Tuesday, August 25, 2015

And You Don't Know The Way

Clinical depression has been a challenge for me since I was at least three years old; I've been told by doctors that I might have been neurologically unusual right from birth. Whatever conditions brought it about, it's cost me more than I'd care to examine too closely. But in recent years I've come to accept it as a truth of life; I no longer fear it. When it creeps up on me, there it is. I know it now, as I might know a field or a hillside.

For that reason, I found Melancholia reassuring. It described a world, a condition that I understand, and the ending of the film actually left me feeling calm and whole. In fact, I feel better now than I have in weeks. I know the feeling won't last, but I welcome it.

Watching this for a second time, I had to question all the negative reviews. Yes, the often-shaky camera style seemed a poor aesthetic choice, and I would rather have had an original score that reflected the film itself, to music that already brings its own associations. But otherwise, I loved Melancholia.

Up to a point, the film reminds me of Bergman's Shame, where the two main characters also respond to the end of the world in opposite and unexpected ways. The coping mechanisms that we develop to handle depression often make ordinary life unliveable, but can be surprisingly useful when things fall apart.

Unlike Shame, which is one of the more depressing and paralyzing films I've seen (and brilliantly so), Melancholia feels like a lifted weight, like a wall kicked apart. Its final moment feels like love... and liberation.

Afterward, I kept thinking of a sad, stark line from another severely underrated film: Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia. During an ugly, confrontational moment, the heroine turns to the main character, and says, "I've been down this road before, and you don't know the way." For me, that one line would sum up Melancholia.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Double Pulse

At first glance, Mervyn Peake and Robert Frost might seem dissimilar; but at second?

To Earthward
by Robert Frost.

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of -- was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Down hill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they’re gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.

- - - - - -

Rather Than A Little Pain
by Mervyn Peake.

Rather than a little pain, I would be thief
To the organ-chords of grief
That toll through me
With a burial glory.

Wherefore my searching dust
If not to breathe the Gust
Of every quarter
Before I scatter,

And to divine
The lit or hooded Ghost, and take for mine
The double pulse; so come
Forth from your midnight tomb

Cold grief,
I would be thief
Of you,
Until my bones breed hemlock through and through.

(c. 1940)

- - - - - -

Complete Poems of Robert Frost. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

Peake's Progress, Edited by Maeve Gilmore. Penguin Books, 1981.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Gimme das Lied, Babe!

While on my bike this evening, as I drove into the tunnel of an underpass, I heard a woman singing in what I considered a fine operatic voice. I could see her up ahead, a silhouette against the exit; she stood beside a bearded man, and she was bent over with laughter.

As I rode past, I called out and said, "Can you sing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde?"

She replied, "No... but if you come back tomorrow, babe, I bet I could!"

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Wheels Failed, The Wheels

When I read something that fails, I tend to move on to the next with hope for better prospects; but sometimes, I hit the brakes to look at the blood on the asphalt, and I wonder: what the hell went wrong?

At the same time, as a person who writes nightmare stories, I'm eager to study a case that set out with nightmare intentions, but ended up as a pile of wreckage under clear skies on an empty road.

So let's have a look at the accident scene. This poem is from WHEELS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE (Longmans, Green & Co, New York, 1916).

by Osbert Sitwell.

Round the great ruins crawl those things of slime; --
Green ruins lichenous and scarred by moss, --
An evil lichen that proclaims world doom,
Like blood dried brown upon a dead man's face.
And nothing moves save those monstrosities
Armoured and grey and of a monster size.

But now, a thing passed through the cloying air
With flap and clatter of its scaly wings --
As if the whole world echoed from some storm.
One scarce could see it in this dim green light
Till suddenly it swooped and made a dart
And swept away one of those things of slime,
Just as a hawk might sweep upon its prey.
Then there were horrid noises, cries of pain
Which only made one feel a deep disgust.
It seems as if the light grows dimmer yet --
No radiance from the dreadful green above,

Only a lustrous light or iridescence
As if from off a carrion-fly, -- surrounds
That vegetation which is never touched
By any breeze. The air is thick and brings
The tainted subtle sweetness of decay. --
Where, yonder, lies the noisome river-course,
There shows a faintly phosphorescent glow. --
Long writhing bodies fall and twist and rise,
Anil one can hear them playing in the mud.
Upon the ruined walls there gleam and shine
The track of those grey vast monstrosities --
As some gigantic snail had crawled along.

