Posts Tagged ‘Glory Day’

July 4th Is Here Again

July 4, 2010

Happy Fourth of July! How can I not greet you all on this holiday, another of my favorite days in the year? I hope you’re enjoying the Deep Summer! Here, the last three days have actually felt like summer at last: blessed heat and humidity, perspiration, rooms that swelter until you can get a window open, arms sticking to the tabletop, fans blowing warm air around, and to sleep at night is like lying in a cast-iron frying pan, sizzling away . . . I love it! This is the season — long may it last!

Writing is going well, by grace! It was a banner week: 7,296 words written on the novel in the first three days of July! The story is building momentum, and I’m really excited.

Anyway, I was glancing back at 4th of July posts written the past two years in an effort not to repeat myself too much. (If you’re inclined to go back and review them for more of Glory Day, you can easily find them with the “search” function: last year’s was called “Thunder and Providence,” and I think the year before’s was called “Glory Day.”)

The posting today won’t be too elaborate — I’m about “written out” for the weekend (but you’ll agree the energy has been well-spent, right?). But here are a few more good 4th of July memories:

I had a wonderful uncle. I’ll call him “Uncle Art” (since that was his name). He had an ever-active imagination, a genuine sense of fun, and a mischievous streak a mile wide; and, being an adult, he had the wherewithal to carry out his schemes. On different occasions, he built a moving humanoid robot, made a long stop-action animated film using my Planet of the Apes dolls and dinosaurs, and populated my grandma’s garden with wooden gardeners who moved when the wind blew.

But in the estimation of us kids, one of the absolute best things he ever built was his 4th of July cannon. It was made of a simple, heavy pipe — maybe a yard long, and with a bore just slightly larger than a tin can. The bottom end was capped and welded shut; there was a hole for a fuse, and (like Gandalf) Uncle Art had a magical black powder that would explode with incredible force when fire was applied. Heh, heh, heh.

He brought that out to our backyard and set it up so that the barrel was pointing northeast, out over the cornfield. In went the magical powder charge, some wadded newspaper, two empty beer cans [provided by my parents — I won’t besmirch Uncle Art’s good name! — as far as I know, he never touched alcohol], and more wadded newspaper. We’d all stand well back, covering our ears, and Uncle Art would light the fuse.

Then would come a detonation that CRACK-ACKed as an echo off the barn, off the house, and thundered around the horizon, rolling away through the woods. Smoke and fire spewed from the cannon. The wadding was immolated, of course, and the beer cans were projected far, far out into the corn. Half the fun was running out into the cornfield to hunt for the cans.

Midwest farm kids know what a joyous place a cornfield is: your bare feet sink into the warm, fine soil that plumes between your toes like moon dust — it’s like running through an endless expanse of talcum powder. You have to hold your arms up in front of your face, because the edges of corn leaves are sharp — as you run, you end up with uncountable stinging, itchy, mostly invisible lacerations. Bugs tumble onto you and get down your collar. The field is like some kind of giant game board: you can go down the row or across the rows — there are two directions to move in. It’s a secret world of steam and green shadows. Sometimes there are strange clearings where some stalks have not grown well — a fairy ring deep in the field, hidden from the world. We used to love to build campfires in those when we were older and sit out until the sky paled, watching the stars and the meteors.

We’d usually eventually find the beer cans — or what was left of them. They’d be way out there, nearly to the timber line . . . barely recognizable, flattened and shredded — some ribbons of aluminum, the tiny corner of a logo or brand name remaining. We would scoop them up and proudly take them back to civilization.

Then Uncle Art would re-load the cannon, and we’d do it all over again.

One year, some horses were being kept in the little-used livery stable next door. After about two blasts from the cannon, a very irate lady marched into our yard and yelled, “Will you knock it off, already? You’re scaring the horses!”

Oh, I’ll bet we were. We were scaring the dead in the cemetery up the road. We apologized and knocked it off. But you can’t “knock off” the entire holiday, when things are blowing up all over. With all apologies to horses and dogs, whom I dearly love, the Fourth of July cannot be silenced. All you with sensitive ears, retreat to your stalls and basements, and give us this one day; we promise to be extra quiet for the next week. The Fourth is meant to resound — to burst and flash with brilliant sparks — blossoms of fire a mile high, a mile wide.

Happy Glory Day!

