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.
After waking up to a mixed bag of animal behavior, I read the following as part of my first email of the day, from one of the organizing forces behind the anthology A Short Affair, which includes my story “Heart’s Last Pass”:
[We] held our first public ticketed event in support of the anthology last week at leading contemporary gallery Hauser and Wirth in their Somerset site with a live reading of Heart’s Last Pass by acclaimed British actor, Russell Tovey. The event was held against the backdrop of a landmark exhibition of works by Alexander Calder and the response was really fantastic. We will be publishing a podcast of the reading shortly, which I will be sure to share with you!
Maybe not so surprisingly, the part of this that got me most excited was the idea of my story being shared amidst a bower of Calder’s mobiles slowly turning in the breath of the room. But also: British people hearing and enjoying my work! My grim view of life in America might not be universally pleasing in this particular hemisphere, but at least I can count more and more on an international audience’s appreciation of our particular national brand of prevailing violence and systemic marginalization.
Because our world right now is so blatantly a cartoon hell, I could easily go on ad nauseum off that last riff, but I want to put off the belly-sick of the world for least a few more hours this morning. So here instead is an instant photo of the dim home-space wherein I am working this morning:
Between preparing for the ever-encroaching move to our new house and having to evacuate the premises every time our current (final!) landlord wants to show our current (final!) rental home to a prospective buyer, I have been pretty delinquent in sharing most of my recent professional goings on. With that as your warning, prepare for a list of way-too-much, all of which happens to be contained variously in one family.
With so much of my life right now centering around houses and homes, it seems only appropriate that a story about a scattered family and rogue-cows-as-home-invaders should be published now. The kind and too-generous folks at The Forge recently published my story “Mascara,” along with a brief conversation between myself and the magazine’s founding editor, John Haggerty, about how such an unlikely and fragmented story came into existence. This story is also a part of In the Mines, a collaborative project with the musician and documentarian Scott Sell (more about this below).
In an ongoing exploration of the bold absurdity of American innovation, Alexis Iammarino—a long-time friend who I had the pleasure of interviewing for The Chart several years ago and who is, incidentally, Scott’s wife—has recently released an anthology of work originally collected and presented in 2016 for the multi-venue exhibition Hole History: Origins of the American-style Donut. The book of the self-same title includes some staggering work from around the globe, including original (gross) drawings by an illustrator of The Simpsons, an infinite-regression-as-sculptural-donut by my legal fake-wife Genevieve Johnson (pictured below, sans donut), and “The Binding Stitch,” a short story I wrote about the audacity of claiming ownership and, consequently, power. The book is gorgeous and wonderfully strange, and was physically manifest by the giant floating brain at Pilot Editions (who is also responsible for most of my book projects existing in the world.
And as further evidence of my permanent symbiosis with Pilot Editions: this coming August will see the release of the multi-disciplinary musical/literary project In the Mines, assembled and produced in collaboration with Scott Sell and Patrick Kiley at Pilot Editions. The complete unit will include eleven original songs (written by Scott and recorded/produced in my living room this past January) and eleven short stories, all of which will be woven together by Richard Iammarino’s uncanny silver-pen drawings. With so many individual styles and tastes involved, In the Mine somehow defies expectations and is, in my view, the most cohesive book project I’ve been yet involved with. I am exceedingly eager to share this with you.
As I leave you with these too many things to mull over, I would once again like to thank you for reading, for sharing, and for your constant reminder as to why I spend so much of each day struggling to translate my heart and my head into language that resonates and makes sense. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for keeping me accountable to this life I (and now we) have chosen for myself. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to join in the fun of passively whipping this mule into motion 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 mentholated Lidocaine to my unfortunate rash.
