In this essay, I wanted to define what “dreampunk” was. I wanted to define dreampunk thinking that if I didn’t define it, I would lose my chance to be part of something big and someone else would take my place. I wanted to contain the brilliant zipping thing that flew about my shoulders as if it were some firefly I could bottle in a glass jar, and tell you point-blank, the following:
DREAMPUNK (n.) A term coined by writer Matthew Battles to describe a literary style in which our social-media obsessed reality is explored though technology. This style features elements of magical realism, existentialism, cyberpunk, and is often satirical in tone.
I wanted to leak fandom on a page and tell you what dreampunk was and where it came from, how it takes on the world and makes no apologies about the disgruntling conclusions to which it brings you. I wanted to leave your appetite whetted for Matthew Battles’ The Sovereignties of Invention.
Instead, I’ve written six inadequate drafts, I’m weeks past my deadline, and my friend, Kirk Bradshaw, has passed away. Kirk, with the rounded boyish cheeks, the mischievous smile, the “it’s important to stay moist” jokes. Kirk who least of all deserved cancer and in passing has taken away pieces of the sun with him.
I have the worst long-term memory. When I first read the titular story of Matthew Battles’ collection, “The Sovereignties of Invention,” I wanted the device for my own selfish writerly reasons, because I have such a difficult time remembering things. A recording device that could collect your conscious and subconscious thought as you went about your day by the simply insertion of an earbud-like apparatus? YES! TOTALLY! No more missed observations! No more carrying my leather journal in my purse, bouncing against my leg until it leaves a bruise! No more trying to write on the train and being suddenly seized by a spell of motion-sickness!
And then the narrator took the device for a jog, returned to his home and played back the recording. Endless streams of information overwhelmed him, from the sounds of his own human body, of blood, of breath, to the sights he took in during that run, the squirrel along the path, on and on until the narrator was consumed with the analysis of it, until he became a shell and was transported to the sanitarium with the device that had only ever recorded just the one event.
Even after that I still wanted the device. Don’t get me wrong, I see the parallels Battles makes between social media and anxiety quite clearly, when it takes you an hour to go through your Twitter feed alone, never mind the lists of blogs you read, or your Facebook account, or Tumblr, etc, the feeling of panic that preys on you if you don’t check your virtual life every ten minutes, because you could be missing something.
My friend Patrick says that sometimes a great trauma can cause the mind to forget memories and thoughts that are unrelated to the trauma. I wonder which great trauma has done this; if it was the departure of my extended family in Mexico when I moved to the U.S. as a child, or the sexual abuse I underwent as a teenager, or the simple stupid fact that I fell down a flight of stairs when I was seven and hit my head on the concrete, the scar of which I still bear on my forehead.
I don’t care which it is. Kirk died and all I really want the device for is to record my subconscious memories of him, memories I’ve forgotten, for them to play over and over in my head so his face has animation again.
If dreampunk is embodied in anything, it’s the bizarre feeling of your stomach leaping into your throat, of your spine being played like a xylophone, of the prickling of your neck hairs when no one is behind you because you’ve checked. Because how else should you feel when you find a computer on an alien planet predicting your death (“For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”), when an obsidian cube acts like a black hole (“The Gnomon”), when a pill takes you back five minutes in time (“Time Capsules”) and a unicorn is an endless source of electronic power (“The Unicorn”)?
That feeling, that bizarre shiver, has one master.
Poe. Creepy I-married-my-cousin-and-died-mysteriously Poe, who was so deeply mired in depression and anxiety for so much of the time, how could it not translate so eerily into his work? He had so little success in his lifetime, was forced to watch as his wife/cousin Virginia fell prey to consumption in that one room house in New York, and all the while so poor, the bed didn’t have sheets and to keep Virginia warm in the winters, he placed his coat over her legs. That Poe.
Part of me wants to call dreampunk dream-“gothic” purely because it is so inspired by Poe. It isn’t as apt as dreampunk, but it still describes one of the major characteristics , that element found in horror and gothic writing known as paranoia.
In “Provisional Descriptions of Superficial Features,” two agents analyze the surface of planet OGLE-350c in a remote future when humankind has extended space exploration to planets outside of our own solar system. There Vulpes and Severn, the two agents, encounter an LCD screen lighting a cave with the bright glow of the by-that-time-defunct Wikipedia site. They have some manner of fun as they investigate this, until they type in the name of their mission and the Wikipedia description informs them that their mission failed for unknown reasons and both the agents perished.
While the science-fiction vibe is so strong in “Provisional” it almost renders the story as a forgotten chapter to Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, the heightened tension in it hearkens back to Poe, himself a deep influence on Ray Bradbury. When Sevin has Vulpes move aside from the computer so he can edit the Wikipedia entry, he signs his death warrant unknowingly, typing in “Sevin K. and Vulpes D. made their planetary EVA successfully and returned to their ship,” but the madness progresses. The Wikipedia entry still predicts their deaths and Sevin goes from “fierce clarity” to “somebody is out to get us” to “I have to make them stop!” This tension builds from the very beginning of the story, much like Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” which informs you of the narrator’s desire for revenge and begins to set up the ploy to convince Fortunato into the cellars. Sevin is presented immediately as the too-serious agent, the perfectionist who always does everything according to plan as they begin to survey the black “ice-cream” like land of OGLE-350c. Maybe this helps Sevin feel in control. Maybe the plan gives him purpose. Whatever it may be, it throws Sevin off balance at the turn of the tide, in the face of Wikipedia, and he ignores Vulpes’ warnings about the failing radiation shield, just as Fortunato ignores the nitre and the damp within the catacombs in pursuit of that damned Amontillado wine.
There’s a saying that says whenever you feel that chill up your spine, it is a ghost walking over your future grave. I don’t know who said this or where I first heard it, but isn’t any ghost, so you know. It’s Poe.
Kirk technically wasn’t a close friend, or hadn’t been for five years since I graduated high school. In high school, he had been the assistant theater director, played all the musical scores, sang with confident ease, and was a forty-year old gay man, all of which made him fabulous. He had been something of a mentor, not in my writing or career path or anything of that sort, but on living. He was always laughing, always pitching practical jokes on others, and even had something of a practical-joke-rivalry going with one of my English teachers at that time, a certain Mr. Menger. Menger was something of a pompous jerk, a man whose opinion on literature was the only one that mattered and if yours differed, it was considered wrong. He was a man with no personal boundaries who would get too close to his students and didn’t hesitate in offending them, and had terrible, stupid, corny puns. He was that man who had clearly been unpopular in high school and was trying to relive it again, this time the power concentrated in his stubby rheumatic hands.
I loathed Menger because he’d called my prose essays cheap fiction. Kirk loathed him because he was an insult to comedy and had had enough of his ridiculous puns.
So Kirk had a plan. While Mr. Menger was distracted at one of the school’s sporting events, Kirk would grease black mascara over the rim of his binoculars and lend them to Menger until he used them. Then, presto! Kirk would snap a picture of Menger’s newly-sported raccoon eyes and share the image with as many faculty and students as he could, ensuring that the photo of the humiliated know-it-all ended up in the Yearbook.
To my knowledge, Kirk never put his binocular-plan into action. He could not figure out a way to make small –talk with Mr. Menger let alone tempt the man to use the binoculars, so the plan never gained wing. I was sorry because I desperately wanted to take my revenge, however indirectly, on the professor who had acted out a scene from Pushkin’s “The Bridegroom” by placing his hands around my neck.
I’m reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It’s a gentle breeze of fresh sea air after being smothered by the desert. It transports me to cities made of water-pipes, of signs, cities divided by sand and sea, prisons, towers, snow-globes, fountains, sirens, suicides. I love every breath of the way Marco Polo describes these cities to the great Khan, the airy verisimilitude with which Calvino writes, which is something like a dream, shaded and unshaded.
This is the fashion in which The Sovereignties of Invention has been written. It is a painting of watercolors where water creates its little rivers and takes the colors like grains of sand one way or another. What is revealed is a thin canvas made of hot-pressed paper, it seems, where parts are great empty breaths of white, gaps left clear for the imagination, and the rest is a shimmering landscape of detail, angelic, glass-like, and momentary. Any second of waking and the consciousness can come through and obliterate it.
Calvino has seeped so deeply within the fibers of dreampunk, it is as if there are windows in Sovereignties that look down and over the very world of Italo Calvino. In “Passages,” there are windows such as this one:
Behind the graying shore, shadows massed: propane tank, tree of heaven, and the night’s enveloping leaves, parted here and there by the flickering prick of streetlights in town…Above [the trees’] leaf-crowns stood away to reveal gobbets of starlight amidst obscure constellations.
