Shaun Belcher Poems 2002-22

Category: creative writing M.A. (Page 2 of 5)

Daily Short: Margaret Atwood – ‘Wilderness Tips’ (S/T)

 

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My first Atwood short story. Fairly long approximately 6000 words long. This length allows a fair amount of third person P.O.V. switching as the ‘hidden’ narrator which feels a lot like Ms Atwood such is the strength of her voice to ‘inhabit’ each of the different actors on the stage. The stage in this instance being a particularly creepy ‘new money’ lodge built in the Canadian wilderness which is more David Lynch than Twin Peaks and makes one wonder if Atwood influenced the young Lynch at all.

The story even ends with a ‘almost’ drowning scene that could have come straight from a Lynch movie although Atwood is sufficiently skilled to leave the ending open-ended.

In between we are first introduced to post-war emigrant, gangster and falsely named ‘George’ who only reveals his Hungarian roots with an accurate Hungarian curse mid story. It soon apparent that all the ‘actors’ Atwood assembles are in some way symbolic and deliberately set against the ‘wilderness’ for a reason.

The three sisters (muses…goddesses etc) represent the three states of womanhood….aggressive,  academic and victim. Atwood’s seminal study of Canadian Literature ‘Survival’ focused on the victim theme in literature and also delineated a lot of the minor themes brushed up against in passing through this story. Atwood is no slouch in minor detail opening up wide vistas as in her description of the grandfather’s bookcase and the book which gives the story its title. (There is however no actual book called ‘Wilderness Tips’ apart from the author’s own which a neat trick to defeat all but the most diligent Googler).

The characters are not filled in too much but reflect the psychologies attached to them the least satisfying being the depiction of the office-bound ‘weak’ man of brother Roland. I never quite lost the feeling that Atwood was sermonising here and never sufficiently suspended my disbelief to get involved in the plot which boils down to bad man sleeps with all three sisters as he bound to by his nature.

Atwood isn’t above some sharp poking of the male psyche whenever able as the collection of essays ‘Curious Pursuits’ attests. Indeed the collection contains one essay actually titled ‘Writing the male character’ which makes Lionel Shriver look like a wallflower.

‘George’ is a sinister depiction of a lizard like consumer of both people and property. His inner thoughts do not quite ring true but Atwood is using a broad brush to make her point. George represents the ‘machine’ in the garden to paraphrase Leo Marx and like the serpent in this natural ‘Eden’ of the Canadian wilderness represents all that bad in the male destruction of nature.

‘Token Woman’ (her words) Atwood spits venomously in the essay about male character where she defends the depiction of ‘bad’ men rather than pandering to fake’new men’ well before the term coined. This fine if we sufficiently engaged to believe in the character but not when it a poison pen portrait or a stand in for a character as here. The most creative act he makes in the entire story is to have sex with the remaining not ticked off sister.

The female characters are interesting especially the ‘proto-feminist’ intellectual and therefore obviously least ‘sexual’ Pamela.  Is not Atwood  here demonstrating the kind of cliched viewpoints she so pointedly rails against? Set against her is the sexually voracious Prue and the demure,homely Portia……all obvious cyphers for states of mind. The rest of the stories in the collection famously depicted various literary figures who had helped or hindered Atwood and she settled old scores

Hints of this waspishness abound in Pamela’s sharp questioning of every word…’news or olds’, or in Prue’s ‘there is a need to be nasty’.  One can almost taste the scorn on the character’s tongue coming direct from the puppet master here.

Most interestingly one could read the entire tale as one woman’s various natures treading between the hunter gatherer and the home-builder. Maybe it is really an academic feminist essay on how does the female intellect prosper in the ‘wilderness’ of male dominated modern and literary life….outside of the steel and glass towers, the wars of blood and oil. In this respect Atwood seems to suggest with her ending that the women always compromise rather than fight and that is how it ends with the line..manifesto?

She would be invisible, of course. No one would hear her. And nothing has happened, really, that hasn’t happened before.

The women survive…which was the title of the literary study.. SURVIVAL in the real wilderness of words.

Daily Short: Raymond Carver – ‘Nobody said anything’ from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please.

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First published in 1973 as ‘The Summer Steelhead’ (Seneca review, Vol. 4, no. 1 (May, 1973) and later as ‘Nobody said anything’.

