Dec 182010
 

Darryl Whetter is a poet, story writer, essayist, novelist, scholar and book reviewer—a man of letters. He’s also a politician—ran as a Green Party candidate in the last Canadian federal election. He has published a story collection, A Sharp Tooth in the Fur, and a novel, The Push & the Pull, of which dg wrote: “Darryl Whetter’s The Push & the Pull is a brash, vibrant, melancholy, sexy, and finally uplifting book about a mesmerizing father, the son who can’t tear himself away, and the women who make them grow up. Whetter is intoxicated with language. He writes like a dream in a quick, urbane, and witty style. His women are gorgeous independent creatures; his men are large and infuriating; and when love happens it’s explosive, passionate, and grand. A lovely first novel.” These poems are from a new manuscript (others have been published, see links at the bottom) that orbits around the grand themes of evolution, plate tectonics, the slow rhythms of geological change, and the vast throw of history from the beginning of things.

—dg

Six Poems

By Darryl Whetter

 

Spiral Jetty

 

art lost, fed
into the land,
a basalt fiddlehead
curled into Utah’s ruddy
Great Salt Lake.
a whirlpool of rock stopped
in salt water so algae-dense,
the colour of blood one year,
rosé the next

a 1500’ coil of entropy,
nearly 7000 tons
of indifferent rock
laid in a drought.
loaders and dump trucks
the size of (brief) dinosaurs

then water levels rose again,
reclaimed your boiling
curve, made it a briny Brigadoon,
unseen Atlantis of the salts.
an intentional fossil

or John Cage’s
Organ2/ASLSP (as slow as possible)
a constant drone
half hum half
squeal in patient
German air. art
slid into the time capsule
now Joggins. with the wide
stage of your rock
beach and mud flats, the wet
curtain of your twice daily tides
you can offer
intertidal art to the world,
make a fossil
among the found


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Dec 172010
 

Here’s a fine poem (with appropriate photo accompaniment) by Vermont College of Fine Arts Dean Gary Moore, poet & playwright, colleague & friend. Gary’s play Burning in China, about his experience teaching in China at the time of the Tiananmen massacre, had a two-week soldout run the New York Theater Workshop’s 4th Street Theater in August. He taught in the first ever VCFA Stage & Screenwriting Conference last summer. It’s a pleasure to publish his work here.

dg


WHAT I WANT

By Gary Moore


To walk home singing to the stars
Their tipsy light not enough to show the way
But more than I need to know I’ve got to belt it
Cry it
Break it open and pour all that love up so high
Up so high Oh my girls in hoop skirts
That no human can down it
And look: the fires tiny and grand standing far in the dark
The way they called us as children
Charged our hearts with our lovers on bridges at night
Lit our orphan’s cold way from our mother’s dead hand
And now heedlessly whirling their immovable waltzes
Bright with blessings we give them to give us again and again
They say, Make it home lover, make it home and come back
The way we will tomorrow
Scattered in the black and ashine with immortal light

—Gary Moore

Dec 162010
 

Here’s a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece from Robin Oliveira, former dg student, Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate, winner of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and author of the novel My Name is Mary Sutter. See Robin’s amazing book tour diary published earlier on these pages.

For a complete list of “What it’s like living here” texts, click here.

dg

What it’s like living here

By Robin Oliveira on Cougar Mountain, just outside Seattle

You live on Cougar Mountain, the first mountain on the right as you leave Seattle. The children—your reason for moving to the mountain—have moved out, and yet you cling to the house in which you raised them, unable to let go of the memories. Cougar Mountain hovers between wilderness and civilization. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night to yapping coyotes surrounding and terrifying some poor mammal they then eat. Before they die, the animals cry, a sound so human you leap from your bed and peer out the window. Black bears sprawl on the hillside behind your house, watching passing cars. Startled deer wander in the former meadows houses now occupy. They seem puzzled, these animals, incapable of altering their patterns in the face of encroachment. One day, on a bike ride, you gut out the steep climb from Puget Sound to the top of Magnolia, a hill long ago urbanized. A cougar has been spotted in the park, where for days, the fields of tawny grass camouflage him. You wonder what ancient memory has led him back into the city. You are sad when the park rangers capture the animal. Where do they take it? You don’t know. Maybe to your mountain, where the historical society exhibits pictures of the old days, when men hunted cougar for sport, then hung them upside down and posed beside them. Another day, flames shoot above the red cedar and Douglas fir behind your house. You turn on all the hoses and water the roof while your husband and neighbor attempt to douse the advancing fire. The flames lick thirty feet high; you breathe smoke; embers fall onto your shoulders and into your hair. Then the fire trucks arrive and unleash a spray of white foam that in two minutes extinguishes the blaze.