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From the Places Where They Played

July 18, 2009

Today was one of those days when I just never quite got to writing. I had the Neo and the notes out, and I worked through some scenes in my mind; but I just didn’t write. I’ll chalk my foot-dragging up to one third laziness, one third caution [treading very carefully this close to the end of the story, not wanting to rush], and one third reluctance to finish — writing this book has been so pleasant that I’m sad to reach the end . . . but not really, and not for long — it’s good to get things finished. I’m estimating there are about three major scenes to go before the end. (Which probably means there will be five or six. Or ten?)

Concerning writing days, I’m a notoriously slow starter. I’ll do any number of things before I get around to writing: oversleep, dust some obscure shelf somewhere in my apartment, ride my bike to the store (the day never really begins for me until I’ve been outside), file some piece of paper that’s been waiting in some pending pile for too long, stare out the window, check e-mail, read some long-forgotten files in “my documents,” notice a book on my shelf that I really want to read soon, review my story notes, chew my fingernails, eat lunch, make coffee, take a long walk, open the refrigerator for no reason, lie down on the floor for awhile. . . . But once all the grains of sand build up to the point at which everything overbalances and the poles reverse [What kind of metaphor was that?! I don’t think that was legal, even with an artistic license.] — once that happens, then I’m scary. It’s like in the movie Troy, when Achilles gives Odysseus a good-sporting jibe for taking his sweet time in getting to Troy, and Odysseus says something like, “I don’t care whether or not I’m there for the beginning of the battle, as long as I’m there for the end!”

Be There For the End — See It Through — Go the Distance — those should be our goals as writers (or in doing whatever we do). Remember why the “Dead Poets Society” is called the “Dead Poets Society”? — It’s because the members are committed to living out their lives as poets. Poetry is a path that you must live to the end, and not turn aside. You’re finally really a poet-all-the-way when you’re a dead poet, when you’ve lived deeply and drunk life to the lees.

Anyway — I have to quote here from a comment that came into this blog last week, because it’s so well said that I wrote it out on a little piece of paper to keep in my “great quotes about writing” notebook. It’s from Catherine, who I’m quite sure will be writing professionally in the near future.

Last week, Catherine wrote:

“The settings and the music, especially, remind me of some idealized time in the past, when everything was wonderful except for what wasn’t; a time that I can only return to if I have a character whose life envelops me so completely that I can’t look out the window without seeing her through the trees.”

That describes so well the writing process when it’s working (for the kinds of stories, of course, that so many of us love)! If you get a character who’s absolutely real to you, and if you immerse your imagination in a setting that evokes that yearning for a remembered time that maybe you never actually lived through (because it’s been improved by your memory and the passage of years), then I think you’re well on your way to creating something extraordinary. Catherine, I’m in awe of how well you’ve summed this up! We’ve talked before about that C.S. Lewis concept of the longing we sometimes feel that does not have its fulfillment in anything we live through from the cradle to the grave — yet still we feel that yearning: and logically, when there is a yearning, there is the corresponding satisfaction of the yearning [there is food for our hunger, there is sleep for our tiredness, there is companionship for our loneliness, etc.] — and therefore, the longing that has no fulfillment in this life is a powerful indication of the existence of Heaven — of more to the picture than we presently see.

Hope Mirrlees explored that idea (indirectly) in Lud-in-the-Mist, and I think a lot of the other great stories do it, too.

A time in the past, when “everything was wonderful except for what wasn’t” — such is also true of the present, of the mundane — right now in our lives, everything is wonderful except for what isn’t. (When we’re older, these will be the times we look back to with our wistfulness and see all the magic that is here!) Yet a great deal of what is really true and what is beautiful seems to come into focus only when we’re well past it on our careening ride into the future. So, I think, so many of us writers look to our childhoods for the clarity and the perspective that makes a worthwhile story. Not that we always write directly about the things we did and thought then; but that we revisit something of what we felt and perceived in those distant days and shine a light on it through the filter of our experiences since then.

Here’s from Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees:

“In [man’s] mouth is ever the bittersweet taste of life and death, unknown to the trees. Without respite he is dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope; and he is tormented by a secret that he can never tell.”

Memory and hope, the two wild horses that drag and thrash man like a pair of Untowards — these, writers, are two of our most important tools. Bring them to bear!

When I was born, the road I lived on didn’t have a name — it just had a

Old Oak Road, looking north from in front of my yard

Old Oak Road, looking north from in front of my yard

 rural route number. Little by little, the city limits of Taylorville drew closer, and eventually the talk was flying fast and furious of naming the road. The default, front-running name was “Glen Haven Drive” — not because of any careful thought on anyone’s part, but because there is a Glen Haven Cemetery at the first bend in the road. My two childhood neighbor-friends and I intensely disliked that idea, because for one thing, who wants to live on a street named after a graveyard? For another thing, we didn’t like the sound of “Glen Haven” — it seemed ill-suited to a country road in central Illinois. So we thought about it for awhile and came up with “Old Oak Road,” because the road does have an abundance of old oak trees, particularly along its inhabited stretch, before it gives way mostly to fields farther north.

