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Literature

Jerry Prager’s Echoes in the Timbers is a prose poem that relates the death and inquest of Margaret Buckingham, a former slave who settled in Puslinch County in the mid-nineteenth century. The narrative is broken into several parts, each with a different speaker – including Margaret herself; her suitor, Jerry Collins; and a member of her inquest jury, Nicholas Beaver, whose house has since been moved to the grounds of the Elora Poetry Centre. Margaret actually visited Beaver House in her day, so it’s fitting that it was where Jerry first read Echoes in the Timbers in 2014 and where the published version was recently launched.

The subject of Echoes in the Timbers comes out of Jerry’s historical work on the underground railroad in southwestern Ontario, which has resulted in three non-fiction volumes, Laying the Bed, Exodus and Arrival, and the forthcoming Blood in the Mortar. Despite this historical source, however, the personalized narratives and the distinct characterizations of the narrators allow Echoes in the Timbers to personalize the unique struggles facing former slaves in Upper Canada.

Margaret’s husband Buckingham, for example, ends up losing his life in an attempt to rescue his family left behind in slavery. Jerry Collins suffers nightmares from the work that he was made to do as a child, dangling from a rope to dig wells. Margaret herself suffers from fits that first came on when she thought she would be sent away from her family, fits that might eventually have killed her.

In each of these cases, the past cannot simply be put aside by crossing the border into a new country. Past traumas constantly reappear, calling Buckingham back across the border, filling Jerry Collins’ dreams, throwing Margaret into literal fits. Though each of the characters celebrate their freedom, their stories never forget that the legacy of slavery does not suddenly end with physical freedom. It is carried with them into their new lives and their new country.

The writing is for the most part clear and direct, leaning more toward prose than poetry. Often it is only the line lengths that remind the reader that the account is intended formally as poetry. This directness adds to the sense of inquest and investigation, of historicity, but there are times, especially in Margaret’s own sections, where a more poetic sensibility appears. In her second section, for example, she says,

It was too many sheets, too many shrouds, too many ghosts, too
much snow and the earth and the woods white
with the billowings of winter; it was me
lost in the tobacco smoke
around the wood stove
in the general store…
the slow burn of whiskey heating up inside me…
swirling the memories of all the generations
of the same two families inside me

Here, and in other places, the writing moves from history to poetry, affirming the humanity as well as the historicity of the characters.

Published by the Elora Poetry Centre under its Interludes imprint, Echoes in the Timbers is a physically beautiful book, handbound on heavy laid papers in two volumes, one for the poem itself, the other for historical notes that Jerry includes for those interested in that element of the story. It is quite a limited run at only fifty copies, all numbered and signed by the author.

I watched Sunset Limited a few months ago, jotted down some thoughts the next morning, but then forgot about it until I was going back through my notebooks, which is why I’m only posting it now. The film is written by Cormac Mccarthy, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s comprised of a single conversation in a small apartment — ninety minutes of dialogue relieved by only the most inconsequential action, like taking a piss or putting soup on the stove.

The premise of the film is that BLack (played by Samuel L. Jackson) has prevented White (played by Tommy Lee Jones) from jumping in front of a train. Black, who is a former convict and a deeply religious man, tries to rescue White, who is a deeply atheist professor, from his emotional and spiritual crisis.

The starkness of the film is profound. Not only is is strictly limited in place and time, but the set is sparse, almost rudimentary. There is no music or sound effects, only ambient sound, except for an eerie sort of noise that sounds when each of the men come to the crisis of his argument.

In this sense, Sunset Limited directly contrasts popular movie making, which constantly overwhelms the viewer with audio and video excess, with relentless action, and with an ever-cutting camera, to the point where dialogue and character development are almost irrelevant. Without these distractions, the script of Sunset Limited must stand entirely on its own, for ninety minutes, without relief, a task that it usually accomplishes.

The staging sometimes feels a little forced, with the characters changing locations on the set more frequently and with less motivation than would be normal for a real conversation, but the dialogue is generally natural and free, a serious accomplishment, especially considering that the conversation takes up topics — religion, morality, death, personal responsibility, and so on — that can quickly feel heavy and awkward.

The discomfort of the film is precisely in this contrast between its visual starkness and its conversational depth, in the sparseness of the space that it uses to confront the profoundness of its moral questions. In this sense the film does what McCarthy always does, relentlessly, in every book and film he writes — he present us with the moral question of what we are in ways that are difficult to avoid.

A friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t like McCarthy. He always makes me uncomfortable.” And that’s true. His work is often uncomfortable because of its intensely moral character, in the sense that it confronts us with the nature of our inhumanity, which is always an uncomfortable experience.

This is why McCarthy’s voice is such an important one in American culture, because he insists that his work perform this moral function, no matter the genre, whether he is writing westerns, or cop dramas, or gangster films. He contradicts the assumption, now thoroughly ingrained in us, that art should be merely entertainment, should leave us feeling content and comfortable, should leave our understanding of ourselves largely unchallenged. What his writing does is make us sit with the questions we would rather ignore.

