hemingway | mailer | vonnegut | afterlives

29 04 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.141| April 29, 2008


Hemingway’s Rage at Hollywood

April 26, 2008 — ERNEST Hemingway and Hollywood had a tempestuous relationship – but his utter hatred of the movies made from his famed novels is now just coming to light.

In “The Good Life According to Hemingway,” out next month, A.E. Hotchner, who traveled the globe with him, bares a series of never-before-published slaps Hemingway took at the film business.

When producer David O. Selznick crowed that his wife, Jennifer Jones, was starring in “A Farewell to Arms” and he’d pay Hemingway a $50,000 bonus from any profits, the novelist wrote back: “If by some miracle, your movie, which stars 41-year-old Mrs. Selznick portraying 24-year-old Catherine Barkley, does earn $50,000, you should have all $50,000 changed into nickels at your local bank and shove them up your [bleep] until they came out of your ears.”

Darryl F. Zanuck, the boss of 20th Century Fox, was trashed when he asked Hemingway to shorten the title of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” which starred Gregory Peck. Hotchner quotes Hemingway, “I said, you want something short and exciting that will catch the eye of both sexes, right?” He then reeled off the first letters of Hollywood studio names that together spelled out the F-word. “That should fit all the marquees and you can’t beat it as a sex symbol.” Zanuck titled the film “The Macomber Affair.”

Of “The Sun Also Rises,” Hemingway raged: “Any picture in which Errol Flynn is the best actor is its own worst enemy.” As for “The Old Man and the Sea,” “I sat through all of that movie, numb. Spencer Tracy looked like a fat, very rich actor playing a fisherman.”

Hemingway, who committed suicide in 1961, snarked that in a love scene in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,”“didn’t take off his coat. That’s one hell of a way for a guy to make love, with his coat on – in a sleeping bag.” Gary Cooper (from N.Y. Post)

Mailer’s Longtime Mistress Sells Papers to Harvard

by Jay Lindsay, Associated Press Writer

BOSTON — An actress and writer who said she was Norman Mailer’s former longtime mistress has sold papers that include lengthy accounts of their sex life and hand-edited drafts of her writing to Harvard University, Mailer’s alma mater.

Carole Mallory saved seven boxes of material she said she collected during Mailer’s weekly visits between 1983 to 1992, while Mailer was married to his sixth and last wife, Norris Church.

“We’d have a writing lesson, we’d make love and then go to lunch in whatever order that would be, and I saved all the writing lessons,” said Mallory, 66 “I wanted him to teach me to be a writer. He was one of our greatest writers in America.”

Mallory, who appeared in movies including The Stepford Wives and modeled, won’t say how much she was paid for materials, and neither will Harvard. The school received the papers within the last month, said Beth Brainard, spokeswoman for the Harvard library She said the school pursued the papers because of Mailer’s importance as a writer, and because he’s a Harvard grad.

“It’s important to have Mailer represented in some way in the collection,” Brainard said. Mailer, who died last November at age 84, sold his own archives to the University of Texas for $2.5 million.

Mallory, who lives in Jeffersonville, Pa., said she waited to release his papers until after his death out of respect for Mailer and his family. She said she decided to sell the papers because she “knew they were valuable,” and also wanted them to be a part of history.

The collection includes photos, transcripts of interviews with Mailer, handwritten edits of Mallory’s work and scraps from writing lessons he gave. Mallory still recalls the principles Mailer emphasized, such as: keep the dialogue punchy; stay away from adverbs, don’t lecture the reader.

The collection also contains Mallory’s unpublished memoir, including a 20-page sex scene with Mailer, and a 50-page sex scene she said was based on her relationship with Mailer that she wrote for one of her books. She said Mailer had challenged her to write one that long.

“I don’t believe in shame,” Mallory said. “I believe in making love and love. I’m not going to go around and harbor secrets or shame about… loving someone. And I don’t think sex is something to be ashamed of.” (from USA Today)

And So It Went

Kurt Vonnegut, in a final collection, reflects on his distaste for war and embrace of individuality By Dan Wakefield | April 13, 2008 Armageddon in Retrospect: And Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace By Kurt Vonnegut Putnam, 232 pp., illustrated, $24.95

“Writing was a spiritual exercise for my father, the only thing he really believed in. … His models were Jonah, Lincoln, Melville and Twain.” So begins the moving and illuminating introduction to this posthumous collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s work by his son Mark. A writer himself (“The Eden Express”) as well as a pediatrician in Greater Boston, Mark Vonnegut tells us his father “had a hard time letting himself be happy, but couldn’t quite hide the glee he got from writing well. … It wasn’t until the Iraq War and the end of his life that he became sincerely gloomy.”

Over lunch in New York three years ago Kurt told me he didn’t want to write anymore, that he felt his writing had always been based on “optimism, and pride in my country. I don’t have that now.” He had become, like the title of his next collection, “A Man Without A Country.”

One of Vonnegut’s last works was a talk he didn’t live to deliver last April in his hometown of Indianapolis to kick off what the city had declared “The Year of Vonnegut.” At the start of that speech, which is included in this book, he noted: “In only three years time, during World War Two, I went from Private to Corporal, a rank once held by Napoleon and Adolf Hitler.”

It was in the crucible of that war that much of the message of Vonnegut’s work was formed, and it can be seen here in microcosm in the three-page letter he wrote his family on May 29, 1945, after having been declared “missing in action” while a prisoner of war in a Dresden work camp. He told how many of his captured company died when they were herded into scalding showers after days of starvation, thirst, and exposure, “but I didn’t”; how the American and RAF firebombing of Dresden destroyed the city and killed 250,000 people, “but not me”; how the prisoners who were evacuated after General George Patton took Leipzig were strafed by Russian planes and many were killed, “but not me.”

One can hear in these cadences the future trademark that served as punctuation in Vonnegut’s work: “So it goes.” Vonnegut survived the Allied destruction of Dresden in an underground meat locker that became, in his famous fiction, Slaughterhouse Five. One piece in this book, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets,”“ghoulish mission” recounts the nightmare of the saturation bombing of Dresden, and how in its aftermath Vonnegut and his fellow POWs were given the to search for bodies “and carry them to mass funeral pyres in the parks. . . . There was not enough labor to do it nicely, so a man with a flame-thrower was sent down instead and he cremated them where they lay.”

The short stories that compose the bulk of this book seem born of that experience – as does all of his work – in direct or thematic ways. In “Guns Before Butter” a trio of American POWs deal with their near-starvation rations by exchanging recipes and describing their favorite meals. “Food was the only thing on the P.W.’s pale level of existence that could have any effect on their spirits. Patton was a hundred miles away.”

