Rough Drafts | The Luckiest Man Alive

I’ve now written just over 50 percent of my novel. I’ve renamed it North of Autumn. I’ve fallen behind the last few days, around a thousand words short of where I should be. This is partly because the novel is transitioning and I haven’t fully worked out what should happen or how. Also, the short little fable that follows got me all snarled up. Not often I throw a fit when writing, but after the sixth revision I was losing patience. Part of the challenge is not just writing a fable, but a fable that makes sense within the context of the narrative. I didn’t set out to write a novel full of smaller tales, fables and short stories, but writing the novel at speed makes the writing spontaneous—as though the whole novel is more of an improvisation. The novel reminds me a little of a musical. Instead of the characters bursting into song, they burst into stories. Readers are either going to love it or hate it but then, given all the magical realism, one won’t be reading this book for its gritty authenticity.

Sean dangled the phone over his forehead. “I’m in Vermont.”
“Well,” said Louis, with a light French accent, “the house will be okay until you are there. Do you know when you will arrive?”
Sean exhaled. “Zoē is fighting me every step of the way.”
“Ah, I see.”
“And I may have been a guest at a house where I may have caused the catastrophic collapse of a floor and I may have promised to fix it.”
“I see. Then it is a good thing you are an engineer, Sean.”
This was followed by a momentary silence, and Sean added, “I don’t know when we’ll be getting there.”
“I’m sure you have heard the joke. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
“Yes.”
“I can tell you,” Louis’ voice continued, “where I am now is never where I expected to be. One makes plans and to what effect? My father loved to tell me a story when I was little. I think it must be a common story.
“A poor farmer considers himself the unluckiest man alive.
“A cohort of soldiers with oxcarts has come to his fields. They bring the stones of a bridge, its viossuers and keystones, the stones of its spandrel and parapet, and the cobblestones that paved it. They strew his fields with these stones and the farmer can no longer plow.
“Years go by and the farmer is very poor. Then one day the mayor of a nearby town announces that a new bridge must be built before the arrival of the King. Seeing that the farmer has all the stones he needs, the mayor orders that the stones be collected and the farmer rewarded. This makes the farmer rich beyond his wildest dreams.
“Meanwhile, the bridge is built and the King arrives. He walks across the bridge. He gives a sharp cry of recognition and, in the very next moment, he drops dead. Many years before, you see, he had been told that so long as he never crossed the bridge, death would never find him; and so he ordered that the bridge be dismantled and all its stones scattered.
“The King, you know, considered himself the luckiest man alive.”

upinVermont | May 31st 2022

Lutetia Sue Plover

  Lutetia Sue Plover
  Born 1862 - Died 1923

Whoever you may be, grieve not
Because my stone is small
Or seems thus but an afterthought.
What need have I for more than this?
I loved the world withal
And yield rather with a kiss.
Though we are passers-by today
(Bless you who’ve come to call)
Be in no hurry. If I may, 
Don’t think of me as being gone
Say rather: ‘Twas time that I move on.
  • Sorry I’ve been quiet these last couple weeks. I’ve been under the weather. Thought I’d post this little poem from my novel. I wrote it specifically for the book and deliberately drafted it in an antiquated style—something I thought might be believable for 1923. Around that time Frost was already underway and had returned from England. He had just taken up a teaching position at Amherst College, EA Robinson was widely read and Edna Saint Vincent Millay had just wowed the literary establishment with Renascence. So, I thought, what might someone, having read them, write for themselves around this time?

Wolves

  • From the Short Story Montana. To find out more click on the Short Stories page above.
        When just a girl her mother said
        You have a hundred acre heart.
        Someday, I know, you’ll meet a boy
        And you and he will never part.

        He’ll love your heart’s untrammeled wilds,
        The seasons of your vagrant sky;
        He’ll build a house for both of you
        And sow your rapturous fields with rye.

        But let some paths go undiscovered
        And heed your woodland pools; the moon
        Will visit unregarded where
        The bones—the feasts of wolves—are strewn.

        Hide from him the baleful owl
        And if he hears the midnight’s howl,
        There’s savagery in what you are—
        Never let him go too far.

Beatified

There is a severed skull
And vertebrae close by
They showed up in the fall
(Where winter bleached them dry).

Yet now that spring has come
The flesh returns. New shoots
Grow through and insects thrum
Where the heart once watered roots.

The skull lays on its side,
Crowned with rue and nettle
As though beatified
With ichor, thorn and petal.