As much as I’m enjoying this monthly and ever-changing list of influential things (be they global as an inadequate world leader or as proximate as a buddy’s excellent garage band), circumstances dictate that I break from the routine for a month or two. There are multiple reasons for this hiatus, but the one of most pressing and distracting concern has had to do with housing. Barely three weeks ago, my partner, Genevieve, and I found out that we were being soft-evicted so that the current owner of our home could sell it. We responded by making her a more than generous offer on the house, but with dollar signs flashing in her eyes, she turned us down in hopes of a bigger payoff. So our hidden swamp-side haven among pines—complete with trickling asbestos and frogs swimming in the basement mire—will soon be some other dingbat’s problem to solve.
It’s a particularly acute ache to lose your home, especially when it’s due to someone else’s uninspired greed. But that ache has been tempered to no small degree by a rapid change in fortune, as Genevieve and I are under contract to buy a startlingly awesome house. With my infrequent employment and uninterest in possessions, never have I anticipated actual homeownership. Yet all signs indicate that the next phase of my life will be lived in the quiet lawn-sprinkler whack of suburbia. I’ll take it.
As you can imagine, my heart and brain are in a totally justified state of flux: beyond an animal need to shelter myself and my weird little family, what’s driving my day to day actions is a mystery even to me. With that in mind, I am subbing out this month’s list of influential things with a draft from my full-length collection Blue of the World, forthcoming in the relatively-near future with Tailwinds Press. The piece, “Under the Wing,” has never previously been published and acts as the first in a sequence of four stories following Cuth’s grim passion. This might also be the oldest piece in the collection, which translates into a certain specific sense of relief for this long-nurtured orphan having finally found a good home.
Before sending you off into Cuth’s incapable hands, I’d like to thank you for reading, for sharing, and for your constant reminder as to why I do what I do. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for buoying my confidence over these past several months. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to vicariously buy me a recurrent re-esteeming sandwich by becoming a member today. And if your view of the future looks far too thermonuclear for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards (handmade things, small-run booklets, etc.) for one month.
You are the pony to my pasture.
After all the ugliness at the office over the politics of haircuts and presentability and how he ultimately loses his job, Cuthbert has to make a few stops—the after-school program where he volunteers, the hardware store—before going home. It strikes him as funny while he navigates his city’s streets, avoiding traffic and dodging pedestrians, that he should be in any sort of hurry. Does he not suddenly have all the free time he could possibly want? Cut loose from the obligations and responsibilities of work, is he not now free to pursue the remains of his life at a rate he enjoys and prefers? He’d even emptied his desk in a rush. Why wait? He resigns in person at the end of his session at the after-school program, then buys a length of rope and drives home.
The house Cuth rents is on the edge of a neighborhood of simple but sturdy houses, timber-frames and stone-foundations. Not so much the suburbs as what the suburbs reached to envelop. The sort of homes one would be more likely find far out in the country, not just a few dozen blocks from town hall and the county courthouse. Beautiful old houses all done up with manicured yards. Tall trees and tire swings. Forsythia hedges ready to bloom. Cuth’s place is at the end of a cul-de-sac: though the road continues on as a gravel scratch through some scrub and pines into a meadow strung up in high-voltage lines—the sort of ephemeral road used by the municipality for maintenance purposes alone—as far as Cuth or anyone else is concerned, this is the end of the line. Parking his car and gathering his rope—breathing in the ripe early-spring air—Cuth stands in the cool stirring of last fall’s leaves and new birds flitting among the bushes, among the trees, small piercing songs lacing through the afternoon’s diminishing blue light. Then he mounts the porch stairs and steps inside.
This is the sort of place where a family is meant to live. Big kitchen. Big den. An upstairs full of bedrooms. An attic to store old toys, old clothes, an extra bed, an extra kid or cousin. If his sister and her daughter ever came down to visit, this would be perfect. They could stay forever and he’d never know. Somehow, they’ve never made the trip. The kitchen has two cast-iron skillets and a single aluminum pot for boiling water, a couple plates and knives and a ticking refrigerator, mostly empty. The den has a chair and an end table next to the chair and on the table: a book. Unread. Upstairs is a room with a typewriter perched on a stool. In another, a guitar leans against a folding metal chair. It has never struck Cuth as odd that he lives alone in such a huge empty space. A cathedral or a tomb. It has never struck him as odd that he’d want to.