Smudging was widespread practice amongst Yakima fruit-farmers. Pollution stopped crops being frost-damaged. (Source: Carol Sklenicka: Raymond Carver – A writer’s Life 2009.)

In the original story the final lines are different referring to the half-fish:

“He looked silver under the porch light. He was whole again, and he filled the creel until I thought it would burst.. I lifted him out. I held him.”

In the version I have read from the collection Will You Please be Quiet, Please? (‘The stories of Raymond Carver’- Picador 1985) the story ends:

“I went back outside. I looked into the creel.What was there looked silver under the porch light. What was there filled the creel.
I lifted him out . I held him. I held that half of him.”

Despite Carver’s insistence that this not autobigraphy the details (all except the fruit-farming’) match his upbringing and he admits to several incidents that patched together form the story.

1973 was the year he took up ‘full-time’ drinking and also three years before the publication of the short story collection this comes from.

The change in title and ending may reflect the influence of Gordon Lish whom Carver had met by now.

The change of ending maybe reflects the bitter realism of his relationship with his father who had died in 1967. The ‘half of him’ may relate to the broken relationship and the pain of his childhood.

As he says in a memoir:

Then he died. I was a long way off, in Iowa City, with things still to say to him. I didn’t have the chance to tell him goodbye, or that I thought he was doing great at his new job. That I was proud of him for making a comeback.

       From My Father’s Life

the last line of Photograph of My Father also brings the two painfully together.

But the eyes give him away, and the hands that limply offer the string of dead perch and the bottle of beer. Father, I love you, yet how can I say thank you, I who can’t hold my liquor either, and don’t even know the places to fish?

To me the poems and short stories are two sides of the same coin. The poems have been criticised formally but they are more interested in ‘saying’ than the formal concerns of language.

To me this is essential Carver. Male narrative at its best. Undertones of ecological miss-handling serving as ‘burners’ under the male indiscretions, foolishness and blind stupidity.  Carver is all about how men fail and why they fail and why they cannot be saved from that failure.

He says in an interview that with this story he felt he had ‘tapped into something’ that something was the poetics of failure raised to a fine art.

Male egos as divided selves pulled apart by domestic bliss and terror as in his own life. Drink was the fuel for that burner and he doused himself in it for 4 years and almost succeeding in extinguishing his own flame just like his father. That he managed to stop the fires is a miracle.

I love Carver but I do not want to be him and write from that smoky place.

Edwin Smith – ‘Catching Light’ completed

edwin RIBA42397

Final draft of the commissioned poem has gone to Apples and Snakes and R.I.B.A.

6 stanzas of eight lines each stanza titled according to Edwin Smith’s cameras.

1. Kodak Box Brownie 1927

2. ICA Ideal 205 1935

3. Contax II 1936

4. Thornton Pickard Ruby 1904

5. Graflex Speed Graphic 1960

6. Ensign Autorange 1955

I do not know publication conditions so cannot post until know that or it put in public domain by RIBA. Above a blurry photo of first draft.

 

Now available online : EDWIN SMITH POEM FOR RIBA

Daily Short: John McGahern – ‘Swallows’

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I have been collecting John McGahern books for twenty odd years. Like William Trevor and Frank O’Connor he was part of the Irish Parthenon of writers that just sort of there…like kindly uncles. Because of my focus on poetry to the exclusion of all else I had neglected them.

I hadn’t read any of them for years so it was with a little trepidation I opened a recently purchased copy of McGahern’s final edition of his collected short stories re-titled ‘Creatures of the Earth’ from 2006 that he had re-edited before his passing that same year.

The story I chose was a classic McGahern tale of three rural characters interacting. A police sergeant,a housekeeper and a visiting surveyor. Denis Sampson’s study of McGahern ‘Outstaring Nature’s Eye’ has a detailed analysis of the story and picks up on a Yeats reference to his ‘Coole Park 1929’ and swallows which also more prosaically refers to the Sergeant’s imbibing of whiskey.