Now that the children are gone, you have all day every day to work. In your office, you turn on a sun light to ward off S.A.D., seasonal affective disorder, which struck you down about the middle of the nineties, fifteen years into your interment under the drizzly menace that is the Pacific Northwest sky. With the fake sunlight bathing your retinas, you write. Ten thousand luxes a day are the prescription for your well-being—about thirty minutes worth—but you indulge and keep the light on all day. When the real sun breaks from behind the clouds, you play hooky. Microsoft money has littered the mountain with mansions of ridiculous dimension, but you climb on the paths above them, through preserved corridors of wilderness, where it is still possible to meet a cougar or a lone coyote, so you carry a stick. You climb until you see the fingerling glacial lakes that strike northward and the snow-topped Cascade Mountains, coolly indigo against the eastern sky. To the west, the Olympic Mountains shimmer jagged against the western horizon. If you had a pair of binoculars, you could see the Space Needle floating beneath them.

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Dec 152010
 

The travels of Tuor and Voronwë will soon be accompanied by appropriate music

Things have quieted down in the production process, but only in the figurative sense.  Our main focus right now is the film’s score, which is being worked on by many talented folks.  Oh, and I’m working on it, too.

The film includes many scenes of conversation, some poetics, and long crawls of travelogue, all of which flow together into (hopefully) a sort of symphony of visuals where you never see the same set twice.  My brother and I came up with a goal on the audio side of this cinematic multiverse: about 90% of the movie’s soundtrack should sound like one varying piece of music.  Anna Pauline Kenzie, our resident opera singer who also acts in the film, came up with an excellent song she’s been recording over the course of a month (despite completely losing her voice for the better part of two weeks), and our costume expert, Jen Wicks, wrote a song in Quenya (a form of High Elvish created by Tolkien) and recorded a few demos with her own equipment.  As of now, these two pieces act as our leitmotifs for the film’s score.

Listen to Jen’s song, “Alamenë,” below.

Alamenë

Andrew, Kate Chappell and myself in August 2010

My cousin, Andrew Busone, a multi-talented musician best known for playing in New York City punk band Tied For Last, is also skilled on the keyboard, and will be putting together a few tracks for the film’s non-vocal score.  Laura McCoy, a fellow VCFA graduate, will be providing the flute tracks.  Vermont’s own Red Heart the Ticker also agreed to contribute a nice ambient traveling song.

While editing the rough cut, Philip would sometimes put on music from other artists to help us get a feel for what sort of sound we wanted in the background of a certain scene.  Quite often, I’d say, “Just turn off the music; you can’t hear the dialogue,” but many times we struck gold with this technique.  A certain scene involves a duo of travelers making their way across a narrow bridge that spans a swamp, with an unknown figure awaiting them on the other side.  We need apprehension, suspense, and music you’d imagine playing if a swamp had its own soundtrack.

The challenge of creating the film’s tunes is a journey which parallels, in some ways, the journey of creating the film itself.  It doesn’t involve as much standing out in the cold, driving fifty miles or sustaining open wounds, but sometimes I wonder how close we’ll come.

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Dec 152010
 


Herewith a novella by my old friend Christopher Noel. Chris was teaching at Vermont College when I arrived (eons ago). He was something of a young legend  with a dramatic and melancholy past who could move an audience to tears or laughter when he read. In my mind, he will always be part of that place, especially Noble Lounge, packed with students and faculty, the condensation dripping off the windows, winter outside, and Chris. It’s a pleasure to publish his work here and remind us all of old times.

—dg



Doctor White’s Monkey

By Christopher Noel


This is my last word on the subject. I guess you could call it a kind of affidavit, if what I witnessed so long ago still falls under the category of crime.

