When Water Catches Fire – first draft


I had an editor named named Gazsi once. I knew him for a long time before I knew him. I called him The Gaz. He  was a Persian speaking 22 year old who had only been in America for ten years when we met in February of 2000, when the manuscript of one of my first novels found its way to his desk with the header ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He contact me through the regular mail, and told me that, although I would not be able to publish my book, he was tasked with “developing me” – something I was told meant something like, “We think you suck, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.”

I wasn’t offered any money up front, but I was prom that my work would be considered by the publisher the Gaz worked for, Kensington, which was a big deal for me in 2000; I had begun my attempts to publish my work after winning South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s award for two years in a row. My English teacher had sent some of my poems to prospective buyers, and she managed to get my work published in an anthology, just one poem in a collection released in 2001, not long after my 16th birthday.

I remember sending a copy to Gaz, and he said, ‘You continue to suck less and less. Congratulations!’ He sent me a card and – and I still have it – telling me, toast like and at a distance, ‘To the end of your sucking!’ And we talked on the first time not long after that. I liked him immediately, despite his shyness, his guarded demeanor. And he seemed to like me. He didn’t tell me much about himself. He was born in Saudi Arabia and emigrated to the States when he was 12 – and illegally.


He stayed at Kensington until they found out and let him go. Of course they never clued him in on what he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all. The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could; I knew someone at a publicity company and helped him interview for the job – while also forging certain government documents. He was good there, no wonder really. He did quite the same thing he had done at Kensington – they scoured the newly forming digital world for talent to develop and help them become the authors they wanted to be, looking over the rejected manuscripts that nevertheless showed promise. I met him for the first time when I was in Virginia to interview at UVA.

He arrived with a bottle of cheap vodka and a bottle of what he explained was, ‘Smoother than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, again, the Gaz was always right. For good or ill, he was always right. We sat on the edge of a Queen sized bed and drank his Irish Whiskey. And right again, it did taste better than the Aristocrat Vodka I’d bribed legal adults into buying me. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it got us to the fucking moon. We had a good time. We talked about stories, we talked about why people wrote them, and most of all, why people read them, why people needed them.

“I think the best thing is,” said Gaz, “in a story, what is real is not measured by its facts, but by its feeling. Take Titanic, that long James Cameron movie?”

“Yes, I think I’ve heard of it.”

“Look at the main characters,” he said. “They were a total fiction. They were absolutely fiction, but that’s why people liked that movie, and why other people hated it. People are brought in by the disaster porn, but that’s not why it resonated. They cared about the people. Two beautiful young people. And how many of those others – what I mean, who does the audience cry for? A thousand people died, but the tragedy is cut down to one person.  Is it right? Maybe not. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t tell a story like that, not quickly, and hope to keep anyone’s attention. Take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, and make it human, put a human face on it. That’s when it becomes real. No one cries over metal.”

He was very much a mentor to me, and being official, and speaking in an official capacity, despite being absolutely fucking wasted. The Gaz was forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual; but when he looked at you, you saw that he understood, that he felt. A song came on he seemed to like came on and he relaxed, and I saw, with the sweat brought about by drink, the tone of his face had darkened, his hands remaining the same vaguely ethnic color. The mood ran the gamut, to the extremes of merriment to the peak of regret and sorrow. He saw me looking at him, a peculiar look in my eyes, and he responded to my unspoken question:

“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said. “Hey, it’s not as bad as pimples.”

We talked about my plans, what I would do with whatever school I managed to get in. I wanted to write. I always wanted to. Well, I always did. Wanting to do it never factored in. We looked at information about the English programs at the schools where I would be interviewed; I decided to interview at Columbia and Cornell, fingers crossed for either, with a stupid hope for Cornell. We planned a road trip to New York City, to stay there for a week before going on to Ithaca. That’s when he asked if we could visit Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centers had been.  The night wound down and he was on one side of the bed, this strange little man, short and fit. I got up to turn out the lights.

“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Not at all,” I said. I left the bathroom light on, not too bright and not too dim, and most comforting. I returned to my side of the bed.

“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.

He was silent for a moment. A long moment. Then he rolled over and looked me in the eyes, his eyes sincere and sympathetic.

“Brandon,” he said. “I like you.”

“I like you too, Gaz,” I said.

“Good,” he said. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Gaz.”


The drive to New York City didn’t take as long as I thought it would. I had been to Maine before on a piss-smelling Greyhound and we stopped at a conn point somewhere in the city. I had a connection ticket that was to take me from the terminal in NYC to Boston, but they couldn’t validate my ticket. So I wandered around the bus terminal in need of $5 to get another ticket, to make it up Boston. And then further on to Maine. The very first person I asked for money, a Chinese man in a suit that seemed out of place, agreed to pay for my ticket – if he could come with me to purchase it. When I welcomed him to do so, and happily, he smiled, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism. I shook his hand and thanked him. I boarded the bus to Boston in the early morning.

Gaz didn’t seem too interested in my story. I could picture his editor’s note: lacks relevance, doesn’t develop character, and doesn’t move the plot.

We had planned the day as best we could. We checked into our hotel and I left my notebook there. We found out there would be a bus tour around Manhattan, out toward Ellis Island and saw the Statue of Liberty. The skinny guy narrating the inscription: The statue of liberty was designed by the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the people of France, it was dedicated on the 28th of October, 1886. The famous statue has been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Gaz’s bright brown eyes had swelled with a happy sadness, and I understood, everyone on the bus – or maybe not, maybe not the guy reading off his cards – from the youngest girl in the back of the bus looking out the window, to an old man covered in soot and a checkered coat, we all believed in America, its promise, and everyone on that bus, they didn’t have to say a thing – we were all a part of the same, multicolored arabesque, the tapestry that made America, we knew it in our hearts, was a quilt, a counterpane for everyone.

We were silent for the rest of the drive as the guy read off his cue cards in his squeaky voice, telling us about the historic buildings, the different burroughs, the Omnisphere and central park with that gold Prometheus; the history and the culture. Then the empty sky among a littered landscape somehow seemed loud, profane in being empty. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. And everyone on the bus had seen it, glowing at night, prominent and proud in the afternoon. It was a different silence on the bus, and the narration got lost in my head. Where those two buildings had been, there was no rubble there, not now, but there was the twisted metal strewn about unwavering, lingering in my mind, and that’s what I saw, the ghost of twisted metal and steel

The bus tour ended without ceremony. I think everyone was exhausted. So many people emigrating to America had seen that Statue in the distance first of all, on their boats, that giant tower in the clouds not far away, and New York became a nation of mixed heritage, the biggest in human history united under principles instead of warlords, courts of law instead of Emperors. They came from Europe, the Jews fleeing progroms in Tsarist Russia, the Chinese fortunate to get out before Mao’s revolution, the Spanish fleeing military dictators, the Irish seeking refuge from the potato famine, refugees from Vietnam, Cambodians who got out before Pol Pot and his Angka turned the clocks back to Year Zero.

My father’s side had come to America after the fall of the Soviet Union, of Ukrainian ancestry, an Ashkenazim Jewish family; and my mother’s descendants went back to the 15th century in England, and they too had fled with dreams, hearing the same whispers that statue once murmured to the world, a promise that the law was just for all. The tour guide, despite his cards, was a sharp kid, taking questions, answering them with breadth and very concise about it. It was overwhelming. But I didn’t want to waste away in the hotel all day so Gaz and I decided to clear our heads with a stroll.

It’s a hectic place, electric even, a circuitboard of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale and so we ducked into a Mexican restaurant, Mesa Coyoacan on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn where I was staying until the start of term. It was a strange scene, something right out of history. The tables were aged wood and the tables were shared, a communal dining experience. It was a bit pricey for me, as was everything else. Where I was from, there was one red light. A traffic light, but one of them. It was the Traffic Light, and a pack of cigarettes was about $3 for a good brand, your Marlboro Menthols and your Newports, but there were brands as cheap as $1.99, which I often bought – living is expensive enough; never overpay for death.

“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz was looking over the menu. He’d been quiet since we went back to the hotel to change. “I’ve never seen so many tequilas,” he said. “Do you think that’s their thing here? Do you think someone said, ‘There are lots of Mexican restaurants in this city… What can set us apart? Hold on, hold on I’ve got it, this happens to me sometimes: let’s have the most tequilas of all.’”

“You could be known for worse,” I said. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in South Carolina, in Newberry county called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We are the only Mexican restaurant. Nobody has better tacos than us.’ You know why? Because nobody else has tacos, not for fifty miles.”

“You are truly from a backward culture,” Gaz said. “But hey, at least it’s affordable.”

I ordered a quesadilla and wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. Both for him, of course.

We were having an enjoyable meal until an old man walked in wearing camo shorts and long, grey woolen socks pulled up to his knees and sunglasses. The table was communal, many of them though, and despite other openings, he sat close enough to me and Gaz to be heard. We went about our meal, talking about the fall, talking about the future. The guy in the camo shorts and boarding school socks started slow, mumbling to some people beside him, and to their everlasting credit, everyone at the table ignored him. But he kept talking, louder and louder and louder still, egging Gaz on and on. To my shame I didn’t say a thing, and to his everlasting credit, neither did Gaz. Gaz drank his two tequilas until we were drunk enough to shrug off the passive aggressive insults of that ridiculous parrot.

The waitress came back to the table.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “No thanks, I’m good.”

She looked at Gaz, “And you?”

“I’m great, thanks,” he said. “Could I get a go-bag for the rest of my salad?”

“Sure thing,” she said. She turned to me, “He gave you the better tequila.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

She smiled. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”

Gaz took two of the tequila glasses and slammed them on the floor.

“I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he said. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”

I grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to put him back on his stool. The man in camouflage shorts took off his glasses and the waitress hurried over to where he was sitting and, despite not being able to hear what that young woman said, that guy sat back down and started mumbling something. The door to the kitchen opened and several men came out, all very quickly. Gaz shrugged my hands off of him and started toward the mumbling man.

“I’m an American!” he shouted. “I’m a fucking American! Fuck you! Fuck you!”

The man stood up, Gaz staggered backward. The moment teetered on the edge of insanity. The kitchen staff pulled him away and took him to the front door. I hurried after him.

“Here, here,” I said, calling to our waitress. I put all the money I had on the table. I ran to the door with Gaz, where he stood detained by two of the staff members. They were stern but not excessive, and within ten minutes he had calmed. Still shaken, the two employees tried to talk him down. One of the guys had offered him a cigarette, which he took. I’d never seen him smoke.

“I was wrong, Brandon,” he said. “I cried for the metal.”


We stayed together for the rest of the summer. Sgarlat was letting him work from his laptop. We had fun together, a lot of fun. The drive to Ithaca was longer than I thought it’d be, and the campus more beautiful than the pictures had prepared me for. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted, telling me that if he could buy a new life somehow, he’d stay there with me and finally teach me how to write.

We spent the first night at the Robert Purcell Community center for a get together of the starting freshman class. I got to meet to some of my professors. Everyone was lovely, accommodating to not only myself but to Gaz as well. We didn’t stay long after I shook hands with all the people I felt that I should shake hands with. I got the feeling that the smattering of voices, all in inaduible but loud conversation was a bit jarring to him, after what happened at Mesa Coyoacan, so we left, out into the open air, into the comfort of silence.

We turned off Jessup Rd leaving the Community Center and walked toward the Golf Course, stopping just shy of the sign where we stopped and asked an older looking student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge from Forest Home to Judd Falls Rd, and leaving us at the Wildflower Garden, he said a cordial goodbye.

That was his favorite moment, I think, of the entire trip, seeing the Wildflower Gardens. I got some flowers for him while he was preoccupied with a giant orchid flower. I had picked a single flower from each species after he wondered aloud if we were allowed to take any. I planned to give them to him when he left the morning after. We didn’t stay too long, hoping to see as much as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way with a little help back onto Judd Falls Road, then headed for Werly Island, to see Beebe Lake.

We weren’t the only ones along the similar path; as the Gardens and the roads between had been sparse, there were many, many students camped out around the lake.

“Hurry!” he said. “Let’s talk to those ladies.”

We hurried after them and when we finally caught up Gaz said:

“Good afternoon!”

“Hello,” I said. “Mind if we walk with you?”

“Not at all,” said the brunette. Both were sweating, hair pulled back in a bun and wearing wind-breakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blond girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller, more earnest friend was named Vanessa.

“How can you tell?”

“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed too.

“My friend Gaz here,” I said, “he told me this lake was magic. It’s not as silly as it sounds…”

“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. They kept walking and we kept pace as best as we could.

“Well the legend goes that if you walk around the lake with a friend or with a girlfriend or a boyfriend, it sounds silly, I know! I know! But I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.”

And we were, Jennifer and Vanessa and I. I knew them all the way through graduation. And I friends with Gaz for the rest of his life.


His last night with me Gaz got to stay in my door with me. I was sitting at a desk looking through a list of books I’d need. Gaz had the news on again. One channel after another, news and violence, opinions about violence in the news: also featuring violence. Then he saw that tape. You know the one – one of the tapes posted to the Al Jazeera news agency in Qatar, an old VHS video tape that would leak onto the internet, onto smut sites, gore porn like Rotten.com and Ogrish, the digital faces of death. I watched them, how could you not? You know it’s going to hurt you – if you’re not a fucking sociopath – but you feel the need, at least I did, I didn’t watch it to enjoy it, but as some way of misguided empathy, to need to suffer for the people who suffered I could have never helped.

A copy of the New York Times was open on the bed beside him, the one that ran the infamous Judith Miller story, as it had been circulating around campus as an effort to discredit the push for war. I finished the long, long list of books I’d need and sat beside him in the dim light of a small lamp I’d bought the day before, the dim light of the flickering TV. I finally fell asleep sometime after midnight, somehow keeping my spirits up in spite of the deluge of horror coming from the small TV set.

Some time in the early morning he woke me up with surprising strength.