In “The Commandant’s Desk” a Czechoslovakia woodworker and his daughter are subjected to the demands and insults of their passing conquerors – German, Russian, and American. The woodworker, a World War I veteran, comments that “when I hear of a division of war-lovers from an enlisted man, maybe I will believe it, provided the man is sober and has been shot at. If there are such divisions, perhaps they should be preserved between wars in dry ice.”

These stories are “mostly undated and all unpublished,” but references in some to the American-Russian standoffs of the Cold War suggest that many are early works, ones that simply didn’t fit the mold of the 1950s magazine fiction that was Vonnegut’s first market. They are no less accomplished or interesting for that, and will come as a final gift for fans.

In his later years, Vonnegut channeled much of his creative energy into painting and drawing, including posters with his thoughts and messages. One of these constitutes the last page of the book:

“Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him.

“It was music.

“I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”

It was disgust with the kind of civilization that reduced Dresden “to crushed stone and embers; disemboweled her with high explosives and cremated her with incendiaries,” the kind of civilization that in another era brought “shock and awe” to Baghdad.

The dark irony that lies beneath Vonnegut’s wry, satiric work is always in the service of the individual – Billy Pilgrim surviving the firebombing of Dresden, Eliot Rosewater giving his fortune away to help particular people with their problems – and against the system, the destructive side of civilization, represented here by the conqueror Robert The Horrible in Vonnegut’s neat medieval morality tale, “The Unicorn Trap.”

The story’s hero, Elmer the serf, resists the conqueror’s offer to make him a tax collector, part of the corrupt system, at the risk of his own neck. He explains his philosophy to his family: “The wreckers against the builders! There’s the whole story of life!”

Novelist Dan Wakefield is writer in residence at Florida International University. [from THE BOSTON GLOBE]

ed abbey | an introduction & on nature

27 04 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.140 | April 26, 2008

Earth Day Week, April 2008:


This concludes the ‘Literary Interpretation & Celebrations” of EARTH WEEK, 2008.

And who would be a stronger closer than the profane, pugnacious, problematic, scoundrel, sage, protector of the desert-mind, arch-enemy of the developer, the state, the status-quo, the late great Ed Abbey? (Buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the American desert, the coyotes still feasting on his hardy bones—as he so desired.)

Best to let old Ed speak for himself here, though I could easily fill pages on what he meant/means to me personally. Just what an all-around ‘good guy’ he was to so many writers who, for whatever reason, found themselves in tune with his voice: Vox Clamantis in Deserto.

If you’ve never read him—start anywhere. But begin with Abbey’s own WALDEN POND, set in the dry Southwest, an American Classic of our time: DESERT SOLITAIRE.

two excerpts below, “An Introduction” and “On Nature” are taken from his small but beautiful book, A VOICE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, Notes from a Secret Journal, St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Norbert Blei

An Introduction

It is with considerable diffidence and in the spirit of true humility which only a modern American writer can summon to the page so easily that I hereby offer this pretentious and artistically crafted little volume to the literary public. For years, I have been threatening that public—my readers—such as it is, with the detonation of a Fat Masterpiece. This book, readers, you will be relieved to learn, is not that book. My Vox is not fat, not masterly, not even a piece, but a deliberate collocation of fragments.

Most of the statements in the above paragraph are false. Not all of them.
The above statement is false.

In truth, I’m happy to see my Vox emerge from its shell, and cannot imagine any pretext for an apology. (A cheap paperback edition will follow in due time.) The shell, in this case, consists of a private journal I’ve been keeping, fairly faithfully, since 1948; a journal now twenty-one volumes long, and this chick, the bird or book, is simply a collection of fragments from that twenty-one-year-old personal record.

The fragments, or notes, were obviously not -chosen at random but with an eye to propositions and declarations that say something provocative in a minimum number of words. I’ve always been an admirer of the epigram and the aphoristic style—from Montaigne: “It is good to be born in a depraved time; for, compared to others, you gain a reputation for virtue at a small cost.” From Schopenhauer: ”Style is the physiognomy of the mind,” to Samuel Johnson: “Of all forms of wealth, intelligence at least seems fairly distributed; for no man complains of a lack of it.” Back to Schopenhauer: ” A pessimist is an optimist in full possession of the facts.” And on to Ambrose Bierce:” Love is a disease for which marriage is the perfect cure.” And George Santayana: ” For good or ill I am an ignorant man, almost a poet.” And finally, Aristotle: ” Melancholy men, of all others, are the most witty.” Some of my favorite books, such as Thoreau’s W olden, can be read as a mosaic of epigrams.

Herewith, I try my hand at it, making no claims at wit or wisdom, but hoping nonetheless (in secret) that within this paper bin the reader may discover a few nuggets of genuine gold, or of that which glitters even better: fool’s gold.

Some of these notes have appeared, in altered form, in previous books of mine, floating along in a flood of earnest prose. Others may be unconscious plagiarisms from the great and dead (never steal from the living and mediocre), ideas absorbed in my reading so long ago that I’ve made them mine and forgotten the source. If so, the author would appreciate hearing from readers on this point. (Be kind.)

Good or bad, I like to think of these selected journal notes as potential essays, germinal essays, essays in a nutshell—one-liner or one-paragraph monographs—in which some vast formidable thesis, together with resounding conclusion, bristling from end to end with a full armament of apparatus scho-lasticus, is presented in nuclear form, leaving to the reader’s discernment, learning, logic, and intellectual energy its unfolding and full development. An isolate voice, crying from the desert. Vox clamantis in deserto is a role that few care to play, but I find pleasure in it. The voice crying from the desert, with its righteous assumption of enlightenment, tends to grate on the nerves of the multitude. But it is mine. I’ve had to learn to live within a constant blizzard of abuse from book reviewers, literary critics, newspaper columnists, letter writers, and fellow authors. But there are some rewards as well: The immense satisfaction, for example, of speaking out in plain blunt language on matters that the majority of American authors are too tired, timid, or temporizing even to allow themselves to think about. To challenge the taboo—that has always been a special delight of mine—and though all respectable and official and institutional voices condemn me, a million others think otherwise and continue to buy my books, paying my bills and financing my primrose path over the hill and down the far side to an early grave. Yes, it’s true by God, whatever I’ve accomplished as a writer, I’ve done on my own, without any encouragement from my ” fellow” authors and against first the indifference and then the resolute opposition of the guardians of our contemporary Kultur.

Kultur, I say, not civilization; when or where has a true civilization, worthy of the respect of honest men and honorable women, ever existed ? Name me one organized human society, ethnic group, race, or nation, modern or historic, that does not deserve—on due consideration—our most generous contempt. A few exceptions come to mind: perhaps the Finns, the bushmen of the Kalahari, the Hopi of Arizona—those who have committed least evil in the world; but they are few indeed and they come from the remotest fringes of the anthropocentered hive—in so far as they still exist at all.

