Self Pity and Other Works of Art

Being of Sound Mind and Body

My grandmother, who raised me, used to joke about the Will she’d leave behind. It would say: Being of sound mind and body I spent it all.

Nice People

My father died this summer. We were and weren’t close. We saw each other maybe once a year. With the invention of email, we eventually kept up a regular correspondence, but only talking politics. He was a beautiful writer but his clean and concise prose went into translating technical documents from German into English. He wrote with greater clarity and concision than I do, but he had no gift for creative writing. (To his dying day he was correcting my grammar.) If there’s such a thing as tone-deafness as regards poetry, he had it. Might as well sell a raincoat in the desert than give him a poem. He may have read a handful of novels. I don’t know. He loved the precision of Kafka’s prose for Kafka’s flawless German. He also had a copy of the 1001 Nights translated by Richard F. Burton. As far as I know he didn’t read a single story. He kept them because of Burton’s introduction. Burton skewered the moral pretensions of translators who delicately edited out the best parts of the 1001 Nights—understood to be the uninhibited erotic parts. Of which there are many. My father, and his parents who raised me, detested nice people. I was never sure what they meant but they probably meant the kind of nice people who Richard Burton dismantled. To be on the safe side, I decided to dislike everyone; which is to say, I’m an introvert. I deeply get Wednesday Addams (if you haven’t seen Tim Burton’s Netflix series). People are exhausting, especially nice people.


When my father died I finally realized that I probably would too. I looked at my possessions and thought to myself: What in the hell are you thinking? Why am I buying anything? I’ll probably be dead in another twenty to thirty years—maybe sooner. Who knows? The thought of death doesn’t disturb me at all. The thought of all my possessions? Deeply disturbing. What’s the point? But my most valued possessions are my stories; and I’m going to give those away as generously as I can. Those stores include some from my family. I’ve already snuck some of them into my novels and poems.

Don’t you want to say, Hello?

My grandmother grew up in a family of ten children equally divided between girls and boys. Two of the boys, my Uncles, were bomber pilots in World War II. There was a rule that if a pilot flew ten or twenty (I can’t remember) sorties, then they wouldn’t have to fly any more. There was also a rule that relatives couldn’t fly on the same plane. My Uncles George and Bill both had one more flight and decided, violating all the rules, that they would fly their last sortie together. They were shot down by the Germans and captured.

Being Pilots/Officers, they were, initially at least, valuable POWs.

The German interrogator brought them in, one by one. You’re both Kremers he would say. Good German names! Why are you fighting against your fatherland? But George and Bill would only answer with their names, ranks and serial numbers. This must have gone on for several days and the interrogator decided that maybe he could play each against the other. Bill had the character of Bob Hope, ready with a quip, gregarious and a lady’s man. George was the quiet, serious and stone-faced brother.

The interrogator brought them both in.

He sat behind his broad desk. Bill and George were marched out and each stood quietly facing the interrogator. They stared straight ahead, neither acknowledging the other. They knew better. Behind the interrogator was a blond bombshell, the kind of uniformed blond bombshell that’s the stuff of Hollywood movies. The interrogator said to George, who was standing next to Bill: Don’t you want to say, Hello? George answered giving his name, rank and serial number. The interrogator impatiently turned to Bill and asked: Don’t you want to say, hello?

Bill turned to the blonde bombshell and said: “I’m Bill. I didn’t catch your name.”

And as the family story has it, George sighed heavily exclaimed in exasperation: “He means me, Bill!”

Sticky Fingers

I decide to go for a walk and, wouldn’t you know, here comes the Devil the opposite way. That’s the Devil’s way, always to go the opposite way. He’s mumbling to himself and throwing up his left hand, now and again, as though shooing away whatever thoughts are nipping at his heels. For no good reason, he carries a cane behind his back.

“Up to no good?” I ask.

“You might expect as much,” he sighs.

“Best laid plans?” I ask.

“A mouse!” he shouts, then as though confiding: “There is not a single mouse in hell. Did you know? There are cats and dogs, but no mice. What does that tell you?” His expression changes to one of disappointment. “I nabbed another soul. A wretched soul. A selfish and petty soul. She loved no one and was a benefit to none.” He inhaled, held his breath, eyes closed, as though savoring a newly poured glass of chardonnay. “She detested children. Horrid little things. She lived alone, hoarded her wealth, hid it away where no one would find it. She was a mintage coined from my own heart.”

“You have one?”

“Does the nightshade have berries?”

“What about children?” I ask.

“Yes,” the Devil sniffs, “but only in hell to torment their parents.”

“Why so glum?”

“God!” shouts the Devil with a disgusted flourish of his hand, then calmly adds: “He of unbounded love and beneficence. Couldn’t leave well enough alone. What should happen to the old shrew’s house but God, in his bounty, makes a gift of it (of course the selfish old bat didn’t have an heir). A couple with their newly adopted child bought the house at auction—for a song and a dance. God’s reward for their good deeds. But that’s not enough. God elaborates. He sends them a stray puppy. A puppy! Nauseating. But it was the nice thing to do. And to celebrate their gratitude to God, they bake him a cake and light him a candle. The instant their backs are turned, the wretched little puppy eats the cake and knocks over the candle. God’s little gift burns down the house. Burns it to the ground.”

“One misery after another!” I say.

“The Devil’s work!—they say. The flames! The flames! The Devil’s work from beginning to end!”

“And you weren’t delighted by all that misery?”

“No,” the Devil sniffs. “The wretched little cheapskate. She hid all her money in the walls of the house. How was I to know? When the house burned down, there it all was. Piles upon piles. Silver coins. Gold coins. Bars of silver. Bars of gold. They built themselves a splendid new house. They gave to one insufferable charity after another. All my handiwork? They took it all. And what did they say? God works in mysterious ways! Praise be to God! To God alone the thanks!”

“Why don’t you like children?”

“Sticky fingers.”

~ For my father, Gordon Gillespie, who detested nice people and who, when asked why he detested children, answered “sticky fingers”.

What is contemporary Poetry?