I immediately fell under this tale’s spell. Not least because of the depth of ‘suggestion’ dovetailed by a craftsman into the ‘simple’ story. The poetic way the story unfolds like a well made bed is deeply satisfying. Sampson picks out the overall theme of ‘timor mortis’ lurking behind all three characters actions. Only ‘Biddy’ the deaf housekeeper is involved with the day to day and knows that will get her ‘ safely to the toe’, an apt metaphor for impending death, as she knits socks oblivious of art and the frustrations and failures of life around her.

The mirror must not be cracked before the last breath.

Meanwhile the sergeant and the surveyor both grasp at the lure of art in folk melody and Pagannini’s example but fall back into the workmanlike clutching at straws and dragging Roach into a boat…the day to day that need not even be eaten and is thrown back.

The collision of simple folk’s aspirations and dreams with reality like the young man mown down on his way to a haircut by a negligent ‘rich person’ is simply the matter of fact reality. It is how things are. We are none of us Paginnini nor Christ though we strive to be.

Beautiful deep and rich writing that continues on re-reading to unveil itself.

A bit like coming home. This is how to write.

Listen to your uncles now for we are all just creatures of the earth….

Daily Short: John Burnside – ‘Graceland’ from Burning Elvis

elvis

‘His greatest fictional achievement so far; never before has he shown the horror and grace of consciousness better than in these gems’ (The Times – no author traceable).

When John Burnside started publishing fiction he was in the curious position of already being a well-respected ‘award-winning’ poet. So his dalliance with ‘fiction’ and memoir could be tolerated. In fact the dalliance was quite long term and he now has almost as many published books in fiction as poetry.

This collection from 2000 follows two novels,’The Dumb House’ and ‘The Mercy Boys’. Both garnered good reviews and this collection of short stories…more a collection of stories around a similar theme appeared to the above adulation.

I have only read the last story ‘Graceland’ as intrigued as to the Elvis fixation and the only review I found online quoted verbatim the last few lines suggesting the reviewer may possibly have skipped the stories in-between as well.

Burnside had just published the excellent poetry collection ‘The Asylum Dance’. There is nothing in this short story at that level for me. The dreamlike, strangely sinister, tale of a boy lost and vulnerable on an aborted attempt to find Graceland who is instead being led to a substitute (dream?) version where he tortured by a fake Elvis in an Elvis mask struck me as simply silly. More League of Gentleman than Poe.

Fake or unverifiable popular culture references to TV or film ooze from the paragraphs pores. I only found an obscure film that matched ‘Best years of our life’ starring Kathy Burke, and she didn’t look anything like the ‘Wendy’ here ,which left me a little bemused. Not having read the rest of the book it appears that it a linked selection that needs to be read together like Ford’s ‘Rock Springs’.

Overall  I felt like I was being driven around in a car tuned to David Lynch station ad infinitum but nothing more. Disappointing.

I checked out his memoir ‘Waking up in Toytown’ which far more clearly documents his life in the early 1980’s which catalogues his drug abuse and mental illness. This last story felt to me like a dispatch from the other side of that illness. Uncomfortable but not of itself satisfying like the poetry.

Not what I expected. The other books blurbs appear to offer no escape from this hinterland. Dark and bleak and full of strange furniture from the seventies but not somewhere I want to stay long…..a bit like Graceland.

Daily Short: Rick Bass – ‘Redfish’ from ‘The Watch’

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I purchased this volume when it came out back in 1989 or 1990. Probably as flagged up by Raymond Carver or the Granta anthologies of Dirty Realism. I remember being impressed at the time. Going back to the collection I started with ‘Mississippi’.

Like a Townes Van Zandt (both from Fort Worth Texas) folk tale this story of a rich oil prospector’s son and a working class kid hanging out fishing in the swamp and finally wrestling a snapping turtle out of the mud before returning it unharmed (an early sign of Bass’s environmental concerns) was as I recalled i.e. impressive. This continued through to last story in the collection ‘Redfish’ where the poetic description of a menacing seascape and the futile actions of the two dwarfed humans acting out their drunken attempt at fishing was againjust as powerful as I remembered. The white BMW digging itself deeper into the bay at Galveston is an apt metaphor for industrial ‘progress’ and doubly ironic in light of subsequent events offshore at the Deep Horizon Rig which about as poetic a name for a disaster as one could dream up.