This sort of talk is called cranky, cantankerous, misanthropic. I have been called a curmudgeon, which my obsolescent dictionary defines as a “surly, ill-mannered, bad-tempered fellow.” The etymology of the word is obscure; in fact, unknown. But through frequent recent usage, the term is acquiring a broader meaning, which our dictionaries have not yet caught up to. Nowadays, curmudgeon is likely to refer to anyone who hates hypocrisy, cant, sham, dogmatic ideologies, the pretenses and evasions of euphemism, and has the nerve to point out unpleasant facts and takes the trouble to impale these sins on the skewer of humor and roast them over the fires of empiric fact, common sense, and native intelligence. In this nation of bleating sheep and braying jackasses, it then becomes an honor to be labeled curmudgeon. I accept the sneer with pleasure, as I would an honorary degree in roach control from the University of … well, Ockham. (The razor, William, the razor! No multiplication of superfluous entities!)

The Deserto in the title, therefore, denotes not the regions of dry climate and low rainfall on our pillaged planet but, rather, the arid wastes of our contemporary techno-industrial greed-and-power culture; not the clean outback lands of sand, rock, cactus, buzzard, and scorpion, but, rather, the barren neon wilderness and asphalt jungle of the modern urbanized nightmare in which New Age man, eyes hooded, ears plugged, nerves drugged, cannot even get a decent night’s sleep. While the grumbling, eccentric Vox, though isolated, may speak—I suspect—for the desperations and aspirations of many. Of very many, deprived by circumstance of the opportunity to speak for themselves. Where the means of communication fall within the control of a tightly centralized monopoly, free speech becomes a meaningless gesture, a useless privilege. When and if the opportunity does come, one must make the most of it or betray both thy neighbors and thyself.

So: This, reader, is an honest book. (Never mind the occasional self-contradictions.) It warns you at the outset that my sole purpose has been a private and egocentric one. I have no thought of serving others; such ambition is beyond both my intention and my powers. I am myself the substance of my book. There is no reason why you should waste your leisure on so frivolous and unrewarding a subject. Farewell then, from Abbey, on the parapet of the tower at Port Llatikcuf, Arizona, in this windblown, dust-obscured midday twilight on this third day of March in the year 1989 anno Domini.
E.A. March 3, 1989 Fort Llatikcuf, Arizona

CHAPTER 9 – On Nature

Us nature mystics got to stick together


Wilderness begins in the human mind.

I come more and more to the conclusion that wilderness, in America or anywhere else, is the only thing left that is worth saving.


Narrow-minded provincialism: Sad to say but true—I am more interested in the mountain lions of Utah, the wild pigs of Arizona, than I am in the fate of all the Arabs of Araby, all the Wogs of Hindustan, all the Ethiopes of Abyssina..


If wilderness is outlawed, only outlaws can save wilderness.


The developers and entrepreneurs must somehow be taught a new vocabulary of values.


It is not enough to understand our natural world; the point is to defend and preserve it.


A new conservative must necessarily be a conservationist.


The industrial corporation is the natural enemy of nature.


Concrete is heavy; iron is hard—but the grass will prevail.


The world exists for its own sake, not ours. Swallow that pill!


God bless America. Let’s save some of it.

mary oliver | white geese

24 04 2008

Poetry Dispatch No.230 | April 24, 2008

Earth Day Week, April 2008:

MARY OLIVER: Good or Bad?

One way or another, if you put your life on the line in search of meaning and/or art: the critic is bound to eventually enter the scene and have his way with you. The longer you’re out there, the more work you have to show for it, the greater the chance ‘the critic’ (outside your own friends and family) will come along and either praise you to high heaven or damn you to hell.

“I think, therefore I am.” Yes, of course.

“I write (paint, act, make music, etc.) therefore I am subject to interpretation, damnation, edification, criticism, humiliation, etc.” you better believe it.

On the upside, if you’ve been hit hard enough, often enough, you learn how the game is played and either close your eyes and walk away from it forever, or foolishly waste time hitting back, trying to gain the upper-hand, the last word.

In a very few instances, you may actually learn something. But that takes a particularly perceptive critic.

What has all this to do with Earth Week? Nature Poetry? Mary Oliver?

You will have to figure that out for yourself.

Here’s an intriguing essay by Jough Dempsey of www.plagiarist.com which may help.

It sent me rushing to my bookshelves to discover with delight once again, that rare sight of thirteen blackbirds living forever so perfectly in a poem by Wallace Stevens. Norbert Blei

You Do Not Have To Be Good (But It Helps) — A Look At Mary Oliver

by Jough Dempsey www.plagiarist.com

Admittedly, I’m predisposed to disliking “nature poems.” Maybe it’s because many are facile, easy to write, and make the kinds of observations only an idiot needs spelled out in poetry. It’s not that a good nature poem can’t be written – it’s just that so many poets have written poor ones.

So I’m in a bit of a quandary when it comes to writing about a poet who’s made a career out of writing bad nature poems. Mary Oliver is technically proficient, and from reading her prose works about poetry (her A Poetry Handbook is probably one of the best introductory volumes about poetry ever written) I believe that she knows a lot about poetry. So why are her poems so god-awful?

That Mary Oliver is a grossly overrated poet isn’t really the issue. She’s very easy to digest, and, since her poems take no risks, there’s little to offend in them. The following is emblematic of what’s wrong with Mary Oliver’s poetry:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

This isn’t the usual creative-writing-program-produced pap—no, this is highly-crafted, meticulously-designed, carefully-thought-out archetypal creative-writing pap. It takes a well-educated poet to write a poem this bad.

I was actually a bit hopeful by the first line. But then as I continued my enthusiasm waned, much like the steam driving this poem. It’s like a balloon with a slow leak, hissing along until the last lines push the air completely out, leaving a wrinkly piece of plastic on the floor, to later get caught in the gears of the vaccuum cleaner and cost $143 (U.S.) to repair, resulting not only in dirty carpets for the duration of the cleaner’s time in the shop, but also a small bald spot on the top of your head from where you scratched it trying to figure out how a balloon wound up in your living room…

Okay, maybe I got carried away with my own metaphor there. “Meanwhile the world goes on.” Really? It does? I mean, come on! The world does not call to me like wild geese. I’m not really sure what to “latch onto” in this poem, because the images (such as they are) are so vague and “first-level” – here’s a tip: just because you use the words “mountains” and “rivers” in your poem does not mean that they’re going to be in there. Those are just words. You have to do something with them if you want to make poetry.
Mediocrity Abounds!