“Hey,” he said. “Brandon? Are you awake?”

“Dude, I’m fucking awake now cause you woke me up!”

“I’m sorry!”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

We both had a laugh together. I

“Have you ever heard of Saudi Arabia?” he slurred.

“Dude,” I said. “You woke me up for that shit?”

“Okay, okay,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve heard of Saudi Arabia. You’ve seen Aladdin. Read the Arabian Nights. What do you think about when you think of Saudi Arabia?” was born in Saudi Arabia. Do you know where that is? Don’t look at me like that! I’m kidding!”

I laughed: the most casual way to admit ignorance without actually admitting ignorance.

“But you know, smart as you are–and I don’t hold this against you! I was born in Seqaren. Most Americans, when they think of Saudi Arabia, you think of Deserts and Lawrence of Arabia. and camels. The camels, ah! The camels aren’t even indigenous! We import them! And that’s where those people were from. And any country with that kind of … But they weren’t from my home. There’s something about home that doesn’t change. What do you call it? A characteristic of a place, something that speaks to you when you see it? It’s not a landmark, it’s something in the blood… And it can’t be taken from you. It’s printed on you, understand? Yes, there are deserts in Saudi Arabia and there are camels in those deserts, but in Saqeren – where I was born, what a beautiful place! And there are waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the sides of mountains

“There was a waterfall not fall from my house, where I grew up, nothing fancy, nothing chic, nothing modern. The waterfall started as a little stream high up on the hill, a large drop off and at the bottom is a small, a tiny, tiny pool of water. I never seen the top. It might not have perfectly clean but we thought it was safe to swim, to cool off, to have fun. We were children. Where… wait, I have a point. I… Fuck, Brandon. It was a sewer and I miss it! Maybe I miss the memory, the happiness of being a kid. How quickly does it end, childhood. Maybe the memory is not real, and just a dream I want to have happened so it won’t be gone.”

“Well, tell me about your last day there… In … Sekaren?”

I was either right or he was too kind to call me stupid.

“I was the youngest in my family… My sister was the oldest Anahita, Hiti… I was not close to her. So pretty, I wish I could see her again. She ran away when she turned eighteen and we never saw her again. She didn’t get along with dad. But I had two brothers, and I loved them! Of course I did… But my oldest brother, what an ass! Kohinoor, so fucking stubborn. You know? He always talked down to me and my other brother Kaveh, who was fourteen. But he looked up to Kohinoor. That’s my oldest brother. He wanted to play hero, too, but in games, with toys, make believe! Kohinoor believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, he was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. These people are not born monsters. Maybe he just wanted to fight, for his country or his religion. He had gotten in trouble a lot with the local military, the police had been taken away and replaced. We never saw them again…”


“Gazsi’s not my name! Just some vaguely ethic nickname. We have Roberts and Georges and Micahs. Even Todds and Tuckers yes speaking Persia, you think they want to use a Kalashnikov? They want to go to Starbucks and see Tarantino films.. But these kids will die, thousands of them, no one will print a word. Only leaders of monsters, figure-heads, that brainwash children into being fodder for dispassionate carpet bombing which, it’s just a fucking button issue here, anger! I’m not angry, at that fucking phony in his camo he risks nothing! Nothing! But he was born better so he’s entitled to fucking judgment!”

“Okay, okay, relax. It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s all right, man. If I fail, you know, getting in here was pointless.”

“And you look at me like that. Yes, Ivy League, how modern and cultured, and you’ll sit in those classrooms and pretend you care until refugees start pouring out and then that Statue of Liberty doesn’t apply. Being born is no crime! I’m not a barbarian! Those police officers, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen now. They weren’t fools or barbarians they were regular fucking people with families and just regular fucking people. Ah! And they just disappeared. Pop, pop, pop in the dark. Like blowing bubbles. We got those little plastic toys, a little stick with a hoop on the end. We dipped it in gasoline and blew through it and they’d float for a while pretty in the sun and pop! Haha! Pop, pop, pop. They disappeared, and everybody was angry. Who wouldn’t be? The problem was, they had to be mad, and they had to be mad at something.

“What makes you angry when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but dark itself, no way to fight it without becoming a part of. No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. Just because they were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them. They become monsters or they become ghosts and there is no other choice except to run and hope that someone here, this country I love, won’t hold you accountable for the sins of your father, or your people, or your culture. I ran. That’s what I did. That’s what the smart people did. From my family… Both my brothers, they were kids. They never grew up. Kaveh became a ghost, not an angel, and Kohimoor, he became a monster first and then a ghost. Ghosts are real. Some are kind, those that died in their sleep. But some, like those people in those buildings, those are angry ghosts. And what can I do? I don’t know who to fight, but I want to fight. I need to fight, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, not like my brother. I want to be the kind of ghost that sleeps. And they changed names all the time, easy, yes? Blow up a factory churning out erasers, you get a promotion!”

“I’m not condemning you, you know. But I’d shout at me too if I thought it’d help. Just don’t … your inhaler is in the fucking Jansport, dude. Okay, sit, sit down. I’m listening. Okay! I’m not going to try to write about this later, no. Dude, that dude doesn’t know shit. Those people outside, Gale? The guy who gave you a cigarette? He didn’t smoke either, but he carries those in case people get riled up and try to start shit with somebody else. I hate it… I don’t, no, I wouldn’t imagine it being only sand and ash and…”

“The last day in Seqaren I do remember, and it’s real, and I know it’s real, and that is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down the hill towards the pond at the bottom and there were children already in. The little pool was always dirty, but that day was as dirty as I’d ever seen it. I thought that someone had spilled paint into the water, but I got in anyway. I stood on the edge of the little pool on sharp little rocks, cutting my feet and the glass from broken bottles it stuck to the bottom of my feet like little oblong needles. I saw my younger brother coming down the hillside in a hurry, chasing a ball but fell and slid dust coming up behind him and down, he hits the sheer cliff, the drop off where the water comes…

“Once he hit the incline and started running I couldn’t tell if he was crazy with happiness or with madness or with fear, but I was a child. I was afraid, and ducked underneath the black in the water. He ran and ran and ran finally I saw… My brother Kohin was chasing him and he had a gun. I thought that it was some stupid game until my brother Kaveh grabbed me and pulled me into the water and jumped in, with all his clothes on taking me down from behind and grabbing my nostrils. That’s what scared me! He had his clothes all wet and I knew mother would be very angry with him. And my father…

“I struggled to stay above water, but Kaveh tried to hold me under, and I thought it was my brother again, and Raveh was scared. Maybe he’s horsing around? Then I saw the group of men behind Kohin, all dressed in black, and the… Ha! It’s… it’s god damn, god fucking damn. God dammit! Have you ever heard a gun being fired? There were dozens of shots at once, rippling, and it just tore Kohim apart, tore him to fucking pieces. Metal doesn’t bleed, nothing like that, when you get hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and flammable. And they followed him to the edge of the water. He crawled across the glass towards the water, towards where I was hiding with Kaveh, and he held his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air breathing oil; there had been an oil spill in the water, no paint! and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows had kept us safe until the surface caught fire.

“And that’s when he saw me, the people were shouting at him in Urdu and he looked at me all concerned and he stopped running and he stopped crawling and the water was boiling in my eyes but I was covered by the oil in the shadow watching as he knelt, hands behind his head interlocked. He stopped trying to get away, and he just closed his eyes and lay there. I froze there unable to move, as the muffled sound of the Kalashnikov rang out dead and muffled the water distorting it. He tumbled over, same stupid smile he was dead or pretending I had no idea I didn’t know I don’t I fucking I was … I was a child! And the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and whether he was dead when he stopped crawling, he was ten feet or so away from us. They shot him in the head. One of those men in black, I guess he was the leader and he pointed at the water and I grabbed my nostrils and dove deep into the black underneath the fire white now blanketing the surface, their muffled shouting and gunshots. Urdu, I spoke Persian. I don’t know who he was. I just saw his eyes, the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up when he took out that gun, that little bitty pistol and shot Kohin in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse. What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, and so he held my nose. Then he dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.

“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took a pull from the last of my air and closed my eyes and thought, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged that wherever I went when I left that place was not more fire and with effort, men in camo uniforms pulled me out of the pool and flung me onto the surface and started breathing into my mouth. Two of the other men came over and with a little effort they flung him into the pool. He was dead and another body was just something they couldn’t carry, molting like that, like shedding skin, pealing away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through gas, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me. That’s where I got these pimples. I know, I know. And somehow, wet, we kept burning, deep down in us, and breathing in each breath was pure fire filling your lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well.

“I remember mama coming for me, and her sobbing. My brother wouldn’t leave Kohin, but we left anyway. We left without him. We got into the back of a truck and waited. I think we were waiting for papa. I don’t remember his name, he changed it a lot. If one side didn’t kill him the other one and the cleanup crew didn’t notice the differences in the eyes o face or those wrinkles in a man’s forehead that say so much or the sadness for a mother having to leave without him. Mother called him Mashe. I don’t know if that was his name. We waited until we couldn’t anymore and besides, the truck was too full anyway. Had he made it, we’d have had to tell him he couldn’t leave. Haha! I just realized: they were waiting on him before they left, not to take him with us, but to apologize!

“He was probably somewhere with a gun or in a ditch, being noble, fighting the cause, while we left down a long long road, people were stacked on top of each other, kids stacked like piles of folded pants. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”

There was a long, silly silence.

“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”

“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brother, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”

“Who’s going to teach me to write, if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Being practical, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”

He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.

“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”

“I knew I could rely on you.”

He smiled.

“Thanks, Brandon.”

I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.

“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”

He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was an arrabab, I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody they can’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.

He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. I had tears welling up in my eyes. He thumbed the salty tasting smears off the corner of my mouth, then took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped the tears away. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.

“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”

“I like you too Gaz.”

“Do well.”

“I’ll try, my friend.”


I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers. I wondered if he’d make it into that peaceful age and have a garden, a home and a wife, something worth being peaceful for, for his daffodils and daisies and orchids, a laminated lotus flower in my notebook on top of a list of books for class:


Because it is fiction does not mean it must be dishonest. If a story is to be based on truth, be truthful to its spirit, and never negligent of your characters, especially those who matter. Stop mixing ‘wander’ and ‘wonder’ — you’re better than that!

With love,

I never saw him again. I tried, up until graduation, then returning to South Carolina, where I met my current editor at a poetry reading in Columbia. She helped me finish my first novel after Gaz, Nobody.  She judges fairly, and kindly, as he did, and never lets me use wonder or wander wrongly. I told her of Gaz and imported camels and the water in the desert. And maybe gardens, someday.


The Heavy Elements: Loss, 16 September 2015

A new person can appear at any minute, from any corner of the world, put up a picture and their thoughts, and let us learn about them on a website, on social media. They aren’t people at first, but they become a person by three forms of osmosis–they become one when you realize they are real, when you realize you love them, and they become real when you realize they have died. That’s when we realize the organism connected to the dream machine we’re all plugged into is not an empathy device custom coded to match our personality quirks, but a person who thinks, eats, feels, laughs, cries–stuff we all do. At first they’re a talent agency for themselves, (it’s the Idoru complex) a PR department’s hagiographic depiction with the faults washed out, the wrinkles smoothed away by a cloning stamp. As for who they are, we have their word, the reaction of their friends, or the lack of reaction of their friends. We deduce and infer like we’re Sherlock Holmes instead of noting and observing because like we should because 99% of us are Watson.

It is a flawed structure when poignancy of thought and flourishes of character are put to the judgment of screaming people hiding behind the best mask–the best mask is your own face. The assignation is a public judgment, weighed by likes and comments, clicks and shares, schools, feuds people can’t let go, disagreement, relationships–it’s an advertisement, we realized we all couldn’t be Idoru so we became something simpler: an avatar that becomes a human when it dies, is loved, or when we meet in the natural world and see all those shy ticks and shaking feet and nervous glances and neurosis and doubt and sadness and melancholy and then we love them. There’s a difference between loving someone and loving the idea of someone, because the idea of someone is what you created, not what they tried to ‘sell’ you.

They become human to us more powerfully, for whatever reason, when they die. People understand loss because life is learning that loss never leaves. It tears a piece out of you. It makes you question the fairness of the world. But death is the unavoidable obligation by which one becomes a person. Flaws are forgotten. The airbrushing starts. And it denigrates their memory. To preserve someone’s beauty, you don’t hide the blemishes or the wrinkles, you paint them like Rembrandt did: with their wrinkles, pale skin, drooping eyelids–who they were, as a character, is not improved by an embalmer. But I guess it’s to be expected. Imagine that your best friend, your intellectual nemesis and someone who is very dear to you, someone you’ve known for 15 years. Would they be more likely to, on short notice, fly from California to see a production of The Magic Flute with you and have drinks or attend your funeral? You know the answer to that. People want to pay their last respects. I don’t even understand that phrase. Does it imply that you had some hitherto unmentioned respect you wish to convey to a person who has passed away? Maybe I’m being autistic (probably the most accurate statement in this mess), but if you love someone, should you let them leave your company with respects you haven’t paid? And is paying respects to them when they’re dead really the best moment to forgive them? No. Caring about people during their life and respecting them while they’re alive is more important. It has to be. You may belong to the ages, but our hearts belong to you, so we communicate in different ways. You think about what they would’ve said, what they’ve would’ve done. What they really were.

That’s the moment when we notice that it’s not the website’s dream, or a bot, but a single person who has died in our lap, leaving a page for us, a guestlist for a funeral the caretaker of the memory’s production value can’t attend, a homegrown show on a homemade stage preserved in a diary unfinished, leaving us wanting more, in the same manner that we must understand that The Brothers Karamazov was incomplete when Dostoevsky died, and it ended with the famous speech on the stone. It’s a finished portrait of an incomplete drama. ‘The Castle’ by Franz Kafka ends mid sentence, but it doesn’t lose the aesthetic value or detract from its quality.