Zora has the quality of remaining in your memory point by point, in its succession of streets…The man who knows by heart how Zora is made, if he is unable to sleep at night, can imagine he is walking along the streets and he remembers the order by which the copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower…
These are the two texts, first Battles’ “Passages,” then Calvino’s “Cities & Memory 4,” but they could be describing one thing, could be describing Zora’s tree-lined streets leading up to the nine-jet fountain, and there, might you not find a man gazing into the water seeing Zora clothed “in a costume not its own” (“Passages”)? Dreampunk blurs these lines, makes river-land from invisible city inseparable, and with both writers employing such simple silver prose, what really is the difference between the dreams of these two men?
Perhaps the point of dreampunk is to dissolve the lines between reality and dream. Perhaps the point of dreampunk is to bring you with startling clarity a vision of the glass domes of every possible reality we’ve had, and how similarly we’ve ruined them, minimized them into palm-sized globes of water and snow when we’ve shaken them. Perhaps the point of dreampunk is to unsettle you, turn your theories on their heads and make you question, like Calvino makes you question, whether Polo’s invisible cities are real, whether or not they’re really to teach the Khan or entertain him, or whether instead of parables the cities are there to maintain Polo’s image of a great explorer, and after all, the cities are dreams, vapid vanities of a continually dying age.
Philip K. Dick is one of Battles’ main inspirations. Dick’s famous 1968 story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was the precursor of the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s, mixing science-fiction elements with postmodern views of power and social hierarchy. This focused on how advanced technology could turn dystopian rather than the archetypal hero’s journey complex imagined within a far-off galactic future like Frank Herbert’s Dune. Cyberpunk stories are far more here and now, looming on the horizon like threats; they are therefore far more frightening and dark than regular sci-fi tends to be because they are thinly veiled warnings, urgent heedings.
Distinct flashes of cyberpunk are present in Sovereignties’ “I After the Cloudy Doubly Beautifully,” a story in which the narrator discovers a typewriter in the hidden archives of Harvard’s Widener Library. The typewriter, while ordinary looking save for the glass-shaped dome and ball bearings, has the unique feature to be able to translate languages so long as the cartridge is changed, and so the narrator proceeds to translate passages of poetry and letters until the long cycles of translation effuse a language all their own, a language completely unintelligible that bears no resemblance to the original texts but which the narrator deems the “pure language.”
Não will return or seu, of like uma árvore, of which plantem or increase hair atrywuerfe, and em seu branco gives estaÁão, em winch of sua fruit and suas you are gives page, and or that face exame nonregulamento, to prosper all, the text reads.
Before the last week of Kirk’s life, I received a message from a friend who said his situation was dire. She suggested we visit or send cards to his nursing facility because his cancer had become terminal and had spread to his brain. I purchased a card with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote and a miniature Moleskin and began writing short observations of life around Chicago for him. I was going to put those in the Moleskin and send it with the card, but Kirk died four days later.
I work retail. Observation #3 said, I think of you walking through my store pulling all the skanky merchandise and laughing. Cut-outs below the breasts, skirts hovering by the thighs; you wonder if I would dare try on any of them, and I would. But only for you to laugh at my bashful face before I retreated to the fitting room.
But the typewriter couldn’t translate what this observation really meant, what any of them meant. The pure language couldn’t say “I’m sorry” unless I pressed those keys into its face, unless I wrote them. And I didn’t.
The single most influential writer to the synthesis of dreampunk is a magical realist. It’s Jorge Luis Borges, of course, the Argentine who is known for his infatuation with puzzles, labyrinths, and parable-like tales. There’s a story of Borges’ called “The Garden of Forked Paths,” written in the 1940s, that concerns Sovereignties and dreampunk closely. In this story a Chinese man (Tsun) living in the UK is spying on the English on behalf of the German Empire during WWII, and his arrest by his nemesis, Richard Madden, is imminent. The Germans seek the location of one of England’s artillery parks so they can bomb it and wipe out Britain’s reinforces. It is Tsun’s job to find out the location. In an attempt to lose Madden, Tsun inadvertently hides in the home of a Dr. Albert and they discuss Chinese literature and Tsun’s great ancestor, a writer who created a labyrinth within his own novel. They discuss the enigmatic line “I leave to several futures (not to all) my gardens of forking paths” and the writer’s theory of forking realities, where all at once multiple strands of reality exist distinctly and separate events could occur within each one. In essence, they discuss string theory. Just then Tsun murders Dr. Albert, realizing Madden is just outside and that to complete his mission, he must get his name into the English papers –the location of the artillery park is a town by the name of Albert. Tsun is arrested and hanged, but the Germans get the message and the artillery park is bombed.
The idea of a story which can be read in layers and whose central idea is located within a puzzle has long been the inspiration for meta-fiction, hypertext, software and other technologies. Most importantly though, it’s impacted dreampunk.
In “Time Capsules,” a grad-student-turned-addict sits down with an old man for a game of street chess. You know the kind; in any major world city it always sets up at a park. There is a very wide courtyard. Pigeons twitter at the crowd’s feet and some bystanders stare transfixed as the timers get pushed click by click. Others glance and walk on, smirk maybe at a world they’ve never understood.
In the story, the student has tried to play the “Chess Master” before. He’s always lost. But this time, he has a card up his sleeve—this time a new-found bottle of pills which allow him to undo his mistakes. He means to cheat the master, succeed and win and for the very first time regain control over his life. And then it is revealed, of course, that the master has the very same pills, that this is the way he has achieved his so-called mastery, and both sit opposite one another in a scene that could almost be pulled directly from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Life hangs in the balance. The student realizes that it was the Chess Master who had given him the pills in the first place along the edges of streetlights when he recognizes the Master’s coat.
“You,” I say. “You’re the one who came to me. You gave me the pills.”
“Did I?” [the Chess Master] replied, settling the coat about his shoulders. “Maybe I did. I remember a time, ages ago seems like, when I wanted to bolt from this place—this time, if you take my meaning. I thought of trying to sell the pills. Some version of me must’ve done it then, back in that other time.
“But why?” I ask.
“I can’t say for sure,” he replies. “Probably I figured you’d be the one to take my place. But I’ve lost track of that. Fork in the road came up, and I took it—took another pill, fought my way out of another game. But it only led to other games, and others, and others. And now I’ve lost track of the paths…taking the pills, drifting in the streams of time—I became the ‘Chess Master.’ Biding my time, so to speak, taking a pill whenever I made a bad move. I learned my way around the maze of the game, eventually.”
I sit astonished. “And now you’re lost in it,” I stammer. “And so am I. In thistime—and all the ones left to us, I guess. We’re marooned, cut off.”
Sound familiar? The Chess Master talks of string theory when he discusses how each pill led him to another game, and another pill to another, and how he drifted through “the streams of time” and each pill was another reality, another forking path.
I think about string theory and I think it isn’t true. If it is that means that in some forked path, maybe Kirk did pitch that joke on Mr. Menger. Maybe in another, I did send him the care package I promised him when I first found out about his cancer three years ago. In another, maybe I didn’t send him the care package, but I did the card and mini-Moleskin. In that forked path maybe he got it in time, and read it, and smiled. In another path, maybe he didn’t die at all, and is still singing, telling stories about his household ghost and mentoring other kids in that town three hours south.
But all that is too hopeful. All that attempts to sponge out the fact that I didn’t send him the care package like I promised and that I didn’t visit him when he’d been moved to the nursing facility, and that I remained in the distance all the while he was being spirited away. And that isn’t justice.
Justice is living with the black hole of his vanishing, the distance I put there while I waited for my own life to begin.
In “The World & the Tree,” Sovereignties’ final collected story, a man straps himself to a black kite to see if he can fly with the birds, see what they see, the overview of the world. Little does he know that the Tree, his home, wasn’t all to the world, was only part of the whole, and in leaving he’s abandoning Paradise. The straps break. The kite drops. He lands somewhere among the “range of deadfall and ruptured blocks and prisms.”
I don’t know why The Sovereignties of Invention pulled this from me. I wanted to tell you about dreampunk and I tried and I think I’ve failed, but I had to tell you about Kirk. Perhaps it’s because dreampunk is both an exploration of the self as well as an exploration of society. Perhaps it’s because in a technology-driven world everything becomes a mirror of ourselves and frightened by what we see, we run away into our dreams, vanish there for a while and pretend. Eventually we see the specters there too, and only then do we realize we’ve been running, and it is time to go back and fix the broken mirror or face living with the pieces. I found the glue, put the pieces back together, and fixed myself.
