Friday, February 29, 2008

The Dirt Road


Wendell Hodge was an affable man who worked for the Hancock County Department of Roads for twenty-seven years. He raked gravel into level ribbons of highway before the paving crew came along with its steam-driven dreadnoughts to lay asphalt over his careful Zen-like strokes.

He retired at age sixty-six in the piney woods of Mississippi, taking long walks every morning so his feet could stay in touch with the idea of roads—of traveling, of seeing the world, of arriving. He had always regarded himself as a bit of a travel agent.

Every day for five years, his meandering took him down a dirt path to a log cabin, smoke curling up from the chimney and hanging in the air like a corkscrew miasma. Wendell finally knocked on the door one day, and a few times he had the gumption to peek inside, where he saw coffee on the stove, water running in the sink. Once he even heard a soft, lilting tune coming from a music box on the kitchen table, but no one was ever home. He started taking a different route on his constitutionals. The cabin scared him.

Wendell decided to revisit the dirt path five years later, but it was gone. Fifty-year-old pines and hundred-year-old oaks rose from the ground where the path had been. A robin engaged in soliloquy sat on the telephone wire above Wendell’s head.

“The world is full of windows,” the robin declared, interrupting his deep thoughts. “They open and close.”

“Do you mean the cabin wasn’t real?” Wendell asked the philosophical bird.

“The only thing that’s real is the road you’re standing on,” the robin replied. “Reality is always shifting, rearranging, evolving, but the journey never stops.”

Wendell realized that the robin was nothing less than feathered wisdom. Men were born to walk down roads, nothing more. He of all people should have known.

He walked on, but the lilting tune from the music box remained in his mind for the rest of his life.

Pic: public domain

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Margins

It’s where the words that matter fall.
Cursive enigmas and incomplete thoughts
simply will not wait,
will not be consigned to a slush pile
of unsolicited ideas.
They demand hearing.
Phone numbers lacking names,
a list of conjunctions,
and notations about doctors’ appointments
are wedged above the perfect response
to your wife as to why you do indeed “get it.”

A story idea—
a mad Russian anarchist falls in love
with a nun whose mother practices Wicca—
lurks beneath your latest poem:
I was waiting
for your hair
and your shadow
to fall
across my chest
like a sunset
at the base
of Kilimanjaro
.

And then there are the lost moments,
the random phrases that were apparently your life
last year or the year before,
all rendered in blue and black ink
pressed into a yellowed page:
lily of the valley
Jane S.
sunflower thankfulness
meat loaf
paraffin wax
Seinfeld tonight
say nothing

panthers

You take out a library book by Kafka.
That night, insomnia turns the pages
until you see there’s always hope
scribbled near a paragraph indentation.
You close the book and sleep,
dreaming that life is a long thin column
waiting to be filled.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Mandelbaum the Astrologer


[Another bit of quirky flash fiction—284 words.]

At forty-two, Izzy Mandelbaum spent his days pouring over zodiacal charts, correlating his findings with eclipses and conjunctions and planetary alignments. He sometimes gazed into tea leaves for extra inspiration. He even wore a tall, conical hat emblazoned with moons and stars—with Pisces, Capricorn, Libra—plus his lucky two-dollar bill and various political campaign buttons. He could afford to endlessly gaze into the heavens after inheriting a family fortune built on the manufacture of feather dusters. It was on a warm April evening when Izzy gazed at his detailed star maps and leaned back in his chair, eyes wide with disbelief. He was horrified to learn that Jupiter’s position relative to Orion meant that he had died five years earlier.

“If I am dead, I shall go forth from my apartment and walk the streets until I gradually dissolve into the ether of the cosmos,” he mumbled. “The universe will surely correct its mistake.”

On his second day of aimless wandering, Izzy entered the Museum of Natural History and stared at the beautiful young woman reflecting on the Cretaceous period. She was a vision of soft skin and dark, shiny hair more lustrous than the Pleiades. Izzy approached her and made small talk. He was powerless as he stood in the gravitational field of this newly discovered star.

