Saturday, May 28, 2016

Album Review - To Pimp a Butterfly

When I started collecting vinyl a few months ago like the goddamned hipster I am, I had a few guidelines.  I would avoid paying for music I already owned, endeavor to include both contemporary and "classic" albums, and attempt to "expand my musical horizons" with genres and artists I had not previously paid close attention to.  Those guidelines led me to the hip-hop section, and they go a long way toward explaining how Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly found itself in my living room, in all its twelve-by-twelve glory.

I'd like to write something original and thoughtful about this album, but its dense lyricism and evocative sounds require a deep knowledge of the context of both hip hop music and the social environment of black communities in the modern United States.  As it turns out, being a twenty-something white dude with a few Outkast mp3s and an abiding fascination with the Roots, doesn't quite qualify me to speak authoritatively on either.  The sky is blue, the rain makes you wet.

So the best place to start, I suppose, is with what this record means to me.  Butterfly is a beautiful record, musically and emotionally.  It's relatable, even to someone like me, when Lamar raps and recites about the weight of society and out-of-control circumstances on one's mental health.  I've spun both discs nearly a dozen times in the past several weeks, learning more each time, both from the record and my not-infrequent trips to to clarify the meaning of verses and gather much-needed background information.

Maybe it goes without saying that I would need to do some homework to begin making sense of, much less really enjoy, a strong political hip-hop album.  Or maybe it doesn't - but what does need to be said is that Kendrick Lamar and myself speak very different languages.  When it comes to understanding rap, it's not a matter of just keeping up with the syllables.  African American English is replete with unique vocabularies, constructions, and an enduring sense of irony that does not translate into white or "standard" English.  Naturally, how could I expect to listen once and just get it?

More than a language barrier or a culture barrier, there's an experience barrier between myself and Butterfly.  If the music weren't so compelling, handing out funk and soul with equal measures of drive and poetry, the experience of this album would be incomprehensible to me.  How to fathom the depth of survivor's guilt and hypocrisy expressed in "Hood Politics" or "The Blacker the Berry"?  Not without effort.  The swagger of "King Kunta" illustrates the contradictory dynamics of success and oppression, a state embodied in the aspirations and reversals of black men and women.  And yes, I looked these songs up on before I felt comfortable making any kind of statement about them.  I am still learning how to listen to this music.

For me this album is an education, but for its intended audience it is a view of life, another contribution in a body of culture that is both familiar and increasingly alive.  The emotions on this album aren't just strong, they are expansive, as Lamar leads the listener on a whirlwind tour of rage, joy, hope, and depression, without letting any of it settle into a muted schwa.  That's the real magic of a record like this, that it can embody so completely a full suite of feelings and ideas in eighty minutes of sound.

And controversy?  Why, of course there's controversy.  Every successful hip-hop record is controversial simply for being what it is.  The attacks on police brutality and the insidiousness of white power are central to the message: you can't separate them from whatever content on Butterfly may be "apolitical".  The apolitical is beside the point, as is the ongoing, facile debate over why white people can't use racial slurs if black people are going to insist on reclaiming them.  Sure, that makes it somewhat difficult for me to sing along like I might to some one else's songs; but that only raises the question, why do I feel the need to sing along anyway?  There's so much more to gain just by listening.  If you're scandalized by Butterfly's politics, you've got a lot of listening to do.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

I Don't Know Where I Began

I really did not mean to leave this idle until May.  I'm not sure why I wanted it to go like that, or if I did want it, or if there's really any answer beyond laziness.  But I did.  I have things to say, so I guess it's time to say them.

Seeing as my last post was in late January, I have about four months of good news to condense into a few lines, for those who read this and wish to know what the state of my life is.

The best news is that I have achieved a small measure of economic security, and have done so by acquiring what is probably the closest thing to a dream job I've ever had.  In February I started working as a full-time teacher at a small charter school in rural Oregon, just outside of Salem.  Shortly thereafter, I rented a two room apartment in downtown Salem, where I reside to this very day.  Thus from the jaws of dejection and defeat, I have been plucked by good fortune to something very like victory.  In the big scheme of things, I've become one of the lucky ones.

What a change, huh?  And no record of it on The Wave Function Junction for four months.  I must be busy with the new job to have been so negligent.

Well, I have been busy.  Teaching social studies is hard work, especially if you want to do it right.  But I haven't been as busy as all that.  Whole weekends pass by where I mostly lie on the couch and engage in distraction rather than creation.  I scribble a poem now and then, and I do keep up on creating assignments for my students.  Very occasionally, I have even found time for exercize.  But it would be a stretch too far to say I'm at the top of my game.  In a way that I haven't quite perceived before, I can see that I am still sick.

Since looking my depression in the face for the first time over a year ago, I have become aware of what it means to be mentally ill.  Back then, it meant idle thoughts of killing myself, against a backdrop of endless waiting for a natural death.  It doesn't mean that so much anymore.  The sertraline pills have done their work of evening me out, I suppose.  And to be entirely fair, I have learned so much in the past year, about myself and about the workings of the mind, I have begun to heal myself from the worst wounds.  The world has become survivable. 

But as I said, I still feel sick.  I still feel cut off from the world, cut off from passion and love.  I can feel these things, and it is joyous when a connection is established by communication, or by physical presence.  But in my inevitable retreat to solitude, I love without anyone to love, and I despair.  Other people see it in my eyes, but they do not see the cause.