We’re all incomplete and imperfect, and I have trouble when I try to mourn. Because I’m receptive to probable adjudications, or literary remonstrance. Because everyone who knows real writers always have a sneaking suspicion that when a write performs a soliloquy, it’s from the mind, or some attempt at a piece of great literature. It’s not an issue if the person who has written and is prepared to deliver the soliloquy is a banker, but if an actual writer is behind it, there is, naturally, the suspicion that it is an attempt at literary beauty, truth, depth, profundity, but catharsis is closer to the mark. Another issue some may consider: that while it may be well written, and clever or provocative and used a lot of fancy words, it is without true feeling. I think it’s absurd to imagine a writer who doesn’t aspire to literary beauty or profundity. I can’t imagine a serious writer consciously sitting down and saying, “I want to say empty platitudes, I want it to be shallow and without quality.” I think it’s an act of moral and intellectual courage to go beyond what everyone else has said and look at it from a more universal perspective, and thereby put what we see as chaos and random misery into some sort of context we can endure. Once you’ve lost someone you’ve loved enough to die for, you’re no longer living anymore, you just endure. You don’t really know how you do it, you just know that you have no other choice. If this was without feeling and respect for Becky, and for all people who struggle with loss, it’d be a lot shorter and I wouldn’t be indicted for a crime I’m unaware of like Joseph K. in The Trial.

I’d like to think that what we write could be saved, something of what we are, what we have done, right and wrong, as people, that future archaeologists will forgive us for behaving like viruses, for being mean to each other, for needing other people to believe what we do. Hopefully they’ll see us as we advertise ourselves instead of the green screen and the script. And see that while a lot of us disagree and argue and fight and do stupid things, humans are lazy–once they start loving someone they’re too lazy to stop. But we stopped talking and started emailing. We stopped emailing and started texting. We’re not airbrushed geniuses or models. We do not look as good as our profile picture. In fact, the one I use is probably the most unlike me I can find. But what I’m trying to articulate is that this sort of information is trivial–pictures, opinions, debates. The quality of life can’t be valued in this invisible world. What we see isn’t there; what is there is html code, PHP, JAVA script, mathematical algorithms that collect statistics and generate active content.

When this culture has left and the internet has died, whatever kind of life form manages to find a way onto the internet by using our technology (which I doubt, because a lot of people can’t figure out this technology), they will find the externalization of our inner self. They will see us going through struggles, losing, lying, crying, angry, yelling–they’ll be navigating our digital purgatory, looking at the people yelling in this invisible world, unable to tell us that our lives are far too brief to be so pissed off and angry with each other, and that we’ll go back into that invisible world, the one to which my old friend has gone, the world of Carol Anne’s, and this time she’s in the HD monitor and her status updates are the poltergeist. But this time no one’s there. And that’s a scarier story. Because they don’t come back. They can’t. This quote has been attributed to several philosophers, including Plato, but regardless of who said it, it is something I believe in, and I don’t believe in much. ‘Only the dead have seen the end of the war,’ is the quote, but I’d like to add: we may be born as slaves but we’ll be as kings when we’re lowered in our graves. Take pomp, take physics, expose yourself to feel as wretches feel, said King Lear, and today is a day that illustrates the way life is to the perpetual wretch. The saddest people are not sad because of what they don’t have, the saddest people are people that had something once and no longer have it.

This is what we don’t see, the whole thematic element is not intended to be subtle: we don’t see the tubes, the wires, the strings, the bureaucracy and economy of banality is not the home for a living person; this is an electric circus for dying souls whose coded thumbprint haunts inactive pages until connected nodes blink out. You never see it. You couldn’t paint the world we’re in right now, the machinery that renders this protracted obsiquy, as ineffectual as it is contrived, but contrivance can be redeemed by sincerity. The people we see, the people on our friends list, the people we chat with, they’re not the people, they are the people’s considered affectacious projection of the good they have in them. It is the projection of a finished painting of an incomplete subject. The screen can make it so real, so personalized and authentic. We see their pictures and they age, their views and insights, and all this data is in the air and all around us–radiowaves the size of buildings, invisible to us, but all around us–literally, bigger than a house and we can’t see it.

It’s not material, or something we can weigh, or measure, or grab or taste, not like we measure the real world (space with a ruler and time with a clock.) This world is a digital purgatory full of ghosts, ghosts who can’t respond, even if a ghost could see and hear our words the message wouldn’t get through, because they can’t see anything in the invisible world. The worlds between us when we talk, when we fight, when we laugh. These pages will become our fossils, our great arguments, our political debates, it adds up to a  poor attempt at immortality, but it lets the invisible people, all of us who can only mourn when we’re unseen, alone, it lets us visit them and reminisce about the things we didn’t do, the things we would have done had we known how long we had, if our birth certificate had an expiration date, if we we had one more hour just to make a call. We can send them lovely words that can’t be seen in the dark, so they’ll never know we’re still holding on, fighting a reality so harsh we invent ways to deal with it, to soften the blow.

We don’t give eulogies for the person in the casket, because they’re not even there. We don’t go to funerals for the dead, we go for us. Something inside us needs to know, we need to mourn, and in this mourning we are able to purge ourselves of the obvious logic that life is a team playing death–and death has never lost, and to live is a brief detour of taste and sound and color, the transition from animation to a memory to the penultimate form, a screaming dream in the invisible world that tells a beautiful lie to a person sleeping who forgets that while he may be seeing you, you may be seeing him as well. It’s cold as a gravestone, which hasn’t got the heart not to sum us up with a name, two dates and a dash. The dash represents our life. Everything we loved so much and fought about so passionately is a line, signifying everything but saying nothing.

It is interesting, to me, that these advertisements that we make become our tombs, where the living gather in a a wireless mausoleum where the invisible mourn the memories of what they’ll never see again. It’s not new that we all die, but it’s new that we make and decorate our graves, and it’s new that we carefully build and structure and personalize our stage for hours on end, only to in the end wish to have those hours back, those kind of hours when it’s late and you can’t sleep, and you think. You think about people you love, people you’ve lost. And the echo of who they are reverberates in your head and you can see them watching TV in their underwear, doing all the weird and amazing things people do. But it’s not the moments in the invisible world we remember, it’s genuine memories–the kind of information that archaeologists never find. Over 29 million accounts on Facebook were registered by people who have died since then. Roughly 150,000 people die a day, and some of those people leave us ways to continue sending messages to them. When I die, I’ve always said I’d take the thief to paradise and all those unread messages in the dark, if I find them, I’ll reply.

4 – A Beginner’s Guide to Mourning

I woke in the early morning, so I thought, the phone glowing with the blinking numbers: 6:15; but here in France, you don’t have AM or PM, you’re expected to know, and from the look outside, I couldn’t tell if it was getting darker or if dawn was breaking, for Lain had obscured the window once, and it had remained obscured:

One day as we were working, I was at my desk, laptop on hand and writing away, he asked if he could shut the blinds, annoyed by the beam of light cast across his face by a most impertinent sun. I said we couldn’t, as the blinds being up allowed the air conditioner to run. He put his laptop down and took off his shirt, a ratty, green affair that one would assume had a checkered past. He pushed it between the blinds and returned to where he sat.

Finding the light not properly curtailed, he rose again, went to my bureau drawer, and picked out a black, long-sleeved cotton shirt. He squeezed it between the curtain rods and stuffed the rest behind the other shirt and smiled as the beam of light bowed out and fell away from where he was sitting.

And now to wake with the only light in my bedroom an electric candle, a most unique present, the black and green in the low light mixed to impersonate the dim but dark blue of a coming dawn. I liked it, the way such opposites mixed enough to make me fall for the idea of a rising sun. I kept it that way, often waking in the night with that same rising or falling feeling, falling happily for the same trick, to think of dawn coming sooner, to think of Lain.

I could hear him in the other room at his computer, in the kitchen. I threw the covers off and sat up on the side of the bed. How did I get into my room? I wiped the vitreous humour out of my eyes, ran my fingers through my hair, and stood, wobbling into the next room.

Lain’s word processor banged away, emulating the noise of an antique typewriter. I checked my phone as I sat on the couch: I found that it was indeed much nearer dawn than night. My missed calls—had I been mistaken? I saw the calls from Camille and from Lance, god dammit Lance, but the Queen was nowhere to be found.

Had I dreamed it?

“Lain!” I shouted.


“Have you been fucking with my phone?”

“I have not,” he said. “I value my nuts too much.”

Smart man.

But Camille had called.

“What day is it?” I asked. I couldn’t believe my phone.

“Friday,” said Lain. “I just let you sleep; you seemed out of it, so I carried you into your room and covered you up.”

A whole day had passed, all of Thursday gone.

“Have you spoken to Camille? Did you get in touch with her?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Was she at my mother’s?”

“No,” he said. “She said she got a call and didn’t go to the party. But she went down to the theatre yesterday while you were asleep and she wanted you to call her when you woke up. They’re still dragging bodies out. For a day now—they’ve had to take them out one at a time, and no one wants to volunteer. That’s just selfish.”

I rang up Camille.

“Hello?” so spritely. It reminded me. I needed my mints.

“Yeah, hey,” I said. “This is Renette…”

“I’d gathered as much!” she said.

Fuckin’ smart ass.

“Yeah, have you heard from my mother?”

“I sure haven’t,” she said. “I’m at the theatre now; this is horrible. They’re still pulling people out.”

“Lain told me,” I said. A moment of silence. What does one say to such horror? It numbs the mind to any response.

“I think we’ll join you down there once I get dressed and have a shower.”

“Alright, well—“

I interrupted her.

“Hey!” I said. “Hey, were you at mom’s the night before last? New Year’s Eve?”

“No, I got a call to meet your mom at a restaurant, and when I got there, she wasn’t there. Why?”

“I’ll tell you when I see you,” I said. “Somebody broke in; I’m not sure what they’ve taken, but I’ll find out and let you know. Alright, yeah yeah, love you.”

I rang off.


“Yes, dear?”

“They’re still dragging bodies out of the theatre.”

“That’s what I heard,” he said. “Do you feel like going down?”

“Let me get a shower and brush my teeth,” I said.

I stood and put my phone away. I dug my underwear out of my ass as I walked. Look, guys, you might think a thong is sexy—and it can be, I’ll grant you that; but it’s wearing a wedgie.

I closed the bathroom door long enough to take my mints, hidden in a can of shaving cream. One mint will put some pep in your step, two and you’ll not be shamed to sing; three mints and you’ll sing out of key in pride. I took three, swallowed them with the tap water I was using to brush my teeth. Ah, fucking fresh breath!

I walked into the living room where Lain sat gathering his things, stuffing notebooks and loose-leaf pages into that stinky valise. Ugh, have you ever wanted to shoot a suitcase? No? Moving on.

“So, I thought we should go check mom’s,” I said. “See what was taken…”

I thought, if a day had passed, what had Lain done?

“If I’ve been asleep for a day,” I said, “what have you done?”

“Well, I woke up,” he said. “And it’s been downhill since then.”

“I mean, did you call the police?”

“Yeah, as soon as I woke up I called,” he said. “I told them what happened, and they came over, I let them in. We walked around and checked. It didn’t seem as if anything had happened. I looked around the house, I didn’t find anything missing. I did find this, though.”

He took a small card from his pocket. It was white with a black silhouette of what looked to be the raised hands of a music conductor. A strange relic, indeed. I took it into my hands and turned it over. The number was unintelligible.

“Have you called this number?” I asked. I handed the card back to Lain.

“It’s a director’s number,” said Lain. “I left a message, haven’t gotten a call.”

I tried to call my mom again; straight to voicemail, that passive aggressive voicemail.

“Please leave a message…”

Fuck you, Robot!

I decided to check on my little sister Lianne, to call Robert, my step-dad. Lain referred to him as a volunteer firefighter.

“Hey Rob,” I said. “It’s Renette. Have you heard what happened?”

“Yeah, I talked to Lain earlier today. Have you heard from your mom?”

“No sir,” I said. “I’m worried, you know. I’m not really fond of the woman but she is my mother.”

“Yeah, ha-ha. She’s something else. Lee wants to talk to you.”

“Renny!” oh Lianne, make me feel old.

“Yes, Lianne,” I said. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t want to stay here,” she said. “I want to come stay with you. I’m scared.”

“It’s safer there,” I said. “We had a break-in at mom’s last night.”

She was quiet.

“I miss you,” she said. She sounded so defeated. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” I said. “I’ll call you when I get home tonight. Okay?”


“I’ll you a story!”

“Okay,” she said.



“I said Liaaaaaaaaneeeeeee…”


“I love you!”

“I love you too,” she said.

“I love you too,” I said. “So, so much. I’ll let you know when I talk to mom. Okay? Okay. Okay. Bon. Au revoir!”


When she was first born and mom was always away, I had to keep her at nights when my stepdad worked at a textile mill, and I couldn’t sleep without her, my little Lee. If I couldn’t hear her, couldn’t sleep; was she asleep? Is she asleep, I’d think, but Lee felt fine. I’d get her from her crib and bring her back to my room. She’d wake and cry until I took her back to her crib, I’d lay her down and hum until she fell asleep. I’d go back to my bedroom and turn the baby monitor off. I kept it on, she never cried, so I’d go get her again.

She’d wake and want to play, and never want to go back to sleep, but I’d put her back in her crib, cradle her and sing, humming myself to sleep just standing there. She went back to sleep, back to my room, over and over until finally, without disturbing her, I got into the cradle with her, a child between two parents, and her tiny, tiny hand in mine, and finally I’d fall asleep beside her. It’s hard for me to sleep alone, to this day. But I have Lain. Monsieur Pinon.

I put my phone on the charger and went into the bathroom, slid off my underthings, hopped into the shower, washed my hair, and sitting down I had to shave my legs. Lathered up the soap and slid that razor down until that cool burn I always loved.