All this as if to say
No more is given Earth
To know than just today
This death and this rebirth.

Beatified

by Me, Patrick Gillespie, May 15th 2021

Blackbirds

‘Don’t make him go.’
                ‘I’m not.’
                                ‘He’s only just now
Come in to play.’
                ‘He’d rather be outside, ’
Said the boy’s father. ‘Let him go outside.
He’s old enough to want to help.’
                                ‘Then next year,’
Said the boy’s mother. ‘Let him set the table
That’s more a help than outside splitting wood.’
‘Let Mary,’ said the father.
                                ‘Mary? Set
The table? Let her help with splitting wood!'
The mother countered. ‘After all, she’s older.
Why can’t your daughter?’
                                ‘She hasn’t asked me, has she?’
‘And does she need to?’
                 ‘Jack did.’
                                ‘Why not ask her?’
‘For God’s sake, let them both go,’ said their father.
‘They’re old enough.’
                Just then the boy walked in
Still in boots and a hooded jacket—somehow
Nonetheless guessing at the argument.
His glance raced from father to mother. ‘Can I?’
He asked.
                His mother paused. She’d carried in
The plates and silverware and had begun
To set them.
                ‘If you’re asking me, then no,’
She said. ‘You’re father thinks you’re old enough;
I don’t.’
                ‘I’m old enough,’ argued the boy.
‘Then go straight to Grandpa if you want to help
And do exactly what he tells you. No hospitals
Today. No little boys who’ve chopped their hands off.’
‘Then I’ll tell Mary,’ said the father.
                                                The boy
Ran out the door but never having seen
His father run to do a chore, stopped, walked,
Assumed an air of purpose. Snow was falling
And had already fallen, not in gales
But in that way November snowfalls shroud
The yellowed grass and drape the Queen Anne’s lace
Anew with shawls. The maple in the dooryard,
Its leaves let down, let down no shadows, evening
Descending overall but for the dooryard
And lighted house behind the boy. The path
To where the wood was split went first before
The shed-roofed bays then out behind the barn where
The log length wood was piled. 
                                The closest bay
Stored their discarded toys. Among them were
A tricycle, its rims half buried in
The dirt floor’s ruin and the runner sleds
That just a year ago already would have
Skated November’s early snow—the lettering
Faded and flaking from their slatted backs.
The boy might yet have pulled them out but for
A baby gate that sometime during the summer
Was forced into the only narrow entry
(As if to bar a child’s going in
Or toys from coming out again). The snow
Curled over the metal lip of roof
Above the shed-bay’s open mouth and faded
Into a ghostly exhalation.
                                Drawing
His hood tight as he walked, the boy half stumbled—
A knee to snow. The middle bay was where
His brother stored his car on blocks. The right
Front block had sunk into the dirt so that
The grill’s off-kilter grin would chase the boy
In nightmares. The car still needed work—
And every day less likely to be done.
The doors, fenders and hood were primed
With spray paint (underneath the priming gray
The paint’s original red) but here and there
The rust was rusting through. But mostly when
His brother visited the car he’d take
A girl along. The boy would want to follow
But every time he’d asked them what they planned
His brother laughed. ‘We’re going out to play
A little hide & seek,’ he’d say. ‘You’re not
Invited.’ Then the boy, being troubled by
What kind of hide & seek there was to play
Inside a car, made plans some night to follow
And spy; and meant to soon. Sometimes they’d stay
For just a little while and sometimes late
Into the night. Returning then they’d kiss
And laugh as though in seeking they had found
A thousand hiding places. 
                                Another gust
Of snow. The shrunken spines of black-eyed Susans—
Their desiccated eyes were motionless
And blind to what remained of autumn’s twilight 
Or the boy passing by.
                                The furthest bay
Was where his father kept the tractor—lights
Lifted like attentive ears, hood tarped
And cutter bar drawn up. Some days in summer
The boy’s father might leave the tractor out
Midfield, dusted with chaff. The boy might climb
Into the seat as though he could ignite
The tractor’s heart and bring the gulping lungs
To life again. The metal’s heavy odor
Of grease and oil clung to his clothes like
The scissored grasses. He hardly knew the work
Of tractors other than they worked the fields;
And where he would have traveled had it rumbled
To life meant less to him than understanding
What force of architecture moved the steel,
What housed explosions turned the giant wheels
Imprinting the earth. ‘The cruel machine,’ 
His mother’d say, ‘That cuts the summer’s bloom—
Too much to call it hate—but let the field
For once run riot. We’ve no use for hay,
And have no livestock. Let it go uncut
Or cut it late and let the wildflowers route
The grasses.’ ‘It’s for love of place I mow it,’