Just published was an article in the Guardian entitled “The best poetry books of 2022“. I thought it was fascinating not because of what the author, Rishi Dastidar, discusses, but because of what he doesn’t discuss. To wit: Nowhere is there a discussion of the actual poetry. Quoting a line or two from any given poem is not the same. Rishi recommends collections of poetry according to their subject matter and he might as well be recommending cookbooks which, to be honest, seems to be how (the commodity known as) contemporary poetry is largely treated by poets, readers, editors and publishers of poetry. Do you want ‘queer poetry’? Well, try this book. Do you want words about the male gaze and the violation of pornography? No? How about the pain of black communities? Not that? How about resistance to Colonialism? I’m not saying these aren’t important subjects, but important subjects aren’t necessarily the same as good poetry, and to judge by the extracts, the poetry is pretty mediocre stuff. For instance, in another article by the same author from June 3rd, he praises “The Lascaux Notebooks by Jean-Luc Champerret:

~ The book presents a plausible, imagistic recreation of prehistoric living, its quieter moments and dangers, especially when bison are roaming: “We crouch behind the cover of the trees / watching their every step / burning inside with fear”.

The line is shopworn from beginning to end. What hunter doesn’t crouch or do so under the cover of while also burning inside [as opposed to bursting into flames I suppose] with fear. The poetry sounds like generically uninspired prose. Maybe it’s not? I don’t know. Maybe that was just a poor example. The problem is that the poetry was never brought up, just the semantic content of the verse. Or if you’re looking for philosophic fragments, consider the following example from Unexhausted Time:

~ “There is no other life, but there are so / many lives … Thank you / for rescuing me with your words.”

This is the collection where you will find “the ramifications of the male gaze”. But without any context, the example above would make a comically effective “Deep Thought” for Saturday Night Live. But my impression is that the actual poetry of the verse is so far removed from the review’s concerns as to be irrelevant. He serves up the various collections of verse based on their content much as we’d purchase a cookbook according to its ethnic cuisine. What used to separate poetry from prose was poetry’s fusion of semantic content with the aesthetics of language—the way language rhymed and the way one could create rhythms/meter out of English’s natural stress patterns. There is also what one might call the arts of rhetoric—highly patterned and figurative language, metaphor and poems wholly constructed from a single conceit. These are also a part of the arts of language which poets elevated in a way that writers of prose (with different aims) largely didn’t. That’s no longer the case. The only thing that separates the majority of contemporary poetry from prose is lineation—and the lineation of contemporary poetry is simply a typographic “sign” indicating that a given set of words is meant to be read like a poem. There is no prosody of free verse lineation. Free verse lineation is an arbitrary aesthetic decided by the individual poet.

So, what is contemporary poetry?

To judge by reviews like those at The Guardian, poetry is no longer an intellectually rigorous fusion of content with the aesthetics of language, but a species of short-form prose where modern writers go to emote over given themes and subject matter. It reminds me of the transition from the baroque era to the rococo or early classical period. The great composer of the baroque era (and of all time really) was JS Bach. In the manuscripts of Bach, all the arts of music were fused together. Bach wasn’t just about writing a good melody, but in every composition he set out to demonstrate, to the greatest extent possible, the art of music—the degree to which elements like counterpoint, augmentation, diminution, harmony, canon and fugue didn’t just augment the emotional impact but created a work of art that transcended its utilitarian origins. Art for arts sake. Nothing more typified this than his Art of the Fugue. No one knows why he wrote it and Bach didn’t even specify what instrument or instruments should perform the music. The Art of the Fugue is pure music—a kind of summation that, perhaps, we’re meant to contemplate like Michelangelo’s David—in silence—a final summation of his life and era. The next generation discarded all that in favor of the melody. Likewise, the modern poet, reader and reviewer have discarded the arts of language in the name of content. Just as melody reigned supreme, content reins supreme. The contemporary reviewer of poetry doesn’t review the poetry because there’s nothing to review. But what would he make of poetry written for poetry’s sake?—like Keats’s Ode to Autumn, of which the subject matter is the least important element?—a poem that, in its exploitation of the arts of language—rhyme, meter, imagery and figurative language—utterly transcends its subject matter?

It’s too much to say what contemporary poetry is. Easier to say what it’s not—and that is art for art’s sake. It’s as though the modern poet has given himself over to erecting statues dedicated to messaging—monuments to themselves, to statesman, to this politician or that cause—and has discarded the notion that sculpting can be an art in and of itself. Given the world and the way it is, it’s possible no one would want to read any other kind of poetry—and so no one writes or publishes it.

By contrast, no one knows why Bach wrote the Art of the Fugue. There’s no message. It wasn’t commissioned by anyone. Its justification is itself. The final notes, left unfinished by Bach’s death, are the notes B♭–A–C–B♮, spelling out BACH in German musical notation, like a final breath before the last notes vanish into eternity, staves empty, the remaining music forever beyond our hearing.

Written in CPE Bach’s hand: “Über dieser Fuge, wo der Name B A C H im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben.” (“While working on this fugue, which introduces the name BACH in the countersubject, the composer died.”

Visiting the Mall

I dropped off my daughter at UVM and took a short stroll through the Burlington mall where all kinds of memories returned—being with my childhood friends. Something about the beige tile floors, the shades-of-beige walls and the nostalgically manic Christmas decorations. I know that if I’d bumped into my friends, even thirty years later, we would comfortably pick up where we left off. There’s something about childhood friendships, making us more like brothers or sisters, that can only happen among children. We weren’t mall rats. We lived too far away. When only visited to shop on holidays or to see a movie. We always burned our allowances playing video games. All this is to say that going to the mall meant being with friends; and every mall, in those days, was a kind of world’s fair. There was no internet. Going there meant seeing everything that was the newest technology—and girls. I miss the mystery of girls. I miss wondering when a beautiful girl would want to sit next to me—that girl, you know, who would make me forget all about my friends.