That night, Izzy and his star woman danced and laughed and drank wine. He kissed her hair and lips as she nibbled Izzy’s ear and stroked his cheek. Somewhere in the solar system, Jupiter edged away from Orion by a few degrees, not daring to spoil the resurrection of Izzy Mandelbaum. Sometimes, celestial mechanics has a heart.

Picture: Public Doman

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Getting tagged was easier in school

Well, my time was bound to come sooner or later. If I pass this on to you (lest blog gods hurl thunderbolts), think kind thoughts! This is going to be tough since so many of you are sick or recovering from colds and flu. Also, many friends have either just gotten tagged, don't accept html comments, are running contests, taking time off to write, need their latest post to stay on top for a while, are on blog sabbatical, or have been tagged with this one already. Maybe the blog gods will have to exact vengeance on me after all. (If you're busy, I won't tell :) The following comes from Lana, the dreamer who recently escaped the law during her REM cycles.

THE RULES:

1. Once you are tagged, link back to the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Post 7 weird or random facts about yourself on your blog.
4. Tag 7 people and link to them.
5. Comment on their blog to let them know they have been tagged.

Weird things about myself. I will stop at seven to fulfill the requirements.

1) My mother really did drop me on my head as a baby. It's true. I had nightmares for years.
2) I danced on top of a bar at a Greek restaurant when I was 18.
3) Carley Simon once called to wish me Happy Birthday.
4) I make up words that don't exist but should, such as "merfliction" or "aquaphonia."
5) I used to do a full-body impression of bacon frying.
6) I routinely dressed as Ponce de Leon for Halloween.
7) I refuse to stop believing in Santa. Some things are sacred.

Given those people who fit into the categories at the top, this is the best I can do: Charles and Marja and Sandy and Christine and Scott

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Hallway

Dust motes swim in a ray of light,
a shaft angled perfectly
from the high window above the pegs
in the hallway where coats once gathered in winter,
wool and buttons finding solace
while Orion ruled the sky.

But time has moved on.
Years, in fact.
It is July,
and this space of cedar and oak,
of legs conquering steps
on the staircase two,
maybe three at a time,
is empty, quiet.
Even the ghosts of my children have left.

I will sweep away the dust
and memories, but not now,
not while I sit in a straight-back chair
waiting for the sun to fall,
for the ray of light
to touch my forehead
in this chapel of grace.
It is good to be here,
for loneliness is precursor
to the perfection of God.

One day, Gabriel’s wing,
merciful and wide,
will sweep me away with the sun.
There is a time and purpose
for everything under heaven.
For now, I sit.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Flash Fiction: Da Vinci and Father Abraham


The following is very quirky flash fiction modeled on stories by David B. McCoy, who, like myself, is a fan of the late Richard Brautigan. You can sample McCoy's work at Buffalo Time.
Da Vinci in My Kitchen

Da Vinci is aggravating. I have seafood gumbo on the stove, and all he can do is waft his wrinkled hand over the large pot and make notes, writing backwards in order to record the smells being analyzed by his Florentine nose.

“I need information about everything,” he says, scratching his beard. “Everything.”

“Did you ever finish your helicopter?” I ask him.

“A what?”

I point to my son’s Coast Guard Search and Rescue model on the shelf.

Da Vinci’s eyes open wide. “A helicopter! Yes!”

He runs out the kitchen, the weathered screen door banging shut several times like weak applause. A few minutes later, I see him on the steps, peering through the screen.

“How much garlic do you use?” he inquires.

“Doesn’t really help when making helicopters,” I reply.

“Smart ass,” he says. And then he’s gone.


Not Bad Work When You Can Get It

Our story thus far: the universe has collapsed from gravity and dark matter floating in the interstellar void, only to explode again in another Big Bang.

Fast forward fourteen billion years. Lester Hoop sits in his yard, burning leaves as sunset brushes crimson, orange, and purple across the horizon. His neighbor, Miss Ruby from down the road, saunters up and sits next to Lester on a log. They share cheap whiskey from Miss Ruby’s brown paper bag.