Maybe it's just perpetual dissatisfaction?  Maybe it's never enough to have a job and a home, I also need a raise and a vacation and a woman to sleep with me and why not a shiny new everything?  Maybe it doesn't matter.  I'm better and I'm getting better.  As I have reminded my friends, and as I struggle to remind myself, the world inevitably changes with time. 

And I have the time.  I have admitted it today, and that's why you're reading this.  I'm still (unbelievably) not yet thirty, I'm young and reasonably healthy, and getting hungrier every day.  Who'd have thought a meal of life could cure the blues?  Well, it can't.  To do that, I have to finally brave the bureaucracy and figure out how to transform my benefits package into actual health insurance, and get some damn therapy in me (and maybe about a million more pills, who knows).  Perhaps discovering the true love of my life will have a positive effect, too. 

The world has become survivable, and it turns out I'm sort of a survivor.  That's the news as of May 2016.  Hopefully it gets more interesting from here.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Poetries #5

Poetry, poetry, all I do is poetry... and not enough of that, if you ask me.  But I've got another line up of beauties here, and it's time for them to shine.  If you want to call it shining, anyway; they do have their own sort of luster.

Having exhausted my backlog in the last Poetries post, I can say that all of these have been written quite recently.  They're fresh, and perhaps less labored-over than some of the poems I've posted before.  Not that I've ever been that much of a perfectionist, but it may be I want to slow down again in the future.  We shall see.  Some of them are silly, and some of them are less silly; I hope they're all enjoyable in their own way.

There are only fourteen of them, but the last one is extra long, so we'll call it fifteen, why not?  As always, I'll yammer on at the end.  Some of these poems have a kind of dark sexual edge to them (oh, so edgy, ooh), so watch out for that; some others have only a light sexual dusting.  The poem Sustenance may also be triggering to people with a history of abuse or eating disorders, so here's a warning ahead of time.



I can feel it grow, like wire
through the edges of my face,
and every day it makes me older
with conspicuous lack of grace.

I scramble to evade its trap:
my youthful smile it would eclipse
and make me nigh un-kissable,
with itchy chin and whiskered lips.

The answer is apparent, though
it pains my heart to make the pledge -
the victory takes violence,
a slashing from the razor's edge.

There was a time, I'm almost sure,
when I was much too young to grow
a beard like this, so stiff and scratchy:
oh, age is such a cutting blow!

Garlic Lover

Once I ate a bulb of garlic,
roasted whole
with oil and salt for flavor,
sesame and pepper,
warm and savory, a surge of umami
wrapped in paper -
but I guess I should have known
(or should have guessed)
that it was all a dangerous mistake.

From Her Lips

Even when I was a selfish boy,
I would have gladly given my power of speech
to learn the kisses in her mother tongue,
receive instructions in her native grammar,
and a lesson in the arts of Lithuania.

La Papa

A decision is forthcoming:
white smoke rises from the chapel,
and the world nods as one, they know,
 at last, I have elected,
I have been selected
and I have accepted.

Now the flock can breathe my smoke
with open nostrils
and thank religion for the privilege;
now the saints in heaven will admire
my cowboy hat.

But someone has to find my hat,
I do not pay
myself enough for this,
I am become a very busy man.

My regnal name is loaded
with the riches of the ages,
but still
I do not pay
myself enough for this -
I could have made a living
blowing smoke
in any old place,
you know.

I could have been
a real fine potato.

Never Send a Poet

The only real irony in life
regarding the state we know as "bliss"
is that the poet, should
they be so lucky,
could describe it.
Blessed by holy flesh,
the heat of dandelion wine,
the blinding music on a whisper's lips,
their thought becomes as fallow ground,
their hand as nothing new
to write regarding


Darling is a coil of rope
around my throat,
as tender as a ribbon
and slender
like the veins she gently teases.

Darling burns,
so slowly;
melts in a pool of magma.

Darling kills me deathly every night,
as painful is the genesis of life.


My pet,
the fire is restrained
and I
shall see it through its life,
you bet.
It feeds beneath my roof
on carbon,
never satisfied,
my pet;
and should it gnaw the ceiling,
would drown the embers, soak
them wet.
If you should make the same
would anybody blame me,

A Ruined Mess

Sweet, merciful
hand of shame -
handling me with
ire and blame,
a curse upon
my wretched name!
But life continues
all the same -
considering what
my friends became,
these kinks of mine
are (mostly) tame.

The Natural Aristocracy

Time was,
all a boy had to
to impress his buddies
was own the newest toys
before their parents
could afford the same -

which is to say,
the boy in question
really didn't have to
anything, but ask.


You shouldn't come to me in dreams,
it isn't faithful -
even if you play it coy,
and restrict yourself to cruel teases,
I doubt your lover would approve.
Breaking homes
is not my business,
even if the taste is tempting,
so I'll be waking up now
to wash the kisses out of my mouth.


The Chef is famished; she refrains
from tasting any of the courses
she prepares with her own thin hands.

She loves this hungry man, and always
keeps him happy, warm and fat;
she wishes he would starve to death.

Another someone feeds the Chef
in secret, so is it any wonder
when the kitchen is gutted by flames?

Seventeen in Reno

But is he really English after all?
Every time he opens his mouth, I'm getting
less and less convinced that this is so.
And everyone else in this crowd is over fifty,
drinking in the name of the summer of love
from cocktails served by breasty, long-legged girls,
smiling bright with braces on their teeth
and bits of glitter dusted around their nipples.
The banner called it "Rock and Roll", and my father
nodded, adding sagely, "this is history -
this English guy was a really great rocker
when I was younger than you -" and my eyes are fixed
on her pink nipples, but my ears are listening,
and if he says he's English, I won't argue.