In the case of Sunset Limited, he makes us sit with questions of faith, morality, meaning, death, and human responsibility, makes us sit in close proximity to them, in a cramped apartment, with no other distraction, until we are forced (like his protagonists) either to flee the room or remain and be broken by them.

My new chapbook These My Streets will be officially launched on Thursday, December 10, 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM, at the ANAF (32 Gordon Street) along with other Fenylalanine Publishing chapbooks by Darcy R. Hiltz, Jessica Avolio, and David J. Knight. It will be a fun and relaxed evening of poetry, music, and conversation. You can also bring some finger food to share. All are welcome.

I just finished reading Nickel Mountain by John Gardner. I’m restricting myself to one Gardner novel a year, just to make them last longer, and this one was (as almost all of them are) well worth the wait. It has all his capacity for creating a sense of the uncanny in the everyday, for revealing the profound in the common, for creating human-impossibly-human characters. It’s a beautiful book.

All of which brought me to wonder, however, why Gardner has largely been forgotten by literary posterity. After all, he was famous during his lifetime, not only as a novelist, but also as a critic and as a creative writing instructor. He also wrote children’s stories (strange and beautiful), translations, poetry, and biography. One of his books on writing, On Moral Fiction, is among my favourites in the genre. Of the novels I have read — Mickelsson’s Ghosts, The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, October Light, and Grendel — I would rank all but October Light (because it seems a failed experiment to me) and Grendel (because it is great in a far different way) as the best novels in the Faulknerian tradition between when Faulkner himself died and Cormac McCarthy published Suttree (though I concede that there might be more than a few who would dispute this evaluation). Still, his work was influential enough while he was alive and is of a caliber even still that it deserves far better recognition than the occasional inclusion of Grendel on some university syllabus to serve as a modern comparison to Beowulf.

The reason for this neglect, I think (and I do absolutely mean to cast some shade here), is that readers, even those who read so-called literary books, are too often unwilling to read books that take work. I have been told over and over again, by otherwise “good readers”, that certain writers — like Faulkner and Lowry and Bolano and Pynchon and Llossa and McCarthy (his Suttree and The Orchard Keeper especially) and yes, Gardner — are too difficult. They move slowly. Their sentences are unwieldy. Their formal experimentation is off-putting. Their description is excessive. Their plots are ambiguous. And so on.

What most readers want, even in their literary books, is something easy on the palette. They want to be able to say, “It was a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down. Stayed up half the night to finish it.” They want obvious motivation and character. They want easily recognizable plot structures. They want minimal description and reflection, maximum action and snappy dialogue. In other words, they want the print version of a Hollywood film.

All of which is fine, I guess, but it means that most readers are missing out on some of literature’s great books. A little patience, a little effort, would open up some truly wonderful literary experiences. You might be okay with that, but you shouldn’t be. You should read Gardner, at least once a year, and savor each one until there are no more.

I keep adding and removing this section from the novel I’m writing. The problem is that I love it, but it never really seems to fit. But I love it. I’m hoping that posting it here exorcizes it for me, but I doubt it.

He turned to the girl across from him in the university cafe, a classmate who knew him just well enough not to refuse a seat at her table in the crowded room, but someone who had been assigned the same book, who could perhaps be expected to understand what he had just read. “Have you got to the scene at the scaffold?” he asked. “The scene where the Count talks about dying alone?”

He held The Count of Monte Cristo, his finger marking the place where Franz witnesses the executions in the Piazza di Popolo, where he sees one of the condemned receive a pardon at the very foot of the scaffold, and where he hears the other prisoner cry out, “Why for him and not for me? We ought to die together. I was promised that he should die with me. You have no right to put me to death alone. I will not die alone — I will not!”

And that’s true, he had thought, when he read it. We wouldn’t be so afraid to die if only we didn’t have to die alone. He had seen himself there in the university cafe, dying slowly, one breath at a time, and he had known that everyone else there was dying too, though they believed their lives were just beginning, and he saw also that they were all dying alone, that their deaths were only one more thing that they couldn’t share with one another.

This, he had decided, this passage at the foot of the scaffold, where Dumas shows us what we are, this is revelation. We should all be made to read it — every one of us — we should all be made to study it like sacred scripture, not just Dumas, but all of literature, everything, because there’s revelation in it, whether we like it not, the revelation of what we could not otherwise imagine — the revelation of ourselves to ourselves.

“They didn’t talk about that scene in the notes I read,” the girl said, using a highlighter to keep her place in the textbook she was reading.

“But did you read that part of the book? Where the criminal is going to the…”

“I don’t really have time to read the books,” she said. “I get better marks if I just study the notes. They’re less confusing,” and she was poised there, prepared to resume her labour the moment her attention was dispensed with him, she and her highlighter equally uninterested in what he might have to say, however profound, so long as it was not directly productive of better marks on papers and better grades in classes.

“All literature is revelation,” he said, unable to keep from telling her, though he knew that it would do nothing except keep the highlighter waiting a few moments longer.