There was something about those years—grade school and high school. That’s not to say that I have good memories of ‘school’. I’m sure that I “suffer”—quote unquote—from ADHD Daydreaming. Even now adults sound like they’re in Peanuts cartoons. I can’t listen to anyone talk more than 1 or 2 minutes. Forget poetry readings. Any shiny object—word or association—sends me off like a witless crow. I feel bad about that because, after all, I’m a poet. If I’m reading I will daydream words that aren’t there, and while writing too. They’re very often striking mistakes that I turn into poetry. Squeezing a thumbtack keeps me focused. I’m not joking. In school, I was the kid drawing and/or staring out the window—watching the weather go by and getting Cs and D minuses for grades. I was always picked last. For good reason. I was the loopy kid in left field staring at the clouds. I was recommended to the school psychologist because I never wanted to play with classmates in the playground. I wanted to be off by myself. I didn’t start talking until I was four years old. I did all my talking in my head. That also landed me at a therapist’s office. The amazing thing about ADHD Daydreaming, if that’s what it is, is that I dream up story ideas faster than I can write them—and everybody wanted me to be the Dungeon Master. But there was something about those school years—when I wasn’t in school.

The Putting Away of Childish Things

I remember reading this sentiment time and again when I was growing up. There was childhood and there was manhood. And it is an impoverished man who cherishes childish things. I believed it. And even as a child was saddened by that. Now, with a half century behind me, I can firmly say that all those manly writers who spouted this advice were blowhards—complete blowhards. They can take their grown-man’s wisdom along with a swift kick in the ass. I have not put away my childish things and couldn’t write poetry without them. I couldn’t write my fanciful fables, fairy tales, short stories and novels without all those childish things. If you’re still a kid—think twice before you give away your favorite toy. I still have my Space 1999 Eagle Dinky Toy.

If I Had it to do Again

I wish I could relive almost every part of my life. I used to think that the car didn’t move but that the Earth rolled under it. The gas pedal and steering wheel dictated how fast the Earth moved and in which direction. Later I wondered if time was like that. Maybe we don’t move through time, but time moves through us. I don’t know what the difference is, but that got me thinking about doing it all over again. In my latest novel, North of Autumn, the Librarian of All Things, met by the main character Zoē, offers Zoē an altogether different understanding of time. She asks Zoē to imagine that time isn’t like a stream at all. Time doesn’t have a direction. The past can be changed as decidedly as the future. She says, imagine that time is like the surface of a pond and that every mote of consciousness is like a stone thrown onto its surface. What we perceive as time are the countless ripples of consciousness, among all beings, flowing outward from each and in all directions. When I was eleven, I had Near Death Experience. I remember being shown everything that had happened and everything that was going to happen. It was all so simple, obvious and beautiful. I wondered how I’d ever forgotten.

The Devil Wants to Know

I love the Devil, not the devil of Christian mythology (the devil that the middle ages and Milton turned into a run-of-the-mill feudal Lord) but the far more fun and clever devil of folk and fable—the trickster and troublemaker. In North of Autumn and Tiny House, Big Mountain I tell stories about God and the Devil. God always means well, but whenever God tries to do something nice for all of us, it ends in disaster. The Devil, on the other hand, is the trickster who has no faith in humanity and loves to trip us up, but whenever the Devil tries to meddle in the affairs of human beings, it all ends splendidly and happily. This brings about no end of frustration for both God and the Devil. One of my favorite stories is a Taoist fable in which every bit of fortune ends in disaster and every disaster leads to good fortune. How do you know that’s a good thing? How do you know that’s a bad thing? In the Yin-Yang symbol, a white dot appears in the midst of the black and black appears in the midst of the white.

Poetry Kills

I’ve been reading Shakespeare, sort of as a break before starting my next novel, and reading Jane Austen (research) for my next novel—called Writer, Writer. I came across a passage from each that I have to pass on. First, from Pride and Prejudice:

~ “Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty verses they were.”
“And so ended his affection,” said Elizabeth impatiently. “There was many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love?” p. 36-37

And here I thought it was me. In my experience, nothing drove off love like a poem. The better the poem, the more effective at nipping love in the bud. My reasoning is this: Any girl to whom I gave a poem probably assumed that the effort needed to write the poem bordered on a marriage proposal—especially if it was only an acrostic Shakespearean Sonnet which spelled out the girl’s name. Yes, I really did this. It took half an afternoon to write the sonnet and five minutes to end the relationship. Moral: If you want girls, forget poetry. Learn to play the guitar. Then I ran across this while reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

I was never so berhymed since Pythagoras’ time that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember.” III.ii.163

Foot note: Alluding to Pythagoras’s transmigration of souls and to the popular belief in England that Irish bards were capable of rhyming cats to death.

I had no idea that a rhyming Irish bard could kill cats. Having a thoroughly Irish name and fancying myself a bard, I sat at one end of the kitchen table and my unimpressed cat at the other end. I recited my rhymes and my cat’s tail twitched. After an hour or so, and after the one hundred and thirty-second canto of Spencer’s Faerie Queene, my cat trolled me by licking her posterior. I gave up. Clearly, having an Irish name and being of Irish descent is not the same as being Irish. Also, it’s possible that Spencer isn’t Irish enough.

The Devil’s Proposal

I met the Devil at the mall. I always recognize the Devil because there’s always something off. In this case he was wearing a solid wool scarf. No Vermonter would do that when there’s plaid flannel to be had. I sat next to him and we both watched shoppers come and go. He was no doubt up to some mischief. “You’d like to do it over again,” he said.

“Tragic that we only get one life,” I answered.

“May you do, maybe you don’t,” said he. “Maybe there’s no me, no God, no afterlife. You die and your heirs—” The devil inhaled with pleasure. “If you love the Devil, don’t write a Will. I beg you. Don’t write a Will. Leave it to your kin and probate. But as I was saying: Maybe you drop dead and go to Heaven or Hell? If you’re looking for malls by the way, they’re all in hell now; but maybe you don’t believe in heaven and hell. What about reincarnation? That one is tricky. Consider all the nauseating whining about not remembering past lives. ‘If we’re reincarnated, why can’t we remember anything?‘ The whining is insufferable. But what if you could? What if you could remember everything? Wouldn’t every life be another episode in the same miserable sitcom?”