Following some advice from our parents about how to go about getting support for our idea, we boys took a petition up and down the road for the various homeowners to sign if they liked our name. (I don’t remember how old we were; I want to say I was about 9 or 10, which I think is pretty close.) Our dogs also came with us, as they did pretty much wherever we went on our bicycles or on foot; and when they encountered the homeowners’ dogs, they all went through the standard dog protocol of barking furiously at one another.

So our signature-gathering typically went like this:

“Hi! We’re BARK BARK BARK BARK to get BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK if you BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK.”

Sometimes the homeowners had questions, such as:

“What BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK?”

Old Oak Road, looking south from in front of my yard

Old Oak Road, looking south from in front of my yard

Most often, they just signed the petition so we’d take our dogs and go. Then came a city council meeting at which the issue was debated (without dogs); and by, as I recall, a fairly narrow margin, we were awarded our tree-loving, heritage-rich name, and there were three happy little boys who got to live on a road that they’d named. I wish I had here in Japan the picture my mom took of us three kids with the road sign, but you’ll have to settle for the one I’ve got.

the corner of Lincoln Trail and Old Oak Road

the corner of Lincoln Trail and Old Oak Road

 

Abraham Lincoln might conceivably have passed within sight of this oak in my front yard, since his law circuit would have taken him along this route between Allenton and Taylorville.

Abraham Lincoln might conceivably have passed within sight of this oak in my front yard, since his law circuit would have taken him along this route between Allenton and Taylorville.

Anyway, that story is the background for telling you about a long poem my mom wrote shortly thereafter. Her poem was titled “Old Oak Road,” and it began with the creation of the world . . . yes, those six days when everything came ex nihilo by the spoken word of God. She traced the history of that region through the time of the undisturbed trees and the animals . . . to the long ages of the moccasined feet . . . to the coming of the white man . . . to the days when Abraham Lincoln rode along the dirt path there and saw the oak trees . . . to the era of the burgeoning community of Taylorville . . . and so at last to the time of the three boys with their bikes and dogs, who gave the road its name.

Yes, my two friends and I were the culmination of history! We all used to laugh together (Mom, too) about the grandiosity of the poem. It’s never been published except in a volume of my parents’ writings that I printed and bound as a surprise for them a long time later. But Mom did capture a certain intangible something there . . . some echoes of the fulfillment behind the yearning.

One quote from the poem that I’ve often used is this:

“Something whispered in their ears — something spoke from out of time . . . / From the places where they played. . . .”

Mom understood that the “places where we play” in our earliest years become for us a sacred well-spring, from which we draw water for various purposes all our lives. In most of what I do even now, the road and the oaks are whispering still.

And finally, one of the main places we played as kids was the barn behind my house. It’s described best in that same story, “Glory Day,” that I quoted from in the previous post. I promise not to do this every week, but let’s go there one last time. Again, there’s nothing fictional about this except the name “John.”

The barn had always called and whispered to John. If the fields and woods were sacred, then the barn was the chapel at the center of it all. It was entirely wooden, built eighty or ninety years ago. Though it no longer housed horses (Dad had sold Banner to a friend shortly after John was born), it was full of the memory of horses: ancient gray carpets of well-trampled manure and straw on the stall floors, the teeth-marks where horses had gnawed at the boards, and in one trough where mama cats sometimes had their kittens, there remained part of a salt-block for horses to lick — it shone in the dimness like a chunk of snow that never melted.

My barn: this photo was taken by my Cousin Steve either when I was a baby or before I was born; the barn as seen here is in slightly better shape than it was during most of our "glory days."

My barn: this photo was taken by my Cousin Steve either when I was a baby or before I was born; the barn as seen here is in slightly better shape than it was during most of our "glory days."

A central concrete walkway separated the lower floor into two rows of stalls. Those on the north were dark rooms with doors that closed, and where toadstools sprouted in the cool half-light. Virginia creeper thickly blanketed the entire north face of the barn outside, from the ground to the high hay-door. The vines’ roots sealed shut various hatches and trapdoors, and framed the windows that were open, so that what light entered was a green glow among fringes of bobbing leaves.