Deaths are like falls. You live high in the branches of the great Norse Tree, Yggdrasil, at the level of the gods. Happiness abounds. Then a death occurs, and swiftly like birds with broken wings, you fall steeply in among the tumbled towers and lose your breath, have it pummeled from inside you.
The thing is, the ground among the frozen towers is where we make our home. It’s where we live and love and die and plan and pray for our return to the higher branches. It’s reality. It’s also where we can build new kites.
I want people to fly kites at my funeral. I want them to fly kites and tell stories and celebrate life and happiness and not things ending. We told stories at Kirk’s funeral and that was something beautiful, a bright glowing sapphire of beautiful, and though there weren’t kites, there were still smiles, and that was enough. It would have made Kirk happy, and he deserved it, the whirling galaxy.
In high school, I worked as a techie for the shows the Drama Club would put on. I built wall-flats and painted scenery, made tree stumps out of chicken wire and papier-mâché. Once for the play “Death by Chocolate,” I made a sarcophagus replica of King Tut out of a long trunk, styrofoam, and acrylic paint. Kirk loved it so much he took it home with him after the show’s run ended, put it up in his bedroom beside his dresser and vanity. After several years, I thought he might have reneged it to the garage to watch over his prized Jaguar.
For his online obituary, Kirk’s cousins collected some of his favorite photographs to create a slideshow. I went through them looking for a photo of Kirk as I remembered him, with cheeks still rosy, a smattering of beard on his chin, anything but the pale man more recent pictures of him showed. Instead I found a photograph of the mummy sarcophagus, still in his bedroom seven years later, only feet from his bed.
I wonder how many nights he glanced at it before falling asleep and thought of me, of where I was and what had become of me. I’m sure it was many more nights than I spent thinking of him, and I wish I could undo that. Unlike Simon Moyens, I don’t have pills. But I have string and I have paper, and I can make a pretty damn good black kite for him.
Jael Montellano is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, essays, and poetry currently residing in Chicago, IL. She holds a BA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago, dabbles in filmmaking, photography, painting, and other creative arts when she feels like it. She was raised on a diet of fairy tales, Tim Burton, French and English novels of the 1800s, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, and Neil Gaiman. She has written for Stumped Magazine and her work has appeared on The Rumpus . Net. Also, she's an anglophile and drinks a lot of Earl Grey tea in the mornings
In his attic, the writer Matthew Battles perched on a bar of unfinished wood, digging through a box labeled Tchotchkes. In a dream the night before he saw himself doing this, coated in the sawdusted light of afternoon, and watched his left arm pull from it a mysterious black cube. Battles recognized this as the Gnomon, a technomagical device featured in one of his own short stories, and upon waking from the dream he felt the odd shudder he imagined one felt when cupped in the hands of a god. The implications of the appearance of this device in his own dreams were, he had to admit, somewhat terrifying; in his story, the device conquers the minds of almost the entire human race. But he could not resist his curiosity, and ascended the old pine slats of the pull-down ladder that led to the attic.
At the bottom of the box he found the thing, though it was much smaller than he had thought it would be. Looking at it, he realized that it was very little like the apparatus he himself had dreamed up: the sides were a sleek ebony but there was nothing quite mysterious about them, and he felt no aura emanating from the depths of the device. After poking at it for fifteen minutes, he knew that he had no way of discovering for himself the powers of this cube, let alone the purpose behind his dream. He closed up the box and descended the ladder, carefully replacing the ladder and closing the hole in his ceiling. Looking at his watch, he realized that it was long past nine o’clock. He went to the kitchen, brewed himself a pot of coffee, and moved into the study to write, placing the faux-Gnomon to the side of his computer.
About midday, Battles began to notice a profound weariness in his hands. He continued working for another hour until his fingers felt too weighted for him to continue, his limbs so heavy that he could barely drag them from his keyboard. He moved his right hand slowly away from the keyboard, and when the knuckle of his right ring finger brushed slightly against the edge of the faux-Gnomon, he felt the weight quickly lessen. Nervous again about his discovery, Battles grabbed the device and moved to his workshop, where he put the thing under every physical test he could think up: hammer, vice, hacksaw, soldering iron, baseball bat, the heel of his boot. Again, nothing.
Battles ran his finger across the smooth edge of the Gnomon, admiring the craftsmanship despite his frustration. He was startled to find that as he did so, the thing began to heat quickly, soon becoming too hot to touch. Startled, he dropped it quickly, watching in amazement as the edges of the cube glowed a black-blue before slowly fading into a dark blur hovering over the workshop’s unfinished floor.
Sleeved in darkness, socketed to a pulsating elsewhere of dim relevance. The voice was strange, but the words were familiar—they were his own. But where were they—
From your head, Matthew. Where everything comes from.
He jolted and turned, but saw nothing. The voice was a woman’s, though he could not place it.
You don’t believe me? Here—let me help.
He had written frequently of bizarre happenings and apparitions, but seeing one for himself surprised him. The feet appeared first, both sketched from a dim translucent blue. Then the ankles, then, slowly, the rest, until the hologram-like rendering of the dark pleated skirts peaked narrowly at the neck, the head forming itself quickly, and the dark familiar eyes of a slender woman blinked distantly from under her dour and furrowed brow.
Do you know me?
Battles looked blankly for a moment at the too familiar face as realization dawned slowly.
Yes, Matthew. Emily Dickinson. One of three familiar personages you will have the pleasure of engaging in discourse with this evening. I am here to teach you on matters of diction.
Battles spoke then, haltingly: Is—is this some sort of Christmas Carol thing, then?
I suppose it is somewhat like that, yes. Shall I begin?
Excellent. As I said, I am here to teach you of diction.
In that it should be halting and punctuated with dashes?
In that it should be good. Read a line from “The Dogs in the Trees.”
The first, then.
No. The first two.
Right. “The first sighting of dogs in trees were reported not too long after the Fall equinox. Early rumor came in the form of videos shot at arms length and hastily uploaded—grainy, shaky, shot with cock-angled intensity, the palsied depth of field swimming as it sought purchase amidst limbs and leaves.”
“Swimming as it sought purchase amidst limbs and leaves.” The “-st” in “amidst” instead of the standard “amid,” providing that extra sibilance. The repeated long “a” with “grainy,” “shaky,” “-angled.” Your sentence winds like a river, Matthew. Excuse me, I sounded like Emerson there for a second. But it’s very good.
Of course. Let’s try another.
Whichever you prefer. Though I was thinking of “Camera Lucida”—“the frothy state of betwixt-and-between that gave the place its grain: sharp grass and velvet mud, rush of water and crunch of shell, placid exteriors and rough-planked rooms.”
What about it?
In particular? Again, the way you place certain sounds. They reflect the meaning you instill your words with. “Gave the place its grain.” The hard, gulping “g” sounds. “Grain” conjures up some Americana scene, and the graininess of old photos—
Were you even alive for photographs?
Irrelevant. And yes. Regardless, it is excellent. I have given you all I can.
Quiet, Matthew. Do not air your grievances so publicly, like a Frog, nor presume to tell spirits of themselves. “If Aims impel these Astral Ones, the ones allowed to know” are not the visited, but the visitors. Farewell.
The spirit faded into a blue burst of dark and smoke, and the Gnomon-thing glowed again with its bruised light before fading out. Battles looked at the clock, wondering if it was yet the time that the next spirit was due to arrive, then laughed at himself. He returned to his bedroom with the Gnomon and sat down again in the waning afternoon sun—it was later now, almost six o’clock—and again began to write.
A few minutes after the Gnomon again glowed its strange blue-black. Knowing what to expect, Battles carried the thing to his bed and sat on the edge as the image of another writer, equally dear to him, cobbled itself from the wisps of shadow emanating from the odd cube.
I trust Emily acclimated you to this process, Matthew.
As much as one can become acclimated to the spirits of dead authors appearing in one’s bedroom for the purposes of artistic erudition, yes.
Don’t be wise with me, Matthew. We are here to help you.
And how will you help me?
“Though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes. Any help we can give you must be different from that you can give yourselves, and perhaps the value of that help may lie in the fact of that difference.”
Yes, from “The Three Guineas.” But what help, exactly?