“Surely you didn’t come here just to vent,” said I.

“Do you see that woman just now exiting the chocolaterie. God rewarded her. She won a tidy sum playing the lottery. God’s bounty is infinite. She buys chocolate—good chocolate. Expensive chocolate. Little does she know that her little Pomeranian, her dearest and faithful companion, will be dead because of it, having run off with her Fair Trade, Oganic, 100% Chocolate chocolate bar—pure poison if you’re a Pomeranian. She’ll spend the sum of her winnings trying to save the little beast and I will get the blame for it.” The Devil sniffed. “It might have survived the chocolate but it won’t survive being run over. Meanwhile, do you see that horrid man berating his wife and children? Hurry, he scolds! Hurry! He shall go drinking tonight and I shall reward him for it, baleful scourge that I am. He shall total his Tesla, newly acquired, and he shall be fired by his investment banking firm. But, lo and behold, while at the hospital a tumor will be discovered! It would have killed him within the month. The tumor shall be removed. This horrid man, so shaken by his brush with death, will give up the bottle, his life of high finance and devote himself to his family. God’s bounty is infinite!—they will say. God works in mysterious ways!” The Devil sniffed again. “All because the fool swerved to avoid a horrid little Pomeranian with a chocolate bar in its mouth.”

Is it me?

Be honest.

I just received my first rejection for 2022. The agent, who I really thought would click with my novel (and had specifically requested magical realism) wrote that she just didn’t feel the “spark”. That made me feel like a konmari’d pair of socks. But didn’t I used to spark joy? Did I not kiss your feet?yours and only yours? Does that mean nothing? To be fair, her rejection letter was one of the loveliest I’ve gotten.

In the meantime, I’m back on the official Manuscript Wish List and #MSL website. I ran across this on Twitter: “Okay, so about 70 percent of the editors at this speed meeting event want magical realism. ME TOO. Where is it?? #MSWL“.

Hello? I have two ready-to-be-published Magical Realist novels. Two. And they’re good novels. Where are you? Are we two ships passing in the night? Am I hanging out with the 30 percent who run around in bare feet? Am I wool? Am I hole in your heel? Are my toes blown out? Oh wait, I’m just noticing that the agent who wrote this isn’t accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Well. That explains it. Where is it? asks the agent who isn’t accepting manuscripts from authors like me.

Just sayin’.

And have I mentioned how finding an agent is like online dating? We go into this thinking we’re irresistible—who wouldn’t love us?—until we see ourselves the way everybody else sees us.

[Image of fool upper right-hand side: Self-Portrait]

This and that…

The Diminishing wage of Authors and Traditional vs. Self-publishing

Having finished North of Autumn, my second novel, I’ve begun another round of submissions to agents. I chose three this time, one of whom is in Berlin and who I’m hoping will actually want to read the novel. But the waiting game begins again. Based on submitting my first novel, about half of agents simply don’t respond if they’re not interested. So be it. Since I only have so long to live, however, I’ll be giving agents 4 weeks to respond, then move one.

On the other hand, I go back and forth as concerns traditional publishing. There’s very little money in traditional publishing for the vast majority of novelists. Don’t even ask about poetry. Agents are largely allergic to contemporary poetry (and for good reason). I was reviewing some other websites so I could write a minimally informed post, and stumbled across some interesting percentages. The most striking was a site claiming that 97% of writers don’t finish their novels. No source was given for this figure and so it may be click bait. I’m not even sure how such a figure would be calculated, so be skeptical. Less skeptically, another site offers some interesting figures on the percentage of authors who earn a living wage. The site reported that “63 percent of authors who reported receiving book-related income in 2017, the average total income was $43,247“. Alternatively, of course, that means that 37% of authors received no income at all. If I were to earn the average, that would be a step down from what I could make as a builder but a hell of a triumph given what I’ve made by writing so far. The site also notes that “three-sevenths of full-time authors with any earnings were making over $50,000″—the proviso being “full time”. If one is earning enough to be a full time writer, then it stands to reason that one is making something like $50,000 or more.

If you’re a writer like me, with ambitions to be published, there’s an interesting article at the Atlantic you might enjoy—entitled “Now Do Amazon“. The author, Franklin Foer, begins the article by stating a fact I did not know:

~ One of the great literary hoaxes of our time is the book spine. A staggering number of logos stare out from dust jackets, celebrating names including Crown, Vintage, Ballantine, Knopf, and Dial. But the pluralism implied by this diversity of monikers is a sham. In the U.S., nearly 100 of them belong to a single company: Penguin Random House. The rest are owned by a small handful of competitors, one of which is Simon & Schuster.

Foer’s main concern, however, aren’t the mergers and acquisitions (blocked by the Justice Department) that have largely turned publishing into a monopoly (to the detriment of authorial income) but Amazon, which he rightly labels a monopsony.

~ Amazon is arguably the ultimate embodiment of monopsony power. It has, in the past, used its dominance to demand a large cut of publishers’ sales, according to industry insiders. And companies such as PRH have had little choice but to accept—or become bigger, so that they can bargain harder. Amazon’s pressure on publishers has sometimes come out of authors’ pockets in the form of reduced advances.

In other words, not only is Amazon making its billions by squeezing publishers (who are/were themselves hardly saints) but is greatly contributing to the long-term decline in authorial income.

Meanwhile, the website Reedsy argues, in an article entitled “How Much Do Authors Make? The Truth about Money in Publishing“, that Indie Authors (authors who self-publish) fare much better than traditionally published authors—all else being equal. They write:

~ …many more self-published authors make a living than traditionally published authors, with self-publishing royalty earnings outpacing trad pub’s advance plus subsequent royalties. This was proven by several years of Author Earnings reports — most notably, one study that divided authors into groups earning more than $10k, $25k, $50k, and $100k. The study found that the number of indie authors earning 5-6 figures/year from book sales was much higher than the number of Big 5 authors earning the same.