 

The south stalls were more open and airy, their walls mere rail fences that only rose chest-high. More of the outer wall on that side was missing, so that the sun had free access to bake the floor in shifting patches. Insects droned in and out; up under the rafters, mud daubers built nests resembling panpipes. Riots of foxtail and burdock, timothy and poison rhubarb spilled in through gaps near the foundation like crowds of clamoring fans desperate for glimpses of the inner world.

1968: That's me, with the barn in the background. That's a good friend of our family's, and I think that's her horse, not Dad's.

1968: That's me, with the barn in the background. That's a good friend of our family's, and I think that's her horse, not Dad's.

The wide main door on the west always stood open and could no longer be closed, its rollers rusted, its planks in the grip of maples that had grown up along the walls and become, with their counterparts on the north and east, a natural, supplemental framework, steadying the aged structure against the winds. At the barn’s east end, a ladder climbed to the hayloft.

 

The hayloft occupied the whole upper story, the roof arching high above its hay-littered floor like the keel of an overturned ship. Wooden beams transected the space in struts and arches. Birds nested in the eaves. The loft still saw active duty — the tenant farmer from up the road stored his hay bales there in stacked banks that rose to the upper braces. He would remove them a few at a time as needed, so that their cliffs changed as the seasons unfolded. But John and his friends considered the bales to be their own private set of giant building blocks. They could be positioned into tunnels and fortresses — hot, itchy, pitch-black crawlspaces delightfully scented of alfalfa and timothy. Bound at times into these hay-block walls were long, papery snake skins.

The loft was the perfect place for the long, aimless conversations of boyhood — the plans, the fancies, the arguments, the make-believe. And when no friends were available, it was the place to read. John sat in the open hatchway on the west, his feet dangling above the ground far below, and read Lovecraft and Dunsany and The Martian Chronicles.

And so the barn was. It was the best. Suggestion for comments: how about describing that place you played as a child, when summers went on forever, and you could read all day with impunity?

1968: Mom and me in the field. What, am I EATING the corn we're gleaning?!

1968: Mom and me in the field. What, am I EATING the corn we're gleaning?!

Reels in the Dark

July 11, 2009

First, news from the writing front couldn’t be better! The Sacred Woods is entering the home stretch. I’ve been smashing personal records right and left for words written in a day. First there was the 3,315-word output on July 4th (fitting, huh?) — then came a few days of “real” work (the kind where you have to make a living); then 3,827 words on Thursday, 3,121 yesterday, and 2,795 today. The book is now at 57,242. [It’s easier to write faster near the end of a book or story, because you have the momentum and focus; you’re no longer trying to figure out what it’s all about.] So you can see what I’ve been up to, and that’s why this posting is coming at the bottom of the weekend instead of at the top, as I’d prefer. I’m still hoping to have the book’s first draft finished by about the end of the month. This is one of those cases in which the story is practically writing itself: it knows where it wants to go, and I’m just careening along with it, holding onto the bridle for dear life with one hand, opening doors for it and smashing down fences with the other. This has very little to do with my abilities or lack thereof; it’s one of those best instances that we writers always hope for in which an idea finds you and comes pouring through.

I was struck tonight by the words from Proverbs 3:5-6 — “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

When writing is going well, it truly is an experience of the Divine — a sacred experience. And so little of it seems to come from “my own understanding.” It’s a “trust-with-all-your-heart” thing all the way, and you just rejoice and give thanks when the paths are straight. A good (writer) friend once quoted this line to me from Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, and I’ve kept it right here on my desk ever since: “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” That’s what it’s like as a writer, when you’re writing. Worries about your life and the future pale away to almost nothing, because you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing. You try not to get hit by cars when crossing the street, because you feel you have to live until you get this story finished. I suspect it’s something like the feeling a pregnant mother has when she’s carrying around a baby inside her. She knows what she’s supposed to do. The world is remarkably clear.

You may think this is all purple and hyperbolic, but it’s not, really.

Since we’ve talked about Anne of Green Gables — another line from it that has stayed with me through the years — and I’m quoting from memory here, so this will be inaccurate — is something like, “And, as usually happens when duty is looked squarely in the face, she had looked duty in the face and found it to be a friend.”

There’s a line at the end of The Untouchables spoken by Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, in which he tries to put his role into perspective when he’s asked by a reporter to give a comment as “the man who got Capone,” the one who put Al Capone behind bars. Ness says: “I was just there when the wheel went ’round.”