I finished up, stood and dried my hair first, then put on deodorant, pulled on my panties, long socks then some old jeans and a t-shirts, Rolling Stones, that giant, open mouth with the tongue sticking out. ‘Cause I can’t get no (satisfaction).

But I try, and I try…

Lain was in the other room on the phone. I opened my mouth to say something and with that one finger aloft said, “Shush,” in a quiet way. I took out a magazine from under the table in the living room and sat to wait on the call to be over. He was putting in a lot of Yes, I understand, of course, of course, etc., and within a few, quiet, tense moments he rang off.

“Camille is down at the theatre,” he said, “and she found someone she knew in the theatre.”


“She said she went down there to get some of her set design sketches, thinking she may have to apply for work somewhere else if we can’t find a director, and while she was standing at the exit door, where they’re still dragging bodies out, she had been collecting the masks of the dead as they brought them out, and in the crowd, she didn’t know anyone until she noticed a young girl she only knew as ‘the Extra.’”

“I know that girl!” I said. “She’s a very talented young actress, but she never wants to have the lead in anything, so she plays the background characters… I just don’t know her name. What else did she say?”

“She wants us to meet her down there and then go to the Exchange and see if we can find out more about who she is.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. “I guess, what else do we have to do? Sit around all day with you?”

He smiled.

“I love you Lain,” I said. He blushed, “No you don’t,” he said.

“But I do!” I said. “Come here.”

He put his pen and valise back on the kitchen table and walked over. I wrapped my arms around him. I felt a weakness in him, in his movements, his restraint—he probably understood what went unsaid but understood between us.

“Come lay down with me,” I said. “I need a friend.”

“Renette,” he said. His defense was weak.

“Where do you have to be?”

He stuttered.

“Where?” I kept on.

“To take care of you while Mme. Nanty’s away,” I said.

He went to speak, “You can’t go back on that!” I said. “You can’t break a promise with mother,” you know. “She’ll break your dick in half.”

“I doubt…”

I grabbed his dick.

“I’ll break it in half,” I said. I bit him on the neck and kissed up to his ear. “But I’ll put it back together.”

I pulled over to the bed, into bed beside me, and I slid under his shoulder and put my head against him, taking his hand to a comfortable place.

“Do you think this…”

I ran my finger along the inseam of his jeans. His eyes glazed over and I knew I had him then, a snake-charmer; I pulled his pants down, kicking them off with my feet, taking his boxers off with my feet, grabbing his dick again.

“Here,” I said, sliding my panties to the side, pulling his now throbbing dick inside of me. “Now, fuck me. Fuck me until it hurts.”

Lain did as he was told.
We arrived at the theatre about an hour later. True to her word, Camille was by the front exit, watching gurney after gurney come out with masked, but briefly, people; each mask was handed to Camille by the door. I put my car in park, gathering our things. Lain looked at me, “Your hair looks like…”

“Like what?”

He smiled. I kissed him on his forehead. “Good boy.”

I locked the car doors and walked across the lot, Lain trailing behind me—trying to analyze my walking, that masculine idea that my manner of walking betrayed whether or not I had been satisfied; poor Lain, had I not been satisfied, he’d have fucking walked.

“Hey!” Camille called over to us. “I thought you would be here earlier. I was about to go to The Exchange by myself.”

She looked at my hair, then Lain’s sheepish smile. She knew. She was kind enough not to care.

“Here,” she said. She handed me a frilly mask, made of painted linen, almost a soft wood. “It’s the Extra’s mask,” she said. “You remember that little girl?”

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s been in everything.”

“Well,” Camille said. And she paused, as did Lain, as cart after cart came bouncing out of the flung open doors. It had been days; the practical nature of un-gluing each man and woman and child from each seat, carrying them over the other rows of bodies, hadn’t occurred to me; such a thought would, of course, not occur to any person of sound mind. I’m surprised Lain hadn’t considered it. Each person on each sliding gurney had a long strip, red along their forearms were the glue had caused their skin to be ripped off as they were pulled out of their seats. We went silent, Camille silent, and Lain had out his sketchbook.

I couldn’t wrap my head round it: someone had gone to great lengths to stage it all, all for what? For mourning? For the fire light to be the spotlight on some macabre show intended for a blind audience? We look forward to mourning, as a wake is certainly not for the sleeping ones; it’s easy to think dispassionately, as it is to see the fire on a black-and-white television screen as beauty; it is quite another matter when the flame gets close enough to lick your face. We don’t think of the people, not in movies or in stories, especially when in such numbers. Row upon row of actors died, but all in the audience; my mother’s troupe had, I assumed, survived; I hadn’t let hope die they my mother made it out.

In crime you have motive and desire, an element of fantasy for sure; you have to achieve someone’s death, to shoot or to poison? That is the question; it’s hard to get caught when no clear motive is present, or you lived among the squalid in Whitechapel as the Ripper roamed the streets just plain old Jack before he became eponymous.

It was too elaborate to have been done by one person, hard work went into that show, and what a dead crowd—that’d be the review of such a show; you have to plan it out, something of this magnitude, well in advance, all in the dark, all parts of an unseen orchestra playing the right notes at the right time to execute such an elaborate mass.

It’s hard enough to kill one person who won’t stop sending you pictures of their dicks on Twitter; but hundreds, none with a trace of death upon them? All ages and all races, none known to anyone, boys and girls. For one night somehow, we’d been there the day before. The sets were still up waiting to be fed to the fire, but certainly not like this.

Despite its being senseless, certainly there was purpose here. How do you tell a policeman that you do not know the name of a man once unmasked? Many of them I did know only by their costumes, their Edmunds and their Oberon, their bit parts and their Queens and sceptered aisle mood music. Underneath, we never knew, and maybe there was nothing.

Perfectly in their seats; that took time. The mechanics of putting an unwilling man in a chair—while not impossible—are hard enough to imagine. You have to overpower him, subdue him physically, and move the body into position. Hundreds of times, for different body sizes, different races and cultures whose only common sponsor was their death. Serial killers usually kill within their own ethnicity and sexual orientation; John Wayne Gacy killed white, male homosexuals, for he was a white, male homosexual. Jack the Ripper killed white, female prostitutes; for he was a write, male heterosexual. The Zodiac killer – he just killed happy people, but white happy people. This didn’t match a type, at least no type I knew. Here there were school teachers and railroad workers, whores, ladies, and lords.

Everyone had piled in my car, agreeing to go to the exchange to get information about the Extra and see where that took us in terms of our understanding of what the fuck had happened there. It was also an excellent chance to find out why Camille hadn’t been at the burning festival.

To see such things I’m sure it does to us such subtle things we’d never think, that kind of mourning is much different than, say, the loss of a pair of car keys, the loss of a parking spot; to lose so many, and so quickly, on the first page of a book—it wreaks a havoc that has no fitting emotion, and to see such, to live to see such things it pulls on you, a suction cup, pulling on your face until it’s down to the muscle tissue, finally to the skull, and it pulls more and more until it pulls you inside out. And confusing, to get such cross-eyed thoughts together, to try to get it across accurately without simply stating such.

It is not hard. It is impossible to feel this when it happens. You mourn in a way you’ve never known. There are different mournings, a mourning for a parakeet and mourning for a spilled glass of vodka. It’s easy to mourn something small, you lose a lighter. Fine. You get another one. Your father dies. The mourning changes, it’s a different color.

A child who dies young dies a different death than a 50 year old man. He had time to see it. It’s hard to know what others were not capable of seeing. None of those kids would ever see the Sistine chapel, and the men and women, never again. Not another play, no finer show. You are broken and the extent of your ability to hope is not to stop yourself from breaking, but understand the full measure of that breaking.

We mourn for Anna and for Virginia Woolf. But those are different mournings, and you’re never prepared. But it’s different. Anna never had a pulse but Virginia did. Anna never felt the train roll over her, Virginia felt the water. The mourning of people, people you can touch, it just breaks you until you can only mourn for yourself.

The evening—how long had it been?—before had overloaded my senses, stimulating a type of inability to mourn, if feel at all. In my experience, in such a culture, the culture of scandal, entertainment, and stories, reading Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, you expect it all to be resolved at the ends; there is a beginning and an end; and at the end, Sherlock or monsieur Poirot lay out the entire labyrinthine affair, the motive, the criminals, the whole diabolical denouement.

By the time the monologue is finished, you understand it all! How foolish he had been! And how neatly do they summarize it all, by understanding human nature, criminals and crime, the how and the why. It doesn’t work like that, I wouldn’t think, not in real life.

There are no clear-cut protagonists here, me least of all, and Lain? Ha! How he’d die to be resurrected as a Sherlock Holmes, though knowing him, he’d rather be Moriarty, the villain. There is no denouement in which the protagonist, and that’s not me for sure; for very often I just don’t get it, people that is; not in school, not at Lycee Montgrande, not at Flors Courent, but we were not brought upon this Earth to get it.

And when our wits are tested, when our hearts are strained, harder and harder unto breaking, we don’t always rally or elasticate, or re-solidify; we just break more, and the only point of rest, the only glimmer of understanding to be achieved then is the extension of our breaking.

Poetry, its Forms and Traditions: 10 September 2015

Part 1: Forms and Traditions

As poetry is a type of music, there are, as in music, many different varieties, or styles, of writing poetry. I will briefly enumerate them in the following vignettes; some of which are undoubtedly familiar to western audiences. But others might not be as familiar. If this is a book from which you are to take instruction, I implore you to experiment which each of the following techniques and forms as you read.

          As you can trace different types of music to different parts of the world, poetry is no different. Different styles of music bear the stamp of the culture from which they come. Jazz is a distinctly American production, a production which later led to what is titled punk rock, when of course one wishes to resign expression to names. Classical music that behaves led to blues; blues evolved into rock ‘n roll, rock ’n roll into metal, and metal into a myriad of different species of music. Poetry is no different.

          Poetry has been around since the beginning of writing itself. It is an echo of the time where humans understood one another by tone alone. An example of this, to a non-German speaking listener, one can still fathom the emotional expression that is put forth in Mozart’s opera; therefore, tonal value is of great quality in getting the ambience and tone just right and then, upon revision, turning it into an atmosphere, an atmosphere in which the tone is the movement of the clouds, and the sounds become the rain that touches the reader’s heart and soul.

          As valuable as expression is, it is important to know the difference between expressing and stating. To express sorrow, the tone of the language and the contrast between happiness and sadness must be apparent. It is also important not to be entirely obvious, but it is important to be relatable. To be personal and relatable is not easy to attain. Throughout this book, after detailing the most famous of poetic forms, I will analyze historical efforts as well as modern, and to give legitimacy to my thoughts on poetry, I will not avoid showing how I put my philosophy on what poetry should be into practice.



A recent example of an abecedarian poem is Anna Robinowitz’s ‘Darkling.’ This book-length acrostic sequence details the experiences who family went through during the Holocaust. ‘The Darkling Thrust,’ by Thomas Hardy is used as a palimpsest for its structure.

          For people new to writing novels or poetry, a helpful way to begin is to map out another poet–preferably a good one–and use the length of lines and quatrain arrangement and substitute their words with your own. As one learns to play piano by learning how to play pieces by old masters, by using a palimpsest approach, by changing only the words and keeping the structure, it will become easier for you to branch off into your own territory.

          The abecedarian form of poetics is ancient and is identified by its form of usage according to alphabetical arrangement. As it is to be expected, the first line begins with first letter of whichever language it is you are writing in and succeeding lines are begun with the next letter in your chosen alphabet.

          The history behind this tradition is semitic and can be found in the religious poetry of the Hebrew peoples. It was traditionally used for compositions considered sacred; hymns, psalms, prayer. There are many examples ot the abecedarian to be found in the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 118 is highly regarded. It is composed in twenty two eight line stanzas, each for one letter of the alphabet. Another example, fast forward several centuries, and the abecedarian can be found in the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘An ABC.’ As it is one of the works of literature that would signal to the world that English was a viable language for beautiful expression. ‘An ABC’ is crafted from the translation of a French prayer (the translation being of his own doing it is thought.) It is composed using twenty-three eight line stanzas following the alphabet, excluding J, U, V, and W.

          Abecedarian poems are wonderful tools for children and can make poetry fun by turning the composition into word games. Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey are children’s book authors who have used this form in modern times, even if it’s a modified way of doing so. Among adults still using this ancient form, it is a mnemonic device. Contemporary examples of can be found in Blue Hour by Carolyn Forché, and in Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullet. In Forchés forty-seven page poem On Earth, the alphabet guides not just the stanzas, but the words as well.

          Languid at the edge of the Season     

          Lays itself open to immensity

          Leaf-cutter ants bearing yellow trumpet flowers along the road

          Left everything left all usual world’s behind

          Library, lilac, linens, litany.

A poetic form know as the acrostic, which spells out names or words through the first letter of each line, was developed through abecedarian poetry. In a perverse sort of effort, the intention is to reveal by hiding. In William Blake’s London, he recalls the way in which the pain of the people come to people as he wanders the shore of the Thames (a River that runs through London, among other cities in England.) In the third stanza of his poem, Blake uses the acrostic in the third stanza to emphasize jarring, terrific sounds.

          How the Chimney sweeper’s cry

          Every black’ning church appalls;

          And the hapless Soldier’s sigh

          Runs in blood down palace walls.

The way this works is that within the stanzas he is communicating with sounds and through acrostic getting the message ‘hear’ across. This is an interesting technique, despite the fact that is built on an edifice of rules, and, normally, I’m opposed to any sort of edifice in which expression is forced into a corset unable to contain its voluptuousness. Practice with me. I’ll mimic the four line quatrain of Blake’s, and within the acrostic use the lines themselves the first letter word to convey the hidden but intended to reveal word that echoes the theme:

          Looking for someone in the dark     

          Old as the wind playing the Lark

          Someone somewhere just may help

          The child climb from the darkened well.