The problem with “Wild Geese” is not that it’s vague, which it is, but that it’s completely spineless – what’s the message, ultimately, of this poem? “You have a place in this world and like the geese, are free because of your imagination!”

Assuming for a second that this is true, who needs to be told this? A useful tool for revision is to take a statement from a poem, and then state its opposite – if the opposite is ridiculous (i.e., doesn’t need to be said), you don’t need to make the original statement. This poem is like an advertising slogan, telling you that the company’s product is great. Of course it is. What else would they say?

The danger creeping into contemporary poetry (it’s been happening for years, but is growing) is the flattening of the image, the death of risk. Using nouns in a poem inserts an object into the poem, but for that object to become an image it must be acted on by the poet. Something needs to happen to the object. Here’s another little gem:

I was standing
at the edge of the field–
I was hurrying

through my own soul,
opening its dark doors–
I was leaning out;
I was listening.

— from “Mockingbirds”

Like a sugar pill, this poem seems to be doing something, but isn’t, really. I’ll let her vagueness go for a minute and stop to shudder on the phrase “hurrying / through my own soul, / opening its dark doors–”

This is the kind of adolescent angst that would be barely forgivable if a teenage girl wrote it. Coming from Oliver, who should know better, this is shameful. Angst-ridden posturing doesn’t ever make a poet sound “cool” or “deep,” especially since referring to your “soul” as “dark” is hardly original, and usually the work of the shallow and simple-minded.

And again, what’s her point? As I click through her work in the archive I have a hard time figuring out why each poem was written. What is she trying to say? She seems to have a preternatural aversion to making a point.

Oliver’s poems lack the immediacy of haiku, the punch of Robert Frost, the gorgeous language of Wallace Stevens – here’s a snippet from Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird”:


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

This is a nature poem with punch–with purpose. I understand, after reading it, why it had to be written. This is what Stevens called the “occasion” of the poem – it’s the reason that should be readily apparent as to why the poet wrote the poem, why the poem needed to be written. Oliver’s poems are lazy, and unnecessary, because it may have been preferable for her to go shopping than write the poem. If a poem’s raison d’être is that the poet had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, one (such as I) really has little reason to read a poem that had such little reason to be written.

You’re just jealous.

I’m dumb-founded that anyone would not find these poems anaemic. Mary Oliver has won numerous awards for her poetry. Why is she so popular? I think it’s because her poems are weak – you can “take in” a Mary Oliver poem in one reading – and probably after simply hearing it once. As readers grow lazier, more poetry like this will continue to be written, and the worst of it, that which seeks to affirm life while slothfully numbing the experience of the poem so that no one gets offended, will win awards because to awards-giving bodies, it feels good to acknowledge poetry that’s both lackluster and easily digestible. Awarding Mary Oliver is lending legitimacy to the “poem as sound bite” that’s very easy to promote to young readers, because it’s “positive,” “uplifting,” and doesn’t take a lot of unpleasant thought to read.

Reading Oliver is an exercise in futility, and so is this article, really, because if you’re already not a fan of Oliver, I’m not going to set you against her, and if you are a fan, I’m not likely to change your mind. It’s okay. I’ll just hope that someday you’ll learn more about how a poem works, read some good poems, and will come to appreciate poems that don’t “give up their secrets” on the first read. You do not have to read good poetry, but given the choice, why read Mary Oliver?

Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of Plagiarist.com, an online poetry resource for both the Sharks and the Jets. In his spare time he enjoys ion beam lithography.

george orwell | some thoughts on the common toad

23 04 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.139 | April 23, 2008

Earth Day Week, April 2008:


For over 30-plus years I taught an annual writing workshop, one week every June here in Ellison Bay, WI at a place called The Clearing. I created countless courses in that time on subject areas that interested me, and that I felt would enhance the knowledge and writing skills of students in my advanced class.

I spent an entire year in preparation for this one week, reading widely and deeply into the area of instruction for next year’s workshop, taking notes, preparing various approaches, planning each class session as well as other events, mornings, afternoons and evenings for the week. The subject areas of study included specific writers, writing forms, literature based on foreign cultures, artistic movements, such as surrealism, that influenced writing, etc. There was no end to all the things I thought a writer needed to know, whether just starting out, on the road a while with some success and some failure, or determined to make the long haul–a lifetime commitment.

All of these classes seemed more than worth the effort. The reading lists (books to be read months before the workshop) were sometimes staggering, but everyone discovered something about himself, about writing, he hadn’t known before, as we discussed style and substance and hopefully absorbed just what it was that lifted the ordinary word into art.

Only one course I proposed and prepared for religiously (a special fall class) never materialized. Partly because of me. I was accustomed to a certain number of students in my class, to a waiting list. But this course, in Nature Writing, failed to draw a dozen people (my cut-off being from 15 to 18…20 tops), and (in anger? frustration?) I withdrew the course from the program within days of the first meeting. (The Clearing, I should note, was more than pleased with the registration–which was around 9 students.) I felt it wasn’t worth my while. I had put too much time into it, read too many books, come up with so many interesting writing approaches that… Well, I needed a full class.

Among the many writers I planned to introduce to the class as a ‘nature’ writer, was George Orwell—famous, at least in our culture, for 1984—mostly. But Orwell was a brilliant essayist. A “newspaper writer” of the highest calling. And this essay, below, reflects all that is both informative and sublime in the best of writing celebrating our worn and torn yet ever (hopefully) green world. A little long, perhaps, but worth every moment of your attention. Norbert Blei

Some Thoughts on the Common Toad

by George Orwell
(Tribune, 12 April 1946)

Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something – some kind of shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the tempera¬ture – has told him that it is time to wake up: though a few toads appear to sleep the clock round and miss out a year from time to time — at any rate, I have more than once dug them up, alive and apparently well, in the middle of the summer.

At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not-at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the gold-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.

For a few days after getting into the water the toad concen¬trates on building up his strength by eating small insects. Presently he has swollen to his normal size again, and then he goes through a phase of intense sexiness. All he knows, at least if he is a male toad, is that he wants to get his arms round something, and if you offer him a stick, or even your finger, he will cling to it with surprising strength and take a long time to discover that it is not a female toad. Frequently one comes upon shapeless masses of ten or twenty toads rolling over and over in the water, one clinging to another without distinction of sex. By degrees, however, they sort themselves out into couples, with the male duly sitting on the female’s back. You can now distinguish males from females, because the male is smaller, darker and sits on top, with his arms tightly clasped round the female’s neck. After a day or two the spawn is laid in long strings which wind themselves in and out of the reeds and soon become invisible. A few more weeks, and the water is alive with masses of tiny tadpoles which rapidly grow larger, sprout hind-legs, then fore-legs, then shed their tails: and finally, about the middle of the summer, the new generation of toads, smaller than one’s thumb-nail but perfect in every particular, crawl out of the water to begin the game anew.