I think that’s true for anything good we accomplish in life, writing or otherwise. But Stephen King makes the point in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that you have to put yourself in that place where the ideas can find you. You have to show up at your keyboard or your notebook (or whatever your particular life’s canvas is). You have to be ready. Writing is a guy who may show up at that place, if he knows you’re going to be there and have the lights on and be hospitable.

That being said, I’m definitely not suggesting that we should sit through our lives waiting for inspiration to strike. Inspiration needs people who are in shape enough to handle the work — to open those doors and smash those fences out of the way. By the same token, you can turn out good, salable stories that are solidly crafted but not necessarily inspired. Nor should we worry too much about what is inspired and what isn’t. Is it a good story? — That’s the more important question.

So, anyway, keep thinking about what Eliot Ness says about being there when the wheel comes ’round. . . . I’ve been thinking this week about how some aspects of life move in circles.

1. As a kid, I read Cricket Magazine. Mom got me a charter subscription when the magazine launched back in 1973. I had the LP record album they put out in those years and practically wore it thin listening to it so much. I remember sending them a story when I was in my early twenties, which came back with a form rejection. I really hadn’t learned my craft well enough yet — the wheel hadn’t come ’round. A little over ten years ago, I started sending them stories they accepted.

2. As a kid, I was fascinated by the covers on the H.P. Lovecraft paperbacks in our bookstore — grotesque monsters with scales and tentacles and eyes in strange places. I would sit in the yard on long summer days, in long summer twilights, delighting in the smell of mown grass around me and the reek of noisome swamps and unspeakable crypts and squamous horrors emanating from the Lovecraftian tales. I used to look at the name “Arkham House” on the copyright pages, never dreaming that one day my own book would be published by Arkham House.

3. As a kid, and increasingly with every decade of my life, I read FATE Magazine. It was my dad’s favorite periodical. (Mom was all Cricket and The Smithsonian.) My very first professional acceptance was a non-fiction article I wrote for FATE back in the April 1998 issue. I still remember literally jumping around the room for joy when I opened their acceptance letter. That’s a good story in and of itself: I was living in Japan and got this idea for a wonderful surprise for Dad. I knew he looked forward to his subscription copy of FATE each month. So without breathing a word to my parents about what I was doing, I researched a mysterious phenomenon in Japan, took the pictures, wrote the article, and sent it off to FATE. That was during their “good” years, when they were doing the large-sized magazine instead of the little digest-sized one that they’ve done before and since. They accepted it, I got to experience being paid for writing (!!!), and the first my parents knew about it was when Dad starting flipping through his copy when it came in the mail. As I heard the story later, he kept repeating “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” Then he asked Mom if there could be more than one Frederic S. Durbin teaching at Niigata University. “No,” she assured him, “that’s him.” When I talked to him, he asked me how I got those amazing pictures, and I was able to tell him, “With your old Minolta camera.” That was a very happy circle that came ’round — and I even managed to do it again a couple years later. (“There’s sure a lot of weird stuff in Japan,” Dad said the second time around. Yes, there surely is. Mom said, “You sure can keep a secret!”)

I still read FATE, by the way, and aside from the fascination and escapism, it yields some really good ideas for stories. I won’t tell you which ones — because I sure can keep a secret.

So . . . by grace, in the fullness of time, I got published in Dad’s favorite magazine, and then in Mom’s. And by august old Arkham House, the pulp-era book publisher that has endured.

There’s one more “circle” story: back in high school, I went to my first writer’s conference, held at Illinois Wesleyan University, a conference later known as the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference. The fiction workshop leader that first time I went was Paul Darcy Boles. (I still use a quote from his workshop in my writing classes. I’ll bet you can find it back in the archives of this blog!) At that time he was a hale, white-haired gentleman with twinkling blue eyes. We discovered a mutual love of the movie Dragonslayer, and he read two manuscripts I’d sent in: one was a little Tolkien-derivative story, and one was the beginning of what later became The Threshold of Twilight. He liked the Dwarf in my Tolkien-derivative story — he said it wasn’t a “Disneyfied” Dwarf; he said I didn’t poke fun at my characters. About the Threshold piece, he said the only thing wrong with it was that it wasn’t finished. Very much the right things to say to a high-school kid wanting to write! He signed his wonderful book Night Watch for me with the words: “For Fred — A fine writer who knows about enchantment.” I learned a few years later that he had passed away. I’ve never ceased to be grateful for the early encouragement he gave me. (And to Mom, for taking me there!)