That might not be the most eloquent of verse to which my name has been attached, but I think the acrostic’s lettered word is well-connected to the content of the verse. It’s an easy way out, admittedly, to speak of being lost only to then use the acrostic lost. So, out of solidarity, I’ll put a little bit of effort in this next one:

          To hurt is how we know we live,

          Ruin is what heaven is;

          Under a pale sky’s looking glass

          Thumbnails from some distant past–

          Helpless we ne’er seem to last.



Anaphora’s etymology can be traced to a Greek term meaning, ‘To carry.’ The intention of anaphora in poetry is parallelism; parallelism can also lead to something called non-complement anaphora. Successive phrases or lines beginning with the same word is the essence of anaphora and can be as simple as just a word or as complex as a complete and musical phrasing. Anaphora is an ancient poetic technique, and is familiar, even if by the name of anaphora, to Christians due to the usage of ‘And’ in successive lines of devotional, religious poetry–especially in the Psalms.

          Poets in the time of queen Elizabeth during the Romantic period, a period including Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (author of Faust,), Philip Sidney and Edmund spenser (author of the Faerie Queen.) Shakespeare used anaphora in his plays and sonnets. Line 66 demonstrates anaphora to its utmost, as he begins ten lines with ‘and,’ which is the most common repeated word associated with using anaphora.

          Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,

          As to behold a desert beggar born

          And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,

          And purest faith unhappily forsworn,

          And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,

          And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,

          And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,

          And strength by limping sway disabled,

          And art made tongue-tied by authority,

          And folly–doctor like–-controlling skill,

          And simple truth miscalled simplicity,

          And captive good attending captain ill:

          Tired with all these, from these I would be gone,

          Save that to die, I leave my love alone.

To continue our discussion of anaphora, it is important to remember that the intention is to produce a rhythm, a rhythm of reiteration that deepens the content by stacking words, building more and more pressure on the content. It can also intensify the emotion of a poem, make it more sporadic, make it seem more desperate. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Tears, Idle Tears,’ does this in repeating ‘the days that are no more,’ at the end of each stanza. The end line variation of anaphora is termed epistrophe, as it is an echo of a phrase instead of the voice that speaks it.

          Here is an example of a poem I wrote that demonstrates the epistrophe variation of anaphora. In these frames I won’t attempt to go into theme or meaning, only the demonstrative qualities of form. This poem is called the Malfunctioning Robot and is published in my poetry collection Counterpane and Other Poems. The classical variation of anaphora is evident in the some of the stanzas, but the epistrophe variation is used in others.

          Error, error,

          We have a problem here.

          The robot is malfunctioning;

          The warranty is void.


          It’s stuck in an endless loops,
asking the same questions,

          Getting the same answers,

          Repeating the same line:

          Wrong place, wrong time.


          Error, error,

          We have a problem here;

          The robot is malfunctioning;

          The programmer won’t answer the phone.


          It’s stuck in the same place,

          That stutters back and forth;

          Wires flicker in his brain,

          Disconnected data goes nowhere;

          In one side and out the other:

          ‘Wrong place, wrong time.’


          Error, error!

          We have an emergency;

          The poor robot is shutting down,

          Not knowing why, not knowing how:

          The programmer isn’t home.

          The robot does not know what’s wrong;

          He wants to go to somewhere safe;

          He’s never had a home.

          Random command lines drift around,

          A broken fish-bowl brain:

          Random numbers, random letters,

          Faces without a name.

          Ten seconds of power remains.

          Find another power source,

          Or you’ll lose everything.

          The malfunctioning robot repeats the same line:

          ‘Wrong place, wrong time.’

          He falls back in a chair, offline.

This poem (the merit of which may be questionable) has many elements that represent the elements of anaphora. Anaphora doesn’t always have to be a direct replica; it can be a replicated reference that evolves within the story. For example, the ‘programmer’ references would technically constitute as anaphora, although they deviate and change as the situation for the robot changes. It is important throughout the progression of a work of poetry that the refrain alter, or evolve to suit new and changing conditions within the composition. Anaphora can also be thematic without being true to repeated lines or words; it can be repeated leiit-motifs. Within the poem, although it is not classical anaphora, the repeated references to the programmer, although his position in relationship to the eponymous ‘robot.’

          The obvious anaphora in the poem, the ‘error, error, the robot is malfunctioning’ and the ‘wrong place, wrong time,’ is obvious. The reason I chose this poem of mine to represent the poetic form of anaphora is to show that it doesn’t necessarily follow the Biblical concept of ‘And,’ after ‘and’ after ‘and’ which we will discuss in turn. The point in discussing this poem is to show the versatility of anaphora within your own writing as it can reinforce thematic elements.

          There are many famous poets who use anaphora to reinforce the rhythm and cadence within their works. Howl, by Allen Ginsberg is one, as is Walt Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. It is also used by T.S. Eliot in ’The Waste Land,’ in second V; Mark Strand–all are great examples of modern poets who have found creative ways to use anaphora. In a book length by Joe Brainard, I Remember, anaphora is used in recalling his childhood in Oklahoma by starting each phrase with ‘I remember.’

          I remember when one year in Tulsa by some freak of nature we were invaded by millions of grasshoppers for about three or four days.

          I remember downtown, whole sidewalk areas of solid grasshoppers.

          I remember a shoe with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green.

          Kenneth Koch was so influenced by Brainard’s technique that he adapted the process to teach children how to compose verse. The method has maintained its popularity with English composition teachers for students of all ages since.

          A popular usage of anaphora among English readers of poetry who are by necessity uncultured and unaccustomed to variety and therefore drawn to what they consider macabre, in Edgar Allen Poe’s strictly superficial work The Raven, which is given more depth by those who explicate it than by the author who penned it, the repeated refrain ‘Nevermore,’ is an example of anaphora.




It is thought that the composition of ballads began in the European folk tradition, most often accompanied by musical instruments. Centuries old in practice, ballads were not originally put to parchment, but preserved as oral lit for future generations, with the intention of being passed along through recitation. The subject matter dealt with religion, love, tragedy, domesticity, and even took shape of political propaganda.

          The prototypical ballad is defined as a plot-driven ones, with one or more characters that drive the narrative to its conclusion. Traditionally, a ballad does not intend to reveal what is actually happening and instead relying on detailing crucial moments that lead to the conclusion. Quatrains are the typical method of stanzas in ballads; this technique is often employed to convey emotional urgency–wherein there are three to four stresses and rhyming either the second or fourth lines, or of all alternating lines. This style of composition is most common in the forms of poetry one encounters, as it is in the ABAB style, and, as such, provides a palimpsest which allows the transposition of one’s own ideas into an established form of poetic expression. Due to the nature of the ballad’s hidden happenings allow for abstractions throughout the composition that are to be resolved with its conclusion.

          In the fifteenth century, English ballads began making their way into print and have remained popular since. Ballad broadsides were a rich source of cultural income during the Renaissance and because of this became a popular practice, though rarely earning the respect of other authors because those who wrote ballads were referred to as ‘pot poets,’ a pejorative used to demean the ‘lower classes.’ It was considered a cheap form of poetry, easy in the sense that it didn’t require the complicated rhyme schemes or the sceptered iron mood music of bombastic blank verse, like that of Shakespeare.

          The ballad would later evolve into a sort of sport. Samuel taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth would make the ballad a respectable form of poetic expression and both wrote numerous ballads during their careers. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ the tale of a cursed sailor aboard a ship caught in a tempest, is a revered ballad in the English language. It opens: (Take notice of how syllable count and line separation allow the reader to keep the fluidity intended by the author while reading–we will analyze this further in another section):

          It is an ancient mariner,

          And he stoppeth one of three.

          –’By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,

          Now wherefore stoppest thou me?

          Te bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,

          And I am next of kin;    

          The guests are met, the feast is set:

          Mayst hear the merry din’


          He holds him with his skinny hand,

          ‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.

          ‘Hold off! Unhand me, grey-beard loon!’

          Eftsoons his hands dropped h.e


          He holds him with his glittering eye–

          The wedding guest stood still,

          And listen like a three-years’ child:

          The Mariner hath his will.


Writers of early ballads, such as Thomas Percy, and later W.B. Yeats, contributed to the english tradition. The ballad evolved into folk songs in America, in compositions such as ‘Casey Jones’ and the old time cowboy favorite, ‘Streets of Laredo,’ and ‘John Henry.’

          In France in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, the ballade was the principle form of music and poetry. It is distinguished from ballad, as a ballade contains three main stanzas, each with the same rhyme scheme, plus a shorter conclusion stanza, or envoi. Each of the four stanzas have identical refrain lines. The tone of the ballade was most often solemn and form, using elaborate symbolism and classical references to further its narrative.

          François Viillon was one of the most influential writers of early ballades in Renaissance France. His exacting form was checked by his limited rhyme, although he was capable of creating intense compositions about poverty and the frailty of life. Inspired by vagrancy and poverty and the vagrancy of his criminal life, his work offered up eviscerating attacks on the bourgeois and declarations about the injustice imposed on people ranked lower in the caste system.  It was a sort of ‘poetry for the poor,’ that would later be claimed of Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist about whom Nietzsche said, ‘[He[ was the only psychologist from whom I ever learned.’

          Ballades were also written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. It would become popular again in the nineteenth century after being revived by Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne. Ezra Pound, a major figure in the post-modernism and a person for whom James Joyce has to thank for the publication of works that would change the world of literature (Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses), would later compose variation of Villion’s ballades. This poetic form is used for light verse in modernity and there aren’t many examples from which to cite as successful.



What is, in America, called the blues poem, is an extension of another type of poetry that has been around since poetry began, the lamentation. But in this chapter, I would like to discuss the tradition of American blues. It began as an oral tradition among slaves in southern America, it is believed, and is imbued with weighty themes like struggle, despair, though some of it does lighten up enough to include sex–which usually is the outcome of struggle and despair or, inversely, the cause of it.

          It has an inherent form, but it’s not set in stone. Its formal shape is an individual statement, modified by the second, and the third is usually an ironic alternative.

          It is about struggle and despair

          And can be light, about sex:

          Which sometimes is the cause of it.


          Ralph Ellison once said that the blues, though they are often about struggle and depression, it is also about determination to overcome difficulty through strength of character. Making it through the struggle is what defines the blues poem, as it begins with tragedy, and ends in ironic bemusement after it has been overcome. This can be seen as a way of differentiating between traditional lamentations and American blues poems.

          Among the many famous poets who work in this category, among them Sterling Brown, James Johnson, and the more popular Langston Hughes. In high first book, the eponymous poem, ‘The Weary Blues,’ is an wonderful example of an America blues poem:

          Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

          Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

                   I heard a Negro play.

          Down on Lenox Avenue the other night,

          By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

                   He did lazy sway…

Another good example is Brown’s ‘Riverbank Blues,’ which begins:

          A man get his feet in a sticky mudbank       

          A man get this yellow water in his blood,

          No need for hopin,’ no need for doing,’

          Muddy streams keep him fixed for good.

Kevin Young is a contemporary poet who has continued the tradition. In his book, Jelly Roll, he presents a collection of poetry steeped in the tradition of American blues poetry. Apart from that, he attained success as the editor of the anthology, Blues Poems.

          Try it out yourself. Begin with a line that states the issue; modify it in the second line, and then finish it with it being overcome.

          Sisyphus tied to his rock,

          Pushed it up all day and night,

          Until he realized he could stop.



The bop as a poetic tradition is relatively recent, originating from Afaa Michael Weaver during a summer retreat at Cave Canem. The bop is not unlike the sonnet in its framework; it is a form of poetic argument, rigidly constructed; it consists of three stanzas; the first is followed by anaphora, or refrain, each mutating to reveal a different facet in the overall composition; the first stanza is six lines long and states the issue; the second is eight lines long and enumerates on the issue. If there is a resolution, the third stanza, which is traditionally six lines long, attempts to find it. If a resolution can’t be made, the third stanza is the reflection on the failure to overcome the proposed problem introduced in the first stanza and modified / expanded upon by the second.

          Despite its youth, the bop has engendered many variations. Adding to the three stanza bop, six line fourth stanza, refrain-ending bops have appeared. A good example of how a bop introduces a crisis before attempting to resolve it is a poem by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, whose book Black Swan features several bop poems. The most popular, Bop Haunting begins:

          In the evening she comes, her same unsatisfied self,
with the hard, smug look of salvation. Mama,
stop bothering me. When we argue, she says
What you’re saying is not scriptural

          You need to get back to your Bible.

          In one dream, I slap her. I’m tired of her mouth.

          I hate to see the evening sun go down.


The refrain in this piece, ‘I hate to see the evening / sun go down’ appears at the end. It is, what is called in blues guitar, the blue note; the tone of the speaker has not found a solution to the woes conjured by the invocation.

In contemporary criticism, the bop can be looked at as a formalized way of recounting a life: it begins with an issue, the issue evolves, and the issue is either resolved, or the failure to resolve it is lamented. To do your own bop poem, extrapolate an issue from your life that you have been struggling with, show the evolution / modification / growth of the issue, and then show its resolution, or lack thereof.

          I’ll give it a shot.

          My mother left me at a door,

          At a home for children poor;

          To me, to live, is such a chore.




























Cento is a Latin word for ‘patchwork,’ and the cento is a collage poem, a poetic form made from lines cobbled from other poems and other poets. Poets often ‘borrow’ lines or leif-motifs from more imaginative and skilled writers, a cento in its true form is composed entirely independent from the composers own poetic sensibility, though it can definitely reflect it in his / her choice of juxtaposition of foreign and imported sources. Examples of this can be found in the most respected of poets, including Homer and Virgil, who wrote the Odyssey and The Aeniad, respectively.

          The composition of a cento consisting of other poet’s lines can do as much to reveal the intended expression of the collaborator as that of the original writer. You can make psychological deductions regarding the arrangement and selection of verses and the poetic voices included in the arrangement of the cento to find the individuality in the voice of the person’s compilation of the work of others. You can find out if they’re a novice, weekend warrior poet–if, for example, they’re canto is littered with Edgar Allen Poe (ugh) and Sylvia Plath.