I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of Spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from the poets. But I am aware that many people do not like reptiles or amphibians, and I am not sug¬gesting that in order to enjoy the Spring you have to take an interest in toads. There are also the crocus, the missel thrush, the cuckoo, the blackthorn, etc. The point is that the pleasures of Spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing. Even in the most sordid street the coming of Spring will register itself by some sign or other, if it is only a brighter blue between the chimney pots or the vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site. Indeed it is remarkable how Nature goes on existing unofficially, as it were, in the very heart of London. I have seen a kestrel flying over the Deptford gas¬works, and I have heard a first-rate performance by a blackbird in the Euston Road. There must be some hundreds of thou¬sands, if not millions, of birds living inside the four-mile radius,and it is rather a pleasing thought that none of them pays a halfpenny of rent.

As for Spring, not even the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of England are quite able to exclude it. It comes seeping in everywhere, like one of those new poison gases which pass through all filters. The Spring is commonly referred to as “a miracle,” and during the past five or six years this worn-out figure of speech has taken on a new lease of life. After the sort of winters we have had to endure recently, the Spring does seem miraculous, because it has become gradually harder and harder to believe that it is actually going to happen. Every February since 1940 I have found myself thinking that this time Winter is going to be permanent. But Persephone, like the toads, always rises from the dead at about the same moment. Suddenly, towards the end of March, the miracle happens and the decaying slum in which I live is transfigured. Down in the square the sooty privets have turned bright green, the leaves are thickening on the chestnut trees, the daffodils are out, the wallflowers are budding, the policeman’s tunic looks positively a pleasant shade of blue, the fishmonger greets his customers with a smile, and even the sparrows are quite a different colour, having felt the balminess of the air and nerved themselves to take a bath, their first since last September.

Is it wicked to take a pleasure in Spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenom¬enon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of Left-wing newspapers call a class angle? There is no doubt that many people think so. I know by experience that a favourable reference to “Nature” in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters, and though the key-word in these letters is usually “sentimental,” two ideas seem to be mixed up in them. One is that any pleasure in the actual process of life encourages a sort of political quietism. People, so the thought runs, ought to be discontented, and it is our job to multiply our wants and not simply to increase our enjoyment of the things we have already. The other idea is that this is the age of machines and that to dislike the machine, or even to want to limit its domination, is backward-looking, reactionary and slightly ridiculous. This is often backed up by the statement that a love of Nature is a foible of urbanised people who have no notion what Nature is really like. Those who really have to deal with the soil, so it is argued, do not love the soil, and do not take the faintest interest in birds or flowers, except from a strictly utilitarian point of view. To love the country one must live in the town, merely taking an occasional week-end ramble at the warmer times of year.

This last idea is demonstrably false. Medieval literature, for instance, including the popular ballads, is full of an almost Georgian enthusiasm for Nature, and the art of agricultural peoples such as the Chinese and Japanese centres always round trees, birds, flowers, rivers, mountains. The other idea seems to me to be wrong in a subtler way. Certainly we ought to be discontented, we ought not simply to find out ways of making the best of a bad job, and yet if we kill all pleasure in the actual process of life, what sort of future are we preparing for our¬selves? If a man cannot enjoy the return of Spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia? What will he do with the leisure that the machine will give him? I have always suspected that if our economic and political problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more complex, and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – to return to my first instance – toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader-worship.

At any rate, Spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp. Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureau¬crats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

from: ESSAYS, George Orwell, Everyman’s Library, 2002, hb, 1369 pp. $35

gary snyder | smokey the bear sutra

22 04 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 229| April 22, 2008

Earth Day, April 22, 2008

Today is Earth Day.
This is our bigger, greater story, our other, larger self.

Here in Wisconsin, we give thanks on this day to our own Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day back in 1969. A ‘60’s-time some still deem a threat to the American Way…which seemed to have lost its way. A time when so much was on the line for so many yet amidst all the turmoil the culture reawakened (green again) to promises of another better, perhaps “older” way to live: the ancient message of sanity and sanctity re-connected by the Transcendentalist transformers of our time (Kerouac, Ginsburg Snyder, et. al) to the greater oversoul humming and glowing in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Whitman had his Leaves of Grass way with it too.

We celebrate all that this Earth Day, including another Wisconsin connections: Leopold, the father of wildlife management.

And John Muir, who once wrote:

“One night, my father came in with the most wonderful news that wild boys ever heard. He said, ‘You need not learn your lessons tonight, for we’re going to America in the morning.’
…”My father started with intention of going to the backwoods of upper Canada. Before the end of the voyage, however, he was persuaded that the States offered superior advantages, especially Wisconsin.
…”He had found fine land for a farm in sunny, open woods on the side of a lake. Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness. Here, without knowing it, we were still at school. Every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped, but charmed into us. These were my first excursions, the beginnings of lifelong wanderings”
John Muir, Portage, Wisconsin, 1901.

It may come as a surprise to some, but even Thoreau (who seldom left Concord) once journeyed by boat, train and stagecoach to the Twin Cities of Minnesota…traveling through Wisconsin, though there is little record of this excursion. He died back in Concord 9 months later.

There are ‘nature poets a-plenty these days, many to choose from in honoring this day. Mary Oliver’s fans are legion, and easily comes to mind. She certainly speaks satisfied that need to know all that is out there that we muct take in.

But I’d like to think Gary Snyder goes a little deeper and beyond. Our greatest living American poet who put the call of nature (now/then) back in our culture, back on the map in book after book: MYTHS & TEXTS; RIPRAP & COLD MOUNTAIN POEMS; REGARDING WAVE; TURTLE ISLAND; EARTH HOUSEHOLD, AXE HANDLES; THE REAL WORK; HE WHO HUNTED BIRDS IN HIS FATHER’S VILLAGE…

Any or all these books….a good way to remember the green meaning of this day. –Norbert Blei


Once in the Jurassic about 150 million years ago, the Great Sun Buddha in this corner of the Infanite Void gave a discourse to all the assembled elements and energies: to the standing beings, the walking beings, the flying beings, and the sitting beings – even the grasses, to the number of thirteen billion, each one born from a seed, assembled there: a Discourse concerning Enlightenment on the planet Earth

“In some future time, there will be a continent called America. It will have great centers of power called such as Pyramid Lake, Walden Pond, Mt. Rainier, Big Sur, Everglades, and so forth; and powerful nerves and channels such as Columbia River, Mississippi River, and Grand Canyon. The human race in that era will get into troubles all over its head, and practically wreck everything in spite of its own strong intelligent Buddha-nature.”