Today is Maggie’s birthday−she’d have been sixty-five−and my daughters have stepped away briefly from their own lives and families to travel here; for the first time in years, it’s just the three of us. We’re having a quiet day, forced inside by rain, eating well, talking about the distant past, trying to conjure their mother, getting distracted by our pleasure in the now. We don’t even look at old photos, because that routine has felt played out long since. To celebrate their arrival last night, I made a vegetable beef stew, very ambitious cooking for me, and now we’re emptying that pot for lunch. Freya and I sip red wine, but Justine, pregnant with her third child, only water.

“So, Dad, you going to jump right on that report this afternoon?” Freya asks me, winking broadly and reaching for a slice of rye bread. “Or should we throw you in the Homework Slammer?” She wears her brown hair clipped short these days, and last spring she and her husband finally went for Lasik surgery, so she looks more different than ever from her twin, who keeps her signature blue-framed glasses and hair halfway down her back.

How constantly surprising they are to me, my girls, and I don’t mean because of their beauty and their gifts, though I confess I’ve never quite gotten used to all that, either, and must hand all credit to one Margaret Ellen Hutchins. I mean instead their immunity to self-pity; I also mean their perfect knowledge of me and the light touch with which they apply it. If I become, for instance, as I often do, maudlin and self-indulgent about my past and my solitary lot in life, one of them will laugh, “Grind it finer, Dad. Grind it finer,” while the other will beam a compassionate silence that lets me hear more clearly my own sorry tone. They’ll both look at me in a way, from a particular angle, that rules out pity at the same time as it takes my troubles more seriously, strikes nearer my center, than pity ever could. They are simply with me, these women, more than anyone else on Earth. More even than Maggie, my once and only wife, who has not merely faded over time, which I expected, but has continued to fade, gaining momentum.

“I know,” I tell Freya, “I did promise myself I’d write the thing today.” And I promised Professor Claude Estes, historian of science and medicine at the University of Oklahoma. How he dug up my name I’ll never know, but for the past seven years he’s been working on a book that argues for the existence of the White Center, a place that the years have elevated—or demoted—to the status of myth. The professor insists my perspective is indispensable, which I do not doubt. The book’s completion, apparently, awaits only my reluctant chronicle.

“And it’s not exactly procrastination weather,” Justine points out, clinking glasses with Freya and me. She double-palms her swelling belly and yawns, the theoretical notion of procrastination leading smoothly into the concrete tug of an afternoon nap.

In the matter of this project, the girls have surprised me once again. I frankly thought they’d recoil when I finally informed them, this morning, about Estes’s exposé. Instead, the news hit them like a kind of external ratification, as if up till now our experience in Honduras might have been a three-way figment. Freya even held up her wrist to show us the small, pearly scar from the spider monkey attack.

Before she waddles off down the hall to the same bedroom she slept in as a girl, Justine clears away the lunch plates and Freya sets my laptop before me, flips it open, turns it on, announces, “Yes, it’s into the Slammer for you now, Dad. Make it happen. Make us famous!” Then they both cruelly absent themselves, Freya borrowing my car keys with a sly smile and roaring off toward town.

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Dec 142010
 

 In Minneapolis they just had 17 inches of snow in the last  24 hours, a record. Thus a “What it’s like living here” piece from Adam Arvidson in Minneapolis is particularly timely. Perhaps it will be the last communication out of the city til spring. Adam is one of my current VCFA students, a brilliant science/nature writer who has contributed several fine craft essays to NC in the past few months.

dg

What it’s like living here

from Adam Arvidson in Minneapolis

Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas other colors are not.  They are psychological spaces; red, for example, presupposing a hearth releasing heat.  All colors bring forth specific associative ideas, tangible or psychological, while blue suggests, at most, the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual nature what is most abstract.

– Yves Klein


 

 

Winter

You meet a girl.  A local girl.  They all seem to be local girls.  You trudge through the snow between her apartment and yours in the middle of the street, because the sidewalks are unreliable—some already cleared by ambitious homeowners with powerful snowblowers, many still buried in the drifts.  You don’t think it strange anymore when the first snowfall of the year happens in October.  The public radio station devotes a whole hour to discussing the impending event, and listeners call in to ask when the earliest measurable snowfall occurred or what was the most snow the city ever got in October.  You learn that talk about the weather isn’t just small talk here; it is a well-researched discussion, full of personal opinion, documented theses, and bold predictions.  You surprise yourself by enjoying that October snowfall, the way it hangs in the trees still spangled with the yellow and orange of autumn, the way it lays on pumpkin patches like a blanket on a bed of marbles, the way the people immediately commandeer it for their own fun: the making of six-foot snowmen, the strapping on of actual skis to replace the versions with wheels that the die-hards have been training on for weeks, the dangerous racing on sleds down the park hills toward the not-yet-frozen creek.  You marry the girl. You snowshoe with her under the gnarled bur oaks in the park near the house you bought together.  She pauses, smiles, her winter coat bulging at the middle with your first-born. You drive past the lake near your house on the way to pick up the new storm windows you ordered, and you are struck by the blackness of the water—a bottomless void in the white world.