I am here to advocate the cascading beauty heralded by the stream-of-consciousness style, the winding curls of the roads of your awareness that bleed ink from pen-tip to page. Read to me from the title story of your new collection. Read to me from “The Sovereignties of Invention.”
Oh, Matthew, is it not obvious? “No, a sip from the stream—”
Ah, right. One moment. Let’s see: “No, a sip from the stream before it’s embodied, that’s the thing—a bugging of the mind, an eavesdropping on the song of the homunculus himself up there in his cranial habitat cool and removed.”
Listen to the way the language reaches out, to how it reacts in whorled ripples to the gentle prodding of your thoughts.
Oh, so, just the concrete stuff.
You describe here exactly what you should seek. Allow your mind to soak the page with itself and with the selves of the others you dream up out of sound and light. Listen to the song of your own mind and let it guide you. Farewell.
Battles watched as the spirit shrank back into the recesses of the Gnomon. It was late now, almost eight o’clock; it was as if time simply shrank in the presence of these apparitions. He went to the kitchen and set a pot of tea on boil but was surprisingly un-hungry, and so settled on a rustic dinner, a hunk of French bread and some gouda. He had just begun to eat when the whole house began to darken to the same charcoaled indigo of the night outside, and yet the lights still appeared to be working. Battles ran to his bedroom to confront the next spirit.
Hurry, Matthew. My time is short—not, of course, because I am limited at all by this object, but because I have no intention of remaining on this plane any longer than I must.
And why must you be here at—wait, are you Lorine Niedecker?
Yes, but you knew that. Why do you act surprised?
Virginia, Emily—they seem sort of obvious choices, right? I mean, as influences, and as the Virgil to my Dante sort of thing we’ve clearly got going here.
And I am not?
Well, of course you are, it’s just—
It’s just what?
Never mind. Carry on.
Good. Now that you’ve finished squandering my time, I can teach you about the value of the object.
As in Objectivism?
As in the Gnomon, or the pill that changes time, or the camera that, when in a certain place, can capture a picture of something not there, and yet present.
What about them?
An object in fiction and a work of fiction itself are equal, in a way. They are both invented—they are madethings. And they both allow us to view the world with clarity and honesty, with sincerity and accuracy.
Do not curdle this wisdom and change it to something else, Matthew. See your works and know what they do. See the work within your work and know what it does.
And what does it do?
It exists. The power of the Gnomon, of the pills and camera and dogs in trees, of the “lumberyard of the world,” is in its existence, in the existence of ideas. And you have been chosen to see and to craft them—to bear witness to them, and to release them. This, Matthew, is true sovereignty of invention.
The spirit vanished, and suddenly the room filled with light, a warm milky misted light that coated and soothed. It emanating from the Gnomon, which now glowed the palest of blues. Battles stood in his kitchen and felt the ground beneath him crumble, watched the walls around him disappear into the haze. He saw shapes appear in the swirls of light. Trees grew and bloomed in minutes—“limbs grow upward into wild air”—and dogs blossomed from the buds. A unicorn ambled slowly past, nudging at his thigh. He heard the snapping of cameras, the clicking of typewriters, the sibilant mumble of waves lapping against a shore. Tiny stars appeared in various shades of blue and circled around him. When he closed his eyes, he could see into himself.
Above the Gnomon, a figure took form, tall and cloaked in the whiteness of the room. Battles saw her face and yet could not see it. The face was a reflection of the three who had visited him, and yet nothing like any face he had ever seen—silvered, pixelated, constantly shifting. And she opened her mouth and all the sound around him stopped, the room and world catapulted into a silence fuller than any he had ever experienced, as if his ears had been taken from him, never to return. His mind and hers were one, then, and he knew her as the Archon.
And when the Archon spoke, still he heard nothing, yet the words came flowing into him, words that meant nothing, that were nothing, neither sentence nor paragraph nor story nor argument. And yet there they were within him, and they were everything: TREE EPOCHAL MAGIC BRANCHING; CANINE AESTHETICISM GRAIL. STORY/MORAL GATEWAY INTO ANGELIC OF SPARK SPACE/TIME, THE WORLD SWIRLING AND CONSCIOUSNESS IS—
It continued for a time he could never measure with words vaster and more weighty than he could ever repeat. The world about him stopped as she spoke, and her words flowed through him, filled veins and arteries no doctor could ever find. His eyes glowed blue with hers, though he could not see it, and into his awestruck open mouth Truth crept and slipped and they became one. And the Archon closed her mouth and smiled, and it was enough.
Battles looked at his feet at the quiet Gnomon, sitting in a final inanimacy upon his restored oak floor. He looked around himself, saw his typewriter and bed with the cool grey sheets. He heard the fan whirring on his desk and the floor creak beneath him. Everything the same and yet his world was new—he would ever be in awe. He picked up the Gnomon and placed the thing in his desk corner, somehow knowing that no further spirits would trouble or inspire him. He looked down at his feet, then around him again, then at his typewriter, and laughed. He could not write yet, no—too much life to see, to allow to seep deeply into his self. And he left his house then, Matthew Battles, running down the street and around the corner and down the path through the cemetery, lungs humming, mind whirring.
Mr. Maher was asked to explore Matthew Battles use of poetic phrasing and lyrical language. Initial attempts were rather staid affairs, essays almost clinical in their precision and dry in their analysis. Inspiration (Archonic?) finally took hold and this story is a result: a fascinating readerly connection with the text .A conversation of poets, all of which were declared as influences via email by Mr. Battles.
- Red Lemonade Team
John H. Maher is a Pittsburgh, PA-born poet and writer and recent graduate of Skidmore College, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in both English and history. He is the recent recipient of the Frances Steloff Poetry Prize, and his poems have been acclaimed by poet Mark Wunderlich as “Sharp, short, and striking, notable for their control and their certainty. I admire the endings of the poems in particular, with their modest flourishes, their brandished daggers.” He is an Eagle Scout, a studied amateur musician—voice, bassoon, saxophone—and a devoutly lapsed Catholic. His work has been featured in The Midwest Coast Review, Magnapoets, and The Adirondack Review. He currently lives in Rockville Centre, NY.
“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.” -Albert Einstein
The best and worst of times are now rubbing up against each other. We are now entering a realm where time is blowing, stretching the screeches of saxophones to the highest tones unheard. Crying through suburban trees and the high rises of a thousand cities, through canyons, forests, and frozen wastes where it sometimes stops. A moment may be all the time we have left. The singer says, “I got the blues this time, this time I got the blues for sure.” Time may be losing control. The players are beginning to look confused. Dizzy1 ain’t where he used to be; he feels like the numbers have changed, the count is off and the time signatures have been persistently transformed by Salvador2. Signed by time means it’s an official document and this document declares we need more time! What do we want? We want more time, all the time in the line! Gather it up, cook it up, and share it with a junky friend. The needle like the tip of a mountain spears an extra second. Place it on the tip of my tongue and I am immortal for a little while. Didn't you check the expiration date? Open the lid and smell; time has spoiled everything. Our packages will never be delivered. The sea I'm adrift in doesn't want me anymore. Time, the storm, is destroying symbols and metaphors. Even when I crash, who will hear me? The hourglass is empty. My seconds like grains of sand dance in the poetry of a heartbeat, pumping life into a tune not yet written.
I’m seeing this like a truncated be-bop introduction. Not talking ‘Trane3 either but Bird.4 Bird is the rule of flight. Bird changes the rules of flight. I wanted to take that train but in my heart I knew I could only make my melody connection If I forced myself over the cliff and in that split second, that moment in time that slips by, opens my eye, my wings, hallucinations they may be, catch the wind of time and fly like Bird. Conquering the world, sweat soaking through shirts. Well that’s the ideal, isn’t it? Flying the river of time reveals ancient mysteries, angels, demons all under the hot city lights and I’ll stand on my goddamn head and applaud with my feet. Feet first I’m crawling out of the water. Evolving like a groove, the needle penetrates and reproduces each sound. It comes from a legend. Legends come from another time. ‘Present’ legends are bad jive and ain’t no brother can dig bad jive. Those two words don’t even work together and we need to work together so later we can rest. A whole rest. In a whole rest, I can order my beer, finish it, order another, smoke reefer, and finish the second beer before I take another breath; before I pour my new breath straight down the throat of my skinny, sexy saxophone. That’s the whole point of a whole rest. Stop, breathe the absence of the beat, and then find my seat at the Five Spot Café.