“The twisting strata of the great mountains and the pulsings of volcanoes are my love burning deep in the earth. My obstinate compassion is schist and basalt and granite, to be mountains, to bring down the rain. In that future American Era I shall enter a new form; to cure the world of loveless knowledge that seeks with blind hunger: and mindless rage eating food that will not fill it.”
And he showed himself in his true form of


A handsome smokey-colored brown bear standing on his hind legs, showing that he is aroused and watchful.

Bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath appearances; cuts the roots of useless attach- ments, and flings damp sand on the fires of greed and war;

His left paw in the mudra of Comradly Display-indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits and that of deer, rabbits, chipmunks, snakes, dandelions, and lizards all grow in the realm of the Dharma;

Wearing the blue work overalls symbolic of slaves and laborers, the countless men oppressed by a civilization that claims to save but often destroys;

Wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the west, symbolic of the forces that guard the wilderness, which is the Natural State of the Dharma and the true path of man on Earth:

all true paths lead through mountains-

With a halo of smoke and flame behind, the forest fires of the kali-yuga, fires caused by the stupidity of those who think things can be gained and lost whereas in truth all is contained vast and free in the Blue Sky and Green Earth of One Mind;

Round-bellied to show his kind nature and that the great earth has food enough for evryone who loves her and trusts her;

Trampling underfoot wasteful freeways and needless suburbs, smashing the worms of capitalism and totalitarianism;

Indicating the task: his followers, becoming free of cars, houses, canned foods, universities, and shoes, master the Three Mysteries of their own Body, Speech, and Mind; and fearlessly chop down the rotten trees and prune out the sick limbs of this country America and then burn the leftover trash.

Wrathful but calm. Austere but Comic. Smokey the Bear will Illuminate those who would help him; but for those who would hinder or slander him…


Thus his great Mantra:

Namah samanta vajranam chanda maharoshana Sphataya hum traks ham mam


And he will protect those who love the woods and rivers, Gods and animals, hobos and madmen, prisoners and sick people, musicians, playful women, and hopeful children:

And if anyone is threatened by advertising, air pollution, television, or the police, they should chant SMOKEY THE BEAR’S WAR SPELL:





And SMOKEY THE BEAR will surly appear to put the enemy out with his vsjra-shovel.

Now those who recite this Sutra and then try to put it in practice will accumulate merit as countless as the sands of Arizona and Nevada.

Will help save the planet Earth from total oil slick. Will enter the age of harmony of man and nature. Will win the tender love and caresses of men, women, and beasts. Will always have ripened blackberries to eat and a sunny spot under a pine tree to sit at.


…thus we have heard…

(may be reproduced free forever)

Editor’s Note: “Smokey The Bear Sutra” BROADSIDE BEAT #4 (2001) was published as a single sheet, four-fold broadside, illustrated, by Cross+Roads Press, PO Box 33, Ellison Bay WI 54210. A few copies remain, $5 each. All proceeds go to the Door County Environmental Council

norbert blei | απολογία | ego te absolvo

21 04 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.138 | April 21, 2008


[apologia…a speaking, in defense]



[something said before]

Somewhere in the living room near my chair, or by my bookshelves, or in a cloth briefcase, or in anyone of a number of large, heavy canvas tote bags I carry back and forth from house to coop each day, are the lives of others. Their writing lives. Perhaps yours as well, in my grip, on my mind, with every intention of ‘getting to it.’ Letters. Copies of manuscripts. Recently published books. Writers whose work, one way or another, falls into my hands…finds me. In a few cases, comes to me because I may have asked directly, or possibly said without thinking it through entirely: “Send me something sometime.” And occasionally work which is plainly dropped on me in a “Take-a-look-at-this-sometime-would-you?” kind of way. “Let me know…catch you later.”

Some of these people know me better than I know myself. Know my weakness for writing, for working writers, for particular writers consigned to a lifetime of writing for small, obscure presses. Know I have a hard time saying ‘no.’ Know my tendency to occasionally cry “Wolf!” too many times (“NO! Please! I CAN’T…I DON’T HAVE THE TIME!” ) eventually has neither sound or meaning. They suspect I will weaken. Will open the door, let them in. Expect/suspect this might lead to: Sympathy/understanding. A critique? Direction? Advice? Publication? A recommendation to another publisher?

(Only two paragraphs in—I don’t like the sound of this already. Where I seem to be coming from, where this piece seems to be headed. Excuses. ‘Poor me.’ Too patronizing, self-serving. Tell the truth!)

This is partly how it plays out in my head, when it’s always 3 o’clock in the morning in my living room after I’ve come into the house at the end of another writing day, after I’ve eaten supper, read the paper, watched the news, felt night coming on…when I would rather do anything but sleep, call it another day…when I would rather have another cup of coffee, read another page, another chapter of any of at least a dozen books I happen to be reading at the moment—turn off the light, put on headphones, listen to some music in the dark, listen to public radio (the BBC World News Overnight)…or when I remember how heavy that tote bag has become, how large the pile of books and manuscripts has grown in weeks or months, and I feel an obligation and an inclination to pull out somebody’s work already and see what’s there. And so put the light back on beside my chair, open an envelope (arranged in the order in which I received them) and finally attend to these other lives I have carried around with me far too long…reading into them till sleep overtakes me.

And sometimes (more than I realize), not up to any of this, (moody character that I am—that many writers are), unable to deal with any of it any more, (What do these people expect from me? Blood? Many of them my friends!)…angry with myself for allowing this to happen…angry with some of them for not realizing what I’m up against ever since I started a small press devoted to new writers without first books, veteran writers without a publisher…let alone all I am trying to do with my own writing)… I ignore my better instincts and turn away from all those screaming manuscripts and books…till Time passes, as it always does…till I climb out of whatever funk I’m in (from apathy to melancholia), till I get a better handle on “what I can do and what I can’t do.” Till I finally feel a little better about everything, come full circle. and the time is right, is now to open the envelopes, read what’s been there. Till I discover a manuscript or a book that lifts me out of the chair. A book to pass on to others. Or a manuscript I need to publish for the good of the author and others who may appreciate what I see in a new work.