          Sylvia Plath actually had great poetic ability, and to put her in the same sentence as the morose and monotonous Poe is a sin, I’m sure, but the compilation of one’s favorite poetry can do as much to express one’s self than writing one’s own verse, if that person is without the talent or inclination to construct their own verse. William S. Burroughs went through a copy, cut and paste period that is similar in style to what falls under the heading of canto, as defined by this chapter.

          The Academy of American Poets, with lines from Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, Charles Wright, and Marie Ponsot, composed the following canto, which can serve as an admirable example of the psychology and individuality that typifies the poet who composes cantos consisting of other poet’s work.

          The the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-eyed man is king

          Brute, spy, I trusted you; now you reel and brawl

          After great pain, a formal feeling comes–

          A vulturous boredom pinned me to this tree

          Day after day, I become less use to myself

          The hours after you are gone are so leaden.

Not to be confused with the division of Dante’s Divine Comedy’s division into cantos, which were of original composition, the modern cento is less weighty in tone and often ironic, witty, or humorous, humor which comes from juxtaposition of idea and representation. This is something we will come to in due course. Contemporary examples of centos are John Ashbery’s The Dong with the Luminous Nose, and Peter Gizzi’s Ode: Salute to the New York School.





















Variable operations, or the more common name ‘chance operations,’ are methods of generating poetry independent of the author’s will. This can be done by throwing darts, rolling dice, chopping up and juxtaposing pieces of newspaper articles (as Burroughs did in his ‘cut and paste’ period), and the laying of yarrow stalks, which dates back to the Chinese divination method used to make sense of the Oracle, or book of changes, the I-Ching. Sophisticated computer programs have also been designed to randomly select disparate and seemingly incompatible work to put it together by using encyclopedias, almanacs, or famous works of literature.

          The purpose of this method is to separate intentional contrivance and allow the nature of your variable methods to speak for you; it is the poetry of chaos, and it creates unusual syntax, disjoined images and odd correlations. This sort of chaos is intended to be extractable, that is to say meaning is imported from the chaos while there was no intended meaning in its composition.

          The Dada movement in western Europe are generally credited with the development of chance operations in the early and mid-twentieth century, Paul Eluard, Phillipe Soupault, Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, and Tristan Tzara are notable. The prominent focus of Dadaism is the subconscious as they believe that the mind would create meaning and association from any text, even randomly selected juxtapositions in variable operations. Tzara’s Dada Manifesto on Feeble and Bitter Love offers instructions on how to compose a Dadaist poem, here translated from the original French: (The translation is mine, so any errors are entirely my fault.)

          Take some newspaper.

          Take some scissors.

          Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.

          Cut out the article.

          Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up the article and put them [all] in a bag.

          Shake smally [gently.]

          Next take out each cutting one after the other.

          Copy with conscience in the order they [are] left in the bag.

          The poem will resemble [you.]

          The use of chance operations in contemporary poetry has been used by the avant garde group Fluxus, poet Jackson MacLow, and the poet / composer John Cage. A good example of a poem written using chance operation is MacLow’s Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of a Justice Chair, which includes, also, MacLow’s explanations of the methods he used he used to compose the poem.

          Considering futurism, Dada, and concrete poetry, if a language is to support a highly literate culture, claimed rhetoric scholar Richard Lanham has argued, then the language must be composed of more simplistic parts. That is to say, characters which are to be the building blocks of language must be easily comprehensive and written in unobtrusive calligraphy. This is primarily due to the fact that because language is an external device that requires internal recognition, a reader must be able to internalize the alphabet and see through the characters to differentiate between representation and meaning. When reading a book, it is not often apparent that one is simply looking at marks on a paper; the awareness of the ideas that the words represent under the surface of language.

          Typographical philosophy, simplicity, clarity and transparency, dominates printed culture and has since the advent of the printing press, Lanham has argued. The twentieth century has seen many movements in art and poetry has called this philosophy into philosophy into question, using typography itself for a medium for meaning, preventing people from looking through words, and forcing readers to look at them. This is to disconnect idea and representation and make representation and idea the same thing.

          A movement of Italian futurists, led by F.T. Marinetti, in a 1909 manifest, rejected traditional expressions of art as ‘borrowed dresses.’ (The English idiom would be second hand clothes.) Among their critiques was the book itself. Marinetti called the book stale and oppressive, a symbol of what the futurists called the ‘old guard,’ which they [the futurists] were striving against.

          In the Electronic Word, Lanham wrote: ‘In a literate culture, our concept of meaning depends on this radical act of typographical simplicity. No images, colors, strict left to right then down one line, no type changes; no interaction; no revision. In attacking these conventions, Marinetti was attacking the literary totality of humanity.” Marinetti would begin by experimenting with unusual typography, creating textual and visual oddities, such as the 1919, SCRABrrRrraaNNG.

          At the same time, Dadaism was gaining strength as a coherent artistic movement in Europe, due partially because identity is adapted in three manners: alignment with the culture, rejection of the culture, or an independently evolved set of ethos and sensibilities, commonly found in orphans and the displaced. As a rebellion against traditional art forms, it had its appeal. The Dadaists were keen on spotaneity, something which I believe is of great value in poetry and prose, along with automatic writing and variable operations.

          Collages were important elements in both are and poetry until the futurist movement, and it remained important in typography. The Dadaist Tristan Tzara urged poets of the futurist movement to cut out of newspapers as in variable operations, and anthropomorphic letters were also used; Kurt Schwitters used the character ‘B’ with feet and arms, for example, and the style was also interested in poems that were ephemeral and erasable, such as poems written in sand or on a blackboard.

This sort of interest in transience is reminiscent of a poem I will come into in a later section, Masters and Masterpieces, which is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The image of a poem written in the sand along the beach, to me, has poetic, dreamy power to it. It establishes an important element often addressed in poetry across cultures, transience and mortality. I can’t think of a more poetic way to describe life than in terms of a poem written on a beach, or on a blackboard, however passionately, it is finite, it will go away.

          Although the futurist revolution never really took over the old regime of classical forms of expression, public interest would reemerge in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s in the form of concrete poetry. These are poems that take visual shapes and can only be appreciated when seen. Reinhard Dohl, for example, wrote a poem in the shape of an apple made entirely of the word apple, save for one instance of the word worm.

          Another example of a concrete poem is Eugen Gomringer’s 1954 poem Schweigen, the German word for silence, was composed of entirely of typographical representations of schweigen, which surrounds an empty, silent space in the third line. The silent space in the third line is the most important part of the poem, as scholar Roberto Simanowski in Concrete Poetry in Digital Media, because, in practical terms, silence can only be articulated by the absence of words.

          Concrete poems continued the typographic experimentation begun by the futurists, requiring readers to look at and through language. As Simanowski wrote, ‘Concrete poetry deals with the relation between the visible form and the intellectual substance of words. It is visual, because it adds the optical gesture of the word to its semantic meaning.’

I’ll give you an example from one of my own poems:

          The Glass Umbrella, one of my most popular works of poetry, was one of the first poems I wrote after becoming somewhat fluent in Italian. And sometimes it’s necessary to orient the subject-modifier-article in manners which reflect the normal diction of other language to maintain the music of what you’re trying to convey. Another good way to maintain the music of what you’re saying is to keep time. This can be done by line by line syllable matching. This is a good way to keep tempo; to break it into faster reading, making shorter, even one to two word lines, will increase the speed with which the reader takes the music of the piece in. Another important aspect of getting poetry read at the intended tempo is ‘rolling’ from one word to another.

          It is easiest to roll words when a following word begins with a phoneme that could attach to the ending of the previous word to form an independent word. This will be important to consider when we’re considering first line beginnings for end line rhymes. When done properly, the reader will read the poem in the manner you intend it to be read in, while poor poetry may work when read in certain ways by the author, it is rarely rendered in a consistent tempo, or universal meter that makes it possible for everyone to attach to it the tempo at which it is intended to be read. Another important aspect of a good poem is intimacy. While it is amateurish to rhyme about how you feel, it is not so to, by tone and imagery, isolation of ‘blue’ phonemes, to convey a type of sadness. Theme is usually something that is threaded throughout the poem; it is reinforced by repetition, but made poignant by reconciliation and furtherance through moderation as the poem progresses. In making a poem universal and also personal, it has to be open to extraction / allegory application for those who read it. If it’s an elegy (a poem for the deceased), a personal approach can be more universally applicable as one’s own lens through which death is seen can remind one of their own and enrich it, making the poetry more relatable and stronger. Let’s consider the mentioned elements in an analysis of my narrative elegy, the Glass Umbrella:

          We are the footprints by the Sea. (8 syllables)

          The waters come

          The waters leave. (8 syllables)

          Miss Sea, you see,

          your children taken. (9)

          Children of the Sea forsaken. (8)

By keeping a running syllable count, it ensures that the lines will be read at the same speed. Using words that allow one word to roll into another adds to the music of the work, although ‘come’ and ‘and’ could not be attachment phonemes, they can be said as one word. Like ‘miss Sea, you see,’ it can be pronounced as one word, an extended phoneme that allows for appreciation of tonal quality. Repeated consonants, of the same delension, such as Sea and see, give an element of completed rhetoric to a basic statement. Independent clauses, beginning with ‘the waters’ employ a poetic construct called anaphora; anaphora is a device in poetics where certain words are repeated, usually at the beginning of the sentence, and is most obvious example of anaphora usage. Mnemonics in poetry is the usage of a term to represent an abstract; in the Glass Umbrella, the Sea is represented as a proper noun and preceded by a definite article because it is being used as both a literal sea and a place to which life goes when gone, and whence life came. The waters come; the waters leave also echoes this biological truth, thus linking the poem to the natural workings of the world and, as a eulogy, enforces the thematic elements regarding the wax and wane of natural processes. The reference to forsaken children introduces the idea of the eulogy in the first stanza and sets it up for the coming story.

          It is important to import music into your poetry to invite atmosphere. The sound of waves gives atmosphere, and footprints disappearing hints at the element of passing, and as mnemosis, it is, the footprints, our lives, and the waves are death, the death that take us back to whence we came. This cyclical nature is central to the poem. Let’s take a look at the next line, where syllogism is more direct than symbol-idea association, though the syllogism is without an unstated contrast, the conclusions drawn from this natural cycle pervade the work, and thus the apparatus of syllogism is just as important as that of mnemosis, which has a soporific effect and adds to the atmosphere. When writing poetry, to fully immerse the reader in the world, a certain part of the story’s completion relies on the reader’s ability to fill in the gaps, to fill in implications and open ellipses (which we will touch on later), and the scenes should be painted with broadstrokes, allowing for fine details to be added by the imagination of the reader. The author creates part of the work, but it is completion is only accomplished by the reader’s coloring in between the lines and synthesizing the words into a complete portrait. Another important part of poetry is telling a story that can be about yourself, but also can be extracted to be about any aspect of any person’s experience with similar experiences. The poet paints the picture, but the reader puts the frame on it. Let’s look at how the Glass Umbrella develops (remember this is a elegy written when I was 21 upon the death of a friend.)

          See me, see Miss Galilee (7)

          Bring back what she took from me; (7)

          Bring back what you swallowed whole. (7)

          The yawning old,

          And wide-mouthed urn, (7)

          Lolled on but never turned,

          Her deaf ear,

          To me,

          To hear,

          My confused shouts at her. (19)

The first line is an invocation, a request for the murderer to look me in the eyes. My friend, her name Diane, had taken a lot of pills and walked into the New Jersey shore, and Galilee was the name of a church we once went to when she visited me in South Carolina, so that’s where the title of the Sea comes from. The next two lines are anaphoric, pleas to something that can’t hear, the first being a request for what ‘she’ took from me–this is an instance in which the reader’s participation in the work is vital. When someone is gone, what is lost varies from person to person. Instead of naming something precise, the ambiguity allows the reader to substitute their own feeling of loss, and what it was they lost, and this allows them to feel with the poem instead of feel it on an intellectual level. Age is another thematic element referred to over and over again, in adjectives such as ‘yawning’ and ‘wide-mouthed’ and the lazy, lolling about. The sea is mnemonic in this stanza for death again, being a wide-mouthed earth, and is described in a way that would befit death–never turning her deaf ear, to me, to hear, my confused shouts at her. Using ‘at’ instead of ‘to’ furthers the unfeeling nature of what has taken away my friend. Confused, as a modifier, indicates the nature of how we react to loss. We don’t understand it, the why, the where they may be going, if they’re to be going anywhere, and we’re often reduced to unintelligible shouting, either in our heads or at something that can’t hear us. The shortening of the ‘her deaf ear, to me, to hear,’ lines are designed to keep the tempo read at the proper pace by the reader. It quickens the pace and brings about the conclusion to the stanza. Within the stanza, the sea is referenced to an urn; this is a way of expressing what was taken into the sea–a person–although nowhere in this poem do I explicitly say it is about someone who has committed suicide. The abstract artists of the 20th century who followed in the tradition of Vincent van Gogh believed that there was more passion in the strokes and fury of the execution than the accuracy of photographic replication, and therefore a report unedited from nature was not the highest calling of an artist, but simply a way to paint rich and famous people as accurately enough to flatter them because they didn’t have cheap and affordable photoshoots in those days. The abstraction in this poem is mostly embodied in the characteristics given to the sea which is by mnemonism addressed as the Sea. In looking for the music of a line of poetry when written in Victorian classic verse, my preferred method and the preferred method of W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and, more famously in America, Edgar Allen Poe, it is useful to read a sentence as one word and attempt to ascertain whether or not it would not sound inappropriate, or disjointed, if it was a single word in some other language.