His father’d answer. ‘When has autumn ever spared
A meadow? And there are other reasons
Besides.’ If afterward he’d never give them
He’d nonetheless bring back a mason jar
So clumsily full of flowers they’d sometimes topple
Over the kitchen table just as if
A scythe had lain them down again.
                                The boy hewed
Close by the barn where jimsonweed had grown.
He stepped over burst thorn-apples—their rictus
Of seed and snow; and passing by he snagged
The others in his mittens—thorny bulbs
Still topping branches; tendrils spiraling upwards
As if they were a final parting breath—
The smoke of humid summer days turned brittle
And motionless.
                Any other day
He’d have taken the shortcut through the barn,
A storehouse of forgotten generations
Who owned the property a hundred years
And more before the boy’s own family.
Sometimes he’d spend the hours picking through
The slow haphazard regolith of mice
And straw to find a broken tool half buried:
Old bottles, cut nails, rusted pliers, saw-blades
And hammers missing handles; these he’d stockpile
In crates he made himself—half a dozen
He’d cobbled out of scavenged lumber ridden
With nail holes. The boy had found foundations
Grown through with ironwood—remains of buildings
A farmer might take lumber from. He’d wonder
What ghosts still searched the leaf-strewn cellar holes
Looking for the long forgotten button 
That once had rolled between the rough-sawn floorboards—
Themselves long since dissolved; and then he’d flee
The ironwood thicket. If there’d ever been
More than the lumber worth saving then either
That too was lost or in the barn—the lumber,
The tools, the parts (their use gone out of memory),
And the machinery still following
The beasts that drew them, wooden ligaments
Consumed, their frames corroded and collapsing
Into the sediment. And yet the boy
Will mend their failing joints, imagines them—
Painted and metal polished—renewed
Behind a tractor’s thumping pulse. If not
A tractor then he’d clear the cobwebbed arteries
From the barn and there stable either ox
Or horse; he’d load the hayloft with fresh hay
And breathe the fumes of life into the farmyard
Or so, at least, the boy imagined doing
And more.
                He followed round the barn’s far corner,
The muddy yard where log-length firewood
Was piled—the time of year the yard
Rolled seamlessly into the neighboring fields,
Their hollow ribs no taller than the yard’s
Own trampled grasses. Distantly, the ridge
Of field that overlooked the barn and farmhouse
Grew light with snow and darkened with the shadow
Of early winter.
                The boy had often
Come out this far and been distracted by
The sloping fields, wondering at the world
Beyond the world he saw. He dreamt an ocean
Lay just beyond the distant ridge, and beds
Of incandescent sands and whirlpools
Of liquid vertebrae. He dreamt of whales
Who glimmered with the giant eyes of angels;
And waters trembling over them like outspread wings.
Their contemplation wakened him; he feared
The dark that sank his bed into their mystery;
The turmoil of their wake. And though some nights,
In a half-forgotten sleep, he rode
The ocean’s slippery back from shore to shore,
He’d waken to horizons nothing more
Than his own room, the bed, the sheets wound round him, 
A cluttered floor.
                The path veered left between
The logs and barn. The boy tugged at his hood
As wind once more drew down a shroud of snow,
Thrown from the metal roof. He dug his hands
Into his jacket, hunched, and kept his eyes
Half shut until the gust rose over top
The roof again as though the barn itself
Breathed forth the ghostly apparition, vanishing
As fleetingly as it appeared. 
                                The boy
Stopped. The steel of the splitting maul
Gleamed in the icy mud; just by the maul
A split wedge wedged in the wood. The boy’s grandfather
Lay on his side, eyes open, the splitting maul’s handle
Loosely in his hand. The old man’s scarf
Rose up, half lifted by a sudden gust,
Then fell again. The boy stepped backwards, stumbled,
Stepped back again. A little further on
The cattails in the farmyard’s pond had blown—
And silence where the redwing blackbirds shrilled
Before they’d flown. He gave a startled cry.
His sister lightly cupped his shoulder,
Then she stepped past him kneeling by their grandfather.
She turned him gently to his back. She leaned
As if unsure; then being sure, she closed
His eyes. She gazed at him and neither she
Nor the boy moved.
                'Okay,' she finally said.
She stood, went to the boy, and took his hand.
'Come on,' she said. And then said nothing more.
Blackbirds By me, Patrick Gillespie | March 27, 2021
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Great Minds

I was just reading an article in Quanta Magazine and lo and behold there’s an evolutionary biologist, Arik Kershenbaum, who speculates, as I do (and did in my poem Bicycles) that alien life is probably going to look a lot like life on earth. You can read the article here. Not only that, but Kershenbaum has written a book on the subject, the Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I guess Bicycles was too late to make it into the forward.