Does the racing in my stomach have anything to do with it? It has to do with caffeine, Benzedrine. It’s driving me to the beat. All Beats. There’s Jack5 keeping time on the ride. It’s a symbol. A cymbal means something symbolic and to Jack it means one hell of a long ride, the sad skies and holy miles. Not only up and down like the high hat but over and across, (raging continents) high and low, between space and time (Big Bang). When he looks up at the ceiling in the smoke drenched lair in the beat filled air he’s seeing the blue way up there we all crave to see. A space in time. He reaches out his finger, long painted finger. He touches the blue, the roaring high blue, and that's when symbols crash. The beat is turned around. His finger reaching to your finger attached to your hand and the soul in you, which unfortunately spends time (priceless) doing the unthinkable, working to bring home the bread instead of lying on your back soaking in forever to touch the true blew sky in your infinite mind (eternal). Instead there’s a smoke filled sky ruined by distractions, contraptions, yearnings, and regret resigned to the toilet, pushed too far under the bed; behind the beat. The metronome tossed out with the baby in the bath water. Pushed like a syringe, drop of blood on the tip, drugs rushing, and slowing life’s heartbeats, drumbeats nodding in the gutter of existence. Time is coming to make a change. Time is a change from the day without a yesterday. Unzip those trousers, skirts, and suits and get naked in the existential rush of the unknowable universe, (expanding) which is whether you know it or not waiting for you. It will always wait for you because it doesn’t know time.
(Hey Jack) there’s no repeat sign. Search for the beat that fits in time and you’ll find the Beats know time. Jack said so and so did Neal6 and Lawrence7 managed to paint those words in time to sign up with. Words dipped in colors of meaning plastered and dripped on the mad canvas floor like Jackson,8 inside the painting, inside the moment, spilling his guts. Emotional ticks and tocks howling; every second holy; shot up with crazy new ideas nailed to the bandstand like Christ on the cross, like the set list. Like long precious time, minds’ drifting past pain, past the planet into eternal beats like the atomic clock. And because the clock stops for no one, at least no one we know, until (Shit) too late when our bones have turned to powder and our eyes have shriveled and dried. No sight, no vision in a timeless night; where dark has no meaning and when the clock strikes twelve it counts it out in four beat bars: twelve bar blues, the foundation. Satchmo9 swimming in that tune, cutting beats with razor smiles. Drinking, talking, smoking, digging multiplied by three all night long until the morning comes but the morning always comes because even the goddamn earth is a fucking clock. Time wasn’t born of necessity. It’s the only thing that never splits; time ain’t splitable (there’s no atom here), it doesn't catch the next train, it’s a theory only recently Albert10 got his hands on, got his equations to make sense of the absolute king of intangibles. He makes time begin its slow drip into reality and our addiction is to the idea, the concept, and the enchantment. The ghost-like color of time is printed on the sheet music and fed through amplifiers. The volume includes the destruction of the inner workings of melting, mangled clocks while Allen11 tickles the pubic hairs of every piano he can get his hands on, glissando to the max. To know him is to love him. He takes a photograph. To know time is to dig the no time idea. Know idea what time is.
What if I fell into the pit of Desperation and there at the very bottom where the dirt is black as night but clean as the day’s first breath, what if I saw the tiny tip of something jutting up from the cool black earth. What if I began to dig it? If I began to dig it out using my finest archeologist digging fingers - the crumbs of earth gathering under my nails, my hammered nails, until the secret of Time is given to me. The capital T, the lower case: i – m – e. I would touch time and make it mine. Time may be! A major discovery; my life could be backed up, saved in a new file; I wouldn’t have to look back, I wouldn’t have to be concerned (frightened) of the future; I could just be. Be. I’m digging the philosophy of time. I’m reading it now. I carefully slide the book of Time into my rucksack. My moment is to climb from the pit with the secret of time intact back to the surface, back to the bandstand. I’m dreaming of saving the universe, lifting the veil of illusion from the eyes of civilization. Beads of a profuse sweat form on my forehead. They race down my face and directly into my eyes as if of an evil design so my vision is compromised and the moment I move my hands from my sides to my eyes to ease my salty pain, in my attempts to restore my vision, my sack is brutally sliced from my back by a scaly green arm with knife like blades instead of fingers which have emerged from the black earth and are shaking the ground like the rumble seat rumbles in a 1932 Ford; like the rattle and hum of a kick drum. I turn in panic to reach my sack and the priceless secret inside but instead I am hurled by the snaky green arm up and out of the pit. As I venture one step away, Desperation closes like the snap of an elevator door and I am there in the doldrums, the ho-hums of ordinary time. My memory of Time’s secret slipping into the vague blankness behind my eyes and suddenly I am frozen, time is ruined. My temporal knowledge splayed on a cutting board sliced up like Neal’s brains washed clean before sliding into the sewers of nevermore.
I said, “where did it go,” You said, “just plain ran out.” I said,” If I had some more,” You said, “ There’s never enough.” I said, " I’m sorry you ever earned your wings, time."
In my dreams, it’s different; I never run out. I’m engaged in a slipstream of endless time running right along side of me; a twisting, powerful current, which is deep and misunderstood. On some levels, it speaks to me in a rushing whisper. Then it sidles up close to me and presses it’s lips, aching with fever and desire, like a chisel on my lips. I cough. My intimacies with time seem vulgar; how dare I touch the untouchable? I’m shocked as to how far I will go but I need to go all the way; there is no other course. Running along side time is a farce; only total immersion will bring my degree in satisfaction and satisfaction in this school will only bring the liquid hands around to surround me and take me down, far down into the writhing depths of murky time where one day I am washed ashore, another grain of sand.
1. Dizzy Gillespie
2. Salvador Dali
3. John Coltrane
4. Charlie Parker
5. Jack Kerouac
6. Neal Cassady
7. Lawrence Ferlinghetti
8. Jackson Pollock
9. Louis Armstrong
Tim lives and writes in mid-town Manhattan. If asked he would tell a story about how he looked over the river Hudson before it had its name. Tim's roots are in Pennsylvania and in Rock n Roll
beginning with Frankie Lymon and Dion Dimucci.
In addition to New York City, Paula, and his son, Adam, attending Mansfield State University in
Mansfield, Pa., are major highlights.
The Real Survivor
When I was child, as I was racing outside from my babysitter’s basement—even though I’d been warned to slow down and be more careful—I tripped and my right arm punched through the glass on her screen door with the force of boxer. There was shattered glass everywhere, and I went into shock. I didn’t feel the pain until her son, who was waiting for me in the yard, saw the blood. In the moment after I tripped, I could see what was coming but couldn’t do anything to stop the inevitable fall. I couldn’t stop the momentum of my body’s weight. I couldn’t stop my arm hitting the glass. I couldn’t stop time.
Matthew Battles’ collection of tales, fables, and parables, The Sovereignties of Invention, gives me the same feeling of inevitability that I had just before I reached the glass. The stories not only serve as analogies for the times in which we live, but also they have a prophetic quality to them. One gets the sense after reading these tales that the human race is doomed and we have only ourselves to blame. And if we’re not doomed, then we’re caught in a Sisyphean state of absurdity—minus the recognition that Camus believed would set us free and make life, if not worth living, at least bearable.1
There’s a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Timequake in which Kilgore Trout pronounces: “It was the world that had suffered the nervous breakdown. I was just having fun in a nightmare...”2 Trout is referring to his dealings with the publishing industry over a prized manuscript, but the quote can be analogous to the experience of living in the world—the horror of our waking life is not all that different than our nightmares.
Battles’ tale “The Dogs in the Trees” is one such nightmare where dogs, in the process of self-imposed extinction, retreat to the trees to die. And the society that bears witnesses to this, including the narrator, is caught in the trap of the bystander effect—watching with interest but failing to act. The consequences are incomprehensible, but the narrator and witnesses seem to accept this extinction with resignation as if it was as inevitable as the turning of the seasons, leaves falling from trees.
In the title story, “Sovereignties of Invention,” pleasure and pain are contrasted when the protagonist becomes a slave to his desire to record his stream of consciousness with a technological device he receives in the mail. But there’s a steep price to pay—the fulfilling of this one need obliterates all other aspects of his life. In trying to seek more of his own humanity, he ends up with less.
In another story, “The Gnomon,” the narrator is caught in a nightmare in which he cannot resist the magnetic force of a gnomon that draws him and the masses toward it. He knows he should resist it like his friend, who sees the danger and is able to get away, but the narrator can’t stop himself. His action as well as the action of those around him is, like my fall, inevitable.