          The poem has been given sound, anthropomorphic characteristics (related to swallowing and blindness), and deafness. The poem, being about deaf, is just as concerned with shutting down the stimulation of the senses as it is with stimulating them in the livelier sections. In later, less ambiguous narrative segments, the senses will be fully engaged and for it to work so well, to contrast death and life, is to shut down reference frames that one can avail oneself to in part, and then make them accessible when the character becomes alive again in memory. The deafness of the lost is reinforced in the next stanza:

          Without a word at all to say (8)

          She waves at nighttime and the day (8)

`        She rolls about within a dream (8) –

          The carousel goes by overhead (9)

          To it she turns her mirrored head (8)

          She simply looks to it, and all, (8)

          As we, like leaves,

          Around her fall. (8)

The silence is reinforced again, the silence from that side of this veil of tears, and movement is introduced to give the mnemonic representation characteristics of the idea’s dressing. Introducing movement gives fluidity gives it a natural feel to it, and the addition of our comparison to leaves keeps the natural feel to the whole implied cycle. To extract this and apply it to the physical process of lives, we sprout from seeds, grow and flower, and produce leaves and seeds of our own. To this sea, this urn, we’re universally the same watchful, fearful eyes, unheard and afraid of her ‘mirrored’ head; the mirrored head is not a poetic device without implication. When we look at someone dead, part of the revulsion we fear is our own mortality and this is what gives us pause, trepidation. In giving death the face of a mirror, the expression is open to debate, as it should be. There are those who believe once a mystery is solved, it is no longer interesting. Being a fan of Sherlock Holmes’s detective stories and Agatha Christies serial works, I don’t necessarily agree with this when it comes to art. Art is an elaborate door and there is no skeleton key, and sometimes the person who understands it the least is the person who wrote it. So it can be said that instead of defining what it means, I’m interpreting it. Finished works of poetry rarely begin and end in one sequential writing. When I first compiled this poem, when I sat down to put it together, I had to gather it from non-linear and disparate sources, notebooks, scraps of toilet paper. I don’t intend to speak for all poets, but it’s rarely a straightforward, linear process. And at the time, while I was generally aware of what was being said, I didn’t have the kind of understanding of poetics I have now. One thing I’ve learned from the study of aesthetics, you can use philosophy, if you’re good at it, to make something mean anything you wish depending on the quality of your rhetoric. When I wrote it, what I was conscious of was the symbols of the footprints and the sea–the footprints being us, the sea being where we’re from and where we’re going. The best place to hide a tree is in a forest, and subtlety is not used purely to understate your ideas; it’s a means by which the attentive are rewarded. And subtlety, to be honest, is most often accidentally done by the author being in tune with his subject.

          Whenever you go back to your refrain, the glue that keeps your narrative strings together, the narrative changes and evolves and your refrain has to reflect the growth of the narrative. The best way to execute a refrain and keep it memorable is to, although it’s slightly modified, is to keep it recognizable.

          The beach we leave our footprints on, (8)

          The waters come,

          And then they’re gone. (8)

          We are but footprints by the Sea; (8)

          The waves come in,

          And then we leave. (8)

          Miss Sea, you see,

          Your children taken. (9)

          Children of the Sea forsaken. (8)

The importance of rolling in tonal value cannot be understated. Internal rhyme, instead of completely relying on the end of sentence rhyme, although it is the most common. The anaphora of the first two sentences gives stability to the stability. ‘The beach we leave’ opens the refrain with two compound syllable rhymes, and if pronounced together as ‘thebeachweleave’ doesn’t sound disjointed as a word, and thus retains the music. The same is true of the delayed anaphora of ‘the waters come, and then we leave.’ In this delay, a transition article is used to denote a brief passage of time–one word is used, in this instance, is used to separate the tide coming in (our lives) and the tide receding (our death.) The next stanza addresses this in a manner intended to break the fourth wall, as it is a direct line of questioning–questions for the king in black. The pain is in the appeal to something that cannot grant your wish, nor even hear your plea. Remember the elemental mirror of looking into death and seeing oneself, this stanza presents an inversion of that idea–wondering if that king in black can look at us.

`        Ancient Sea, Miss Galilee (7)

          Can you see yourself in me? (7)

          As I see myself in you – (7)

          Glowing white and tinged with blue (7)

          Can’t you see what you have done? (7)

          The lolling sea-saw none. (6)

In matching syllable counts to keep control of the tempo at which you wish for your poem to be read, breaks between articles and end stanza lines are not always necessary. Sometimes an abrupt stop can add tension and make the closed quatrain jarring, which is something you might want to employ in horror or suspense.  The lolling see saw, which is non-perfect anaphora but effective in playing with the up and down nature that has been a thematic element with the tide, the waves, the sprouting of trees and falling of leaves; lolling was an attempted casual benevolence, not a mockery, although to a heartbroken person screaming at a loved one dead can make a world feel as if it’s turned into a mockery of your need to love and be loved.

          Passing through the stages of grief from confusion and denial and anger, we get to acceptance in the next stanza, the gradual coming to terms with something that’s almost impossible, and would be impossible if not for it’s lack of other options. When Diane died, it opened a wound, and the poem I’ve spent this chapter analyzing is just the shape the blood happened to take. Sometimes apophosis is a good way to tell a story that allows the reader to put the pieces together on their own, like a magic eye test, by telling one story through apophosis, you get your expression across, and allow the reader to make it an extracted allegory of their own personal experience.

          I see, I said, and that was that, (8)

          Standing at the shore of black (7)

          I hear my own words echo back: (8)

          In that mirror,

          I saw me, (7)

          Just  a reflection in the Sea. (8)

Continuing with the stages of grief, this stanza begins with facing the ‘shore of black,’ which was intended to be the equivalent of looking into the face of someone dead. The double anaphora of ‘I see, I said’ and ‘that was that’ is a seven line consonant non-complement anaphora and it serves, in this case, to further the see-saw / up and down of the nature de’ monte so persistent throughout the poem. Looking in the mirror–seeing someone dead from a drug overdose–was the first time I saw what would happen to me if I continued to abuse medication, and as painful as this process was, it had the effect of healing me, and seeing myself as just a reflection in the sea, in writing it, I intended it to connect me with the rest of humanity, as we are all alone in facing this natural process of our life.

Rolling, Natural Sounds in Poetry and Expression: 11 September 2015

Poetry is a method of expression. Expression, ostensibly, means to show–not say. For example, to rhyme how you feel is not poetry, or expression; it’s didactic and it’s boring. Touching on universal characteristics of the human condition is important; hope and fear, gain and loss, love and hate–it is all a part of the human experience.

          Although it is not poetic to simply rhyme how you feel in blatant statements, to overtly symbolize and make metaphor of your work is almost as bad. Symbols rely on idea association, and one of the main movements of modern art was the separate symbol from idea, idea from representation. Symbols are important, but to be obvious is to be boring. The oblique interplay of ideas allows for the reader to extract and apply allegory to their own life; allegory shouldn’t be equivocation within the poem itself.

          The best poetry not only has the ability to express without stating, but also works as a work that can successfully convey beauty with tone alone. Having fluency in another language will awaken the reader to the tonal qualities of his or her native language and, in doing so, allow them to see the beauty that certain arrangements of words can be. It has been said that ‘cellar door’ is the most beautiful word in the English language. It is unclear who actually made this claim, but once it was perpetuated by a popular Hollywood movie, it has become a go-to word for illustrating the beauty within the tone of certain English words. In writing rhyming couplets, a good way to judge the way it may sound to someone who can’t speak the language, is to see if it is possible to read the sentence as one word without difficulty. Let me offer a demonstration:

          I’m uncertain as to what makes a book on expression necessary.

          The consonant reflections do not adhere to natural vowels which would follow if the sentence rolled, in the manner I intend.  ‘Expression good’ doesn’t roll because it’s rare for a consonant, N, to be followed by another consonant, G. (It does happen, as in lingo and linguistics, for example) but adding to the diminished roll after the reflective consonant is the D that closes the sentence on a closed sound. It is a good practice in rolling to arrange words in ways that reflect single words, as in the following sentence ‘for what’ is not too far a stretch from ‘forward.’ For what I do not know the purpose for those books on prose. In the same manner, ‘purpose for’ is tonally related to purposeful; ‘books on’ is tonally related to book song.

          The sentence works as an example of smooth rolling and as an example of internal rhyme and, in addition to removing an unnecessary proposition, the line becomes more fluid, as though the words become Siamese, inseparable from what came before and what is to come after. In addition to flowing and being more lucid, it has multiple syllabic rhymes within it. ‘Do,’ (although not a perfect rhyme), ‘Know,’ and ‘prose’ connect as middle and ending phonemes and, taking away everything away from the sentence between the phoneme rhymes, the rhyming words, do the imperfect, and know and prose the perfect, you are reduced without transitions and articles to a statement: ‘Do know prose.’ Consonant pairing spread across the lines can also lend symmetry to a line: as the ‘t’ in ‘not’ presages the ‘t’ in quality. It is easy to do end-sentence rhymes of vowels, but to rhyme consonants by alliteration using internal, ellipse rhyme schemes, is much more difficult.

          End-line rhyming is the easiest form of writing poetry. But, just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean the resultant poetic expression is without value. I could make up lines of more than 20-30 internal parent rhymes, imperfect rhymes, and consonant relationships, but it wouldn’t make the statement, or expression, any more lovely. For example:

          I’m an imaginative and passionate masochist given adjectives elaborate and massive ass whoopins so bad it could land my ass back in prison. Imaginative, passionate, masochist, and adjective are three syllable perfect rhymes done over the course of the first half of the sentence. Just because of the display of rhyme ability in such a sentence is admirable, it is not necessarily a poetic sentiment. Which brings me to what qualifies as valid poetic expression.

          To be a poet, idea-object relationships have to be seen through the lens of a poet. To be a poet is to see relationships between objects and ideas that people without the poetic inclination do not. To look at a ring of smoke and see the essence of life is the type of idea-sight association that a poet would make, because there are layers to this idea. A ring is cyclical, like the cycles of life and death, the coming in and receding tide; the fact that it’s blown into being and lingers briefly before fading also links it to the idea of its relationship to life.

          It is important to keep in mind that, as important as it is to keep meter, for the sake of maintaining musical quality, nothing about it should be forced. If you are resigned to a specific meter, it is important not to be hasty in putting thought to paper. It is said that the poet Virgin, author of the Latin epic the Aeniad, wrote only two lines of poetry a day. When you’re under the impression that it is necessary to wait for inspiration to write good poetry, the best advice is to write on anyway: inspiration doesn’t always come when it is needed. If every writer who ever penned a master piece waited on inspiration for every page, the amount of masterpieces we have on record would be cut in half. Frank Herb, author of the acclaimed science fiction series Dune, said of writer’s block (I’m not aware of the price quote): the important thing is to write anyway, for when you look back, if you forgot all memory of the composition, you would not be sure which parts came to you while inspired and which came to you while uninspired. There’s something dangerous about inspiration, too.

          Inspiration should come to you as you’re working. You don’t get past writer’s block by waiting on the fence to be torn down, you have to break through it yourself by writing. If you waited on inspiration to write, you’d never get anything done. By the time inspiration does arrive, you should be too busy to notice. There is a dangerous quality to inspiration too; inspiration is like a drug, and certain drugs can lead you into self defeating cycles: professional writers will know what I mean when I refer to the re-write cycle. There is a tendency to stop while you’re in the heat of a good section to go back to the beginning and check out what you have so far. In doing this, you lose what future was going to come naturally before you stopped, and can be locked into forever trying to improve what you’ve already written. Be wary of this; it is possible to fix something until it’s broken. Jack Kerouac famously believed that re-writing was a censorship of one’s self, that re-writing was a cheat that altered the original expression for the sake of making it more decorative, more intentionally pandering to the sensibilities of one’s perspective readers. Ginsberg, author of the famous poem Howl, was always revising, always looking for le just mot (the perfect phrase, as it is said in French) and considering his success, I would not give my support to one extreme or the other.

          Another dangerous thing about inspiration is that it can lead you into tangents that, due to your confidence, will lead you so far away from the actual novel that, when working with a copy editor to produce a galley proof to send to a publish, it can look like an out of place, drug induced tangent that, in reality, was the moment you were lead astray by the confidence that inspiration can bring. Like a drug, it can convince you that you’re doing no wrong. Therefore, I would say that while inspiration is a good quality and excellent motivation, it is just as important to write logically and with a clear focus on where you’re going.

          When you go back to the beginning and start trying to improve, you begin to take the story out of a linear progression, because ideas intended to come later on are slipped in unknowingly, and as it is easy to do this, it is easy to forget what you have already said and, in all probability, have said better. Expression should be as natural as breathing; breathing is not a practiced process. Serendipity comes to those who summon her through great effort, not to those who wait on her to provide them with everything.

          Symbolism and metaphor are wonderful tools to use in poems. But the reliance on heavy, weighty symbols and metaphors, as well as the deplorable usage of using ‘like’ to relate one object’s essence to a train of thought, can trap you into expressing the ideas of symbols, instead of symbols used to represent ideas. When I say the reliance on symbolism in poetry is dangerous, I only mean to say the reliance on often used symbols to represent something is dangerous. Poetry is the expression of the personal, but it should have the touch of the universal. That’s why when I am writing I take great pains not to use ‘I’ as much as possible, to use ‘I’ in writing a poem is a way of separating your poetry from the reader. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but it keeps your writing within the three walls.

          The forth wall is the final barrier between true art and kitsch.

Denouement from the Chameleon Mirror

That’s the conceit, that if we put on costumes put on masks remember our lines and make up, it’ll mean something, something more than a group of costumed men reciting the word’s of dead men. It’s just how characters without character become great if for a moment, Alain may at his best be an interesting Iago, but strove to be a Lear who needn’t lose it, nor his fool, to tell such liars where off precisely to fuck. And I guess he was, I’d give him that more Edward though and his bastard’s revolt, to be sincere, to be a real boy, a director like Pinocchio had he made Gepetto what cruelty there would have been. And it’s easier, isn’t it? To play Mme. De Guermants or Albertine, because it mean something, somehow. Because they meant something to so many, and through osmosis this makes us mean something, at best, if not to ourselves but someone. So we say the things they say and wear their clothes, what do those without talent do but play some better written part?