All round the shining bushes waver lines
Suggesting shadows, slight and grey, but full
Of that which makes one nigh to dead with fear.
Watch how those awful shadows culminate
And dance in one long wish to hurt the world.

A world that now is past all agony!

The one merit of this poem is that its flaws are clear enough to pick apart.

First of all, there are no surprises in the language. A good poem can startle us with a single noun:

When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.
[Robert Herrick]

Or with a vivid simile:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific -- and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise --
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
[John Keats]

With language that speaks to the senses:

Her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees....

Or with an abstraction that seems to fly directly to the subconscious:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot....

This poem by Sitwell has one vividly specific simile: "Like blood dried brown upon a dead man's face." But otherwise, the adjectives are bland or cliched:

great ruins

evil lichen

dim light (green or otherwise)

horrid noises

dreadful green

noisome river-course

gigantic snail

awful shadows

Even worse, these adjectives make a promise that is not kept: nothing in the poem can justify the use of "evil" or "horrid" or "dreadful," because nothing in the poem -- not in its imagery, not in its narrative -- can bring these qualities to life. Writers can toss around as many adjectives as any good dictionary can provide, but unless the details of a poem can dramatize or suggest the applicability of such terms, then adjectives become like the coins fed into a slot machine: they fall away from your fingertips with an empty clatter, and they achieve nothing.

Meanwhile, Sitwell drags in a sense of portent that also achieves nothing.

Watch how those awful shadows culminate
And dance in one long wish to hurt the world.
A world that now is past all agony!

And yet, while the blobs "dance" and "play" (threatening verbs! Hide the children!) nothing much happens. I'm still here in one living chunk, and so (I'd like to assume) are you.

If poets want to destroy the world, they should go ahead and get the job done, as vividly as their skills can allow:

The Thirst of Satan
by George Sterling

In dream I saw the starry disarray
(That battle-dust of matter's endless war)
Astir with some huge passing, and afar
Beheld the troubled constellations sway
In winds of insurrection and dismay,
Till, from that magnitude whose ages are
But moments in the cycle of the star,
There swept a Shadow on our ghost of day --

A Shape that clutched the deviating earth
And checked its headlong flight and held it fast,
Draining the bitter oceans one by one.
Then, to the laughter of infernal mirth,
The ruined chalice droned athwart the Vast,
Hurled in the face of the offended sun. 
[From BEYOND THE BREAKERS AND OTHER POEMS. A. M. Robertson, San Francisco, 1914.]

With one clearly-described action, Sterling achieves more doom in 14 lines than Sitwell can with all of his vague fumbling.

And what could be done, to justify that description of a world "past all agony"? William Butler Yeats took on the task, and even though he relied more on abstract implication than Sterling did, what he implied at least had the virtue of being specific.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre  
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere  
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst  
Are full of passionate intensity.

For another world "past all agony," we can turn to Clark Ashton Smith.

by Clark Ashton Smith

In billow-lost Poseidonis
I was the black god of the abyss:
My three horns were of similor
Above my double diadem;
My one eye was a moon-bright gem
Found in a monstrous meteor.

Incredible far peoples came,
Called by the thunders of my fame,
And passed before my terraced throne
Where titan pards and lions stood,
As pours a never-lapsing flood
Before the wind of winter blown.

Below my glooming architraves,
One brown eternal file of slaves
Came in from mines of chalcedon,
And camels from the long plateaus
Laid down their sard and peridoz,
Their incense and their cinnamon.

The star-born evil that I brought
Through all that ancient land was wrought:
All women took my yoke of shame;
I reared, through sumless centuries,
The thrones of hell-black wizardries,
The hecatombs of blood and flame.

But now, within my sunken walls,
The slow blind ocean-serpent crawls,
And sea-worms are my ministers,
And wandering fishes pass me now
Or press before mine eyeless brow
As once the thronging worshippers....

And yet, in ways outpassing thought,
Men worship me that know me not.
They work my will. I shall arise
In that last dawn of atom-fire,
To stand upon the planet's pyre
And cast my shadow on the skies.
[From SELECTED POEMS. Arkham House, 1971.]

Specific details, clear focus, a promise of doom and evil not only made, but kept: Sitwell's poem could have worked if he had held these principles in mind. Instead, he gave us a smear of grease on a country road, a pile of crushed metal.