I’m going to be buying this book for both my twin daughters, both of whom are majoring in earth sciences with an interest in exobiology.

Crabs rule the universe. I tell you that now. Don’t be shocked in the years to come. You heard it here.

My Last Husband

More poems now that I have time. This poem, or dramatic monologue, was written for Harriet Whitbread, who performed my poem, Erlkönigin. I wrote it over the week-end, with Bicycles finally done, and wanted to write her something she could really have fun with—my way of thanking her. If you’ve never read Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess, then you should read that first or you’ll be apt to miss the humor and inside jokes. As usual, I enjoy writing pastiches like these that turn the originals a little upside down and a little inside out. As I see it, why let the men have all the fun? Enjoy.

 
 My Last Husband
  
 L.A.
  
 [Enter Madame de B. wearing a caftan and sipping a whisky sour.]
  
 That’s my last husband pictured on the wall
 Looking as if he were alive. The great
 Photographer Pierre Blanchet insisted—
 And spent the week-end taking photographs.
 No doubt he would have stayed a few weeks longer. 
 I’ve since been told Pierre had fallen madly
 In love with him.  
             It mattered neither men
 Nor women, everyone who met him loved him.
 Yet after all these years I’m not surprised
 You didn’t recognize him—being younger.
 Fame, as they say, is fleeting. Even so
 And only having seen his photograph,
 You’re not the first to ask me who he was—
 What with that jaw, that brow, that piercing gaze.
 And not for me. Oh no. No. All of that
 Was for Pierre or rather I should say
 His camera.
                  Was I there? Oh yes, although
 You’d never guess. Before he was discovered
 He tended bars. He made me whiskey sours.
 That’s how he was. So thoughtful. Whisky sours
 For me and for Pierre a Cosmopolitan,
 A Mai Tai for the bellboy, Juleps for
 The scullery maid. They loved him. Everyone
 Adored him. Oh but they adored him. Why
 Any trifle batting eyes at him
 He’d treat as if he’d known them all their lives.
 A movie star! Imagine that! You’d think
 There was no point in living where we lived:
 This villa, planned by Lars van Alderhof;
 Its stunning view of the Pacific ocean;
 An architectural beacon!
                                         But I digress.
 As I was saying: Everyone who met him—
 Well, I was always being told how lucky
 I was. How fortunate. I was the envy
 Of womankind! Imagine being married,
 They’d say, to Jason of the Argonauts,
 To Robinhood, to Tamburlaine and Harry
 The goddamn Fifth! 
                       The day the photograph
 Was taken, on that very day, my agent
 Called to tell me I’d been chosen. Me!
 The starring role in La Belle Dame. I’m sure,
 Of course, you’ve heard of it. I won an Oscar.
 Alas but that my husband never knew.
 He knew that I would star. Was any man
 Supportive as he was? Was any wife
 So lucky? He at once made known to all
 That I, his unexampled wife, would star
 In La Belle Dame; then added sans merci.
 Indeed. The laughter was uproarious. Oh how
 They loved him. Sans merci. Indeed.
                                           I’m sure
 You know the story. Last that he was seen
 He’d driven off in his belovèd Aston Martin.
 Gone, but for this: his photograph; still smiling
 As if alive.
                     Shall we repair to the salon?
 My agent will of course review the contract—
 I’m sure a mere formality considering
 Your studio’s well-known—munificence.
 Just follow me.
                     And those? The magazines?
 I had the covers framed. Quite lovely. Taken
 Shortly after I had won the Oscar
 For La Belle Dame—and while touring Italy.
 The statue in the background overlooked
 A gorgeous cove and was quite famous. Sculpted
 By Hans of Strasbourg and entitled: Neptune
 Taming a seahorse. Tragically, there was
 An accident. 
            The workmen who’d been hired
 To clean and renovate the statue must
 Have loosened here and there a bolt, forgetting
 To tighten them—a cable snipped?—who knows.
 (Whatever does a woman know about
 Such things.) But down went Neptune, down
 Into the waves with nothing whatsoever
 To brake his fall. The chariot was found
 But never Neptune—no doubt swept out
 To sea. As luck would have it though, just Neptune
 And nothing else. 
                    The seahorse, so it’s claimed,
 Still stands just as it was—and still untamed.
  