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Dec 132010
 

T-34C

My first diagnosed seizure occurred in the cockpit of a Navy T-34C Mentor, on a formation flight over Pensacola, Florida.  I was 23.   Another pilot flew ‘lead’ that day, and I was the ‘wingman,’ which meant I  flew by staring straight at lead’s plane, judging distance and spacing by markers on the other fuselage and by constantly adjusting altitude, airspeed and direction to stay in formation.  We flew tucked in close, less than ten feet away, wingtip to wingtip. We were practicing a ‘turn-away,’ a maneuver where, on signal, the lead would bank sharply away and I would follow instantaneously and  in synch, maintaining tight spacing throughout the manuever.   Lead’s orange wing was so close to my cockpit that it seemed almost reachable.  I don’t remember a signal from the other pilot.   I don’t remember his plane turning away.   All I remember was coming to, his descending wing drifting rapidly away in the hazy sky, and the bellowing voice of my Marine instructor screaming at me over the intercom.  Something about me being ‘fucking nuts.’

(You can read the abstract of my case here, in an article published  by the flight surgeon who diagnosed me upon landing.)

I recently started re-reading The Pugilist at Rest, by Thom Jones, a collection of stories I read during my first semester at VCFA.   The titular story deals with the training of a young Marine during the Vietnam War.  The narrator goes through boot camp in San Diego where he assaults an abusive recruit-classmate with a rifle butt.  The narrator then ships off to Southeast Asia, survives a ferocious battle by faking his own death and receives medals for false heroism while the real hero lies dead on the battlefield. The narrator returns from the war and struggles with reintegrating into post-war civilian life.  We learn that Jones’ narrator suffers from epilepsy (as did Dostoevsky, as Jones himself does) and the story ends with the narrator preparing for an operation on this brain to help alleviate the symptoms of his disease.

The story has an odd structure, with scenes interrupted by historical and philosophical intrusions (about Greek boxers, Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky, etc.)   The eponymous pugilist is supposed to be Theogenes, a gladiator and Greek boxer who fought his opponents (to the death) while chained to a stone.

There’s a long passage in Jones’ story about the aura of seizures.  He’s thinking about his own disease and about Dostoevsky.  As a person who’s had epilepsy for almost twenty years and experienced far too many of these auras, I found this passage to be uniquely compelling:

“The peculiar and most distinctive thing about his epilepsy was that in the split second before his fit—in the aura, which is in fact officially part of the attack—Dostoyevski experienced a sense of felicity, of ecstatic well-being unlike anything an ordinary mortal could hope to imagine.  It was the experience of satori.  Not the nickel-and-dime satori of Abraham Maslow, but the Supreme.  He said that he wouldn’t trade ten years of his life for this feeling, and I, who have had it, too, would have to agree.  I can’t explain it, I don’t understand it—it becomes slippery and elusive when it gets any distance on you—but I have felt this down to the core of my being.  Yes, God exists!  But then it slides away and I lose it.  I become a doubter.”

In my experience, the aura sneaks up randomly—there are no precursors, no triggers that I can identify.  It feels like the most intense déjà vu imaginable, beginning as this prolonged sense of recurrent action, almost like a vivid memory.  In those weird seconds as the aura passes from something subtle to something more sinister, everything that’s happening—every sight, sound and sensation—seems to have happened before in the exact same order and sequence.  And here’s the kicker for me: the future feels predictable too, as if I know exactly what will happen next.  Then the aura shifts, and rises into a more and more intense, almost crippling feeling as the déjà vu spreads and becomes more pronounced, mixing with darkness, with a sensation of fear and gloominess.  In “The Pugilist at Rest”, Jones describes this as the “typical epileptic aura, which is that of terror and impending doom.”  But these darker sensations blend in delicately for me.  As loopy as this may sound, as I experience the aura, it feels life-altering, epiphanous, expansive and eerie all that the same time.   It’s both terrifying yet inexplicably peaceful.