In the back half of the house is what Cuth assumes an architect would call the Great Room. Large fireplace gone mostly unused. A bank of windows overlooking the back lawn and, beyond that, a dense stand of maple and birch. A ceiling vaulting high enough to create a sort of balcony or overlook of the second story’s hall. Forming an X above everything, two heavy rough-sawn beams span the air to intersect and where they do, a large glass globe of lamp hangs from a chain. But Cuth’s not interested in the light. It’s those girders he’s got his eyes on.
It takes a few attempts to toss the rope up and over the intersecting beams. Everything else follows with the ease of muscle memory: he’s always been good with knots. He secures the rope to the X above by means of a simple gliding bowline. He drags a chair in from the den and, on tiptoes, installs a classic 13-loop noose. Cuts the extra rope with a kitchen knife. Arranges his neck into the noose. He conducts these tasks with a sort of detached ambivalence. Efficiently, he is getting the work done. He plays with how teetery the chair is: pretty teetery. Then he just stands for a moment and stares out the bank of windows surrounding his cold fireplace. Grass, greening from grey. Bright buds on the tips of branches. The movement of birds. No regret or sorrow, no bitterness fluttering in his heart. Just the vague sense that it’s all a waste. The white and purple splashes of crocuses sown wild throughout the yard. All of it’s wasted on him.
“Not too bad,” he says, and starts to tip over his chair, but in his pocket, his cellphone rings. Vibrates, actually, and chimes an electronic tinkling. He forgot to turn it off.
In this way, he is grateful that he paused long enough to admire the view. Briefly, he imagines swinging by his neck, the world fading, cooling but also somehow warming as if into sleep, while in his pocket something buzzed and sang. Ting-a-ling-ling. Ting-a-ling-ling. Cuth fishes the phone from his pocket to turn it off.
But it’s Lindsay calling. The girl who manages the food co-op. Woman, really. Dark hair always dusted in a fine spray of flour. A baker. Always looking tired but also happy, maybe giddy with the weight of her exhaustion, most likely having been baking bread since long before the sun claimed the sky. He wonders if she’s calling about his volunteer shift. Or perhaps he has a balance on his account. A minor debt unpaid. Pretty Lindsay with flour in her hair. Cuth flips open his phone and says hello.
“Hi Cuthbert. It’s Lindsay.”
“How are you?”
Cuthbert looks down at himself standing atop his chair at the center of the room, strung to the girders, and shrugs. “I’m fine. Yourself?”
They talk for a few minutes. He precarious with the rope around his neck. She probably in her kitchen. Drinking tea. Flour in her hair. When he hangs up, they’ve made plans to meet for dinner in an hour.
It’s hard work loosening the noose. Cuth puts the chair away in the den and goes upstairs to shower. He leaves the rope right where it is.
The restaurant where they meet is a sushi place where the customers all kneel at abbreviated tables, hanging lamps wrapped in brittle painted paper. Cuth is surprised at how comfortable he is on his knees. They eat small pieces of fish and drink hot sake and green tea, and they talk. She’s a good talker. A good listener, too. He had not expected someone who works with her hands in the dark quiet hours of morning to know what a voice is for. He’s glad that she does. It makes it easier to maintain his quiet with her. Later, over small bowls of ginger ice cream, she asks him what the most incredible moment of his day had been—“What gave you pause, made you sit up and take notice of your life?”—and he has to admit, it’s a pretty good question.
“After I was done work today,” he says, looking off vaguely past her, above her head and to the right, “I stopped at the place where I volunteer. It’s a program for grieving children. Kids who’ve lost their parents. Mostly you just act as a friendly adult, you know, very casual, just make them feel safe and comfortable. So I was drawing pictures with this one little girl, and she’s drawing a little horsy in pink and purple crayons, and when she’s done she holds it up to me and says, ‘Look, this is the mommy.’”