Crooked Scales

Market money, weighed in heavy
gold and silver, laid in piles,
overwhelms the weight of justice
to the joy of Crooked Scales.

Crooked Scales and his Justice
keep the pieces in position:
debtors on the brink of ruin,
patients with expensive treatments,

native people out of sight, and
Mexicans and blacks in prison.
Crooked Scales has the people
paying for their subjugation,

subsidizing the protection
of the friends of Crooked Scales,
who will never come to justice
while the band continues playing,

'til the chairs  have been diminished
and the only person seated
is the soul of greed incarnate,
the contorted Crooked Scales.

The Weeping Mountain

Misty skirts about her ankles,
hand in woolen glove;
she is the kind of mountain girl
a valley boy could love.

With hair as gay as autumn leaves
and eyes as bright as snow,
her beauty is a legend with
the valley folk below.

Her tears of laughter, in the morning
when the clouds are grey,
awake the flowers from her doorstep
to the valley, far away -

her tears of everlasting sorrow
when the night is dim,
flood the river, where the valley
people buried him.

In bygone days she sang a tune
that echoed from her roots,
and so inspired a lover from
the valley's doomed pursuit.

A giantess, she truly was:
her arms embraced the sky!
And when she held him to her breast,
the valley boy could fly;

across the great expanses of
the mountain maiden's heart,
above the wide terrain, of which
the valley formed a part.

The mountain maid could see the earth
in all its awful size,
reflected by the starlight in
her valley lover's eyes;

she loved him from the moment when
he climbed the highest fir,
as much or more intensely as
the valley boy loved her.

And through the living wilderness
he walked with her for days,
the giant girl enraptured by
her valley lover's praise.

He promised her a country wedding,
dances through the hills
and a honeymoon festooned in wreaths
 of valley daffodils -

"I'll only fetch the preacher, have
him meet us at the church;
you know the one, it's shaded by
the valley's silver birch."

So down he ran with lightning speed,
the grace of youthful years,
and the mountain maiden filled the valley
with her joyful tears.

But even tears of joy from her
could raise the waters high;
when last the boy had come that way,
the valley bridge was dry,

but now he found it rocked by foam
and creaking from the stress.
The valley river surged beneath him,
tossed him to his death.

The bells announced his funeral
and killed the maiden's dreams;
she cried with loss and misery,
and filled the valley's streams.

Today the weeping mountain's river
floods in darkest night,
but only when the girl recalls
her valley lover's flight.


Beard and Garlic Lover are prime examples of the sort of poem that I consider funny, which may not say much for my sense of humor, but as long as I'm having fun, right?  Both are very true to life, and believe me: eating a whole garlic bulb is a terrible idea.  Don't do it.  You will regret it for days.

From Her Lips is a poem about my first girlfriend, who was born in Lithuania and about whom I was crazy.  It's not exactly an original concept to equate a foreign language with some kind of exotic romance, but it suited my mood at the time.  There's something I like about the idea of five lines of iambic pentameter, I don't know why that form doesn't have a name.  Five by five, right?

Then there's La Papa, which is free verse and not quite stream of consciousness, but pretty bizarre regardless.  The title is of course a contrived multilingual pun: "el Papa" means "Pope" in Spanish, while "la papa" means "potato".  This poem is, therefore, about a Pope who may or may not also be a potato.  With a cowboy hat.  And a propensity to committing various frauds?  It's a curious situation.  I had a lot of fun working out the line breaks on this one; it came pretty easily, but I spent more time than I might have getting it right.

Sometimes poetry is a vain attempt to express the inexpressible, and my vain attempt to express that is titled Never Send a Poet.  "The blinding music on a whisper's lips" is kind of a cool line, but this poem is still too coherent to really represent the gulf between what we want to say and what we end up muttering softly.

After that are three poems about some darker aspects of sexuality.  Darling was an attempt to write something that had a real dangerous bite.  The first stanza is probably the most successful in that regard, with its reference to breath play, but each one references a kind of sexual fetish.  I would stress here that writing about something doesn't necessarily mean it's part of my own life, but other than that I have no comment on what sort of thing I'm into.  Cruelty sort of "discovered itself" halfway through the writing; I had the idea of using "my pet" as a refrain, and sort of arrived at a theme as I kept working with it.  Naturally, that poem is about some kind of manipulative monster.  Finally, A Ruined Mess is about kinks, and kinkshaming, and feeling ashamed of one's own kinks.  The best that can be said for a good, honest kink, I think, is that it's perfectly fine in private.  Writing dimeters is kink of tricky, especially when they rhyme, but it's a neat exercise.

The best thing about The Natural Aristocracy is the conspicuous emphasis placed on the word "do".  Other than that, it feels a little stilted to me, and I'm not sure what purpose it serves.  It's got a message about... social class?  immaturity?  both?  Something like that.

Jeans is another sexy-guilty poem, about dreaming an erotic encounter with someone who is otherwise attached.  Have I done this?  Why of course I have.  I assume everyone has.  Right?  Of course, a dreamer isn't usually so fastidious in resisting temptation as the protagonist of this poem.  Why the title?  In the most recent dream I'd had of this type, the girl was really rocking some jeans.  It seemed like a sexy title.

Sustenance is a pretty easy metaphor for domestic abuse.  It grew out of a conversation I'd had with a friend a few years back about emotional feeding, a concept I've been thinking about ever since.  There's also a reference to eating disorders and other issues of body image.  The last stanza isn't quite as strong, but I wanted it to end with some measure of justice.