 [Exeunt Madame de B.] 

Dedicated Harriet Whitbread

Needless to say, and just like Browning’s poem, mine is based on true events.

Bicycles

 Just as the Cosmos is remarkable
 In its homogeneity, so life
 Surprises not in its variety,
 But similarities—a living world
 May neither be too close nor orbiting
 Too distant from its sun, must be rocky,
 Have water and a molten core’s enveloping
 Magnetosphere. Consider living worlds
 Like organisms, each convergently
 Evolving oxygen, a temperate climate
 And life. 
               And just as they're alike in their
 Constituent elements, the life arising
 Evolves alike—prokaryotic and
 Eukaryotic over billions of years
 Divided into plants and animals.
 The laws of evolution are not altered
 By time, locale or species. Anywhere
 There’s life there’s more that’s recognizable
 Than alien, more that universally
 Applies not just to life’s emergence but
 Also to sentience, intelligence
 And civilization, for in every world,
 Where though the sun is unfamiliar,
 Where night is visited by stranger tides
 And constellations, where though the byways
 And thoroughfares traverse implausible fields
 Under alien skies, you still will find
 The bicycle.
                    There are an infinite number
 Among as many worlds. The universe
 Is everywhere replete with life, some worlds
 Awash in microscopic biomes
 While others teem with wilderness; but where
 Intelligence and sentience evolve
 So does the necessary wheel and means 
 To turn the wheel: the chain, gears, frame and sprocket
 Both different and alike in their design—
 Blueprints of the physiology
 And minds inventing them. In any world
 Where there’s a child’s bicycle, there’s elsewhere
 In any quarter of the universe
 Another likewise trimmed with streamers, spangles
 And balanced on a kickstand.
                    Were it possible
 To bridge the light years with a bicycle
 By pedaling or by a sail affixed
 To catch the winds of other Milky Ways;
 Or to visit on a summer’s day
 An undiscovered world; to gaze at nightfall
 At nebulae; and were there, anchored
 To every handlebar, a telescope
 To navigate the air (and wine and blankets
 In every basket); then bicycles
 Would populate the intervening skies,
 Would coast like comets through the scattered stars
 And glitter in the light.
                    If on an evening
 You find a square of earth to unfold
 Your blanket and to gaze at constellations,
 You’ll see a thousand thousand worlds with life
 And yet see none. In every world you’ll see
 A thousand thousand bicycles and yet
 Not one. You’ll peer into another’s eyes,
 A billion intermittent years gone by,
 Whose gaze meets yours if only for an instant,
 Yet never know. 
                   Ride your bicycle
 The little while you can—and wait no more;
 Though a bicycle won’t ferry you
 Across the pathless oceans of the Cosmos,
 This poem has never only been about 
 The bicycle—but our imagination.
 The Universe is full of bicyclists
 Who dream of navigating, just like you,
 The same intractable distances,
 To view, if for a day, another moon,
 Another sun—and you. So little
 Are our allotted days, so impossible—
 The grandeur, the sublimity, the Universe;
 Let your imagination be the bicycle
 And what before had been beyond your reach
 Will be the passage of an afternoon.
 Will be the nebulae that fade like leaves
 Among worlds moving darkly and unseen;
 Will be the radiant whirlwinds birthing stars
 And stars new worlds. There will be life and bicycles
 And for a little while—yours. 
Bicycles by Me, Patrick Gillespie | February 14th 2021
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Die Erlkönigin | Voiced by Harriet Whitbread

An actress’s reading of Die Erlkönigin is always something I’ve wished for. Then, just over a month ago Harriet Whitbread, the head of Voice & Learning Support at the Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company, emailed to ask if I’d enjoy her own reading of the poem.

I confess that when I read this poem publicly, I sometimes can’t make it to the end. Goethe’s original poem, Erlkönig, was and is profoundly meaningful to me in a way that I could only translate by writing Die Erlkönigin. Ms. Whitbread shared that she also had trouble reading to the end and that is, in a sense, as much as I ask from the poem.

Please enjoy Whitbread’s beautiful performance.

Harriet Whitbread is Head of Voice & Learning Support at the Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company located at the The Monkey House, 97-101 Seven Sisters Road, London, N7 7QP. You can visit the Fourth Monkey website here.