“Then she ripped the picture in half and said, ‘And this is the baby.’”
“I guess that was pretty good.”
Throughout the restaurant, since before they arrived, there’s been music softly playing. Like mournful birds in the rushes alongside some barely rippling pool. Songs older than sound. After a moment, Lindsay asks, “What were you drawing?”
And his answer: “Carrots.” He scrapes his spoon along the empty bottom of his bowl. “Tons of them.”
But later that night, while lying awake beside Lindsay in her warm bed, in her warm blankets and clean sheets and the clean scent of laundry and hair and girl, it’s not the horsy he thinks of but his view from the noose. Greens and grays and splashes of purple, splashes of white. The tall naked trunks of trees and whatever lies beyond. All of it wasted on him. Hiding just behind his closing eyes. It’s what he will think of every night that he lies beside her, every night for six more months until once again he sleeps alone and has lost what’s left of his hair to time or to incident and has no one to talk to anymore but that great X in the air of his home, unchanging and unrelenting, negating everything beneath its twin wings.
In her usual denial of the nuts and bolts of reality, the In-House Editor boldly declares herself a cougar (when obviously she’s nothing if not a petite lap panther) while I finally, after over two weeks being crushed beneath the unstoppable spearhead of the Genghis Khan of flu viruses, can take a deep breath and not break down in an aching, coughing spasm. So it is with the (slightest) renewed vigor that I continue my list of things I found interesting and, possibly, motivating.
I’m going to limit this month’s list to only two entries, not because they’re all I’ve got—after all, in my pulmonary fugue, I could do little more than read books and watch movies—but because they’re each, in their own ways, new constellations (in fact, embarrassingly new constellations) in my personal literary cannon.
1. Toni Morrison
I remember some years ago reading Beloved and being absolutely floored, if not by the emotional impact of the novel, then by the certain knowledge that Morrison wrote one of the best (if not the best) American ghost story to date. (Which, if you’ll recall, is kinda how American literature started: folks getting freaked out by the spooky-ass New England woods and the obvious devils who lurked there. The obvious deduction, then, would be to drop the qualifier and call Beloved simply the best America novel.) I also remember the prose being more than a little opaque, something I had to labor through, which if I’d still been in the throes of my James Joyce crush, would have been a great appeal, but with said crush having waned, left me feeling exempt from the novel’s full impact.
Before I go any further, I need to make it clear: I was dead wrong on this last point.
But it was this wrong assumption (“Morrison’s prose is opaque”) that kept me from reading more of her work. Which means I deprived myself—both as a reader, a developing writer, and a human—some of the best work written in the English language for, what…over ten years! What a childish asshole! I could go off on this point ad nauseum, how so many of my favorite artists (and, for that matter, people) I’d originally dismissed and disparaged via some snarky wrongheadedness, but that’s not interesting. And it also is not Toni Morrison.
There’s a specific literary mastery you only now and then find, when the prose reads so effortlessly, so naturally, that you readily come to the false conclusion “this seems so easy.” Easy to read. Easy to write. No fancy tricks. No pedantic allusions. Just the spring-water clarity of words on paper. (Right. Because clarity is easy.) This is the sense I got while sinking into Morrison’s work through my sickness. Sula. Song of Solomon. The Bluest Eye. A Mercy. Home. Each of these novels unfolds in what would appear to be an unhurried, intuitive rate and rhythm that never once shake your trust in the author’s intent. Or I should say: I never lost trust. Again and again in these novels, it’d strike me that I had no idea where the story was going, where it was leading me, and instead of being pissed about it—feeling that jerked-around sense of aimless clever that too often permeates post-modern and post-grad fiction—I felt pleased, felt able to relax into the story, able to put aside being a writer and instead just be a reader basking in the awe of a master at her best.