What makes that a “circle” story? Two things: one is that just last week I found his book Glory Day on-line and ordered it. He talked about it all those years ago, and the idea fascinated me, but I’ve never thought to try to get a copy. (During the years before the Internet, I doubt it would have been possible.) The second is that I’ve used the title for both a poem and for a  short story that I’m trying to whip into shape for Cicada but don’t really know how. The editors there liked it, but it’s really not a story yet — they’d like to see it again if I can figure out what the story is.

So I’m going to close out this post with a rather lengthy extract from that story (my story, not Boles’s) — because it’s appropriate for summer, and because it brings the Boles circle around — and because the title of this entry is “Reels in the Dark,” and this excerpt is about home movies and what they represent.

I’ll just say that this story is intensely autobiographical. The “John” character is me, and there’s almost nothing in this passage that’s made up. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

At full dark, the home movies began. John had long since become the projectionist, his dad having turned over all the equipment to him. But Dad still governed the proceedings, ensconced in his recliner. Dad’s movies were from the era of eight millimeter film, almost unheard of these days. Watching them was like traveling to the past in more ways than one. TVs, no matter how big they got, could never match the ambience of a darkened room, the whir of celluloid and sprockets, and the bright, flickering images on the tall tripod screen. Dad’s movies distilled the sunlight of long-past days, the green of vanished summers, the faces of relatives now old or gone.

The reel most in demand was a compilation of home movies shot over many years, spliced together in no particular order, one section even having gotten put in upside-down and backwards, with horses galloping in reverse in the sky, consuming their dust-clouds like living vacuum cleaners. Scenes of Mom and Dad’s courting blended with family baseball games (lots of swings-and-misses, and then a long, panoramic shot of a dozen guys searching for the ball in high weeds; but the dramatic hit that had sent the ball there was, of course, the one moment not captured). Picnics in the park gave way to more horses (these right side up); Dad looking like a movie star, young and straight; flowers in the park; and a Labor Day parade. Toward the film’s halfway point, there was a silver dot high in the sky, passing behind a transformer and power lines — an unidentified silver dot which never failed to generate obliging speculation from the audience about just what it WAS. Always Dad nodded gravely and knowingly in his chair, his gaze intent on the screen until the scene changed to the digging of the lake, which Dad had helped to survey.

“We saw more snakes than you’d believe,” Dad would say. “We tramped all through that bottomland, and I bet we saw a snake every twenty steps. They can hide anywhere there’s a blade of grass. Once some of the guys and I were sitting on the ground to eat our lunch. We were in a circle with our feet almost touching, and a snake crawled right out from between us. We never dreamed it was there.”

Dad told stories about the images in the same way every time, and the audience’s questions themselves followed a time-honored ritual. That, too, was a part of the enchantment of old silent eight as opposed to videos or DVDs. No music, no audio required the discipline of being quiet — not that any soundtrack could have competed with the cousins all together in a single room. The audio was supplied anew by the audience each time, viewers interacting with glimpses of the past.

It was almost, John thought, as if all the generations of the family were still here; as if those who had gone before somehow overflowed the screen and occupied the room’s shadowy corners, not ghosts but warm and chuckling presences, not morbidly returned from beyond but rather never gone in the first place — as comfortable and worn as the furniture, as solid as the bookcases, filling a space that must be filled for completeness, but unregistered in the sight.

There came shots of dogs, the wild fox cub Dad had found and cared for until it had been big enough to return to the wild, and then a full seven minutes of nothing but cigarette smoke in a sunbeam at the little house, where Mom and Dad had first lived when they were married — just cigarette smoke filling the frame, curling and swirling above an ash tray. “Now wait,” Dad would always say, holding up a finger. “Now watch. There’s a place where the smoke looks just like Aunt Opal’s face.” An obedient solemnity would settle over the group, and for a few minutes the summer night would take on a suggestion of chill. And this was the only point at which the movie litany varied. For sometimes Dad himself would miss the face, and would mutter, as the footage went on to other things, that somewhere in there Aunt Opal’s face was as clear as day; and at other viewings Dad would shout “There!” in triumph and point at the screen. And the kids in the audience would see only smoke, because they’d never met Aunt Opal; and a few of the cousins might give a start and cry “I saw her!” and rub at the gooseflesh on their arms. But whether Dad or anyone else saw or didn’t see Aunt Opal in the smoke, if anyone suggested rewinding and re-watching, Dad would say, “Oh, let’s go on. It’s getting late.” And even the most curious were secretly grateful, because the curling, drifting smoke was a little sinister.