“I’m tired of it all,” Lester moans. “Bang and crunch, bang and crunch, and it always ends up with us sitting right here burning leaves. The universe is nothing but a yo-yo.”

“Not much to do about it,” Miss Ruby says.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Lester proclaims.

He gets the chainsaw from his barn and starts cutting down trees on his five acres of crimson heaven, mowing ‘em down like a rabid logger.

The next time around, Miss Ruby sits by Lester, who is once again ready to cut down all the trees in his yo-yo universe.

“Wait a minute,” says Miss Ruby. “If we have to keep goin’ on like this, why don’t we go inside and make love instead?”

Lester rubs the stubble on his chin and puts down the chainsaw. “Damn good idea,” he says. “Should have thought of it billions of years ago.”

In the halls of eternity, Lester and Ruby sire a nation of children, like Father Abraham. Not bad work when you can get it.

Pic: public domain

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

For a Simple Kiss

The stars which fell into the lake
last November and froze
are still there, my winter love.

Come, lean forward over the ice,
and for a simple kiss
I will show you a new way
to look at the sky.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

One-Hit Literary Wonders


Just as in music, literature is replete with one-hit wonders, true cases of “that’s all she wrote.” Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak are only a few examples.

My favorite is Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, a 1915 book-length collection of extremely short, interweaving prose poems allegedly spoken by 244 deceased inhabitants of the fictitious town of Spoon River. (I'm cheating a bit since Masters wrote other books, none of which achieved critical acclaim like Spoon River.) Hat makers, artists, judges, bankers, doctors, gamblers--people from all walks of life--tell stories of love, tragedy, and everyday existence while constantly alluding to the other characters. A larger story emerges by the end, so that Spoon River Anthology reads like a novel. Secrets are revealed—sexual indiscretions, crimes, addictions, murders—about this seemingly ordinary town. It is almost a genre unto itself. The characters have wonderful names like Yee Bow, Hod Putt, Ida Frickey, Griffy the Cooper, Cooney Potter, Knowlt Hoeheimer, Constance Hately, and Dippold the Optician.

Do you have a favorite one-hit literary wonder? If so, share the wealth, whether it’s well-known or off the beaten path, like Spoon River Anthology.

Picture: Public Domain

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Upon Hearing a Train Whistle Late at Night



The whistle pulls me from sleep,
the falling Doppler pitch an awful wail,
like the final breath of one
who sees an apocalyptic moon.

It is a terrible thing when a stream runs dry,
when the radial pulse begins to hear
the calling of dust
to which it must return.

The demon train is gone,
having pulled its dying freight
into a country with no name.
Converging rails are erased

by the shadow of parallax pines
with no tangible roots.
It is time to let sleep have sway,
to let night run its course with dreams,

powerful engines in their own right,
before the sun spins its child into wakefulness,
before the highest mountain catches fire from dawn.
My mind will glide through kingdoms of light

that forever rise above the whistle of the grave,
where death is only temptation,
an ethereal siren song
for a mind that chooses not to wake.

Picture: Public Domain

Monday, February 11, 2008

Looking at My Bookcase

I cannot double-click my mouse
to access the contents.
Characters and plots,
pressed hard and coated with dust,
call in muffled voices
like patients at the state asylum.
“We’re alive,” they say.
“Why does no one visit us?”
Only Emily Dickinson remains silent
as she lies in her coffin yet again,
suspecting she has already died.

I sit quietly,
as in the last pew of a church
where the faithful have left for the parish fair,
for Ferris wheels and whirl-a-gigs.
The only search engine is my index finger.
There is easy access to the cosmos before me,
the sum of all creation having been cast forth
by leaden slug-type
for older times, older brains.
My spine is embossed with decades
like the epic tales huddled before me.