Rick Bass’s ‘other’ Deep Horizon has subsequently extended to a deep environmentalism and a string of ward-winning books including a fair amount of well-respected environmental books investigating the impact of human degradation on different species such as wolves and bears.

The back cover mentions the collection as being like Richard Ford’s ‘Rock Springs’ and although three of the stories do contain the same characters  there is a deeper cohesion at work as pointed out in Curtis Smith’s article here: http://fictionwritersreview.com/essay/revisiting-the-watch/.

The cohesion is one of place revealed through man (and woman) testing themselves against both. That love of place and understanding human involvement has remained with Bass throughout and it a pleasure to return. I have one other Bass volume ‘Platte River’ his second book published in 1994. I have never read it since I purchased it in 1994, like some kind of time capsule, now I will.

For more on Bass visit this page.

http://www.narrativemagazine.com/authors/rick-bass

 

Daily Short: Arthur Machen – The Red Hand and Poundland

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The wonders of Poundland…..one of my favourite current book trawling locations where the cheap Wordsworth anthology above was available for yes a pound.

Today’s gem is a tale from 1895 by Arthur Machen who thanks to Wikipedia I now know has been an influence on a diverse range of writers including John Betjeman, Javier Marias, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore!

The tale ‘The Red Hand’ attracted me because of its title and because Arthur Machen featured in the current British Library exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’.

Heavily indebted to both Conan-Doyle and Stevenson the tale is a galloping, coincidence led ambulation around Bloomsbury with a wealth of London detail ( explaining Sinclair and Ackroyd’s link to Machen) indeed the plot denouement depends on the criminal’s habit of walking the same route. One can feel Machen’s own interests in a proto-psychogeography here.

Once I got used to the use of the unlikeliest plot-forwarding coincidences which almost comical at times as Machen dispenses with what does not interest him. A sequence of a drunken woman depositing the key ‘mystic tablet’ into the investigator’s hands in a pub is by far the most ridiculous. One can still enjoy the chase and the atmospheric conclusion where the ‘supernatural’ finally intervenes. The devilish artifact ‘Pain of Goat’ referred to is actually a line from a sacred text to the Great God Pan and links to other stories by Machen a devout Christian by the way.

So if a fan of Sherlock Holmes or Stevenson…and leaning toward the macabre and supernatural Machen is your man. Not sure if I will be a major fan but there enough beautiful extraneous detail to prompt further investigation. For neo-gothic and fantasy types it essential. A cheap introduction thank you Poundland I shall be back especially as they had virtually the whole Wordsworth Supernatural series.

Here Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian on the man: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/10/arthur-machen-white-people-review

There is also a good article in The Quietus here:

http://thequietus.com/articles/08758-leave-the-capitol-the-weird-tales-of-arthur-machen

 

On a final note Mark E. Smith of The Fall a huge fan and apparently peppers his lyrics with obscure Machen references so now you know:-)

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/life-lessons-mark-e-smith-on-bullying-the-occult-and-why-stalin-had-the-right-idea-6260036.html

Station to Station – Edwin Smith commission.

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The Edwin Smith commission is turning out to be a detective story….nothing is what it seems…this photo is not Kentish Town station as represented in his catalogue..it is Walthamstow Central and it still standing. Wonder how RIBA will take the news. Shame I spent two days researching Kentish Town station and linking it to George Orwell.
The clue was the angling shop in background..there hasn’t been a river above ground in Kentish Town for over a hundred years.

I now know that the photo probably taken late evening as the line goes due north-east-south-west and the light illuminating the posters…deliberately chosen I suspect by Smith for that reason. 

As for the poem….I think it might turn into a series 🙂

Keeping the Aspidistra Flying – Self Promotion

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Will Self paraded his verbal skills with a reading at NTU on Saturday which proved that there is some content behind the bravado, solipism, debauchery and sheer profligacy. Looking at SELF’s career it hard to find an entry point such is the sheer weight of verbiage trundled ad nauseum across every promotional page available. The key to SELF is he a metropolitan journalist’s nark…forever providing copy whether the journos need it or not ( indeed his wife is a celebrated journalist which rather apt) although even she must tire of the SELF promotion.