I’m embarrassed to say that some manuscripts and books get away from me—for weeks, for months. Forever.( Forever?) Forever, Maybe. I’m saving manuscripts, books (him, her) for a time I can better concentrate, do the work and the writer the attention it deserves. Do something special—which, for whatever reason, doesn’t happen to be this moment. Maybe I need to do more background on the writer or the work. Maybe I want to be sure someone isn’t hustling me to do something for him/her, somebody else. Tit for tat. I HATE the payback game. And if I sniff it, will run as far away from it as possible—though I know this is the way things work—especially in the larger publishing circles.. Not that I’m pure. Not that I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve for more real, honest writers than anyone can imagine. Not that I haven’t occasionally done something for someone because at one point in my writing life I remember that person extending a hand to me or others. That happens. Often, deservedly so. And I’m willing to be called on it, defend it if I must. I would never show favor to anyone whose work I would not be proud to put on my own bookshelves.

So back to losing track of writers and their work. Back to the ‘maybes”…

Maybe, maybe…time passes…I lose sight, I lose interest—never intentionally. Something else/someone else comes knocking on my door in the middle of the night, or broad daylight, and I’m completely captivated by the stranger…a word, an image, a passage, a chapter, an idea for a book (often generated by me)—and I’m gone. Off again in another direction. This is the PLUS and MINUS of moving entirely too much by instinct. Too often, too many other things replace my original desires and intentions. I HATE when this happens—an unfulfilled promise to myself. Some manuscripts and books disappear from my hands without a trace, though rarely do I actually lose one. They’re always buried in some pile, misplaced in some divider of a cloth carrying-case, lurking in some recess of the working areas I inhabit, ready to accuse me in the dark: “Hey, what about me? When the hell you going to get around to me? Get back to me? Ain’t I as good as your latest attraction? That book of poems by some poet in Mongolia that nobody ever heard of? Man, you’re bustin’ me,..” But it doesn’t happen. (Immediately.) For the moment—which could last for (god to God) knows how long–I’m gone. I’ve lost sight of what I was intending to do,   Silence on that front. ‘Disappeared’–me and the book, manuscript, writer I never got around to dealing with. Who can explain it? I can’t. But I’m trying…

“Ego Te Absolvo” … [I forgive you, you forgive me] …

There are many writers I would like to publish.. So many who deserve to be published. It’s a craze that comes upon some of us, somewhat ‘established’ as writers, who feel a need and an obligation to go beyond our own writing–publish others as well. We come and we go as publishers. Good and average. We think we see what needs to be done. Few of us last more than 10 years. Why us? Don’t we have enough of our own writing to do? Certainly. But then… I think of Ferlinghetti (City Lights), Marvin Malone (Wormwood Review–gone since the death of Malone), Curt Johnson (december press), Robert Bly (The Sixties Press),John Bennett (Hcolom Press),George Hitchcock (Kayak Press–gone), David Pichaske (Ellis Press, Spoon River Poetry Press, Plains Press), t.k. splake (The Vertin Press), Ron Offen (Free Lunch), and countless other independent presses/ publications out there trying their best to fill the void where larger, more commercial presses seldom look. There could be hundreds of us. Thousands, world-wide. Who knows? We barely know each other. And we are all beset, put-upon, tired, broke, angry at times…but still trying to get the job done. Looking forward to doing the next book. But who knows when?

The unreliable narrator has nothing over the unreliable publisher. I have disappointed many writers, I am sure. And will no doubt continue to do so as long as I remain a publisher. (“Ego te absolvo.”) So many demands, so many obstacles. So many ups and downs. And I have to remind myself every day: “This is a young man’s game. I don’t recognize that guy in the mirror, and that guy seems tired.” I used get angry as hell submitting work to publishers and not hearing from them for months, years later–or never hearing at all. Now I understand. In the worst of times, I’ve become one of them! Everyday I’m on the verge of writing THE END. I can’t do this anymore. Everyday I question the value of the effort. Everyday I reprimand myself (or others express disappointment in me): “Get back to your own work! Why are you wasting your time? You’ve done enough. Let someone else take up the cause.”

Every day I think of something or someone else I would like to print.

There’s no shortage of the kind of talent, the kind of book that interests me. That’s important, in defining yourself as a publisher, which too many writers don’t realize or comprehend. That’s the black hole of publishing for every writer trying to attract the attention of a publisher: ‘What does he want? Would my work interest him? Fat chance. But…maybe’.)

I wish I could publish a book I love or generate one from a writer I feel needs to be done, every month. There’s no end to this craziness. I keep adding names and ideas to my list. And I need to put a stop to it.

This is pretty much the late-night story. [STOP]–as they used to print to signal a pause, a break in Western Union telegraphic messages. All the ongoing projects and manuscripts that I do indeed both seek and solicit from writers on occasion (on my terms) for my own press, Cross+Roads Press. Projects that demand Time and Attention. All that plus all the newly published chapbooks, standard books, reprints, broadsides, CD’s, photographs, art work that come my way…that ceaseless beat to-be-published-and-acknowledged-to-be-published-and-acknowledged-to-be-published… [STOP] To attract SOMEBODY’S attention. [STOP] Manuscripts finding their way to me via websites, old friends, former students, e-mails: “What’s your snail-mail address? I want to send you a copy of my new book.” [STOP] All wanting and needing, what’s more deserving some attention, no matter …[STOP] I know that! [STOP] Furthermore, I really want to help. Really want to read your new book—possibly write something about it somewhere, if, if… I really, really do! I may even really want to publish a book of yours—sometime. But…But…[STOP]. There are so few people out there with any interest, desire, experience to take up the task, to lend an eye, an ear to other writers’ causes/efforts, be he/she a beginner, or a lifetime veteran of the word shop—365 days a year, below minimum wage, no vacation, no pension, no security, no health benefits, no guarantee of a happy marriage or relationship, no guarantee of success, or that God’s on your side or against you, no possibility you will find faith in anything but yourself–if you are lucky. And no chance/no doubt you will ever find anything more satisfying to do with your life than writing until you can no longer find the words to put together to make some kind of sense of what may appear, in the end, to have been an almost meaningless existence. [STOP] [STOP] [STOP]


author, Agonistes

Wandering insatiably over the earth for years, greeting and taking leave over everything, I felt that my head was the globe and that a canary sat perched on the top of my mind, singing. –Nikos Kazantzakis

This is not what he set out to write. It never is

The writer is uncertain where the title, απολογία
came from.

He has carried this feeling around with him a long time, but the condition finally settled in him for good sometime last year.

Then, more recently, on a particularly bad day/night, the feeling “agonistes” attached itself. Followed, days later, by the “author, Agonistes.”

The writer has been wrestling with this matter…(scratch “wrestling”… write what you see inside. The truth of myth.) The Greek language appeared when “agonistes” came calling in the beginning, the very first line. (Stay with the Greek. Let it unravel…-you remember, what’s-her-name??? Yes, her.)

The writer’s struggle with the subject he is presently unraveling has been positively Sisyphean. (Not him again!) That’s the picture, though it came after agonistes—and apologia.