In all of these instances, the characters choose individual desires (knowingly and unknowingly) over the greater good and over their own interests even though they have an opportunity to behave differently. These stories point out the destruction that human needs or wants can beget and the consequences we face as a result—extinction, addiction, and the loss of our humanity and free will.
Battles’ stories also bring to mind Walter Benjamin’s theory of progress from his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in which Benjamin compares our notion of progress to the angel of history who is propelled into the future while “his face is turned toward the past”:
Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of our feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.2
Catastrophe forces Battles’ characters, like Benjamin’s angel, to look back on the wreckage of human destruction. “The World & Trees,” is a story in which the protagonist is punished for seeking knowledge beyond the tree that was the only home he ever knew, and now he’s forced to live in a ruined habitation where he watches his past and all his previous knowledge, which takes the form of the “tree’s trunks,” fall away and widen “the lumberyard of the world”.
In “Time Capsules,” the narrator is complicit in his own and the world’s demise—it’s for selfish reasons that he keeps taking capsules that give him time but annihilate “some volume of space.” This is a universe, the narrator tells us, “…in which nothing can be gained without cost.” Yet he continues—even after he’s aware of the destruction he’s causing. This is a familiar vice of humanity. In fact, it would be hard to name a world problem that wasn’t caused by this kind of self-interest.
The catastrophe in “The Unicorn” is the reproduction of the unicorn’s gift of being able to produce undying energy. Once the masses are able to reproduce and commodify this energy, the unicorn fades into obscurity. But their reproduction is temporary, and ultimately the unicorn finds himself the only survivor in a dying universe. One could read this is as a fictionalization of the loss of the “aura” in artwork as described in Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” where he discusses the loss that occurs when uniqueness is forsaken for reproduction.4 Alternatively one could read the story as a critique of the fantasy and the ritualization of “the aura”. By dramatizing the loss of the “aura” in this story, is Battles suggesting that idealizing and lamenting the past contributes to the crises we face in the present? If mechanical reproduction allows us, according to Benjamin, to hold a mirror up to our own faces what are we to make of the ugly little unicorn so “unbearably close at hand” to a universe in the process of destruction?5 In either case, the outcome is ominous.
Moralistic. Critical. Timely. These parables are a call to action: wake up and do something before it’s too late. However, the absurd predicament we find ourselves in—is that when it comes right down to it, there’s not much we can do but look back upon the wreckage, the shattered glass and try to make sense of what just happened. But this might not be completely futile; in fact, it might just be, according to Kafka, the only way to survive:
Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate…but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor.6
The glass from the screen door ended up slashing my arm two inches lengthwise, and they had to take me to the hospital for fear I’d burst an artery. In the emergency room, they gave me fifteen stitches. Miraculously, though, the cut missed my artery by a hair. After my arm healed and the stitches were removed, the incident was all but forgotten like so many events that accumulate throughout our lives. The only evidence—a smooth, pale scar—I rarely think about or notice but that I carry with me everywhere like a shadow.
1 Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien (London, England: Penguin Books, 1955).
2 Vonnegut, Kurt, Timequake (New York: Berkley Books, 1997), 62.
3 Benjamin, Walter, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Trans. Harry Zohn. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1969, p. 257-258. Print.
5 Benjamin, 251. “In big parades and monster rallies, in sports events, and in war, all of which nowadays are captured by camera and sound recording, the masses are brought face to face with themselves. This process, whose significance need not be stressed, is intimately connected with the development of the techniques of reproduction and photography.”
6Arendt, Hannah, “Introduction.” Illuminations. By Walter Benjamin. Trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 19. The quote comes form Kafka’s
Kathryn Mockler is the author of the poetry book Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011) and the forthcoming bookThe Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, Fall 2012). She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and her BA in Honours English and Creative Writing from Concordia University. Her writing has been published most recently in The Capilano Review, The Windsor Review, Joyland, Rattle Poetry, and CellStories. Her films have been broadcast on TMN, Movieola, and Bravo and have screened in national and international film festivals. She teaches creative writing at the University of Western Ontario and is the co-editor of the UWO online journal The Rusty Toque.
when it is time for the final reading,
we will put you in a vice, and count the density of truths in each square inch of
type. but what use are tools when the pressure drops? what's in a name? the
overtakers of the page are so depraved: there is much to be gotten away with, no
checks, so much to answer for, no one to ask. we skipped pages, drowsed in the
margins, scribbled profundities, left characters for dead, confused connections,
faked left and went right, deserted, premeditated, misattributed, deliberated,
underthought, and lied. we left rubble as breadcrumbs for those who came
next, a trail of trampled rejoinders. when it is time, we will sign NO NAMES on the
long, undotted line.
when it is time for the final volunteering,
to each her own. supposedly we grow, and soon it comes, our moral spur: "we
want to be good humans." then why is it so hard to help people? altruism is like
a horn bursting through skin/there is another heart breaking again/again/again/
at every metronomic now/that's when. People are falling while you are typing.
Looking back over your shoulder, nearing the end, you realize that you are
always slightly ahead of these dominoes of anguish. If you write for long
enough, there will be enough extra time left over to do something in advance.
when it is time for the final listening,
there will be addictions to sounds that feel too real. it is the gauze between your
equilibrium and the end times: you tapped and jazzed, bobbed, nodded, wove,
throbbed, stomped, yearned and yowled and jammed. if they could only read
your lips: it's turning me into a zombie and it feels so good. one cell latches on, then
another, and you know how geometric progression goes. stay here: you are mass
produced for it. repeat: "a real human being." primary colors cannot be created
by mixing other colors, but primary sounds can. there will be no cacophony/
only/one long track of slurry/of what we hear/and what we run away
when it is time for the final lovemaking,
his eyes are sweating/don't look in/there is no pocket in your shared skin/to
keep the words from getting heavy. reading together, he was the one that could
tell when you were ready to turn the page. his gaze turned it, so gentle for your
fingerprints. did you know that bile doesn't sound that foul/sometimes/better
than vowel. turn the pillow and there are the banished words: temerity, rancor.
the springs just might pierce the sheets - and there aren't any springs. sleepwear
is intended to fit snugly, his eyes are like lanced blisters, and memory is getting
closer to the real thing.
when it is time for the final platforms to globalize,
everyone disallows comments eventually, since bullet holes dent the
veneer. what people think is valuable is what gets passed on, and people have
filthy judgment. a boot, typing on a human face forever? keep your rank clothes
on/bring your thumbs-up-in-a-box/we will start an arson in the
dark/unrecognizable animals move forward out of hiding/with cheekbones like
Gary Snyder. talking has begun to hurt my devices. pretend that we are
behaving like a species that demonstrates longevity.
when it is time for the final drawer in the mausoleum to slide,
do you know that morning cigar the old trees smoke/they stub it out on the long
meadow/tinted like mist/time is a catastrophe that sweeps across us/like
geography that's pissed. we are hoping for something like a sandstorm to keep
us safe from fame. something to cover up the glut the words, pages,
volumes/while all the jokers stepped away for ice, croquet, disease/you could
be a butler/please/that keeps the stone unswept/as time does speechless things.
when it is time for the final writing,
we are programmed to keep it enigmatic, reading. so we always put the book
back in the same place, in a drawer with the birth certificates. it is too easy, and
too dangerous, like crossing over: all symbols are on the side of a sarcophagus.
there are very few who have described what it is actually like. it is time. you don't
have to pretend that you know what a coda feels like anymore. you don't have
to wish for street cred, or lacerations, a safe chance at being incarcerated, or
escaping an act of treason. you don't have to applaud. no one's listening/no one
you say/no one to lean on/you liked to cheat that way/in a book there is no need
for a ocean view/there is only occupancy for one/there is only you.
Michael Vagnetti writes criticism and poetry and has a BA Honors in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He lives in Brooklyn. You can connect with him at:http://about.me/mvagnetti
I was pretty well tanked, leaning into my crutch and talking to one of my colleagues in the Alabama MFA program at a bar we all often frequented. “He who controls the spice… controls life,” I slurred into his face. A momentary stagger, grasping his elbow I righted myself, eyes shining with alcohol and crazy. “It is by will alone that I set my mind in motion… the lips acquire stains, the stains become a warning, it is by will alone that I set my mind in motion.” My eyes fluttered. I was gleaning the source, riding on the back of a massive sandworm: my sour breath of cigarette and microbrew melded with the cinnamon smell of the spice mélange wafting from my subconscious, singeing the hairs in my nostrils with the bar’s humid pungency and the desert’s stifling heat.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
- Dune, Frank Herbert - Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear
It was one of my first nights out after I’d shattered my ankle and was laid up for a summer and two surgeries in hot as balls Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In my peculiar transformation that evening at Egan’s bar, I’d turned from drunk misanthropic graduate student into the young and noble son of Duke Leto, Paul Atreides, main character of Frank Herbert’s epic Dune series – the books I was reading during my convalescence – just as he was beginning to understand his role in the universe and undergo the transformation into the Kwisatz Haderach, the übermensch, the messiah. (This, of course, before the books really go off the rails, he turns into a worm, lives ten-thousands years, becomes God, has lots of clone-robot-golems, and etc.)