This is almost solely, from what I can tell, because of the difference in royalty. While a self-published author won’t get an advance, they can expect to earn 50% to 70% on each book sold while the average royalty for the traditionally published author is 7.5%, and that doesn’t include any agent’s cut.

And so I’m torn, and it’s not necessarily about the money. I probably have another 25 to 30 years to live, so what does a million dollars mean to me? A traditional publisher can market and promote my book and get it on shelves. I don’t have that skillset. On the other hand, a traditional publisher could also sit on the book and decline to market or promote it. That happens. Then all I’m left with, best and worst case, is a small advance and a book that will never see a readership. In that case, I would have been better off self-publishing. Even a small readership is better than none, and with a greater share of the royalty, I would still be apt to come out ahead.

If I’m disappointed by the results of shopping both my books this winter, then I am definitely open to self-publishing and/or looking for an Indie publishing.

Literary Revelations Publishing House

Speaking of Indie Publishers, I recently submitted a Shakespearean sonnet to Literary Revelations Publishing House. I haven’t submitted any of my poetry anywhere for years, not since founding this blog, but, you know, if I’m going to stop being a hermit… Their home page states that they are “an independent publishing house dedicated to showcasing the best literary and art work. We publish poetry, short stories, interviews, art, and novels.” Their website is really quite professional. My sonnet was in answer to their call for poems on the theme of childhood: “Hidden in Childhood: A Poetry Anthology – Call for Submissions“. If you have written poems on childhood, or have one to write, then consider submitting something and supporting your local, Indie publisher.

Chaucer was not a Rapist

Unfortunately, this article, entitled “Chaucer the Rapist? Newly Discovered Documents Suggest Not” is behind a paywall, but the gist is this: “A court document discovered in 1873 suggested that around 1380, Chaucer had been charged with raping Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a London baker. In the document, Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from ‘all manner of actions related to my raptus’— a word commonly translated as rape or abduction.” Apparently, two scholars discovered a second copy of the document in which the word “raptus” had either been removed or omitted as a result of Chaucer possibly having hired a new lawyer. The suspicion, that this was Chaucer whitewashing, led the scholars to the original writ of the case (previously unknown). It turns out that Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne were both the defendants and were being sued by a Thomas Staundon who accused Chaucer of poaching Cecily from Staundon’s service. In that case, the scholars argue, raptus refers to ““the physical act of Chaumpaigne leaving Staundon’s service.” So, Staundon was not suing Chaucer for raping Cecily Chaumpaigne but suing both of them—she for leaving his service and Chaucer for poaching her. According to the article, this discovery landed like a bomb. Needless to say, there is considerable resistance from scholars, especially among feminist critics, who have produced criticism predicated on Chaucer’s having raped Chaumpaigne. That’s a tough spot for them, but it’s daily life for any scientist. One day you’re working on your unified field theory and the next some new scientific discovery invalidates the entirety of your corpus. I personally am just as happy to see Chaucer’s good name restored. Judging an artist by their art is fraught with self-deception, but the kind of man who could write Chaucer’s stories, with their humor and wisdom, doesn’t mesh with a man accused of rape.

The first Poet & Writer

There’s a lovely article in the New Yorker about the Priestess Enheduanna. I first ran across her poetry about a decade ago and fell in love with it. It’s truly powerful and beautiful verse. The article is entitled “The Struggle to Unearth the World’s First Author“. The article primarily addresses the strange reluctance of scholarship to acknowledge and celebrate Enheduanna’s primacy or that she even existed—emphasis on ‘she’. The author, Elizabeth Winkler, writes:

~ But since their discovery, in the mid-twentieth century, scholars have fiercely debated Enheduanna’s authorship. Did the priestess really write these works? Is the idea of a woman at the beginning of the written tradition—two thousand years before the golden age of Greece—too good to be true? This winter, an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia,” will try to give the priestess her due.

Winkler later in the article elaborates on the apparently male-centric biases that have resisted Enheduanna’s identity not just as a writer/poet but as a female:

~ Of particular note is a statue of a woman with a tablet in her lap—evidence of women’s literacy and engagement with writing. (When it was first discovered, in the early twentieth century, the German scholar Otto Weber reported, “Our specimen carries a tablet on her knees. Its meaning is not clear to me.”) The statue and others like it have been ignored in the academic literature, Babcock told me. “If this was a man with a tablet in his lap, there would be twenty articles about it.” Such artifacts upend long-held assumptions—about literacy as the preserve of élite male scribes, and about Middle Eastern women as being confined to the domestic sphere.

What I didn’t realize, until reading the article, is just how much of her writing has survived (which is astonishing given how many thousands of years ago she wrote) and the extent to which her writing was kept alive by later generations, even to 500 years after her death. My own opinion is that when reading the poetry of Enheduanna we read the work of a literary genius—the Shakespeare of her age. To think that her voice could survive for thousands of years! It bespeaks a woman, star-gazer and poet who, in her suffering, was capable of communicating our common humanity with a language, symbol, metaphor and archetype that still holds meaning thousands of years later.

And that’s all for today, November 23rd, 2022.

North of Autumn | Ellie’s Hymn

I thought that “the final hymn” would be the last hymn I would write for North of Autumn, but it wasn’t five minutes after I posted the hymn that the current poem began to write itself out of my imagination. I call it Ellie’s Hymn because Ellie is Zoē’s deceased mother and the author of the hymns that appear in the book. These are the final words of the book and are as much a farewell to the reader.

I know better than to say:
  Give no thought to when.
There’s nothing to wish the ache away
  But that we’ll meet again.

Give to the intervening hours
  As much as absence takes
But nothing more—our love is ours;
  And the bonds affection makes.

To you alone the keys
  Who, friend and lover, part;
To you the secret codices
  And chambers of my heart.