I feel no panic in these moments, just dread and calm mixed together in an unmixable cocktail of lucid emotions that take over, then, almost as quickly, let go.

One of the more vivid of these auras happened to me about two years ago.  I was running on a deserted road in Spain (where I was living at the time).  The run felt normal and I ran that road a lot.  Nothing seemed off-kilter or indicative of any somatic disturbance.  Then I noticed the beauty of the trees along the road.  This sounds like bad poetry, I know, but that was my first sensation: “Man, those trees look beautiful.”  And the sun shone brilliantly, and the sky appeared crisp and bluer than I’d ever seen it.  The asphalt road bent around to my right and a guard rail separated the road from a low wash filled with reeds.  The moment felt dreamy, but entirely sensuous too. Like hyper-reality.  Seconds later, overcome by an intense emotional feeling of having lived through this exact experience before—the trees, the reeds, blue sky, sunshine, pavement and the curving guard rails—a wave of physical symptoms hijacked my body.  My knees went weak.  I began to sweat, then my body went cold,  then started sweating again.  I felt nauseated and light-headed.  I knelt down along the side of the road and tried to shake it off.  There was the oddest feeling  that something dramatic was about to happen, something almost indescribably sad but predestined, too.  Jones’ dread and doom here.  Then the aura simply receded.  The sensations passed completely in a minute or less, and all that lingered was a slippery sense of uncertainty over what had just taken place.  I even managed to finish my run.  As if nothing had really happened.

I would not, like Dostoevsky or Jones, trade ten years of my life to re-experience these auras.  Though I agree about their ‘slipperiness’, their ‘elusiveness with distance’, I’ve experienced them enough times that I do not long for repeat performances.   The auras I’ve experienced (and the seizures that sometimes follow) have not triggered any great religious awakenings in me.  I heard no voices of the gods, saw no window into heaven or hell. To my knowledge, I’ve never been accused of being possessed by a devil.

And I’ve been lucky.  Medication seems to manage my symptoms quite well.  And while it hurt intensely to be told at twenty-three that I would never fly again, I can look back at that moment (even at the screaming, cursing Marine instructor!) and feel thankful that my seizure happened when it did, and not out at sea or on final approach into the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier.

A long time ago, I read all of Dostoevsky’s works.  I became obsessed with his novels and stories and the critical work on him.  I’m proud to say that I even managed to read all 5 volumes of Joseph Frank’s incredible biography of the Russian author.  Few writers have a more compelling life story than Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.   He suffered intense anxiety over his epilepsy, constantly afraid that it would strike him at any moment.  These were the days when epileptics were closely associated with mental patients, whereas now there seems to be a more clinical, medical sensibility about the disease (as, quite fortunately, there is about most types of mental illness).  Epileptics were shunned from polite society and confined to mental hospitals.  I imagine Dostoevsky worried that his disease would ruin his writing career.  Of course, his disease went almost untreated in the nineteenth century.  For Dostoevsky though, the attacks were often portals into his fiction.  This has never been the case with me.  I’ve never even written about the sensation before now.

Epilepsy has been called the “Sacred Disease.”  It’s long been associated with demonic possessions and spiritual visions.  Paul of Tarsus was said to have suffered a seizure on the road to Damascus which he took as a religious vision.  Muhammad may have suffered seizures; Joan of Arc, Joseph Smith.  I imagine that a religiously inclined person might feel some ineffable divinity in those moments.  I do not, but I can’t fully convey or describe what they do feel like.

I didn’t get up this morning to write about any of this.  I wanted to offer up some of what I’d been reading and seek suggestions from others on NC about good reads for the upcoming holidays.  Funny how these things work.  Toward the end of Jones’s story, he says this:

Good and evil are only illusions.  Still, I cannot help but wonder sometimes if my vision of the Supreme Reality was any more real than the demons visited upon schizophrenics and madmen.  Has it all been just a stupid neurochemical event?  Is there no God at all?  The human heart rebels against this.

-Richard Farrell

(All quotes are from The Pugilist At Rest, by Thom Jones, 1993)