Here’s another way of looking at it: in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, there is one scene where, in a single uncut shot, the actor Toshiro Mifune (playing a ronin samurai) chases down and blades nine attacking (then fleeing) men in ten seconds. In the film, it is a cool act of ass kicking that quite clearly demonstrates the balance of power early in the storyline. But as a feat enacted in our second-by-second reality, it is a breathtaking spectacle of a moving, human body at its finest.
What Mifune can do in ten seconds, Morrison does again and again through nearly fifty years of novel writing. Toni Morrison is a samurai.
2. Louise Erdrich
Since college, I have enjoyed Erdrich’s short fiction whenever I’ve chanced upon it in a magazine or anthology or textbook. But it was only in the past month that I finally began reading her novels. And as with Morrison, I’ve been reluctant to stop. (I have, in fact, been intentionally alternating between the two, wedging in some other author—Don DeLillo, Daniel Handler, Alice Walker—to avoid total immersion as well as prolong the affair). Reading Future Home of the Living God in just a few marathon sittings left me thoroughly rattled: for days afterward, I kept mixing up details of the novel—wherein pregnancy becomes a government industry leaving no woman with sovereignty over her body—with the reality of our world. The sad and subtle difference between the two being “this horror is happening” versus “this horror isn’t happening yet.” Victim to such successful reshaping of reality, how could I not continue reading through her back catalog?
Lucky for me, Erdrich has an impressive list of novels under her belt. And while none of them has again so far destroyed the membrane between my perceived notions of reality and the imaginary, neither has any attempted to do so. Instead, in much the same way that Morrison explores the dimensions of black life in the United States (primarily in the South), Erdrich explores the lives of—both historical and contemporary—Native Americans, specifically the Ojibwe of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Which, in both instances, could rightly be a playlist of one brutality after another (and without doubt, with both Morrison and Erdrich, that brutality is present and accounted for). But such single-minded storytelling would preclude every other aspect of human experience: boredom, jealousy, the twin wonder and absurdity of the naked body, being hungry then being full, winning an argument or a leg race or a pointless bet, braiding hair, puzzling over the face in the mirror. The stories are of a culture and geography very different from my own. But never does it feel unfamiliar. Never does it feel beyond my capacity to comprehend. Which is to say: these details are not my details. But they are part of the infinitely expanding, infinitely rich definition of what it means to be a human.
And again, with such natural, associative storytelling, Erdrich’s novels have allowed me to enjoy the simple pleasure of just being a reader. Relaxing into a story. Letting it wash over and through me. Yet still, now and then, a line or phrase will rise above the others to stop me in my tracks, read again, take out my notebook and scratch it down. Such as this one from Four Souls:
Pain took our minds off the greater pain that was the mistake that we still existed.
Or this one, from The Plague of Doves:
The wind will blow. The devils rise. All who celebrate shall be ghosts. And there will be nothing but eternal dancing, dust on dust, everywhere you look.
I’m not entirely sure what these novels are doing to me. But I like it. Even in this most passive form of reading, I’m aware that a key is turning somewhere inside this fevered and over-sized skull. I just hope I’m paying enough attention to make good on this quiet kind of lesson. Which leads me back to Toni Morrison and her first novel, The Bluest Eye:
There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.
As always, thank you for reading, to thank you for sharing, to thank you for understanding that my reticence right now to hug or shake hands or even stand within your arm’s reach has nothing to do with you and everything to do with my traitorous, viral lungs. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for all these pretty blue gel caps that are helping save me from a gurgling death. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to save me from myself. And if your view of the future looks too dim for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards for one month.
You are the peach to my pit.
I’m going to continue with this monthly list of things I found influencing or interesting or weird enough to comment on, although it’d appear that April has only one entry. Which isn’t to say there weren’t more moments and objects and turns of language that knocked me flat or got my mind burning. But this entry feels worthy of a long exploration. If only because this examination of a poem and a period can stand-in for an explanation as to why I do so much of what I do.