Staring, pondering, I can only vow that I will do whatever I can, to drive with greater care than he did, when I set off once more on my own untrusted wheels.

Noun Power

Never underestimate the power of a carefully-selected noun.

Upon Julia's Clothes
by Robert Herrick.
When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave Vibration each way free;
O how that glittering taketh me!

The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, edited by F. W. Moorman.
Oxford University Press, London, 1921. (1957 reprint.)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Meanwhile, In A Dull White Void

"Hey Ted," said Fred.

"Hey Fred," said Ted.

"What are you reading these days, Ted?"

"Fred, I've been trying to read John O'Hara."

"John O'Hara? Why, Ted?"

"Because Damon Knight had some good things to say about O'Hara's technique with short stories."


"Yeah. I really admire Damon Knight, and I respect his opinions. But you know, Fred --"

"No, I'm Ted. You're Fred."

"Oh, right," said Ted. "But you know, Fred, I'm having my doubts."


"Princeton doubts. Harvard doubts. Yale doubts."

"Those are some of the biggest doubts of all, Fred."

"Yeah, Fred, they are. Big prestigious Theta Delt Princeton doubts. You see, this O'Hara guy writes many stories that are nothing much more than dialogue."

"Dialogue, Ted?"

"Endlessly repetitive dialogue, Ted. No matter where a story might be set, the textures of the prose are always the same, and there's never any sense of place. People might be discussing universities and consumer items in a void."

"That sounds a bit stifling, Doris."

"It is, Bob. There's not much sense of a world in his work, and the people seem kinda thin. But they went to good schools. And they dress pretty good."

"I guess he's just not the sort of writer for me. Wanna play golf, Al?"

"Sure thing, Al. I wanna try out my new Honma Golf’s Five Star Set golf clubs."

"Wow! They start at five thousand and four hundred dollars each."

 "Those are the ones, Kit. They'll come in handy when I go to Yale."

"Oh... Esther... I wish I could have gone to Yale."

Smoked Paper

Before sunset this evening, as I biked through Parc Jacques-Cartier beside the Ottawa River, I turned a corner and noticed -- something -- on the asphalt pathway that was giving off a thin stream of white smoke.

When I braked for a closer look at this, I saw that it was a burning paperback of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Someone had set fire to the inner pages, and they were smouldering beneath an undamaged cover.

An unshaven young man in a blue shirt walked up and without pausing for more than two seconds, poured beer from a can onto the book, then kicked it off the asphalt and onto the grass. He went on his way.

After he was gone, I stomped on the book until it stopped smoking -- not the way I'd prefer to treat a book, but conditions at the time were slightly weird.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Uncertainties, Mysteries, Doubts

While thinking tonight about Negative Capability, I was hit by an extension to this idea that had never occured to me before... or perhaps I should say, by something I had understood and accepted all my life, but without noticing the connection to this idea from John Keats.

"Brown and Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

-- John Keats: Letter to George and Tom Keats, 22 December 1818.

Keats applied this quality to people who write, but this Negative Capability could apply as well to people who read -- especially to people who read poems. After all, a poem could mean one thing to you at twenty, and something subtly different at fifty. Which meaning would be correct: the first? the second? neither? both? Sometimes we have no idea, and we have to accept the poem without a firm understanding of what it means -- if it means anything at all, beyond its goosebump effect on some hidden sector of the brain.

Uncertainties, mysteries, doubts -- these are what we have to expect, if we want to enjoy poetry. But how many of us would rather not read it?

Saturday, August 1, 2015


For an interesting shock, read to the end of this quoted paragraph.

-- From
"Scientifilm Marquee," by Forrest J. Ackerman,
SPACE TRAVEL, September 1958.
THE CREATURE FROM GALAXY 27, his first screenplay, has been sold by the remarkable young (21) writer Martin Varno to the movies. The "Sci-Fi Studio," American-International, will release this sf thriller in which Varno, himself a fan, and son of actor Roland Varno, will essay an important role! Fanne [sic] Pandora Bronson will also be tested for a part in the picture, artwork for which has been done by another ardent s.f. reader and talented brush-wielder, Ron Cobb. Wait'll you see the monster Cobb has come up with for this one: it out-creatures the Thing!

As it turns out, the script was filmed, but without any contribution from the "talented brush-wielder." What a shame!