There are coastal mountains plunging headlong into the sea. There are towering trees and hills teeming with life. Birds in the sky and fish in the rivers. Everywhere all at once. Yet there’s also this: an dead expanse of nothing at the center of the world. Every inch identical to the inch before and after… Where is there any evidence to prove that God did not simply give up?
In Pushcart Prize-winner Douglas W. Milliken’s latest collection of eerie and unsettling short stories from Tailwinds Press, ordinary people alternately seek and flee grace as they run against the unfathomable mysteries of sexuality and loss: a dementia-ridden mother expounds on quantum physics to someone she is unconvinced is her son, a young man repeatedly tries and fails to end his own life, and the owner of a horse farm communes with the ghost of the woman he loves “because memory is a debt with its own black interest, proving all distances are finite yet impossible to span.” Yet Blue of the World is also a devastating portrait of humanity’s complex relationship with a brutally beautiful landscape—a world where apple trees grow in salted sand, people seek oblivion “by smashing a hole through a river’s ice and climbing under the crystalline sheet,” and arboreal death by chainsaw seemingly lurks behind any workday misstep.
Read the excerpted story “Hyacinth & Waxwing” through the Stoneslide Corrective.
Read an interview of the author with Danilo Thomas of Baobab Press.
Watch a narrative video of the excerpted stories “Skidder & Draw” and “Pillars.”
This morning I went out onto the porch with my coffee […] but as soon as I stepped out, I saw on the deck boards a little grey lump. A big black beetle was rolling the lump around. Sometimes burying its head into a softness. And as it moved the lump around, I realized what I was seeing was a very small, very dead bird. I do not know what bird it was. It hadn’t any feathers to speak of, just the moldy fuzz of a hatchling. The beetle unfolded the bird’s bunched-up neck and articulated its clenched legs. I know the beetle was just feeding, but it seemed it was trying to reanimate the bird. As if by exercising its limbs, it could bring it back to life. I crouched there on the porch watching the beetle work to resuscitate this little rotten thing.
It’s hard to know sometimes when a project actually begins. The oldest story in Blue of the World was drafted in the October of 2009 for a contest I did not win. The most recent was composed in July of 2016 for the simple excuse of I wanted to. Somewhere in between, seventeen more were written, though I know many of the ideas go way back to the unrecallable crags of the early- to mid-00s or possibly even further (who can say). Regardless, on April 15th, Blue of the World will officially be a tangible book in the world as part of Tailwind Press‘s 2019 catalog.
In a celebratory display of welcome, a multi-disciplinary performance event will be held on May 30th at SPACE in Portland to mark the collection’s Maine release. Co-presented by the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, the event will feature readings and live music, as well as interactive pieces and other dark slips of the unusual. More details to come.
“If the character is unalarmed by and accepting of the muppet in the kitchen, man, who am I to say that’s weird?”
For some insight into Blue of the World (as well as my first novel, To Sleep as Animals), an interview with Danilo Thomas of Baobab Press is currently featured on Baobab’s site. In it we discuss landscape, the surreal, and the intersection where the interests and joys of being a reader and a writer collide.
Across the distance, I saw the kitchen light was on. You were sitting at the table when I walked in, playing solitaire and drinking a glass of ginger ale in your hospital gown. It’s the last thing I’d seen you wearing. Two moths fluttered about the yellow light above your head. There were eyes of wet on your glass.
But back to the continuing life of In the Mines…After a respite of days following our Rockland performance in a desanctified church, Scott, Genevieve, and I reconvened our act for a performance at Biddeford’s Engine, where in our matching Dickie’s coveralls we explored the permutations of longing and fuckupery to a room of pie-eaters and confused children. It was exciting to feel the songs begin to tighten and shift in ways both organic and unexpected, and in addition to the two songs on the record on which she sings (“Cold Coffee” and “Brier Island Blues”), Genevieve also joined us on a rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s interpretation of “If I Needed You.” Meanwhile, the world’s worst classic rock cover band did their loud and sleazy thing in the street right outside the venue. Like the man says, “You can’t always need what you get.”