1. “Louise,” by Raymond Carver
This poem—about a little girl living in a perpetual wince beneath her mother’s derisive tongue and hand—has already once helped shape a portion of a story (specifically, a scene in “A Means of Forgetting,” which certain Patreon subscribers have been getting delivered piecemeal in their mailboxes each month). And if we’re going to be honest, we can probably trace one or another thumbprint of Carver’s to almost everything I’ve written since 2012. But rereading the poem recently, I took the time to think about, not just what specific images and actions resounded to my core, but why those details mattered to me, why I should care about this poem and this character more than any other. So forgive me while I slowly dissolve back into the 1980s.
The world in which I was raised—the personal, experienced, subjective world—is so different from the world I live in now that it often feels like two completely separate lives. I’m not just talking about geography or culture or economy: I’m talking about the life lived. In many ways, I do not recognize or even identify with the person I was up through my teens. Yet those memories and experiences are indelibly imprinted on me. I might not resemble—physically or otherwise—the little boy digging in the fertile earth of Northern Maine, spiteful and alone with a stick and a dog, but his experiences are unique to me. Like it or not, they’re mine. And they shape who I am, what I do. Even when I’m not paying enough attention to notice.
What’s this have to do with Carver’s much abused Louise? The immediate assumption would be that I experienced something similar to the girl in the poem, the constant needling and shouting, the oblique lack of love. And to a degree, yes, I can identify with these experiences, with specific regard to my stepfather and the pervasive culture of toxic masculinity that defined social life at school. But that’s not why the poem is so striking to me: it’s not about me. It’s about that world I lived in. Where children were just baggage or an animal always underfoot. Where love had little to do with having a family. Where most examples of human touch were a slap or a punch or a shove.
I am in no way saying that this is the universal truth of life in Northern Maine. It’s not. But it is what I witnessed when I was young and poor and my mother was raising my brother and me by herself. Most of the people we knew then were in similar dire straits as us, and often hooked on one drug or another. Their homes were dirty and old and in need of repairs that would never occur, the scents of cheap beer and cigarettes, pot smoke and dog shit riding underneath everything. And hanging out in those homes, it seemed so much like the kids only got attention when they failed to be invisible. Which meant they either got good at being invisible for fear of the repercussions, or boldly became lions who didn’t care how often they were cuffed or slapped or thrown against a wall.
These were things I witnessed, and I remember, I felt lucky. Because I had at least one parent who gave a shit about me (problematic as her idea of parenting might sometimes have been). Because I didn’t fear when my mother put her hands on me and pulled me close. Because I didn’t (immediately) shrink beneath the threat of any kind of human touch.
All of which sounds like a pretty shitty childhood. But like I said: this isn’t about me. It’s about those other kids, biding their time until they were grown enough to escape, learning only the lessons immediate to survival. It’s about those parents, whose hurts coursed too deep or too disguised to be handled in any but the most destructive ways. It’s about the culture wherein all of this was normal. It’s about having witnessed that world—having been immersed in that world—and knowing that thirty years later, it still exists. People hurting people because they’re too lazy or warped to be kind.
So now that I’ve dumped that steaming heap of discomfort in your lap, allow me to thank you for reading, to thank you for sharing, to thank you for always being kinda okay with me exploring the least comfort aspects of being a vulnerable creature among vulnerable creatures. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for supporting the perpetual wedgie these stories continue to inflict upon your heart/head/spirit/etc. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to join our parade of vulnerability. And if your view of the future looks too dim for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards for one month.
All this goofy shit I do: I do it for you.
Haloumi is pissed because I won’t let her destroy everything I love. I feel okay with my decision to stop her.
Because I think it’s way more interesting to write about the things I’m excited about versus the things that I’m doing, I’m going to continue my list of on-going influences and motivations.
1. “Baby Retains Faith in Humanity after 45 Years at Bottom of Well” by The Pacemaker
Ranking (in my mind, anyway) as one of the best bands no one has ever heard of, The Pacemaker had this fantastic ability of collaging songs out of random scraps of music contributed by each member—a riff here, a phrase there—yielding a catalog of, not the incoherent patchwork you’d expect, but solid, comprehensive compositions full of beauty and surprise, all lynch-pinned together by Zach Webber’s emotive/absurdist narrative lyrics.