In the 1001 and One Nights there is a dervish, a magical device. Put it on and you become whatever you want to be. If I put on that dervish, I’d rather turn into myself, without some complex or another, without needing to be a character, but be a character without the need for meaning or purpose, but with some form of happiness, artificial or not. It might mean nothing, but it meant something to me. Not much, but not much is better than nothing. To say it best, but poorly:

Why dally then? To me no word of thine

Is pleasant: God forbid it e’er should please;

Nor am I more acceptable to thee.

And yet how otherwise had I achieved

A name so glorious as by burying

A brother? so my townsmen all would say,

Where they not gagged by terror, Manifold

A king’s prerogatives, and not the least

That all his acts and all his words are law.

No hallowed ground for Antigone, for me. There is no such place, but at least it’s quiet, in the end.

Short Story – The Children Santa Cheated (2011)

          When I was six years old, I had asked for a ‘camcorder’ for my birthday with the intention to film Santa Clause. I had no knowledge of what I would later discover to be agnosticism or atheism, I just had questions in regards to Santa that no one seemed capable of explaining, or, in any case, explaining adequately. I didn’t believe that it was possible, for one thing, for deer to fly. The casual acceptance of this among other children my age alarmed me, even then, and, though I did not know it at the time, played a large part in the conditioning of similar, more pressing beliefs. In our childhood, our grasp on how the world works is tenuous at best, at worst non-existent. But I had seen birds and I had seen deer and I had seen planes. Planes and birds shared a common feature: wings. I have yet to see a winged deer. But my skepticism went further.

          My father was patient and would indulge me as a child. It amused him more than anything, I think, to answer questions which seemed to delight and surprise him. First, I asked how Santa was capable of knowing whether all the children on Earth had behaved good or bad. And I believe my attitude towards his response speaks to a part of who I am which was already defined: “He just can,” said my father. And, as I still hold true, that answer is, scientifically speaking, complete horseshit.

          The experiment with the tape recorder had been building for a couple of years prior. Of course I didn’t tell my father that his explanation was horseshit, but I did continue asking questions. The question for me was no longer if Santa could know whether we were bad or good, but how. First I thought, maybe our parents include a separate letter with our Christmas lists, describing the good or errant behavior of their children, perhaps indicating what we were good enough to get and what our behavior just wouldn’t allow. I would later abandon this theory as I realized that the kind of house a kid lived in greatly determined how much that kid would get for Christmas. The kids in shabby clothes, the stragglers–Santa was different for them. I found this out first hand through my childhood friend, Chris. I would say that we were bad and good to roughly the same degree. But when I got a Nintendo, a bicycle, board games, candy, little battery powered monster trucks, and he got clothes and socks, I understood something, subtly, that I hadn’t yet connected to the Truth.

          Noticing that, despite what I thought about behavior, the presents my friends and relatives received seemed to reflect more the niceness of the child’s home than their alleged good behavior. For example, my aunt Virginia (go ahead, laugh damn you!) was a lawyer and her husband was an oncologist. I understood that word to mean “fancy doctor.” And their kids were total jerks, but they got toys one would think Santa should reserve for Gandhi. My cousin Allen, a fifteen year-old blossoming alcoholic and sadist, received a four-wheeler, a pool table, a state of the art cassette player, and basically anything he could spell. He was infamously bad. Everyone in the family knew. And my working theory was this: Santa could only be getting the information from the parents. But this didn’t seem to fit all of the data I collected. So I revised my theory, which would be penultimate: the parents paid [Santa] for their children’s toys based on what they wanted their children to have. I was close, but not quite there.

          Anyway, my birthday is the 1st of February, which gave me time to plan the great experiment on Christmas. I asked for a camcorder. For anyone who doesn’t know what a camcorder is, think of it like this: it’s like a football shaped iPhone with one function: to record film and audio. Today if you wanted to re-create my experiment, it’d be a lot easier. But this was 1991, and nary an iPhone to be found, humanity bemoaned its inability to share what they had for dinner with the world. It was a dark time, ravaged by sneakers that blinked ominously like the police-cars of a micro-race, polluted by musicians who would not allow themselves to be touched, a time when the only thing a child could rely on to save them was a Bell on Saturday morning, right after X-Men.

          Note: if you get all of those references, congratulations! You’re old!

          Now, my birthday came and with it the precious camcorder along with several blank VHS tapes. I read the instruction manual and tried to figure it all out in time for Christmas. I didn’t know what the scientific method was at that age (6) but I had arrived at something similar: I would hide the camcorder under a towel on top of our television, facing the door (we had no Chimney for Santa to scale,) and while we were at our aunt’s for Christmas dinner, I would set it to record. I’m not sure what outcome I expected, but the data was tampered with.

          Our family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. First we’d open presents from each other. I’d open presents from my mother and father and brothers and sisters. Then we’d visit my grandmother in the morning. Sometimes we’d visit other increasingly unimportant relatives throughout the day, and then we’d go to my aunt’s for Christmas dinner at night. We’d stay for a few hours. When we got home, we’d find our Christmas presents waiting. The amount of shit Santa was capable of packing into our living room was impressive. A little too impressive. And another wrinkle in the official story: although the entire family could fit easily into our Ford Bronco, my older brothers would always arrive later for dinner than anyone else. Suspicion is like a rash. The more you interact with it, the more it burns.

          When I got home, I forgot about my experiment at first. The room was full of the very best the early 90’s had to offer in toys and electric devices, the obligatory bike. I was temporarily stunned by the orgy of evidence that my parents loved me, but I didn’t let that stop me from ruining Christmas forever I would ever meet after that day.

          The video of the event confirmed what I knew all along. Santa Claus came through the front door, and waved at what he didn’t (or shouldn’t) know was there, and put on a performance. That’s right: while putting out the toys, my oldest brother found the recording device and, instead of just turning it off, decided hey, gentlemen, shall we fuck with a child? Yes. Yes we shall. A friend of the family was called, dressed as Santa, and brought in all the toys for the sake of my surveillance.  This is an example of how one can lie too well.

          This good-spirited deception didn’t prove the existence of Santa Clause. I had video evidence, but I was still suspicious. I still had questions. Again I came back to how it could have happened. When you live in a wooded area, an area full of hunters, or, more to the point, in a home where the heads of unfortunately well-endowed deer are mounted on the wall, the reality of a deer’s inability to fly is inescapable.

Act 1: A beginner’s guide to mourning. Scene V: The Thief of Thursday

Check it out: “Renette’s monologue from Brandon Nobles “The Chameleon Mirror” Act 1: A Beginner’s Guide to Mourning, Scene V:

1. A beginner’s guide to mourning
5. The thief of thursday.

I couldn’t breathe. His hot breath in my face. Coffee and cigarette butts. Paralyzed, he crawled on top, such force, such weight. Those awkward, oily hands found their way to my pulled off my clothes each little bit till all was gone; I remembered a story, struggling to move:
Sleep paralysis, you wake up and are conscious but you can’t move. And it’s happened before, I’d read about it; someone is half-asleep and half-awake, their mind asleep and their body walking into traffic, or the opposite end of the twilight zone: awareness without function, your tingling fingertips can’t be moved. Hypnagogic psychedelia, bats and monsters most grotesque but this was that ivory-mask, that thief; I knew the thief, how much could be taken? much more than most imagine.
You think you’re dead and think of demons, old witches on your chest pressing you until you splinter like wicker basket. And if I’d die, they’d find me like this: eyes crusted over, vitreous humour, streaks of blood in finger-prints along my stomach, inner-thighs. And the undertaker will undress me, tell my mom in the last scene, and those tears, poor dear; lay me flat out on the table, that cold metal slab and pull and pull until they pulled my face and kept on pulling. And that’s what this man—this man, this Griffin-beast, this beak, raging bull and putrid dick, pulling on my lips with jagged teeth. Undressed me like an undertaker, cold slab was a sweaty bead, whole body cold – and I’ll feel it all, unable to scream as they slide me into the oven, feet first, and then my legs, then he’s on top, he’s rolled me over. Vague pain now just lots of pressure, he’s on top, fingernails with blood underneath them clawing long and yellow pinched at my thighs I felt them turning pink. Yellow teeth, that crooked nose, bloodshot eyes, burst capillaries like electric snakes.
I woke more by each push against my stomach. I realized, with each minute I could move more, first my thighs, a muscle spasm, a twinge all down my leg. The blood ran down my legs, my inner legs … and it had dried, and no more, then much more and more still this time cold at first and fresh it smeared and sticky. I felt the sickness coming, the taste of vomit in my mouth. I felt the control come back into my hands. I could’ve moved. I could have screamed but wondered what might happen if I did; But unlike the hag, I saw this one, at least that mask; Pinocchio that nose kept poking me and I thought there it is, I’ll check; if I make it to the morning.
I decided to wait, let him have as much as he could take. I did each moment, dying still, each moment more aware of how much pain there really was. I just laid there and took it. Tears rolled down my cheeks and grunting sweating on my forehead, just kept punishing me. Just let him finish, keep the tears back, there they go. I thrilled at the thought of my phone ringing; if it did as this disease this fat piece of shit, spit dripping down my face into my nostril mixing with my tears and overdose bubbles in my nose. I gambled – with my life or pregnancy. He must’ve been 300lbs. I groaned, pretending to be stirring, startled and he ran from the room.
I sat up in bed and kicked my feet and shook my hands slamming my fists. I screamed and screaming more and more, thirty minutes until it all went high-pitched and I heard that ringing noise, sound of ear-cells dying—their swan song, never to hear that frequency again. I walked from my bed to the bathtub, legs bowed and sore and sat down. The cuts and pain got better as the hot water came. I must have lost much more, to sit there picking at my skin until I had blood caked underneath my nails, just as that thief had my skinflakes with him.
The shower head was good to numb, and burning, broiling hot it felt so cold. I peeled my skin layer after layer each ink those sticky fingers touched until my thigh was blotchy red, bright pink in places raw and swollen just like all else, my throat, my god, each piece of skin and blood circled the drain. Something, so much had been taken, something I hadn’t known I had, something I knew I’d never find again. The thief of Thursday takes so much.
I stayed in the water until I turned all wrinkled, all like a prune. I crawled out of the bath hours later.
Couldn’t find a towel. I dried off with toilet paper, square by square, inch by inch. Every time I closed my eyes I saw those fucking teeth, bloodshot, yellowed an ape a bit the worse for drink. Disoriented, I wasn’t sure: was it breaking dawn or dusk and getting darker? It seemed to a new day, electric candle what a fraudulent dawn. A hopeful illusion, a little one.
My phone came on in shaking hnds: 2:55; it was mourning, a Thursday gone. Five minutes shy of witching hour. The colors between the curtains, between the blinds, the distinct blue of a summer’s dawn, the first hint on long days. Then I noticed it was just a trick, night still far away, the dawn a deliberate silhouette or other was by Lain.
He set it up the day we got back, I was at my desk, and he was across the room. Some new-type of writing (just confusing), and the sun kept pouring in, right across his eyes. I couldn’t close the blinds, having raised them to let the air conditioner take effect. This was in the summer. So he took of his shirt, a ratty green one checkered black, pushed it between the blinds to blot out the slivers of impolite sunshine. He went back to his seat only to return again. This time he had found in my bureau a black, long-sleeved shirt. He squeezed it between the curtain rods just right and smiled as he watched the light bow out and fall away.
And now with only the light in the room a digital candle, unique present blinking green in the low-light, I liked it, the impersonation of the coming dawn, how such opposites mixed enough in the dim light for me to fall for a false rising sun, I’d woke with that same false feeling before, happily falling, falling, falling happily for that same trick, to think of day-time sooner, to think of Lain. And my mother, had she called? On my chest perhaps, if not this Peacock then some other, her red feathers left prints on the sheets, and that normally happens alone.
And you’ll tell yourself it’ll be okay.
It’s happened to a lot of people.
You’ll never be okay, okay?
That’s fine with me. Everybody bleeds.

Bite Sized Philosophy, 1 September 2015: The Prodigy Problem

When one thinks of prodigies, one irrevocably thinks of Mozart – the prodigy, a child genius born with the utmost blessings of heaven and endowments of nature. It is, however, a disservice to his character and work ethic to think the greatest expressions of his genius followed anything but an equally great amount of time and effort. Mozart may indeed be one of the most naturally talented artists to have ever lived, and certainly a prodigy by any definition; the lesson to be learned is to not be daunted by the presumption of prodigy, as each new artist begins at the same place, at the bottom of the mountain, whether you compose, or paint, or write, It is not beyond your reach, if willing and dedicated, fully focused and properly motivated, to create great works of art.

Leonardo da Vinci’s first painting wasn’t the Mona Lisa; Jimi Hendrix didn’t play Voodoo Child the first time he picked up a guitar; Jacopo della Quercia’s first piece of writing wasn’t his excellent novel The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy. (Unless he is an actual insight machine — and in that case, that’s not fucking fair, robot!) If human – such a work is the product of study and education, along with the creative application of knowledge coupled with an understanding of form. Shakespeare studied Livy, Plutarch, and combed through Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles long before he wrote MacBeth or King Lear.

Despite what abilities one is or isn’t born with, it is possible to claw through sheet music and become a competent pianist; it is possible to study writing and read great books to become, if not a great writer, at least a good one; and though it may not be possible for everyone to paint like Rembrandt or play the piano like Franz Liszt; it is possible for everyone to produce respectable art and contribute to the intellectual culture of humanity in a unique and personal way. For talent without effort remains unspoken, shapeless, and without that some of the defining works of our culture and history would be lost. Don’t be afraid to try and fail. No great work of art has ever been created by just thinking about it really, really hard.