The following week, I got to take a solo part in the annual Waking Windows Festival in Portland, where I took the opportunity to read a selection from The Opposite of Prayer, which has gone regrettably neglected since its release this spring. In a fortuitous turn of events, I actually got to perform right before this guy read his manifesto, proving to be an even greater than anticipated one-two punch of fan-boy dream-come-true and utter amazement at the raw talent exercising itself in real-time. Then I watched Ivy Sole take down the house. A very good day for sensual weirdos.The beginning of October brought the three of us back together at BCA’s Cyclorama for the Boston Art Books Fair, where Pilot Editions—publisher of In the Mines as well as several of my other books—was in resplendent attendance. Because of certain logistical circumstances, we had to rearrange some of the songs for a more stripped-down performance, swapping out my multi-sectional electric setup for a new standard-size acoustic bass. Which was totally dope! Further rearrangement also included Genevieve’s vocal contributions on every song, thus solidifying her as a permanent member of the band (and also solidifying the reality of this actually being a band, albeit one without a name yet). Throughout the years, I have had my reasons for having reservations about doing anything in Boston, but the Cyclorama show proved all my angst baseless. It was a great turnout that yielded enough book/album sales to more than cover our gas. Also: excellent post-show pizza.
All of which leads to the present and this past weekend’s show at FOG in Rockland, where our expanding set of songs and stories were accompanied by our man Jason Goodman on drums and the unflappable Nina Noah on cello, and while Genevieve’s violin debut on “Howard Says” was foiled by a last minute broken string, it did pave the way for her mandolin debut (made possible by kismet and the identical tunings of small stringed instruments). It was thrilling to hear how new people’s acts and ideas could bring these songs into new and surprising sonic territory, a point made especially clear on our first-ever performance of “Lauren,” transported from an aching chamber piece into a sensual trance locked down with a surprisingly apropos hip-hop beat. The love evident in Rockland was kinetic, and hospitality of the FOG staff was unparalleled, as were their cocktails and post-show vittles. If every performance could begin with a baller Old Fashioned and end with a chicken pot pie, I’d be a fat and happy man.Since we have no further events scheduled (yet) in support of In the Mines, I guess this marks the end of this leg of the “tour.” But hopes are for more New England shows in the coming months, as well as an actual multi-date tour in New York (and maybe Pennsylvania, too). I am more than open to suggestions and invitations, so don’t be shy in contacting me about scheduling an event in your hamlet or burgh.
As always, thank you for reading and for sharing and for your daily incentive to continue working in spite of the In-House Critic’s constant suggestion to stay in bed and sleep each entire day away. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for keeping me flush with prescription meds and cheap whiskey. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to tantalize me with chemical reward by becoming a member today. And if your view of the future looks as dire as reason dictates, thus rendering any kind of subscription unfit to warrant consideration, perhaps contemplate making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards (handmade things, small-run booklets, etc.) for one month.
You are the surprise twenty-ounce pour when I’m only expecting a pint.
As always, thank you for reading and for sharing and for your daily incentive to get up, get moving, keep working, keep trying. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for keeping the carrot just beyond this homely beast of burden’s reach. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to dangle sweet reward just beyond my prehensile lips by becoming a member today. And if your view of the future looks as dire as reason dictates, thus rendering any kind of subscription unfit to warrant consideration, perhaps contemplate making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards (handmade things, small-run booklets, etc.) for one month.
You are the modulator tremelo-ing my keys so very, very sweetly.
[The following is a reposting of an interview Scott Sell and I did with the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, the graduate program where we met thirteen years ago. The text has been edited slightly: several of the links have been updated.]
In their first-ever unified narrative effort, longtime friends and collaborators Scott Sell and Douglas W. Milliken combine their stock of down-and-out and sometimes lucky characters into a coalescent shape. Eleven songs. Eleven stories. One singular world of yearning, fear, and the perdurable ache of loving right and loving wrong and, worse yet, not loving at all no matter the effort, will, and cost. Where eagles mate in mid-air. Where the cows have annexed the living room. Where the farthest ferry runs and all roads at long last mercifully end. This first edition of 100 handmade books comes packaged with a CD, digital downloaded included. Artworks by artist Richard Iammarino reproduced throughout counterpose the worlds imagined by these stories and songs.
Available August 19th, 2018 through Pilot Editions (Publication Studio Hudson).