“Baby Retains Faith…” is no exception. Shifting between three movements, the song translates itself from a steady rock-and-roll swing (it’s just a hair too reserved to be a swagger) into a spare post-rock meditation, building finally into a head-bobbing crescendo that is simultaneously victorious and heartrending. But what’s kept this song stuck in my craggy brain lately isn’t the four-part virtuosity of the players, but Webber’s lyrics and—more importantly—the delivery of said lyrics.
As the newspaper headline-esque title suggests, this is a story about a “baby” who has lived nearly a century in an abandoned well. And to start, the narrator seems pretty relaxed recounting his plight. After all, he could still see things (“at least for the first few years”), and he had his brothers and sister to keep him company. Not so bad. But eventually the darkness steals his sight (what is there to see anyway?), and then one by one, his siblings wither up and die. But still, he talks to them, especially his sister Linda, even if she never answers, he keeps talking to his sister Linda. Time goes by. It could be worse.
What functions as the true heartbreak of the story, though, is when the baby is finally rescued. Being blinded by darkness for so long, now he’s blinded by light. Again, no big deal. But then later, a movie is made of his life. And the movie ends with the reunited family hugging and crying, his parents wailing, “O! how we regret leaving all you kids for dead!” If only it were true. Hollywood made a happy ending. But what’s a forty-five-year-old baby to do, starting over his whole life all alone without even the desiccated corpses of his siblings to keep him company?
The story is so absurd as to be meaningless. But that’s why music is an experiential medium. Not words on a paper. Not notes on a sheet. You sit and listen while a thing happens to you. And what Webber does in taking on the persona of the abandoned is terrifying. Not because the character has been alone so long. Because even now, with his rescue reveal as being the true hell, he’s still trying to pretend it’s okay.
2. The Door by Magda Szabo
It’s not the content of the book I want to get into—it’s great, by turns hilarious and viscerally jarring as only Eastern European writers seem able to do—so much as the simple structure of its episodic chapters. Maybe things progressed very organically for Szabo, but it feels like she created a plan and executed it through to completion. These are the characters. This is the situation. These are the particular points that need to be explored (children, generosity, forgiveness, a dog, a fancy dinner, et cetera). Write each point as a sort of encapsulated fable. Stitch them together into a single, oddly complete novel.
This is probably a pretty elementary way of approaching novel writing. By which I mean: this is one of the most basic ways of constructing a book. But having spent a lifetime entering every situation through the backdoor, the obvious always strikes me as amazing. This is yet another way of telling a story. I could, in fact, make this job easier on myself if I opted for just a little bit of planning.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that avant-garde hip-hop shaman Busdriver is among one of the most revered artistic figures in my personal canon these past few years. So you’d think I would have found—or even actively sought out—dude’s various social media platforms. Yet it was only in the past week that I discovered that Driver had an Instagram account.
So what. Everyone posts pictures online. That’s what we do now. And to be honest, most of Driver’s pictures are just fine. Some selfies, some old snapshots of his early days coming up in the LA underground rap scene, images related to projects his fellow artists are engaged in. No, what’s great about these pictures is that Busdriver is subverting the expectation of the platform (a picture with a punch line caption) by writing detailed stories about why this picture is being shared. Sometimes it’s to memorialize a dead rapper who helped guide and encourage him in his teenage years. Sometimes it’s to explain the motivation behind certain projects. Sometimes it’s extended accounts from other artists talking about their process and product. And sometimes it’s about the bullshit his black body and all black bodies have to suffer on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis. Busdriver’s way of phrasing the world fucking floors me. I love it. And as someone who hungers for Driver’s language, this discovery has been a feast amid famine.