Seventeen in Reno is a true story, hand to god.  My dad took me to see Dave Mason in concert at a hotel in Reno when I was seventeen, and there were absolutely half-naked waitresses there.  I don't really remember if there was glitter where I said there was, but it's my memory and I can embellish it as I please.  As to Mr. Mason's ethnicity, I am satisfied that he really is English, but we bought a live album after the show that's been on my hard drive ever since, and I have to say his accent doesn't really show it.  This is another of my occasional unrhymed sonnets, pseudo-epic forms suited for pseudo-epic events. 

If any poem here has a message, it's Crooked Scales, a hideous screech at capitalism and the corruption of the justice system.  I consider its lack of rhyming a weakness, but the attempt at rhyme felt like it was only getting in the way.  I derived the name of the central character (sort of an embodiment of the capitalist order) from a certain Supreme Court Justice, whom it would be very unfair to single out by name.  The whole system is guilty.

Last is The Weeping Mountain, part of my ongoing fascination with long-ish narrative ballads.  It's the third I've written in the last few months, after all.  It's a sad little story about a (fake) local legend concerning an unlucky boy and his lover, who may actually be a mountain.  How does a boy love a mountain?  With all his heart of course, but it's also possible that she's simply an enormous girl.  I only put the last six stanzas in satisfactory form today; I was having a lot of trouble getting them right on paper. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

How Little Pyroraptor Saved the Season

An ancient night in long ago December
loomed across the forest like a fog,
and dinosaurs of every size and color
shivered under frozen leaf and log.

The winter sapped the animals of strength,
and each despaired of ever being warm;
but hope was struck by lightning in the distance
from a Late Cretaceous thunderstorm.

A flame was spotted in the eastern mountains,
pulsing with a lively orange glow,
yet none would dare approach the peaks, except
the fire thief, her feathers white as snow.

She told the prehistoric animals
that huddled in the icy forest trees,
“Prepare a pit to hold the distant fire;
I’ll bring it back to heat our homes with ease!”

As Pyroraptor journeyed through the woods
she left her footprints in the snow beneath,
and clutched a sturdy branch of verdant holly
tightly with her fierce, determined teeth.

She deftly climbed the distant mountain slopes
with claws for gripping, movements sure and quick,
while leaping up between the snow-capped rocks
in search of fire to light the holly stick.

The promised flames were near extinguished from
the mountain’s only westward facing slope,
but embers from a patch of withered branches
offered Pyroraptor’s greatest hope.

“Alas,” the little fire thief declared,
“I’ve climbed too far and traveled much too high:
although my legs may speed me to my friends,
the branch will be consumed if I should try.”

She set the verdant holly branch aside
and looked around the mountain in dismay,
when lucky chance revealed a hollowed trunk
which, with a push, might make a decent sleigh.

Of course our Pyroraptor knew the risk,
but just as well she had compelling reason;
and so determined that she had no choice,
except to do her best to save the season.

So Pyroraptor took her holly branch
to stick it swiftly in the glowing coals,
and when the branch was fully lit, she leaped
into the crude toboggan’s dugout holes.

Down and down the trunk was sliding soon,
with Pyroraptor riding in the front,
the flaming brand of holly held aloft
in triumph for this daring downhill stunt.

And in the woods, the fire pit was dug
by Iguanodons and other dinosaurs,
while tinder, sticks, and grass were fetched for fuel
by smaller mammals, birds, and pterosaurs.

The storm grew worse, and many animals
fell into deep depression and despair -
but gazing out toward the eastern mountains,
a watchful Martinavis took the air.

Afar he spied a speeding orange glow,
and burst into a loud and hopeful song:
“the fire thief is coming down the mountain,
the fire thief will shortly be along!”

And shortly, Pyroraptor’s makeshift sleigh
was sliding fast toward its destination,
weaving nimbly ‘tween the pines and firs
to bring the forest creatures their salvation.

The log slowed down, and Pyroraptor sprang
to bring on foot her precious holly torch,
and reached the forest clearing none too soon -
the feathers on her snout were being scorched!

“Hurry Pyroraptor!” cried the bird
that saw the sleigh approaching from the hills,
“the pit is dug, the pile of wood is ready,
so throw the torch and save us from these chills!”

The holly branch was up in roaring flame,
and Pyroraptor gave a mighty throw -
the logs and tinder soon were burning, while
the hero cooled her feathers in the snow.

Though all about the northern winds were fiercely
blowing ice and snow across the land,
the flame from Pyroraptor’s log of holly
warmed the forest creatures as she’d planned.

The Hadrosaurs made merry trumpet calls
while squads of Spinolestes jumped and danced,
And every creature hailed the fire thief
with jolly wreaths of green coniferous plants.

They wassailed through the dark and ancient night
for Pyroraptor and her glorious deed,
and woke a sleeping hive of Melittosphex,
begging honey for a brew of mead.

So Pyroraptor and her forest neighbors
passed the winter happy, safe, and warm;
the days grew long, another year began,
a spring devoid of prehistoric storms.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

WFJ Book Club #13: The Hobbit

The Lord of the Rings is, at least in my estimation, one of the most incredible novels of the last century.  It is a forcefully imaginative and undeniably influential instance of an author cutting against the grain to build a place in the popular culture for his own, somewhat unconventional, tastes.  And I could go on like that for a while, really, because I am a huge Tolkien nerd and I've internalized a lot of this kind of praise for the old man's most popular book(s). 