But what could be more beautiful than the Greek alphabet: απολογία ?

Words that float upon Homer’s wine-dark sea, glow in the rosy-fingered dawn.

Seeing is knowing (thinks the writer, attempting to shed the parenthentical, the artist within).…To truly see… is to truly love.

Slipping for the moment into first person (the writer explains): Once I lived awhile on a Greek island in the village of, ΛιnΔoε, on the island of Rhodos. What could be more beautiful than a Greek island in spring, red poppies on the hillsides, the blinding white village hovering above the Mediterranean, the dead, comfortably at home in their stone graves, smiling upon sea and sky …What could be more beautiful than the name of the village, ΛιnΔoε, in Greek, ‘pictured’ in print?

A time in my life (reflects the writer, first person) when Sisyphis was only a myth, the writing was everywhere before one’s eyes waiting to be plucked, put down on paper, caught live At dawn every day, the tiny white houses tumbled down to the sea in spreading light… old men with night lanterns, hovering over the water in colored wooden boats fished for octopus …the sun reaching up and down the hillside, women from everywhere in the world lying every which way on the beach inviting the fire to lick their bodies… the bare-breasted black-African woman in meditational pose…earth, air, sky, and water. Here we are gathered together. Xenos all, strangers/guests, hungering for light, starry-dark, moon-love, the shadow soul.

And oh, the music, the food, the wine, the talk, villagers and voyagers all with nowhere to go but where you found yourself each night,up and down the narrow cobblestone walks, congregating finally at Kosta’s dimly lit taverna with the barred windows open to the night, the old women in black, their faces pressed against the iron bars, badgering their drinking husbands to come home. Here, where you found yourself night after holy night, at Kosta’s near the domed church…here, denying ‘hereafter’ in story, laughter, desire. Lost-and-found souls of a book in progress that had no symbolism on the page, here where the story was lived beyond language, here where words inevitably failed because the living was always a better story than the telling.

When that journey ended, the writer returned relunctantly yet in some vague anticipation to the the house he abandoned in the rural, near a small lake. He was met at the door by what he remembered of himself once being there…some joy, a little sorrow, and much uncertainty. Was he beginning all over again or had something ended he had no way of knowing or expressing? He opened the door a crack, only to be met immediately by the familiar. That, plus a damp, mustiness filled the air. He stepped into the darkness, flicked on the light switch, but there was no light. He made his way to the cupoard above the sink, found some candles and lit them. There was a broken window near the kitchen table, torn curtains. Water on the floor. The smell of dead mice permeatied everything. He lit a smoke from the last pack of Turkish cigarettes he had purchased in the old country and sat in a wooden chair at the kitchen table till all the candles burned out. He remained there in the darkness for a long time, half awake till morning.

Weeks passed. He made-do. He was on his way back from and to somewhere. But it would take a while to figure out. He saw no one but an old neighbor down the road who helped make the house habitable, about as comfortable as he could stand it. He was determined not to require much.

He saw a boat for sale next to a neigbor’s barn one day and bought it. An old flat-bottom, metal row boat, used for duck hunting, the color of mediterranean blue. He painted ΛιnΔoε in black on both sides of the upturned bow and brushed-in a small orange sun above ΛιnΔoε on each side. He loved looking at the name, the painted sun against the blue. Looking out his kitchen window, he thought the boat seemed afloat on the edge of his green woods. He found a thick, braided rope in the woodshed, tied it around a heavy rock he dug out of the ground and fixed the other end of the line to the bow. Weeks passed. A whole season disappeared, the ΛιnΔoε remained afloat in hs eyes in the clearing in the woods. Sometimes, early mornings, warm afternoons, he would sit in the middle of the boat and smoke, read a book. He was reading Kazantzakis at the time. He carried him around in his back pocket ever since his life over there on the islands. He put to memory the old Cretan saying: “Return where you have failed,
leave where you have suceeded.”

The time came when he grew tired of his landlocked condition, backed up the pickup, grabbed the bow of the boat in both hands, pulled it a short distance over the ground, acrosss the crushed stone driveway, lifted and pushed the boat to the back of the truck and drove down to the water.

It was dusk. Still warm. Early autumn, the trees beginning to change color. Most of the visitors gone back to the city. Most of the locals concerned with daily survival. He rowed out to the middle of the small lake, pulling hard, feeling the movement of boat across the surface of the water in his hands, up his arms, coming to rest deep into both shoulders, the back of his neck. He was losing sight of things, leaving himself behind the further he rowed from shore. He was trying to find the old rhythms his boyhood body once knew.

The oars moved in and out of the water with barely a sound. He was taking his time, letting the boat find his way…just taking his time.The only thought in his head wasn’t so much a thought as a feeling, an image… the movement of water in his wake, watching the water drip back into the lake as he raised both oars simultaneously. He could feel his legs stretch deep into the bottom of the boat.

The whole motion might prompt a song, if he had a song in him. He had none. A gull cut a broken white line in the darkning sky above him as he attempted to stand up in the boat and drop the stone anchor into a place where he might find himself still, as still as any man could be on water, sitting in the middle of a boat, drifting here and there. Till the moon surprised him coming up over his shoulder, staring at him in the water. One moon. Shimmering. Two moons. Broken moons. Broken water. Moons spilling about.

The darker the night, the brighter the light on water, the smaller and more distant the moom, the more absent he felt in the silence.

The man in the moon.


Writing on water.

απολογία…he read into himself. Guilt heavy as stone tied in unforgiving knots.

agonistes…so much he’s left undone…still…

How many more stories must I tell? the writer asks himself.

So then what happens? Isn’t that the movement, the direction of all narratives? After his return? After the boat and the lake and the anchor and the moon and the words floating on water?

Nothing. He remembers. For sometime, nothing. For sometime coming back was like beginning. That was the best part. Like being alone on water, drifting. Waiting to find the words to tell. As in the beginning for any writer, where there is no other place to be but the place where the unimagined, inexpressible drifts somewhere about you and slowly reveals itself through you, through your head, into the blind, small warmth your mouth, the tasting of the tongue, then down into the throat, spreading across the chest, filtering through the heart, making its way down every path in the body, up the shoulder, down the arm, into the hand, down to the finger tips scribbling your tiny truths through a broken yellow pencil to be born and remembered on paper.

That was here, mine, once, he felt. He knew.

Every journey you make from everything holding you in place, freeing you, is an attempt to retrieve that.To get it back. Again. This time protect it. Keep it. Make it last.

But no anchor can hold that long enough.

Gradually you drift… and drift…and drift…ashore.

Where they are waiting for you.

[Excerpt–work in progress, ipgs/frmT/mid3-1/8]