Ellie's Hymn from North of Autumn

North of Autumn | The final hymn…

Sorry I’ve been away. Between trying to lace up all the jobs delayed over the summer and finishing the novel, North of Autumn, I haven’t felt much like taking the time to write a post. This last hymn in the novel took me quite a bit longer to write than the others. And maybe not longer, but I never felt myself in the right creative space. There is no S-Bahn or U-Bahn to ride in middle Vermont. I can’t explain it, but European public transportation really makes me a happy and productive poet. The good news is that I’m within pages of finishing my second novel. I’m winding down my carpentry now and will be spending still more time writing. I’m already planning my next poems and am eager to start my next novel.

I’ve seen them sometimes out alone,
  Out walking roads too late
For any business but their own—
  Lost to what they contemplate.

I’ve seen as they have seen: the grim,
  The few remaining rags
Of autumn strung from the black limb,
  How every hour lags.

I too, without a place to go
  And nothing to my name,
Have wandered through the rain and snow
  And would have said the same:

There’s only guessing at what may
  Or may not come tomorrow,
But I have seen enough today
  To know the taste of sorrow.

    by me, 
    October 29th 2022

Magical Realism: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

There’s a famous quote by Shakespeare that goes like this: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods.” This is from King Lear, but if you wanted to sum up every book or comic book by Gaiman that I’ve read so far, this does it. And it’s no wonder that Gaiman features Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in Sandman. The play has all the key elements that obsess Gaiman—mind control, illusion, delusion, and mortals who are subject to the whim of supernatural beings. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is essentially another Gaiman comic book in novel form where we are flies to wanton Gods. And like a comic book, the main character doesn’t “change” or, more precisely, there’s no character development while gods (or super/supernatural beings) run riot threatening to destroy not just Earth but the universe as well. And the fact that the world just about ended doesn’t change anyone. Says the main character:

“A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn’t I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don’t change.” [p. 163]

Besides Gaiman’s sometimes sloppy writing (is he saying that “everyone else” in the story was seven?), the problem isn’t that people don’t change, but that Gaiman’s “people” don’t change. This not only applies to Gaiman’s seven year old characters, but also, arguably, to the most powerful (according to some) and oldest being in the Marvel Universe—the Sandman— who (spoiler) sacrifices himself because he just can’t change. So apparently the kid’s age isn’t the issue. It’s more likely that Gaiman just doesn’t do character development.

I Have a Theory

And that’s because character development is hard to do when you’re just a fly batted around by wanton gods. And setting aside Sandman—which is nothing if not a collection of stories about flies (read mortals) batted around by wanton immortal and semi-immortal beings (read every manner of bugaboo set loose when the Sandman is imprisoned for a hundred years)—The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about a seven year old who finds himself smack dab in the middle a battle between (for lack of a better term) good gods and bad gods. Or super beings. Or thinly veiled super heroes and super villains. Or adults if it’s all a “dream”. The super heroes are three women—a grandmother, mother and “eleven” year old girl—who have actually been around since the creation of the Earth. It’s suggested that the grandmother has been around since before the Big Bang. (Because Gaiman has a seven year old’s instinct for upping the superhero ante, his have been around since before the Big Bang(!)—top that Batman!) In fact, she has apparently seen lots of Big Bangs. And yet the youngest of these super beings, the ostensibly eleven year old girl (who is at least several billion years old) doesn’t have the god-given sense not to take along a seven year old boy when confronting—what do we call it?—a super villain? And there’s nothing particularly clever about the Hempstocks (the good gods). They’re just more powerful than the villain. Geiman’s tale of their triumph is a dull and unimaginative tale of brute force.

What happens next is beyond any seven year old to grasp or fix, and so we end up with a plot-driven novel where the gods utterly mess up a seven year old’s life, then have to extricate him from the very mess they’ve made. The kid/narrator is just a fly.

On the Other Hand

Gaiman’s book has gotten over 15,000 reviews and they are largely 5 star reviews. Gaiman has a fierce and devoted following probably and largely because of Sandman. The thing about super-hero comic books is that they’re not about character development. Sure, more ambitious writers try their hand at it (including Gaiman), but that’s not what the genre is about, and the genre is as old as Greek gods. Comic books are about static, god-like beings (protagonists) with specific powers who use those powers to overcome equally static and powerful adversaries (antagonists) who usually want to rule the Earth and/or universe because—why think small?

And there’s nothing wrong with that—that’s the point of the genre after all.

If you’re a comic book reader, then Gaiman’s plot-driven super-being-tropes are nothing new and hardly a disappointment. It’s why you’re reading them. And I’ve noticed that many who criticize the book sound like they normally read fiction (like me) and find all of Gaiman’s comic-book tropes, his deus-ex-machina machinations, more than a little formulaic. But the god/super-hero genre comes with its own rules and expectations and I suppose expecting character development/complexity from an author so single-mindedly infatuated with the archetypal universal hero myth as Neil Gaiman, is like expecting romance from Stephen King, magical realism from Raymond Chandler or erotica from Hans Christian Andersen. But readers of comic books bring a whole set of expectations. They already know the hero’s history. They know the hero’s powers and limitations. They are familiar with the hero’s raft of villains and arch-nemeses. They are familiar with their hero’s archetype and with that hero’s archetypal stories. The best comic book writers know their archetypes and know their archetypical hero’s journey; and it’s for these “Hero’s Journeys” they’re read (and for the art of course, but many readers seem willing to let poor art slide if the story is exceptional). And when any expectations are dashed, there can be hell to pay. At it’s ugliest, you get the racist row over non-white elves and dwarves in Amazon’s “Ring of Power.” What I’m driving at is that the difference between a new work of fiction by a novelist verses a new comic book is that one reads the novelist for the whole story (to discover unknown characters and unexpected plots) while one comes to comic books with clear expectations as regards the characters and the plot (as one does with most genre literature). Jung writes:

The universal hero myth, for example, always refers to a powerful man or god-man who vanquishes evil in the form of dragons, serpents, monsters, demons, and so on, and who liberates his people from destruction and death.