What I really want to talk about today, though, is The HobbitThe Hobbit is of course an enduringly popular novel and is often associated (to the point of complete identification) with The Lord of the Rings.  As a prequel (though to be more accurate, Rings is a sequel), it contributes to the epic events that follow, and the stories are both similar in their focus on the activities of Hobbits and on the Baggins family in particular.

The similarities between the two stories was such that Peter Jackson, following up his acclaimed work on a trilogy of Rings movies, felt justified in taking the same approach and creating a new Hobbit trilogy.  I of course watched and reviewed each of the three new movies when they came out, and while I appreciated the filmmaker's obvious love for the source material, with each passing year I became less confident that we fans were getting a Hobbit adaptation that was anywhere near as definitive as Jackson's The Lord of the Rings.

Flash forward to this holiday season, and I found myself actually rereading The Hobbit for the first time in years.  It was every bit as wonderful as I remembered, and I found myself effortlessly transported to the Middle Earth of my childhood, before its geography became synonymous with New Zealand.  But when I put it down again, my thoughts turned endlessly to darker themes.  Peter Jackson and I, thought I, needed to have a conversation.

The sad truth is that, barring a few real improvements (like the addition of Tauriel, and some of the background material on the One Ring), the movies did not do the original justice.  It's not a matter of which scenes were included and which scenes were not; it was a matter of missing the point.  This is supposed to be a book review and I've spent way too much time talking about movies, but I think it needs to be said that someone, in the future, is going to make a brilliant ninety minute Hobbit adaptation.  That is the work we fans deserve.

The truth is that as similar as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are, they have a very particular and symbiotic relationship for the reader.  To read them in their original order is to see Tolkien pull back the curtain on a world that, for him, already existed even before The Hobbit was composed (though he was himself still in the process of discovering it).  To go back and read The Hobbit after its sequel, then, is to be astonished at how effortlessly a tale so small, for lack of a better word, fits into a world so vast in potential.

The Hobbit stands apart for a tone of voice that is more friendly and personable than any of Tolkien's other Middle Earth writings.  It is less self-consciously literary, having been first conceived as a bedtime story for Tolkien's children, with no wider audience in mind.  The adventure of Bilbo Baggins never strains for mythic significance, as the hero takes a fairly straightforward path through increasingly greater dangers until finally reconciling his bold nature with his meek, domesticated habits.  But the story achieves significance anyway, because Tolkien (quite audaciously) had Bilbo breathing the same air as the heroes of the great myths he had already been writing for years.  Practically no one who read The Hobbit in 1937 had any idea about The Silmarillion, but that dense work echoes throughout The Hobbit without overwhelming what is still essentially a story for children. 

That continuous presence animates The Hobbit and gives Tolkien the opportunity to take his world's history as given, confident that readers would accept the introductions of elvish swords from Gondolin, without asking too many questions about just what or where "Gondolin" was.  Elements like the Necromancer or the Arkenstone hold obvious significance, but even though the initial audience knew nothing about the agents of Morgoth or of the Silmarils, the author was already practiced in exploring their associated themes.  The reader might know nothing of Middle Earth's history, but it is obvious to anyone that the narrator knows what he's talking about, and isn't merely making up silly names as he goes along.

So what is the magic of The Hobbit?  It is depth in the service of simplicity.  The function of that depth is to take a simple story about fantastic events and make them seem so weighted with history as to be nearly tangible.  It's fiction, but it isn't trifling; light, yet substantial.

Tolkien's Middle Earth was created as a way for for the author to express his fascination with the "authentic" myths that were his academic specialty, in a way that satisfied his own creative impulses.  For that reason The Hobbit also rings true for its reminiscence of the stories of Norse mythology, with Dwarves and Elves and the distinctly Odinic wanderer Gandalf.  Indeed, Tolkien's imaginative appropriation of these types had the effect of casting a distinctly "Nordic" quality over subsequent "high" fantasy fiction, a historically unfortunate result but one that works to great effect in giving The Hobbit the illusion of authenticity.

Another problematic element of the story is Tolkien's rather obvious and often cringe-worthy characterization of his Dwarves with stereotypes of Jewish people.  Though I am not Jewish and can't speak fully to the anti-Semitic effect, I will venture to say that the Dwarves of The Hobbit are not villains, and neither are they as single-mindedly obsessed with wealth as a true bigot likely would have had them.  In a roundabout way it seems that Tolkien really admires Thorin and his companions, while still carelessly stereotyping them.  Cultural misunderstanding is a recurring theme in all of Tolkien's works, often reflecting his own feelings about the clash between ancient and "modern" values; whether he could appreciate the conflict between modern people in the same way is unclear.

That problem illustrates the limitations of attempting to build a whole world from one's own imagination.  Real worlds are impossibly huge, rendered in imperceptible deal and visible from infinite perspectives.  Even the most fully-realized work of fiction is only as real as it can be generated within human minds, and the smallness of our minds gives us flawed worlds.  I think that is part of what makes The Hobbit so endearing in its original form: its satisfaction with being small, even as it sets out into the great wide open.  The "battle of the five armies" is a spectacular moment, but I think what most people remember best in the end are the small scale delights of the Shire and Bag End.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Poetries #4

I don't know quite how, but I have essentially exhausted that overly-comfortable buffer that once existed between the writing of my poems and their publication (if that is the right word) on this blog.  That's a little bit frightening, if only because I wonder what level of productivity is most fitting to this activity, and whether my work might benefit from more waiting and editing.  I am always putting too much pressure on myself.