Now that the tumult of moving and settling in has come to a sort of end—allowing me to once more work on new writing and acknowledge the publication of new stories (such as “Small Shiny Fish” in Issue 80 of Broken Pencil) and prepare for the release of a new collaborative project with the inimitable Scott Sell—well, it seems as good a time as any to resume my progressive list of things that might very well be influencing me at present.
Okay, this is a little more involved than just aunts—nor do my actual aunts have anything to do with this (sorry Kris, sorry Janice, although as you’ll momentarily see, not so sorry)—yet in what I’ve witnessed, aunts take the brunt. Because there’s this thing that comes up in a certain kind of literature, often written by men of a certain age, wherein (a slightly-older female relative who now and then is a cousin but I’m just to go ahead and say) an aunt fucks her teenage nephew. [This is discrete from the cousins-in-love scenario central to my novel To Sleep as Animals as in that instance, the sex occurs between consenting adults, thus creating a very different set of problems.] In the instances of overly-attentive aunts (and I am intentionally not citing the books and authors), both the boy and his aunt consider the encounter somehow instructional: it is never portrayed as an episode of incestuous statutory rape so much as a learning experience among loving members of a family.
Needless to say, this is supremely fucked up. But that’s not the thing I’m interested in.
Conjecturally and sometimes evidently, these same male authors would tell the story differently if the genders were reversed, if an uncle or adult cousin, say, took his teenaged relative off into the woods for some intensive learning. The conclusion, then, would appear to be that it’s okay for aunts to fuck their nephews and for nephews to fuck their aunts, although there’s never any sort of argument presented, just the story told without too many complicating questions asked. So what was going on with the men of our parents’ and/or grandparents’ generation? Were aunts in the first half of the last century problematically generous with their affections? Were boys, for whatever reason, fantasizing overboard about their mothers’ sisters? Or is this another example of men and boys doing whatever they please, then later reconstructing the events to convince themselves and anyone who will listen that it’s what all parties involved wanted, no matter how much anyone protests after the fact? Which leads to a bigger question: how early do boys learn the fine art of gas lighting to ensure they never get punished for taking whatever they want?
This one is not nearly as nuanced as the aunts thing. It’s simply this: fishing has come up in a lot of the stories I’ve drafted in the past six months or more. Which is fine, as there was once a time when I loved to fish, would in fact seek any excuse or opportunity to engage with some water, even if it meant catching and releasing the same fish over and over again, even if it meant catching nothing but leeches and ticks. But it’s been fifteen years since I took the sport seriously, and honestly, I cannot tell you when I last saw fit to cast a hook into a stream. So what all at once has me fixated on brook trout and swift river water? Why is this the useful device I’m returning to again and again to move these stories forward?
That’s all, just the song. It’s really good. And it’s a great example of backing vocals—no matter where in the mix they might lay—in fact being the lead (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should listen to “Gimme Shelter” with a little more attention to the ratios of passion between Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton). But mostly, it’s a great example of a really good song.
4. Carl Sagan’s Contact
I do not read science-fiction nearly as often as I’d like, partly because too much contemporary sci-fi forgets the cause and origins of the genre (it being a means of exploring contemporary social and political concerns by placing them at the safe remove of the future/space/another dimension, not simply as a means of having aliens blow shit up or to trick men into watching “galactic” soap operas), and partly because the majority of what I’ve read fails to exhibit any sort of literary finesse. So of course Carl Sagan would be my ideal sci-fi author: a brilliant scientist, a compassionate humanist, and a genius at communicating complex ideas in a coherent way. The end result is a novel that’s riveting, easily devourable (I took down the 400+ pages in three days), and oddly…plausible. Add to that the sense (though maybe not the fact) of having learned something about radio telemetry, quantum mechanics, and advanced decryption, and you very likely have the perfect science-fiction novel. Also, incredibly, it’s possibly the most convincing argument for the existence of a capital-G God that I might have ever encountered. Make no mistake: the film is great (he and Ann Druyan originally wrote the film treatment before Sagan expanded the idea into a book). But with more nuance and more room to stretch out and explore, the novel is a distinct and distinctly-deeper pleasure.