These hero myths vary enormously in detail, but the more closely one examines them, the more one sees that structurally they are very similar. They have, that is to say, a universal pattern, even though they were developed by groups or individuals without any direct cultural contact with each other—by, for instance, tribes of Africans or North American Indians, or the Greeks, or the Incas of Peru. [The Archetypal story and how to keep it fresh]

With Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman fulfills all the expectations of the horror/hero’s-journey/fantasy readership—in this case the “child archetype”. If one thinks of the book as a comic book turned into a novel, then I get the novel’s appeal, but if one thinks of it as a novel first, then I find the book far too beholden to genre tropes. The author of the website above (from which the quote comes) goes on to write:

Our job in becoming highly original storytellers is to create a world and characters so rare, that the audience lives with a sense of constant wonder and discovery. We take our readers far beyond their usual hunting grounds and lead them into a world where the mundane falls away and everything is an adventure. Once we start them on this journey, we ground the reader by relating this exotic world to a universal human experience. The characters in our stories have lives so unlike ours (spies, superhumans, space explorers, etc.), yet they’re confronted with conflicts common to our everyday experience (guilt and redemption, change vs tradition, tribalism vs individualism, etc.).  Although these conflicts are being played out with life and death stakes, and in settings that are exotic and dangerous, the best stories will still have some connection to our psyches, to what makes humans ‘human.’

I read other reviewers who call his novel poignant and bewitching. Some are brought to tears. Not me. I was rolling my eyes. I found Gaiman’s story too cynical for any of that and too plot-driven for anything like a “universal human experience”. While the main character is seven years old, it’s the seven year old as a grown man who is narrating, and he is breathtakingly unreliable. The villain of the novel accuses the seven year old of being a liar and she’s right. Anyone who believes, for example, the narrator’s protestations that he didn’t notice the nudity of women, multiple times, is probably already the owner of several bridges in Brooklyn. But then who’s talking? The boy? The grown man? At any rate, anyone questioning the narrator’s obsession with women and their bodies need only observe that the antagonist, Ursula Monkton, is at her most threatening and dangerous when she descends out of the night sky like an avenging pole dancer until (as we find out later) she’s stark naked—and all while surrounded by rain, wind and lightning (strobed in glitter-like rainfall and “writhing” lightning) because, you know, there’s nothing more terrifying, powerful or corrupt than a grown, naked woman (and not that the narrator put all this symbolism together on purpose or anything):

I had been running from her though the darkness for, what, half an hour? An hour? I wished I had stayed on the lane and not tried to cut across the fields. I would have been at the Hempstocks’ farm by now. Instead, I was lost and I was trapped.

Ursula Monkton came lower. Her pink blouse was open and unbuttoned. She wore a white bra. Her midi skirt flapped in the wind, revealing her calves. She did not appear to be wet, despite the storm. Her clothes, her face, her hair, were perfectly dry. ¶ She was floating above me, now, and she reached out her hands. ¶ Every move she made, everything she did, was strobed by the tame lightnings that flickered and writhed about her. [p. 81]

It’s all there, including the strobe lighting, the writhing, and the glitter-like rain that doesn’t make her wet. (The narrator mentions more than once that she doesn’t “get wet” in the rain. Maybe a naked woman “getting wet” was an insinuation too far—even for Gaiman—but the fact that he harps on this begins to sound sinister in and of itself, making her sexuality sociopathic—as if a woman’s sexuality were wholly about power and manipulation.) And there’s no escape. Not that the seven year old boy is so terrified, so convinced that death is imminent, that he doesn’t notice or can’t remember the color of Monkton’s bra and her revealing calves. This mature woman’s disrobing follows the seven year old boy wherever he runs. Kind of like life, isn’t it? It’s all downhill from there and at the bottom of the hill is Youporn. Meanwhile, the super-hero protagonist of the story, who steps in to save the doomed narrator (in the nick of deus-ex-machina), is Lettie Hempstock, a non/asexual eleven year old girl who essentially (and conveniently) sacrifices her life (Gaiman is vague) to save the main character. (She’s been eleven for over a billion years?) Thankfully, I’m guessing, the narrator never has to experience Lettie as a grown woman. His memory of her can remain pure. The narrator’s younger sister, meanwhile, seems just as adept (as the grown woman/monster who is Ursula Monkton) at manipulating the sole surviving man in the story. The narrator’s sister skates through the story utterly unharmed and oblivious, among the other females, as she gleefully assists in making the boy’s life miserable. (Such is the murderous, mind-controlling, sexual power of the corrupt female in Gaiman’s imagination that the father is almost made to murder the boy. The other “gods” in the story, the Hempstocks, consider him “mind-controlled”—along with his utterly absent wife.) And don’t forget that it was all women—women, women, women—who got the little boy/narrator into this mess—and that includes the Hempstocks. But you know how it is, can’t live with’em, can’t live without’em…

And then, to crown it all, Gaiman finishes the novel hinting at the telenovela maybe-it-was-all-just-a-dream trope; and all the super-beings were just an archetypal coping mechanism (think Life of Pi). The narrator does hint at this at the novel’s outset too, writing: “…I was an imaginative child, prone to nightmares…” [p. 17] But that doesn’t change my main disappointment with the novel—that everything about it was plot driven, the characters static, and the good vs. evil battle too stale for a novel published in 2013. That ship has sailed. If I ever see another movie or read another story where a super-being saves the Earth yet again, it will be too soon. And stories featuring mind-control (and to say that Gaiman’s stories are full of it is an understatement) quickly lose my interest. Nothing kills character development or “the universal human experience” more dead than wanton gods exercising mind control—as if swatting the flies weren’t enough. At that point you’ve truly entered the oxygen-thin realm of genre-driven fiction.

But some like it that way.