Anyway, here's fifteen more of those things I do.  They are not, all things considered, bad.  Ironically, the title and tone of the first poem in this group asserts the opposite.  Maybe someday I can write in a self-aware style without being so relentlessly negative, hmm?  That's a challenge for next time, I suppose.

The time span of these poems is from October to December, 2015.  As usual, boring and unnecessary commentary can be found at the end.

Edit: An earlier version of this post included the poem Into the Hidden Garden, a poem which previously appeared in an earlier Poetries post.   The person responsible for this error has been flogged.


This is Not a Good Poem

I don't think you'll like this one,
it hasn't got the adjectives
you love so much,
or crushing turns of life 
and blood,
of bone and breath.

No one smokes a cigarette
or puts the ember out with their skin,
and no one dies
of cholera, consumption,
or purple death.

I haven't read the classic books
in Latin or in Ancient Greek;
I haven't read
any Burroughs, none
of Bukowski,
not even Pulp.

This is not a good poem - 
a poet always knows a failure,
and I have never 
known the rules: when 
to rhyme,
or when to stop.

Tender Loving Care

You thought of everything,
considered every angle,
approached the job with care - 
and happy birthday to me.

I opened my eyes to find
you'd given an ideal gift - 
something of the moment,
something of eternity.

Correct in every detail,
gentle as a mother tigress,
I could not deny
you have the taste for this.

And here's the stroke of brilliance - 
you know that to enjoy this grace
I have to be serene,
surrender to your loving care,

to trust your love,
to trust your instincts,
trust your teeth
with all their kind intentions.

Happy birthday to me,
I feel you humming, sweetly,
and again I close my eyes
in praise of this ideal gift.


Everyone is smaller
at the edge of things;

the divers and their never-
ending quest for treasures
from the mouths of clams;

the statues, weathered by
the whistling winds of age;

the fishermen, diminished
in the spray of winter
by the swell of whales;

the sailors learning how
to swim (the hard way);

the victims and survivors
of the seaside village
clinging to their boats;

the tiny people, gazing 
in the tight abyss

with buckets at the ready
and screaming for their lives.


The boy,
he ran around October
through the pumpkins,
making paper of
the leaves.

He caught
the girl between the forest
of October
and the frozen pond
at dusk.

They laughed,
exhilarated by the
chase, and spinning
in October's chill 

The girl
delighted in the blushing
of his cheeks, she
slipped her fingers in
his sleeves.

Her back
across October's papers,
red and orange,
making love, they hailed
the dark.

It took
another seven weeks, but
in the end, he
had to let October

Twenty First Century Man

They say that nineties kids can never forget,
but these are not the nineties anymore,
and I am just a twenty first century man,

and I was born in nineteen eighty seven,
but I really can't remember those days:
I wonder if the other children can.

To Boldly Go

Let me help,
she said;
it was the most beautiful
sound I'd ever heard,
like salt breezes
through a temple's pipes,
the sea-blown music
of relief.

Please help me,
I said;
it was the best that I could do
as far as harmony,
the one and only
fair submission,
humble counterpoint
from the stars.

If Her Love Was True

A silver sterling blade,
as precious as the flesh it cuts,
as warm as every drop of love it looses - 

it cuts in many ways, from front to
back and forth, to death
and through illusions dear to peaceful dreaming.

A slice, revealing plain that love is of the flesh,
and if her love was truly love
then love can die.

Clothes and Bones

I am secured against the underground
by concrete walls and a cloak of poly-plush,
yet through the night the frozen stones surround
me, and I know the Earth intends to crush
my chest, enclose me in their icy hush - 

Recalling lovers perilous and sweet,
ascending from this cellar makes me blush;
I fear my clothes are ages obsolete,
but up or down, my boots must grow to fit my feet.

Hasty Exit to a Scene

I never knew the art of rainy days,
the composition of the melting streets
and clouds of storm and wonder in your hair,
the rendezvous that never quite repeats
when the tears have dried, and the brush is cleansed with paint;

I never knew my way around the beats
we used to dance to, never knew the steps
between the raindrops, where the autumn meets
the magic, and I haven't learned them yet;

I never thought I'd make such quick retreats,
betray myself with such a slow embrace
and linger in the worst of those defeats.

The Fantastical Human Kite

If the Santa Ana winds would blow
me off my feet like a springtime kite,
to fall into the ocean,
would I drown?
I know
the wind is strong,
and I have arms like paper - 
fair enough to fly, perhaps,
but much too thin to bring me back to shore.

The Night Slicer

Every dream, a different scandal
is my shame.
A bullet, or a butcher knife,
in any case there's always blood
and it is not my own:
I am the blade that whistles.

I am very fortunate, indeed:
the only person who can blackmail me
is me.

A nightmare sits
on its victim's chest
like a greedy old ghoul,
but I'm the sitter
and I haunt the ghosts of my guilt.

The Local Crowd

Iridescent little weirdos,
buzzing through the fence poles
for their taste of plastic flowers;
they have given no account

of themselves or their intentions,
fair or foul.  Taken for granted,
taken for the local crowd,
speaking at fifty beats per second

in a low, distant murmur,
the taste of nectar on their tongues
and hunger boiling in their bellies,
they never stop, they never stop.