Years ago, Dad had introduced the trick of running the film backwards in a certain part to the wild amusement of the audience. It was a scene of the cousins as kids, the oldest no more than ten, swimming in a plastic backyard pool. The ritual exclamations were always the same: “Look at Jack!”; “Look at my braces!”; “Can you believe I wore my hair like that?”; “J.T.’s trying to drown me — look, he keeps pushing my head under!” Interspersed with these lines came the frantic identifications of swimmers among all the splashing and submerging. “Is that you, Mom?” a little cousin would ask, standing up in front of the screen and reaching out a hand to touch the past — but blocking the very part of the image that held the most interest. The child would blend with the picture, its glowing colors projected on the hair and skin and T-shirt back, until everyone cried “Sit down!”

There would be the inevitable explanation for the young ones who hadn’t been there: “Dad threw in a bunch of nickels and pennies, and we were diving for them.” The “Dad” the cousins meant was Uncle Rick, and the film’s highlight was when he dashed across the yard in his swimsuit, the pool empty now of kids. Uncle Rick, all berry-brown and with jet-black hair, a scrawny Tarzan, dove into the pool, displacing a prodigious amount of water. At that point, John’s dad would switch the projector into reverse. The tidal wave would return from the lawn to the pool, and Uncle Rick would fly out backwards, land on his feet, and sprint away across the grass, receding into the distance. It was a delight that never grew old, when the whole group would shriek with laughter. This was what they came to see year after year, bringing new spouses, new girlfriends and boyfriends, new babies. In fact, the film had its identity in this scene: the request was always for “the movie where Dad jumps out of the pool,” as if it had been recorded that way.

Maybe the past, John thought, it what we make of it. Once it’s happened, it belongs to us, for our re-shaping. All these decades later, Uncle Rick’s jumping out of the pool was far more important than his jumping in. It was better-remembered, better loved. It became the reality.

John’s favorite part came just at the end, when the audience had had their fun, when the little ones were starting to fall asleep, and the moms were collecting baby bottles and socks, and the dads were jingling car keys. It was a slow pan across a front-yard Fourth of July party in a distant time. Distant, for the film, though it was in color, had a slightly washed-out look, and the cars in the driveway had fins like Batmobiles, and some of the old men wore straw hats or fedoras, and the women had Catwoman glasses with heavy black frames.

The scene always recaptured the crowd’s flagging interest and spawned arguments about who was under that tree, whether or not that car was Uncle Rick’s (Uncle Rick fiercely denying it if he were present), and whether that could really be Cousin Liz at the end of the table. (“When did Liz ever have hair like that?” someone would roar in genuine indignation.)

At the end of the pan, the camera would be pointing at the porch steps. Someone had set down a paper plate there, and the food on it was now being gobbled up by Tag, Dad’s matronly beagle. As the plate slipped to the ground and Tag hurried down the steps after it, the camera went back to the party.

What fascinated John even more than the long-ago people he’d never met was the yard, the trees, the buildings, and the background fields, all of which he knew intimately. Here, though, he was seeing them as they had looked thirty years ago, the landscape more open, the giant oaks younger, the barn roofs straighter-edged. He stared past the picnickers at the root cellar, its concrete dome free of the trees of heaven it now wore, whose roots were destroying it. He gazed in wonder at the ingrown gate — the last remnant of some dismantled corral fence. In John’s own time it was half-swallowed by the trunks of the maples against which it rested, but in the film, the gate was newly leaned in place, its boards smooth and solid.

Okay, wake up! Thanks for wading through a long post! As for comment direction this time — any comments are welcome — but some possible jumping-off points are:

1. Circles of life: tales of things in your own experience that have come full circle.

2. Questions about any of the above. I welcome questions.

3. Stories of things families do together: family rituals, celebrations, traditions, etc. Do you have your own version of the “home movie” experience?

4. Tales of your own “doing what you’re meant to be doing” experiences. Is it writing for you, or something else?

5. Theories on our interactions with the past. Is the past fluid, as John comes to suppose in this story? I think this could be a really interesting topic.

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!

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. . . .

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.

Working Titles, Titles that Work

May 19, 2008

How does it work for you as a writer? Do you tend to know the title of the piece you’re writing from square one, or from early on? Or are you more like me, still struggling with the title long after you’ve done all the damage you can possibly do to the whole rest of the story? I heard Madeleine L’Engle say that she had no idea what to call A Wrinkle in Time, and it was someone else who finally suggested that title to her after the book was finished. There are quite a few funny stories out there of now-famous books that their authors had intended to call something else, until fortunately a.) they came to their senses, or b.) a sensible agent, editor, or friend said, “Wup-wup-wup waaaiiit a minute. . . .” [Gee, I wish I could remember some of those examples! Maybe you can–help me out here! I seem to recall that The Great Gatsby was one of them. All I can think of right now is that Charles M. Schulz wanted to call his Peanuts comic strip Li’l Folks.] Almost all my own stories have worn several other working titles before finding their ways to the ones they were published under. Here’s a list of a few — finished titles first, followed by working titles:

Dragonfly — The High Dark Shelf (That change was the editor’s idea; I didn’t really agree, but here was a publisher offering to give my long-wandering novel manuscript a home. If he’d wanted to call the book Wombat Boy and the Pink Lollipops, I probably would have seen it his way.)