That said…

Of the writers I’ve read since beginning these posts, Gaiman is hands down the most evocative. His descriptions of the food served by the Hempstocks make the mouth water. It’s clear that he can construct and inhabit the worlds of his imagination and with minute detail; and it’s no wonder that he makes such an effective comic book writer—where the writer must retain an awareness that comic books are also a visual art. Sandman is illustrated by a number of artists and, according to what I’ve read, Gaiman was detailed as concerns the world he wanted them to illustrate—panel by panel. I believe it. This goes a long way toward making the world of The Ocean at the End of the Lane as real and concrete as any book I’ve read. Credit where credit is due. And if you accept Gaiman as the plot-driven genre writer that he is, he writes first rate plots that make for compelling reading. The portion of the novel in which the narrator runs from a murderous Ursula Monkton is a page turner. I’m almost inclined to call Gaiman a first rate writer as well, even though I wouldn’t consider him a stylist (there’s nothing exceptional in his use of language or imagery), but for one strange and inexplicable affectation: his weird refusal to use contractions. And so you get supremely awkward sentences like this:

I do not know why I did not ask an adult about it. I do not remember asking adults about anything… [p. 46]

And then, just a few pages later, and for no discernible reason whatsoever, Gaiman remembers that a contraction is a thing:

I don’t know what I said in reply, or if I even said anything. [p. 53]

But that’s the exception. For the most part, Gaiman’s arbitrary affectation makes his prose feel wooden and stiff. The same finicky avoidance of contractions is to be found in Sandman and, in my opinion, makes the dialog equally wooden.

But is it magical realism?

It depends on how you read the novel, to an extent. If you think it was all just a dream, then a hard maybe? But even then, given that Gaiman spends the lion’s share of the narrative in an alternate world or in a world heavily manipulated by magic, I’m more apt to call it Fantasy.

So, my search for true magical realism continues. I should probably get back to reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

upinVermont | September 25 2022

Magical Realism: The House on the Cerulian Sea by TJ Klune

I just finished this novel and am of two minds. On the one hand, if read in blissful isolation, the novel is a charming, uplifting, feel good story that features the anti-christ among other magical children who are only looking for a loving home and a government employee who, like the Grinch, comes to grow a heart three times its size. On the other hand, if one has been breathing and conscious for the last 20 years, then Klune’s story reads like a Marvel spin-off in the X-Men universe—as though it were based on the usual derivative trope of magical beings victimized by a powerful and hostile non-magical (and boring) majority. The book teeters from one genre cliché after another from beginning to end.

So, at the risk of engaging in some pop-psychology, my suspicion is that there’s a reason (think Big Bang Theory) “nerds” are associated with comic books (read superheroes). There’s a certain class of children who were, are, and will be perpetual victims (fictional and real) in grade school and high school, and these are the children who stand out in unpopular ways. Maybe they’re too skinny or fat, maybe they’re smart but socially inept, maybe they’re introverts, autistic, artistic instead of athletic, gay, lesbian or just look and dress funny. Among them, I suspect, are the kids who become comic book writers, writers who essentially project themselves into super-powered beings who right all the injustices ever inflicted on them. But society (read the class and school administration) fights back. Society labels and isolates these children and tries to “fix” them with therapy, medication, social intervention, etc… And so that feeling of further victimization is projected into the superhero universe by the next generation of comic book writers when superheros are forced to “register” (Marvel Universe) and give up their secret identity, to alter who they are and give up their superpowers so they’ll fit in (The Incredibles), or find themselves in a war, hunted and gunned down, by secret and opaque (read the school administration) government institutions (the X-Men). In the DC Universe, the Joker is really nothing more than the popular class clown who victimizes the über-smart class nerd, Batman.

In that regard, Klune’s novel leaves no trope unturned.

There is the secretive Government Institute (DICOMY); there is the hostile non-magical populace with protestors—thinly veiled right-wing MAGA racists and anti-immigrant bigots; there are the brilliant, engaging, accepting magical children who only want to be loved for who they are; there is the city (presumably under the complete control of the authorities/government) where it is always grey and raining, and there is “the house by the cerulean sea”, where the magical children live and where it is pretty as a Caribbean postcard. The juxtapositions are so cartoonish that one almost thinks the author is angling for a Pixar movie deal.

If one is willing to set all this aside (though it becomes harder as the novel progresses) then it’s possible to enjoy The House on the Cerulian Sea as a sort of novel length comic book where the putative villain has a change of heart and the good guys, in their way, triumph. Leave it at that and the book makes great summer reading. Expect more than that, and you will start to notice that none of the characters feel “real”. They’re rather two-dimensional. Reading Klune’s novel is a bit like reading a comic book in novel form. The main character’s “love interest”, the longingly named Arthur Parnassus, is never more than that—a character with a soaring name but who remains enigmatically flat. The various children are fun but never go much beyond cartoonish expectations. They behave in the expected ways (according to who and what they are) but we never learn anything about their pasts. We never get to know them. The main character, Linus, spends a great deal of time sweating. Klune is the second author I’ve read (Ruth Hogan The Keeper of Lost Things being the other) who seems particularly fixated with sweat. Linus sweats a lot. He is also prone to fear, dread and fainting spells.

In the end, I found the novel somewhat marred by the same temptation to moralize that got Patrick Ness, The Monster Calls, into trouble. Various characters get on their soapboxes and monologue as the novel draws to a close. The final monologue, the piece of resistance, is when Linus summons the courage to soliloquize before DICOMY’s “extreme upper management” [a name that still makes me laugh]—a monologue which allows the author, TJ Klune, to neatly sum up the moral of the story in case it wasn’t already obvious. That said, Klune does a better job of it than Ness (even while Klune’s soapboxing still seems contrived). I have yet, in real life, to see anyone get on their soapbox and soliloquize their mea culpa. In real life people just let their resentments fester and eventually end up on the bottle or in therapy.

But, after all that, it’s worth adding that Klune’s story-telling is good-humored and he actually got me to laugh here and there. By what I can tell, he knows that he’s primarily writing to entertain and is not out to produce a literary masterpiece. He’s a fine story teller whose novel is the best I’ve read so far (in the YA/Fantasy genre). He’s no poet. You won’t find any heart-stopping prose to give your breath a pause, but his descriptions are effective and provide the reader a sufficient sense of place. He’ a skilled storyteller whose book is deservedly successful.

Finally, is this Magical Realism? I would say not. Klune creates an alternate reality and that, in my view, makes this book more akin to Fantasy than Magical Realism.

up in Vermont | September 12th 2022