“It is good to be here, Lord,” I say,
echoing Peter’s rapture.
Moses and Elijah say nothing.
Mystery and awe are fit companions
for a Saturday afternoon transfigured
by the textured feel of a page.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Stephen King's Haven Foundation


Yesterday I posted a few thoughts on random acts of kindness (on my Newsdive blog). I learened last month that Stephen King has started The Haven Foundation, which can also be accessed through King’s website.

The Haven Foundation exists to help writers who have been impacted by illness, accident, or natural disaster (and King makes special note of the plight of those in the area impacted by Katrina). As many of us in the area know, New Orleans had a thriving population of freelance writers and artists, some of whom never recovered or were forced to relocate.

If writers qualify, The Haven Foundation offers grants up to $25,000 per year. King has always been a man who lent his name to fostering literacy and the arts (such as libraries in Maine). I applaud him for trying to help freelance artists who struggle to make ends meet. He said words to the effect that he will never have trouble putting food on the table, but he worries about the books of others.

The Haven Foundation certainly qualifies as an act of kindness in my book. It is part of a larger awareness that education in the U.S. is not just about math, science, and test scores. Rather, it is also about fostering poetry, music, painting, and all the arts. Until this awareness becomes more widespread, schools will continue to reinforce cultural poverty.

Picture: Public Domain

Friday, February 8, 2008

Literary Success ... in About Fifty Years


Shesawriter got me to thinking with her post on the meaning of success, and there wasn’t room to post all of the following as a response. So to wax philosophical …

I thought of all the famous authors who received little or no acclaim during their own lives, or who enjoyed initial success only to be swallowed by literary oblivion.

Herman Melville wrote many successful books before Moby-Dick, but his epic story of whaling—of obsession and evil—sold less than 3,000 copies in his lifetime and earned him $556.37. He then wrote Pierre, a dismal failure. His final manuscript, Isle of the Cross, was rejected by his publisher. For the last nineteen years of his life, Melville, now considered to have penned the great American novel, worked as a customs inspector in New York City, virtually unknown.

Emily Dickinson, the reclusive Belle of Amherst, published approximately a dozen poems while alive (the number varies depending on which scholar you consult). She wrote almost 1,800 during her lifetime. She died in 1886, and the first collection of her poems was published in 1890, though the volume is not considered a reliable text because it was heavily edited. The first collection to be regarded as a definitive edition of Dickinson’s work wasn’t published until 1955.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Victorian Jesuit poet who died in 1889 (and a personal favorite of mine), was a tortured soul, burning most of his early poems upon entering the novitiate. He took up writing again in later years but published few poems while alive, considering his efforts too egotistical in light of his religious vocation. His work was rediscovered by English poet laureate Robert Bridges, who published a limited Hopkins collection in 1918. Other editions (with additional poems) were published in 1930 and 1948.

The list goes on. Success, of course, doesn't just mean becoming a literary giant. It may mean reaching only one reader (an idea endorsed by C. S. Lewis). A single reading of a book may change someone's life forever, and the ripple effects spread out from there. Still, it gives me pause when I think about books buried in desk drawers—a dogeared manuscript, a floppy disk, a POD title—that will be discovered and read by an agent or editor in the distant future and given the audience it deserves. Indeed, what manuscripts, typed by our ancestors on an old Underwood, are, even now, sitting in dusty trunks in our attics?

I think success is "reaching an audience." How that happens is apparently out of our hands in many cases.

Picture of Emily Dickinson: Public Domain

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Poet at Minimum Wage

I meet with a close inner circle of words,
a caucus of syllables.
We decide that the poet must embrace moments
that never gain promotion.
He must always work for minimum wage.

There is the phone call
informing him that someone has died.
He remembers a fly
buzzing grief through the wire.
He recalls rain sliding down the window,
the leafless tree in the side yard.

He makes love
and awakens several hours later,
remembering that the umbrella
is still open in the downstairs hall.
He thinks of a day years before
when he passed an old woman on a porch,
and her bones seemed to be made of papier-mache.

Moments of no consequence.
Once, a breeze stirred branches
that scratched the house and woke the cat.
There was a night when a cloud split in two
just as it passed the moon.

