hot light, dark amber in the sunset; the grasses called out, their blades in the wind, their roots probing into matters. The world of passage and change called out, the world of transformation and chemical reaction, of unbecoming and becoming: ‘Come and see, boys; come and find. Discover in these green depths the things that once were, the things you lost five summers ago, the things your grandfathers’ compatriots built forty years ago; see what is now, how undauntedly nature takes your ball and runs with it, how it takes all your ideas and improves them, and goes on; and, boys, carry with you from this secret world these purposefully-formed seeds of things that may be.'”

I honestly think that a huge part of my writing is a giving back of the gifts I absorbed from the green world around me in my childhood. A Cricket editor’s comment that I particularly cherish was: “Your memory for detail is phenomenal: you sit in Japan and write lovingly about small-town life in Illinois.”

Anyway, while we’re speaking of the magic of trees and doorways, certainly this tendency of nature to advance and absorb and reclaim the objects of human construction is a worthy subtopic — it has always been a large part of the enchantment for me.

Again, I remember illustrations from a book of fairy stories I had when I was very young (and still have — I know right where it is, though it’s deeply buried in storage). It was a tattered old book that a library was throwing away. My mom the librarian would rescue such castoffs for me, and sometimes they became the greatest treasures of my own library. It didn’t even have a cover. But I remember a beautiful two-page panoramic color painting of a meadow; and half-hidden here and there among the tussocks of long grass were sleepy rabbits in their burrows, rusted swords, crocks of golden coins, and probably a fairy or two — the last time I saw it was several years ago.

But that picture expresses a wonder that I suspect is common to many of us. I remember my childhood fascination with objects overgrown, things half-buried, items long-forgotten and vine-clad and sinking into the ground. I don’t know why the phenomenon was so enthralling to me.

This bicycle beside a wooded path on Niigata University's campus has been welcomed and given a place.

This bicycle beside a wooded path on Niigata University's campus has been welcomed and given a place.

In the north wall of our barn, there were some closed hatchways or windows covered over by Virginia creeper vines. Piles of stone were soon overrun by weeds. Farm implements parked and abandoned sank into the embrace of nature.

As a college student, I was captivated by these lines from Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion”:

“Earth is eating trees, fence posts,

Gutted cars, earth is calling her little ones,

‘Come home, come home!'”

And here are three more poems that I think speak to this same theme, each in its own way:

“The Presence,” by Maxine Kumin:

Something went crabwise

across the snow this morning.

Something went hard and slow

over our hayfield.

It could have been a raccoon

lugging a knapsack,

it could have been a porcupine

carrying a tennis racket,

it could have been something

supple as a red fox

dragging the squawk and spatter

of a crippled woodcock.

Ten knuckles underground

those bones are seeds now

pure as baby teeth

lined up in the burrow.

 

I cross on snowshoes

cunningly woven from

the skin and sinews of

something else that went before.

The next one I remember singing in a choral arrangement in an all-state chorus festival when I was in junior high or high school — performed by a huge choir made up of kids from all over the state. The poem itself was written and published during World War II by Thomas Hornsby Ferril, and it’s called “No Mark”:

Corn grew where the corn was spilled

In the wreck where Casey Jones was killed,

Scrub-oak grows and sassafras

Around the shady stone you pass

To show where Stonewall Jackson fell

That Saturday at Chancellorsville,

And soapweed bayonets are steeled

Across the Custer battlefield;

But where you die the sky is black

A little while with cracking flak,

Then ocean closes very still

Above your skull that held our will.

O swing away, white gull, white gull;

Evening star, be beautiful.

 

That is an awesome poem! Do you see how it’s precisely to the point of this discussion? Finally, this next one comes to us courtesy of this blog’s own Catherine, who tracked down the words for me. It’s the old Scottish poem “Twa Corbies,” or “Two Ravens”:

As I was walking all alane

I heard twa corbies makin’ mane [making a moan]

And one ontae the other did say

Where will we gang and dine the day,

Where will we gang and dine the day?

In ahind yon oul fail dyke

I wot there lies a new slain knight

Naebody kens that he lies there

But his hawk and hound and his lady fair,

His hawk and hound and his lady fair.

His hawk is tae the hunting gane,

His hound to bring a wild fowl hane [home],

His wife has taken another mate,

So we can make our dinner sweet,

We can make our dinner sweet.