So these are the things I’ve been chewing on. And while I’d much prefer to end it here, I do need to say that, in addition to getting myself hung up on songs and books and other people’s social media, I also somehow sold two books to two different publishers this month. So keep an eye out for a new novel and new full-length collection in the next year or so. And too, next month a new chapbook, The Opposite of Prayer, will be published by The Head & the Hand Press. I make these things for you. Thank you for letting me make them.
As always, thank you for reading, thank you for sharing, thank you for accepting the fact that this handkerchief is in fact just a shred of old underpants. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for the future promise of an actual handkerchief. And if you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and welcome to join the properly monogrammed kerchief society and help make my nose clean and dignified again. And if your view of the future looks too unsteady for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and get the equivalent rewards for one month.
In the perpetual fumble to figure out what exactly to do with this space, I’m electing this month to share a partial list of recent motivating factors, starting with:
1. This picture of Trump not understanding how to shake hands.
I’ll forego the obvious humor embedded in this moment of fundamental confusion—all too reminiscent of a golden retriever whose been tricked—to focus instead on something about accidental empathy and self-identification. Because as much as I hate this bag of shit, it occurs to me that a lot of my characters could easy be caught in a similar circumstance, baffled by their mistakes and blind to where their knowledge fails (Coleman being maybe the prime example). Which might be a perfect way of describing both the lion’s share of my narrators and our current president: perplexed by their failures and too-often unsuspecting of their ignorance.
So what’s the difference between my imaginary boobs and this very real moron? Claims of likeability could be made (as awful as his life gets, Coleman never strays too far from charming), but I don’t know if that really matters. Partly because writing likeable characters is like preparing Bolognaise (pleasing to consume but unchallenging in production), but also because, back when Trump was just a celebrity buffoon with no real power or control over others’ lives, he was somehow fun to observe. A cartoon whose antics took place in the real world. The scummy friend you somehow can’t help enjoying being around.
No, the major difference between Trump and Coleman resides almost entirely in the amount of power and control they each possess. Coleman has never succeeded at anything (or anyway, much of anything), and no one’s ever been very interested in helping him out or supporting him. He’d likely squander that assistance anyway. Where Trump has clutched hold of every opportunity that’s ever come his way, Coleman lets everything slip through his fingers without even the consideration of regret, let alone chances lost.
So: what would it look like if one of my characters actually succeeded at something in a big way? What if one of these boobs suddenly had some power, over themselves and over the world?
2. Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas.
Late in the film, a mother and child are reunited. They see each other and say some unimportant words, then do the obvious thing: they hug. And as they hug, in a gesture so natural and stripped of motivation as to maybe be unscripted, the child turns his fingers into scissors to snip off his mother’s hair, clok-clok-cloking his tongue for each nick. A small action that reveals more about the character (and the moment) than any line of dialog. The gravity of reunion only goes so far. It’s fun to do fun things. And you don’t try to play with someone you’re mad at for running away.
3. These lines from Tess Gallagher’s “My Unopened Life.”
Hadn’t I done well enough with the life
I’d seized, sure as a cat with
its mouthful of bird, bird with its
belly full of worm, worm like an acrobat of darkness
keeping its moist nose to the earth, soaring
perpetually into darkness without so much as
the obvious question: why all this darkness?
And even in the belly of the bird: why
4. Colin Stetson’s “All This I Do for Glory.”
In a body of work boldly marked by a very masculine kind of might, what makes this song stand out is its singular sensuality. Sure, it’s more a Matthew Barney kind of sensuality than, say, Prince’s. Which is to say: primal, and maybe not entirely safe. Yet it’s also rare to see exhibited so keenly the measured swaying hips of a hunter, someone capable of killing demonstrating a tenderness that has nothing to do with weakness.
As always, thank you for reading, thank you for sharing, thank you for ignoring the tremendous tear in the seat of my pants. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for the future promise of new pants. And if you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and welcome to join the new pants party and help make my lower-half presentable again. And if your view of the future looks too unsteady for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and get the equivalent rewards for one month.
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.