There is no greater moment
than when the second hand on a watch
waits for the next tick.
That is when the spider contemplates
spinning its web.
That is when the poet,
his eye trained on a falcon
hanging at apogee,
envisions his next poem.

(from 2004)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Do You Use Dreams for Inspiration in Your Writing?


I’ve been planning this post for a while, but since Lane brought up the subject of dreams, I thought “no time like the present.” (The pic is Jacob's dream in the OT of angels climbing a ladder to heaven.)

Do you tap into your dreams to find inspiration at the keyboard? Many writers, classic and contemporary, have used dreams to help them discover a plot or to simply find inspiration. Robert Louis Stevenson claimed he received the seminal idea for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a dream. Amy Tan allegedly takes a manuscript to bed when she can’t find the right ending. Maya Angelou feels that her work is going well when she has a recurring dream of climbing stairs in an unfinished building. Stephen King, William Styron, and others also claim to find inspiration or ideas in their dreams. Many writers keep dream journals.

One kind of dream I’ve been fascinated with for years is the “lucid dream,” which goes back as far as Tibetan Dream Yoga but which has gained popularity in modern times thanks to Stephen LaBerge’s research at Stanford University’s Lucidity Institute. (See link in sidebar as well.) Essentially, lucid dreams are those in which one becomes aware that one is dreaming, with blurry images replaced by crystal clear 3D images indistinguishable from waking reality. Once lucid, one can, with a little practice, interact consciously with the dreamscape. It can be used for personal exploration or just plain fun—Disneyworld without the pricey ticket.

Regardless of what type of dreams we have, what if we could talk to our characters or incubate plots while we sleep? The idea is tantalizing.

Many great writers, past and present, have said they are mere vehicles for what it is that needs to be said. I sometimes wonder what I’m supposed to write as opposed to what I want to write. I wonder if the answer is in a dream.

Picture: Public Domain

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Don't Bother with the Novel--Just Write the Last Paragraph


What follows is “time on my hands,” although I do indeed know a writer who types “final paragraphs” in the hopes of discovering a plot thread he can, as they say in the military, reverse engineer. He obviously takes the writing exercise more seriously than I.

Passion Foamwave looked wistfully as the schooner, oddly named Wednesday is Hump Day, left the harbor, disappearing over the clich├ęd, sun-speckled horizon. She would miss Stubble McBone, the high-tech pirate with the aluminum leg, but she would carry on. Stubble still held her heart—literally—since he was actually a cardiovascular surgeon from the Mayo Clinic and performed heart transplants. Passion’s artificial heart now beat faster, although that was owing to the fact that Stubble had been in a hurry to make off with yet another stolen organ (and Passion’s bling), not because of eternal love. But how could she have gotten mixed up with such a dishonest doc in the first place? She’d met him at the cardio convention in the San Francisco Marriott ballroom—the cocktail weenies were to die for. She knew it was love at first bite since Stubble had some vampyric qualities, although the scoundrel claimed he was just measuring her electrolytes in case she ever needed surgery. Plus she’d always had a thing for men with aluminum legs since they reminded her of the metal bats in her fast-pitch softball league in Schenectady. And then there had been the nights of wild monkey-love in Pittsburgh (Stubble had a pet capuchin instead of a parrot) and an uncomfortable romp on his stainless steel lab table, followed by his request that she count backwards from one hundred. When she reached sixteen, the impatient Stubble knocked her out with a mallet. “Damn the chloroform!” he bellowed. And here she was, her heart having been ripped off (well not exactly—he’d at least bothered to suture her ample double D chest) by the handsome man with a Louisville Slugger where his right patella should have been. Such is love. She went to the Castaway Diner for Scorned Heroines, feeling hungry from copious blood loss. When the waitress asked if she wanted mayo on her BLT, she, like Jesus, wept. She subsequently married an insurance salesman and got her own TV show—Passion’s Gift Baskets—on cable access.

Picture: Public Domain