My coworker looked at me, half-heartedly attempting to process the nonsense coming out of my mouth, took another sip of his drink, said “Okay, Erik,” and walked away. I scoffed with the certainty of my righteousness and called after him, “The sleeper has awakened!” before collapsing into the bar to order another. By this time in my MFA career the full scope of my self-loathing and scorn had been magnanimously revealed and I had worn out my welcome with the majority of the people in the program. Not that I gave a fuck: I was the Kwisatz Haderach!
“Tell me of your homeworld, Usul.”
- Chani, Dune
I first read Dune in Croatia. Or maybe not, I probably read it before that. I think I’ve read the original book 3 or 4 times. One of those times I read it in Croatia. A hostel had a book exchange and I dropped off (I don’t remember) and picked up the first couple Dune books. Nor do I remember what the Croatian town was, but I’m guessing it was Split. There was water. I can see the white-walled buildings. There was a market of tents nearby. I bought a Speedo, Brazilian cut. I burned the bejesus out of my thighs—in all my years they had nary seen the sun—lying up on rocks that jutted over the water, so blue, so unbelievably blue. I remember diving into the water, maybe 20 feet or more down. I remember the impact of the water hurt my head it was so far down. I remember lying in bed in agony from the sunburn; a party was going on next door. They were listening to Michael Jackson. Maybe that’s when I was reading Dune, but I don’t remember reading, I only remember Billie Jean. Maybe I read on the bus to Sarajevo or Dubrovnik, in Montenegro or the ferry back to Bari, Italy, maybe in Naples. It was somewhere along there.
Things I claim to remember are increasingly fuzzy – age, mischance and libation have combined to widen the fault lines in my memory – the story about getting shitfaced at the bar and making an ass of myself, reading the original Dune on holiday, reading the book for the second, third, fourth time. Deciding in the Alabama heat and the cloud of painkillers and PBR that I would read all of the Dune books again or for the first time – all those written by Frank Herbert at least. These stories are all just guesses cast backwards into some neurological filing cabinet of my mind. They are called the past and are supposed to be factual. But for all their reality they might as well be the future or even a dream: they are simply my interpretation of something that stopped existing the moment it happened.
I cannot say with any certainty what relation yesterday has on today, much less five, four, or two years ago. Yesterday I woke up, exercised, meditated, wrote and went to work. After work I went to a coworkers house and watched a silly but cute movie and ate pizza and talked girl talk (for some reason my younger female coworkers have taken to including me in their girl talk – I wonder about this – do they think I’m gay? Possibly. Do they find me nonthreatening and asexual? Bummer.) That is what I did yesterday. What relation do those actions have to the present moment? I spent money on pizza; if I don’t go to work I get fired, okay. I can now talk with some authority about Whip It! possibly the most cliché-ridden film I have ever seen, but I think it was supposed to be like a tongue-in-cheek cliché, but I didn’t find it subverted my expectations at all, so is that really tongue-in-cheek? While these experiences have been incorporated into my consciousness – my past time – they now only exist in my present. I will only ever write about Whip It! now. You will only ever read what I wrote about Whip It! now. We will only ever have this dialogue, or remember having this dialogue, now.
“Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife—chopping off what's incomplete and saying: "Now, it's complete because it's ended here."
- Princess Irulan, Collected Sayings of Maud'Dib, Dune
The sad and stupid story of my destroyed ankle is this: one of my oldest friends fucked my somewhat recently (at the time) ex-girlfriend and I found out about it. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but it was the circumstance that bothered me – they didn’t even know each other when we were dating. Some bullshit social media connection got it started – I lament the interwebs, though they’ve gotten me laid in unsavory circumstances too. I was pissed, and being pissed, I did what I often do when pissed, get pissed. I went to the bar and had a beer then another and shots and beer and shots and by last call I was trashed, tore-up from floor up. Thankfully I hadn’t driven to the bar (knowing how fucked-up I planned to be), so I began the walk home. There are some discrepancies in my memory as to the exact course of events, but next I remember I was lying on the ground in tremendous pain. I tried to stand, but kept collapsing back to the ground, unable to put any weight on my left foot. After a minute or two of rest I got back up and tried to hop, but no, I had about a half mile to go and no sense of balance. I fell back down. Eventually I decided a break was needed and I crawled back into the side alley of the house I collapsed in front of and fell asleep. After a couple hours shut-eye I woke up and revaluated my situation: I was lying on the ground in the side alley of a frat house with a grievously ugly and painful ankle. After some careful consideration I called Jimmy Johns. Not the actual Jimmy Johns sandwich shop, mind you, but a girl who worked at the sandwich shop. It was my clever nickname for her. Used to my late night phone calls begging for a tuna sub and a blow job, she picked me up and said she was going to take me to the hospital. I refused as our school insurance was terrible and going to the emergency room would have soaked me. I said take me home. No sex or sandwich. I went to sleep. I woke up. My ankle was hugely swollen and probably far worse for having slept on it (twice). In the hungover, puke-tinged light of the morning I called a friend with whom I did not and do not exchange sex or sandwiches. He took me to the University Health Center. Surgery, Cast, Surgery, blah blah blah. Dune. Summer in Alabama. Oxycontin. PBR.
I’ve thought about writing about this summer before, but I figured I might have to read the Dune books again to do any essay justice and there is no fucking way that is going to happen. Why? Time. Yes, the first book is wonderful, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune are decent, but there are better things to do with my life than subject myself to God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse Dune ever again – the shit pulled out of Frank as his health was deteriorating and his son picked up the reigns, and pen, of Daddy’s triumph. The many many hours it would take me to do so could be spent on far better things, like, for example, watching the entire Wire series again. Watching the entire Shield series again. Watching every episode of Star Trek The Next Generation and the Original Series and Deep Space Nine, probably for like the 6th time each. I could write the sequel to Anna Karenina, though I guess there would have to be zombies – I just googled this and it has been done, but with a cyborg? Same guy? I care not enough to check.
Then again, how much time can a person actually spend writing? Of the 168 hours in a week, I account for about 35 hours for my day job work week, 6 hours of various transportation, 50 hours of sleep, 15 hours of exercise/self-care (bathing etc), 15 hours of eating, probably 15 hours of dicking around online (and emails, etc), 10-15 hours of socializing, which leaves me with about 20 hours a week to write. Given that my weekends are pretty much chockablock with teaching, I then have 4 hours each weekday to write. Which is really not so bad, were I able to actually write uninterrupted for four hours five days a week. I also forgot reading and movies in my schedule. Reading is kind of a necessity for a writer, so stick that in somewhere too. Movies I can pretty much take or leave, but throw one in every few weeks. Also travel, like vacations, going to the beach, going to the art museum, the grocery store to buy cereal.
“I'll miss the sea, but a person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing him to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”
- Duke Ledo Atriedes, Dune
An additional new drain on my time is meditation. It was my New Year’s resolution—that I’ve actually kept! Talk about a mind fuck time killer though. I’m now going to sit here for 40 minutes and do nothing! Absolutely nothing! And I am going to be super conscious and aware of the nothing I am doing. Well, I guess I’ll breathe. I’ll be really aware of my breath. That’s what I’ll do. So I’m not doing nothing, I’m sitting here cross-legged and breathing for 40 minutes. And if I think about that email I have to write or that story idea or how nice it would be to have a cracker, nope, 39 minutes to go. Not moving. Just breathing. But the funny thing is, the more I make time to meditate the more time I seem to have for other things. It’s like all the useless shit just starts to drop away. For example, I used to watch Jersey Shore. I don’t anymore. I used to play this really stupid video game online. Nope. Has the time I have gained been used to write? Not so much.
It does somehow seem like the process is smoother now though. I don’t know, I can’t really quantify it, but it seems like the time spent writing is time better spent. That could be total hocus-pocus bullshit.