Okay, enough shallow meditation on space, incest, and fish. As always, thank you for reading and for sharing and for your daily incentive to get up, get moving, keep working, keep trying. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for keeping the carrot just beyond this homely beast of burden’s reach. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to dangle sweet reward just beyond my prehensile lips by becoming a member today. And if your view of the future looks as dire as reason dictates, thus rendering any kind of subscription unfit to warrant consideration, perhaps contemplate making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards (handmade things, small-run booklets, etc.) for one month.
You are the subwoofer to my whomping 808.
Praise for BLUE OF THE WORLD
“Blue of the World reminds me of some wild, enormous mineral towers I saw once above a riverbed. Just when you thought you’d figured out the contours, another plane appeared, and then another, then a broken edge, a polished step, a rippled bowl. These stories are like that—brilliant surfaces, hidden depths, unsettled corners. Weeks since I finished the book, still I dip into it like dreaming, the perfect paragraphs new in my hands.”
– Bill Roorbach, author of Life Among Giants and The Remedy for Love
“There’s such a satisfying alchemy to Milliken’s sentences—rhythms, textures, and resonances that magic our day-to-day idiocies into almost hilarious beauty. And by beauty, I don’t mean some transcendent feeling or deliverance from our isolation, but something much deeper and stranger: the extraction of an inner warmth we always hoped was there.”
– Meghan Lamb, author of Silk Flowers
“Beneath the lucid, serene surface of Milliken’s prose lie disturbing realities. His immersive fiction takes us to places where we may be afraid to look and invites us to celebrate the beauty of unsettling mystery.”
– Nat Baldwin, author of The Red Barn
“Milliken is a master of leveling the field of experience and revealing the things we all carry with us—awe, insecurity, nostalgia—whether we’re looking up at the stars or about to be swept out to sea.”
– Celia Johnson, Creative Director, SLICE Literary
Praise for ONE THOUSAND OWLS BEHIND YOUR CHEST
“One of Portland’s most prolific and original fiction writers.”
—The Portland Dispatch
“In Milliken’s stories, you get characters who seem like regular-ass people until their motivations […] collide them.”
—The Portland Phoenix
Praise for CREAM RIVER
“I believe Doug Milliken has a firm grasp of life’s little traumas. He takes his chunk of loving meat and hangs it from a butcher’s hook on display for the world to read.”
—from the foreword by Ben Trickey, singer/songwriter
“Cream River […] is still on my mind, as if its characters were hanging around in the dark shadows of my consciousness. […] I was blown away by “Color Wheel.” I also loved how the stories had a series of sometimes evident and sometimes subterranean connections that became especially intriguing as the cycle approached its end. I highly recommend reading Cream River.”
—Jonathan Weisberg, Stoneslide
“I loved every story, every word.”
—Erin Sprinkle, singer/songwriter
Praise for TO SLEEP AS ANIMALS
“[…] it is impossible not to be the weird kid in Milliken’s Reno. To Sleep as Animals is a mystery about characters succumbing to their spaces, how such a rugged landscape sustains so many strange and dangerous lives.”
“A disturbance of a very specific flavor […] Milliken’s writing is urgent yet finely considered—a literate pleasure.”
—Carl Skoggard, translator of Sonnets by Walter Benjamin.
“A distinctive and often vertiginously frightening psychological landscape […] bracingly disturbing.”
—Megan Grumbling, author of Persephone in the Late Anthropocene.
Praise for BRAND NEW MOON
“These stories […] glow with some sort of holy light, as if every moment were magic, like footage of your family picnic on super 8.”
—The Portland Phoenix
“Seriously the funniest thing I have ever read. I was laughing so much that [my wife] yelled at me. Probably because she was sleeping. And it was 2 AM.”
—Derek Kimball, Last House Productions
Praise for WHITE HORSES
“Douglas W. Milliken takes his time unveiling the savoring of the moment in a narrative of extremely gracious intimacy. The dignified personal. Expert surreal grounded prose. Pragmatic poetics that serve the whole. This man is a master of simile. And it never gets old because the associations are always complex and unexpected. Worked accuracy but seamlessly so. Wow throughout the heartbreaking sensuality. Its core a felled forest of need. The title story, ‘White Horses,’ cannot be improved, which is another way of saying it is perfect.”
—Melody Sumner Carnahan, co-founder of Burning Books.