And you can sit on his white breast bone,

And I’ll pick out his bonny blue e’en,

And with a lock of his yellow hair

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare,

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.

And many’s a one for him makes mane;

Naebody kens where he has gane;

Through his white bones when they grow bare

The wind shall blow forever mare,

The wind shall blow forever mare.

 

Three diverse poems, but I submit they’re all really talking about the same things. Do you agree? And yes, I have a poem of my own to toss into the pot. This is my own version of the same theme — a poem I think I’ve alluded to on this blog but have never quoted in full. So here it is: “Glory Day,” by Frederic S. Durbin:

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.

 

As one of my two favorite professors would say, when he finished reading a poem aloud to the class, “How do you like them apples?” I’d love to hear your analyses of the poem — of what precisely the “something like a dragon” is. Any takers? (You won’t be wrong, I expect.) [The poem’s a sonnet, by the way!]

So, well, well, this theme of nature’s reclamation of objects is large in my mind this week because it’s such a key element of the book I’m writing now. (Since it’s passed 25,000 words, I’m just going to start calling it a “book” instead of a “story.” I think it will likely hit the minimum novel requirement of 50,000 before all is said and done.)

Here's my AlphaSmart Neo on my favorite bench on the Lavender Path. I've had some success lately with writing outdoors using this dear gem of a machine.

Here's my AlphaSmart Neo on my favorite bench on the Lavender Path. I've had some success lately with writing outdoors using this dear gem of a machine.

That book is still going well, by grace! On Thursday, I had the most productive day on this project so far, with 2,858 words written! On Friday I did 1,909, which is still ahead of a NaNoWriMo quota count. Today, Saturday, I was fixing earlier things, so didn’t make any forward progress. I spent a long stretch revising one seven-line poem that plays a crucial part. So it goes, in fits and spurts. . . .

Here’s one more poem of mine [still on the subject — no disbursements to the Pun Fund], written [I think] during my college years, though possibly right after I came to Japan. I’m not really advocating paganism; it’s more just a statement that humankind’s impact on the created natural world is temporal and transient:

“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.

 

Heh, heh, heh! Yeah, I was going through a Lord Dunsany period. I think he had some similar ideas, didn’t he?

As I’m wrapping up here: I just received my copy of the May/June Cricket, and I was thrilled and delighted to see a letter and photograph from The Die-Hard Star-Shard Fan Club! Here are my heartfelt thanks to those readers and their parents! This issue of Cricket is one I’ll treasure. I think I’ll make a good color photocopy of the letters page and keep it in a picture frame! There are several letters that mention “The Star Shard,” and also in the back, the winners of the Urrmsh song poetry contest are printed — so even though the story finished in the April issue, we really need this May/June issue to complete “The Star Shard” Cricket collection!

I’m still listening to Enya. I have two of her CDs now: The Celts and Paint the Sky with Stars: The Best of Enya. Really wonderful. Also, I saw the new Star Trek for the second time tonight.

I’ll let some visual images close this posting out:

Bicycles at Niigata University: Hmm, where did I park it? Oh, yeah! -- Mine's the silvery one!

Bicycles at Niigata University: Hmm, where did I park it? Oh, yeah! -- Mine's the silvery one!

Cupid, the supermarket where I buy most of my groceries. As my other favorite college prof made us say at the beginning of every class: "Mythology is alive; mythology is ubiquitous."

Cupid, the supermarket where I buy most of my groceries. As my other favorite college prof made us say at the beginning of every class: "Mythology is alive; mythology is ubiquitous."

United Cinemas, the theater complex that's about a five-minute walk from my place.

United Cinemas, the theater complex that's about a five-minute walk from my place.

Talk about dark doorways into worlds of enchantment! This is the portal I walk through to see movies: it leads to infinite worlds!

Talk about dark doorways into worlds of enchantment! This is the portal I walk through to see movies: it leads to infinite worlds!

Finally, this is along the Lavender Path. This is a truck bed, parked so that it's sticking over a weed-grown drainage ditch. The truck seems not to have been moved in a very long time. Wouldn't you love to set up a writing house in that truck bed?! Well, I would, anyway. . . .

Finally, this is along the Lavender Path. This is a truck bed, parked so that it's sticking over a weed-grown drainage ditch. The truck seems not to have been moved in a very long time. Wouldn't you love to set up a writing house in that truck bed?! Well, I would, anyway. . . .