A Fever Dream

I am your sinister conspiracy,
the hidden source of every secret move,
the prize you stake your reputation on
because it makes your lips explode with taste;
sufficient cause to sneak behind their backs
for covert trysts in shaded corners, breathing
promises exchanged for wine and silk, 
intoxicants of tongue and tempted skin.
A life in shame is an exquisite risk
to hazard for a kiss, the danger of
exposure for the blissful thrill of sex;
but would it truly be a sin, to spill
your secrets out in a whispered conversation,
the pretense of your innocence betrayed?

A New Generation of Suckers

Today's American Fascist
needn't even bother
with red, white, or blue.
He smiles, confident
we've memorized the script,
and offers something true:

honesty with his
intentions, his contempt
for justice, for law, and for you - 
while happily, you and all
his fascist fans provide
the red, white, and blue. 

To Wind the Clock

A click,
but how many twists does it take 
to tick,
how many turns of the wrist
to tock?
A spring in the shape of a disc,
to tick
the seconds to task,
to tock, to tick:
to tighten,
to tock, to tick, to tock,
at last,
to tick, to tock, to tick, to tock...


In the event that This is Not a Good Poem is monumentally misguided, puerile, or embarrassing, my only defense is that I warned you in the title.  I was feeling a little frustrated when I wrote it; now I sort of regret that it leads off this group, but oh the things I do for chronological accuracy...

Just skip Tender Loving Care.  It's a fine poem, but if you pay any attention to it you'll know it to be scandalous and naughty.  If you don't skip it, you may also note the metrical oddity in stanza number five.  I have no crazy explanation for that, only that I liked it worded exactly as it was.

I am pretty sure Smaller was just idle practice at first, not particularly inspired.  I was on the fence about including it today, but I made a serious revision just now and decided I liked it well enough.  There's not much to it beyond the imagery, though.

October is another poem about a love affair, but a totally licit one, unlike A Fever Dream.  It's just young folks playing around in the woods, is all, having a good time.  I regret not fitting the word "October" into that one stanza, but it's not the end of the world I suppose.

Twenty First Century Man is about being old.  Just so damn old.  Twenty eight, man.  Whew.  Anyway, there's a little saying on the internet that "only nineties kids remember the nineties", which is nonsensical and inane and that special way that only happens when a generation attempts to describe itself.  I was never sure if, having been born in the eighties yet spending most of my childhood in the nineties, I actually qualified as a "nineties kid".  All I know is that I only remember those years in patches.  

To Boldly Go is, surprise surprise, about Star Trek, kind of.  The first line ("let me help") is a quote from Captain Kirk in the episode The City on the Edge of Forever.  He describes those words as the three most beautiful words in the universe, an idea I thought fitting for a poem.  The twist comes in the form of the other line, "please help me", which I read in an interview somewhere as an apparent mis-remembering of the line by someone praising the character of Kirk for his vulnerability.  The correct line is more about generosity of spirit than vulnerability per se, and yet I thought about how both reflected aspects of Kirk, and together made for an admirable worldview.  And also I am an enormous nerd.

If Her Love Was True is depressing and melodramatic, but also I think a sober reflection on the nature of love.  It is a cliche to say that true love is "eternal", and I think that perhaps it can be in a fashion.  But it is also true that you can truly love someone in one time, and later come not to love them anymore.  Thus the painful realization that things could have been just as good as you hoped they were, and it still wasn't enough for that storybook ending to take place.  

Naturally I wrote that poem with my ex-girlfriend in mind, and it happened that shortly thereafter I met her for lunch, our first face-to-face since the end of our relationship.  It was a friendly, warm encounter, but of course it stirred up a great many feelings once again.  The poetic result was Hasty Exit to a Scene, a nostalgic little thing I wrote to help settle myself down again.

Clothes and Bones seems dramatic, but its origin is really quite prosaic.  I was staying in a friend's basement in Portland for a week, and I had no warm clothes, and only a single warm blanket to huddle in.  Likewise, I was thinking about how I needed some new exercise shoes, and wondering how long my pair of boots would hold out, when the final line popped into my head.  As it took the form of what we poet types call an "Alexandrine", I thought it would be fun and clever to make what we call a Spenserian Stanza out of it.  Not a form I think I've ever used before, but nice to try out.

I wrote The Fantastical Human Kite during my recent two weeks in San Diego, where the Santa Ana winds blow air across the land with a truly remarkable dearth of moisture.  It was so dry, in fact, that I actually suffered a small nosebleed some time later, and since I am actually from San Diego and was formerly used to the weather, I was quite surprised.  But before all that, the dryness wasn't really on my mind: I was more thinking about drowning, as I was in a depressed mood.  

The Night Slicer is a disturbing poem, at least to me.  It reflects my recent pattern of dreaming about performing horrific acts, and then either accepting or evading responsibility for them before I wake up.  I don't know if this is a side effect of my depression or the drugs I'm taking for it, but suffice to say it's not fun to wake up and remember doing things you would never do.

The Local Crowd was written on Thanksgiving day (the U.S. one, naturally), and is about the hummingbirds that frequent my aunt and uncle's backyard, attracted by the truly exceptional number of feeders there.  It takes a few weird turns, but I mainly find it cute.

I wrote A Fever Dream to indulge some fantasies about covert seduction.  It's an unrhymed sonnet, which I'm not totally sure is a thing, but I made one so I guess it must be.  Note the emphasis on sibilants. 

A New Generation of Suckers is about Donald Trump, who is a fascist and would definitely be in jail if people got what they deserved in this life.  It is a saying, somewhat cliche, that fascism comes to America wrapped in patriotism and the American flag.  Trump certainly wraps himself up tight, but I was more annoyed at the time with the wrappings of his fans and acolytes; few they may be, but no matter what colors they wear they are still Brownshirts.  The "politician" bears the ultimate responsibility, of course, but I am still utterly contemptuous of any who choose to follow him.