“The Bone Man” — “The Hallowe’en Parade” (My idea, once I got about halfway into the story.)

“The Star Shard” — “The Star-Shard” (The editor changed that one, too: I tend to hyphenate everything that isn’t nailed down.)

“The Fool Who Fished for a King” — This was the original title as well as the finished one, but for awhile, during a second rewrite phase requested by the editors, it was called “The Fish of Heavensdrop.”

“Here About to Die” — “The Arena” (There are several other things called “The Arena.”)

“The Bones of Oron-Dha” — “Land’s End” (Just watch: a new maker of stylishly rugged clothing will emerge and call their line “The Bones of Oron-Dha.”)

The Witching Wild — The Cry of the Nightbird — Halcyon Fey (My agent actually said, and I quote: “Any title would be better than ‘Halcyon Fey.’ Can you imagine a bookstore clerk trying to type that into a computer to search for it, or a young-adult reader trying to spell it?” Although I knew he had a point about the store clerk, I said, “Why would a reader have to spell it?” The conversation went rather downhill from there.)

The Fires of the Deep — Lachii (But this title needs to change again before the book ever sees print. It’s been pointed out that Vernor Vinge has a book called A Fire Upon the Deep, and mine is close enough to cause confusion.)

Anyway, here’s my question for discussion: of all the titles you’ve encountered in your life (we can include movies as well as books, if you like), can you name one, two, or three that you think absolutely rule?–that is, they seem the perfect title for the work in question? To be perfect, they have to be an ideal fit for the work as well as to “sell” it — to be eye-catching, perhaps haunting, fascinating, whatever–it has to be a title that grabs hold of your imagination with both hands.

So, what are they? To what handful of works would you hand out prizes?

I’ll be bold and narrow my picks down to just two. My mind is not made up for all time. You may be able to convince me there are better titles out there. And again, in case you came in late or skimmed over all that rambling about my own titles, I’ll re-emphasize [See? I hyphenate everything! Don’t stand too close, or you may go home wearing a hyphen.]–I’ll re-emphasize that these are not my favorite books. I’m only talking about titles here. I’m naming the winners of the FSD Best Title Award:

First runner-up: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

And the winner: The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. I haven’t read this book. And what’s really funny is that a good friend just told me she was reading it and absolutely hates it! In Japanese, it was released under a title that translates to The Great Cathedral. A friend in Japan liked it, but she said the characters all seemed too smart to be normal people. Anyway, regardless of the content, doesn’t that title simply rock? I have read some different articles about the building of medieval cathedrals. (One such article about the construction of Chartres directly inspired my story “The Gift.”) What struck me was how important raising these cathedrals was to the communities that erected them. People quite literally gave their lives in the construction. They’d fall into the foundation-pits and die in the fall; they’d tumble off the high scaffolds; they’d get smashed under stones. Children in the area would die of malnutrition because the people had sold their cows to buy building materials and pay artisans. These people were completely devoted to creating these magnificent structures as houses for God on Earth. It was an era in which faith lay at the center of existence, and everything else took a back seat.

So . . . doesn’t The Pillars of the Earth capture that colossal importance, that centrality? The image is of mighty pillars holding up the Earth itself. That’s what faith was to the cathedral-builders, who willingly gave up their pennies, their livestock, their health, and their children to build these marvels of architecture.

Cast your votes! Also, if you’re a writer, feel free to add which is your favorite title from among your own works, and tell us why! As for me? My favorite of my own titles is “Glory Day,” which has long been a sonnetesque poem I wrote back in my college days–and is the working title of a short story I’m working on right now! (I just sold my cow in order to buy some typing paper.)

“Glory Day” is, of course, a name some people call the Fourth of July. For me it has wonderful associations of summer heat, freedom, fireworks, memory, nostalgia, and childhood imaginings. Yes, “Glory Day” is the title . . . until an editor comes along and changes it to “Six Days of the Avocado.” Or something.