The evening was a success and interviewer Georgina Lock who an able inquisitor stood up to the verbal battering-ram. SELF proved that his latest novel ‘Shark’ is an entertaining if rambling tale of drowning shark-food and the big theme of psychological trauma being associated with BIG events i.e. wars. A entertaining if not completely proven thesis based on what looked like a fair amount of internet-trawling and digging deep into R.D. Laing’s historical record. In case we missed these allusions Mr Self flagged them up for us and we mostly swallowed it apart from one punter doing an impression of Groucho era SELF who declared it all ‘horse manure’ which a little out of date surely shit would have done. I will definitely pick up a copy when it remaindered and top marks to the designers for wrapping it in a parody of a SELF cover from 1998. Lest we forget this is the second part of a very important trilogy which redefining modernism/postmodernism and the kitchen sink before the death of the novel in 2019 (SELF). As SELF said it the only trade he has banging out the old tome and full marks for keeping going young man..sorry middle aged man.

Now where this all gets truly unctuous is in his recent attack on Orwell….now I don’t give a shit for his arguments but I do disapprove of such obvious crap profile-raising being launched via the BBC which was the location of some of Mr Blair’s finest work. That and the weaselly way the tirade launched just in time for Xmas oh sorry just in time for the book launch tour before Xmas….it stinks like some of the dialogue did on Saturday but that another matter.

SELF isn’t the best novelist in Great Britain let alone Ireland but he is a master of SELF-seeking attention grabbing in that he a clear master. I came to Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying by chance through some separate research and remembered reading it fondly..

 

let Eric Blair have the last word…note to SELF…could do better….

Keep the Aspidistra Flying 1936 page 2.

But it was the snooty ‘cultured’ kind of books that he hated the worst. Books of criticism and belles-lettres. The kind of thing that those moneyed young beasts from Cambridge write almost in their sleep–and that Gordon himself might have written if he had had a little more money. Money and culture! In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.

Coda: SELF grew up in Hampstead…did PPE at Oxford smashed out of his tree and got a third.. sailed back to fame in the environs of Greek Street and Fleet Street yup you got it..spoilt rich kid now lives in oppulant surroundings of Stockwell not Vauxhall as ‘downmarkedly’ claims but then as he said he lies a lot.

 

Daily Short: Mark Strand – Dog life.

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A strange one this and no mistake. Mark Strand who had arisen as poet in Sarah Jackson’s lecture is now discovered lurking in Shapard and Thomas’s 1986 anthology of the then recently termed,’Sudden fiction’ which now typically  called ‘Flash Fiction’.

The anthology I picked up in 1989 when fairly obsessed with post BASS* 1986 American Literature and many of the same individuals such as Carver, Barthelme, Coover, Wolff, Paley are present here

Dog Life is a slight, amusing yet somehow ephemeral take on male fidelity (I presume unless one meant to read the protagonist’s confessions as surreal realism and he actually was a dog). The male in bed (echoes of David Belbin’s Games in Bed here!) confesses that he formally a dog with dog-like instincts ….it hard not to read the list of conquests as anything other than male boasting and the female’s reaction of going back to sleep and forgetting about it just about sums up the tale.

Strand in this period up to 1985 had stopped writing poetry for ten years and the collection evidences a talent somewhat at sea by this example. Amusing but hardly on a par with his deep and melancholic poetry. He didn’t produce another volume of short stories nor a novel but did complete some children’s fiction and art criticism before returning to poetry in 1990. His comment in a interesting group of afterwords by the authors is oblique and not entirely convincing. He speaks of sudden fiction as ‘runtish’ which maybe sums up his feelings for it. I was no more convinced by his afterword than his story.

Far more significant is the development post 1986 (with the undoubted extra boost of the internet) of Sudden Fiction into Flash Fiction and the ensuing ‘movement’. A quick web search on ‘flash fiction’ shows that what was a curiosity in 1986 has bloomed into a veritable sea of algae with ‘Flash Fiction Day’, Competitions and even its own Wikipedia definition.

For what it’s worth it really isn’t anything more than very short pieces…rather than normal short stories. In my opinion it isn’t really a container for prose-poems that separate but can overlap if a poet feels it fits the term.

For me I come back to runtish….do I want to be a runt?

*Also the BASS (Best American Short Stories) 1986 edition edited by Carver probably a better place to look for where the entire short story was at this point.

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