On a lighter note, To Wind the Clock is a sound-based poem done in the spirit, if not necessarily the style, of the great Shel Silverstein.  I wrote it on the plane ride back to Oregon, and I was aiming for the sort of thing that would be fun to read aloud with a child, much like the poems in Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Writing Goals: Fairy Tales

I love when a project turns out like it's supposed to, and I think The Lay of the Princess and the Lady Beneath developed nicely into the sort of story I wanted it to be, as well as being a fairly decent poem.  Certainly not the kind of classic they'll be studying in courses on epic poetry for years to come, but a fun little diversion for a reader to encounter by chance. 

At three hundred and forty lines, it isn't quite epic length anyway.  But it is the longest poem I've ever written, and would take some time to recite by a campfire.  Or anywhere, really.  I felt like it was something important to try, especially when it's easy enough to write three short lines and call it a poem.  Some of my best poems are short, of course, but so are some of my laziest (and I won't presume to criticize anyone else's).

So I let the poem grow, far beyond my initial estimate of just over a hundred lines, in order to accommodate the things that I thought needed to be included for the story to breathe.  I took my time (something I don't really need practice at, I'm sure) and the course of the plot was changed substantially along the way.  Originally it was to end more bleakly, as hinted at in the fourth stanza, with the elves destroyed and the princess being doomed to remain imprisoned, undiscovered by her would-be.  But my attempts at making the story more interesting, and my consideration of the characters' motives, inevitably led me away from a sad ending.  Call me a softy, I just didn't want to do that to any of them.

One decision I made early on was to emphasize the actions of women in the story, and try to shift them outside of stereotypical feminine roles in the fantasy/fairy tale genre.  To be sure, of the five principal characters there are two queens, a princess, and a witch, but the fifth is a warrior and described simply as such.  All of them are women, and I don't believe I had cause to use the word "he" even once in the entire thing.

So the main characters are all women, something I didn't necessarily mean to do from the start.  I had considered making at least one of the elf "bad guys" male (either an Elf King or Elf Wizard), but I ultimately chose not to.  I figured that since an all-male cast would be plausible given the genre conventions, an all-female cast would be just as much so.  That's not so say that there are no men in the story's world.  Certainly about half of the humans in the castle scene and about half of the elves in Elventown are men and boys.  Maybe the unnamed elf guards assigned to keep the princess from escaping are men.  Maybe not.  I honestly don't know.

In fact, I might have given my fellow men a little token representation by explicitly identifying the masculinity of a minor character.  But by the time I was mostly done with the story, I had decided that I did not want to explore the question of a man's place in this ad hoc fantasy society.  The royal inheritence is implied to be matriarchal, with ruling queens as the default, but that's as deep into that political question as I wanted to go.  I suppose that a prince might become a sovereign king if a queen had no daughters, sort of the reverse of many real world systems, but maybe not; it doesn't matter because there is no prince in the story.  The ambiguity was intentional: the most important thing is the plot and the fact that every significant role in the plot is occupied by a woman or girl.

Also intentional, and I admit this is a bit of a copout, is just what kind of women are at the center of the story.  I don't really like physically describing characters beyond what is necessary, partly because I don't feel confident in doing so without being awkward.  However, I did want it to be clear that the people of this world were not as white as certain backwards fantasy aficionados imagine the people of their favorite worlds to be.  In thinking of how the witch should present the gift to the princess, I thought she might try to flatter her with a reference to the color of her skin.  Thus the reference to rosewood, which comes in a few different shades, none of which are particularly pale. 

As author, I abdicated the coloring job for each character to the mind of the reader's imagination.  I only hope they all take the hint that the princess is unlikely to be the only brown person in the whole nation.  It is a purely fantastical country that doesn't correspond to any real place, but like most real places you can be sure there is some diversity in its ethnic makeup.

So the truth is, I didn't really flesh out the world as much as I would have tried to if I were writing a prose tale.  There isn't much of a backstory beyond the princess's lonely childhood and the simmering rivalry between the overground and underground kingdoms.  There are hints of an Elvish language, but no words are depicted.  Some indication of the mechanics of spells is described, but it's not terribly specific.  The climate and geography of the country are almost entirely undescribed.  I never even bothered to give the soldier a rank.  As a die hard fan of the Tolkien approach to world-building, I have to say I'm a little disappointed in myself on that count.  This was really only an experiment, I know, but it could have been so much more.

But after all, I had my priorities: an interesting and authentic-seeming fairy tale with a female-centric cast, rhymed as diligently as I was able.  It struck me about halfway through that the recurrent rhyming words "queen" and "fifteen" could easily become obnoxious, and in addition to varying them with substitutes throughout I intentionally dropped them completely during the battle scene, when the princess is momentarily out of the spotlight.  As I resorted to rhyming dictionaries and twisted for new words, I often felt like I was repeating myself to the point of tedium.  But once I read the whole thing straight through, I realized that, at the very least, it wasn't as bad as I thought.

So mechanically, at least, the poetry is sound.  Whether it is at all authentic-seeming, to say nothing of interesting, really isn't for me to say.  I think I did an alright job, and I hope any readers agree.  The story leans on a few genre tropes, and I think it subverts a few others, and somewhere in that mix might be something resembling originality.  In any case it was fun to write, and I hope I come around to revisiting this experiment some time.