Detachment probably has something to do with it as well. To a large degree meditation is the practice of detachment. The theory is that by not valuing the incessant flow of thoughts and sensations anymore than what they are—nothing of any real substance—one is able to better separate from the events in one’s life, seeing them as ephemeral, transitory, and really not a very big fucking deal, rather than from one’s own egoistic sense of what one thinks they are or should be. I also learned detachment from my writing by writing business copy on deadline for 6 years. Try to stay attached to that shit. Try to fight for a word or a phrase (I did at the beginning). Not worth it, just send it to the editor and let them do what they do. The check’s in the mail.
On the floor outside my bathroom a hundred ants are desiccating a gecko’s carcass. What time is it buddy?
“To attempt an understanding of Maud'Dib without understanding his mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, is to attempt seeing Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing Darkness. It cannot be.”
- Princess Irulan, Manual of Maud'Dib, Dune
Apparently the reason Red Lemonade asked me to write about “time” was that I occasionally do a hashtag on my tweet machine called #14st0ry. Meaning I tell a story in 140 characters, such as: #14st0ry Sigmund started at the sound; it was a thunderous ovation of owls, wings flapping and feathers molting and lilting tremulous coos.
I also have one called #HCMinute which is basically the same idea but it’s usually a scene from Ho Chi Minh City, where I now live. An example from Christmas: #HCMinute Santa riding bitch on a motorbike, cotton ball beard flapping in the wind. Anywho, you get the drift. I will leave it to your discretion if these are actually stories.
So apparently, by virtue of the fact that I have “embraced“ the use of social media as a means of story-telling, I am somehow grappling with the fact that, in this modern day and age of tweet machines and face machines and internets toobs, we all have less time to read Dickens. But Dickens was serialized originally, right? – basically the Wire of the day? – so maybe that’s a bad example. I don’t know.
Yes, I suppose it’s true that my work has gotten shorter, meaning it takes less time to read. I don’t just mean on Twitter, but other work out there in the world. Looking at the markets, I don’t know how this wouldn’t be the case. In other words, I don’t think the shortening, the awareness of time, is some artistic or culturally-motivated decision on my part, I am just writing what is available to me – with the acknowledgement that I write to be read. Everybody wants under a thousand words. And I understand it, I mean, reading on this screen kinda sucks. [On another note, I am not opposed to the ebook machines for the lengthy reading – speaking of another total time hole, I read all the Game of Thrones books in about 6 weeks on a Kindle. I am not bragging about my speed here, I am simply saying I read them with great dispatch as I so wanted to be done with them so I could never ever engage with them again. This is very similar to my feelings on the later Dune books. It was just before I moved to Vietnam and I was staying in a cabin in rural Virginia with very sporadic internet and no TV and I read a ton – imagine that! – not only shit, but some nice books as well. Actually come to think it was mostly pulpy stuff: several James Bond novels. Some Ursula K. Leguin and Martin Amis sci-fi. A book about an existential werewolf by Glen Duncan.]
This essay is coming in at 3200 right now. Say I finish at 3500 or so, I’ll probably pull it back to around 3000, which isn’t long, but isn’t really short either. My comfort zone for work nowadays is either about 750 or 3000, both internet ready and a long way from 10000 or 100000. So yeah, I guess I’ve been shaped by the market.
Back to Alabama and broken me, back in time. Back to my memory of that time: a handful of Oxycontin and a sixer of tall boys. Bob Dylan’s soundtrack to Pat Garret and Billy the Kid playing on repeat. Stumbling upon a Bonnie and Clyde photoset on the internets of my ex-girlfriend and ex-friend driving around Florida in a rental convertible. Scratching my foot with a wire coat hanger. Staring at the wall, staring at the ceiling, sweating, dripping. Listening to the CD again. Taking another few pills. Cracking another beer. This is time. This is time stopped. There is no such thing. Oxycontin is the spice mélange and I am Muah’Dib, the Kwisatz Haderach.
“I die daily.”
- 1 Corinthians 15.31
Speaking of twits, I saw one the other day that Toni Morrison didn’t publish her first novel until 39. The writer of the twit, a writer and editor, took solace from that fact.
I likewise used to worry about the fact that I was getting old and all these precocious young novelists were getting book deals. Then I thought of a guy like Sebald and felt a little better. Then I remembered he died shortly thereafter. Time ceased to be much of a concern – in fact, time ceased altogether – but he had enough for Austeritz I guess…
I haven’t read much fiction lately, aside from a couple Coetzee novels, who I am working on an essay about (since writing this sentence my computer died for a week – it is repaired – and I read three novels including a lengthy Russian classic, so, well, yeah, given the choice between TMZ and Dostoevsky…). I’ve mostly been reading Thich Nhat Hanh and other meditation manuals, listening to Dharma talks on the interwebs and browsing vegetarian cookbooks. Yes, I grant that I am now officially old and lame and even sort of enjoy New Age music – I grant that I have been broken by time and this is my feeble attempt at a repair job.
My relationship with time hovers between depression and transcendence. I am either past time, anxiously planning how to maximize it, or am too melancholy to give a fuck either way. My writing career has never really happened, my relationships have all fallen apart (a different ex is banging a different dude), my country is overrun by madmen and women, I live ten thousand miles away from everyone I’ve ever loved, and none of it matters. It is all “time.” My relationship with these “facts” is all grasping and desire. How any of those problems manifest in my life, right now, I cannot say, because they don’t outside my thinking about them. The fact is I’m writing right now, I don’t want the girl back (right now), my country will go the way my country goes and I like living in Southeast Asia for the time being. I have nowhere, and no-when, else to be. And shit, they’re still like 10 more Dune books to read.
Erik Wennermark writes prose in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Follow his
Check out : http://erikwennermark.
For May, Red Lemonade community writers explored the theme of time in relation to works of fiction and their personal experience.
Check out : http://erikwennermark.
For May, Red Lemonade community writers explored the theme of time in relation to works of fiction and their personal experience.
A Skype conversation between Red Reader #1 and Red Reader # 2, the main focus being the Passages section of Sovereignties of Invention by Matthew Battles. Retold by the participants.
0:23: Skype connection works.
0:36: Skype connection doesn't work.
0:56: Skype connection works
1:13: Skype connection doesn't work.
1:46: Skype connection works.
2:12: Red Reader 1 and Red Reader 2 greet each other as befits two gentleman who have conversed by e-mail on several occasions on matters literary (that is to say, with a curious degree of familarity for which the protocol is not exactly clear).
2:23 : Reader Two comments that 'Passages' evoke a similarity to parables mixed with nature writing. Each touches on feelings of uncertainty from different perspectives.Coming write before the final two stories which addresses broader questions in light of the passing of things. The short tales speak to that fragmentation. The world appears to be breaking apart and new connections are being revealed. Some things are being made anew and somethings are passing forever, Reader Two says trying to sound more erudite than he is.
3:37: Reader One kicks things off with this business of calling these stories 'parables' and all the ways in which that decison effects the reading experience from the off. How this places the reader up on his toes, extra-vigilant, attemtempting to draw instruction from the narrative on top of evrything else. Kind of like ethical sudoku, suggests Reader Two. Red Reader One laughs. Yeh. Pretty Much.
Is it a good thing to burden these stories in this way? The two-reader jury is undecided.
5:05 There is a discussion of the concepts of nature magicks and ethereal essences which explore the midline between human experience and the outer world in the stories , Reader Two attempts to clarify his thought, but finds it difficult, The conversation goes broad by bringing in characters and scenes from the other books, but both readers have agreed to focus on these three passages, in an attempt to organize the conversation/set limits on the tangents. Setting limits or understanding the breadth of the 'tangents' both readers agree is a subject that the author is addressing in his fiction.
6:15: Both Readers try to put a place and approximate time-stamp as to when and where the action is situated in Passage two. Regarding the place, Reader One is adamant. For him, the whole story smacks of North American from the very first line, and the appearance of the word 'prairies'. He confesses to googling 'North Dakota Prairies' as a consequence of this wording, in the process of following a hunch regarding the protaganist's identity (this prompts a brief good-natured aside about how technology changes a reader's relationship to the static text and grants him enormous powers of sleuthing, like a cross between Inspector Gadget & Sherlock Holmes).
7:34 :In regards to the distinction of the town and the town Reader Two states that he appreciates how the distinction of the two is nicely clarified and forms an interesting distinction between the relationship of the physical construction of buildings and the changing natural landscape versus the human communication and inter-relationship between the townsfolk. Humans inhabit both worlds, maybe the paddler is within the stream between the two? Reader One suggest Reader Two maintain a closer connection to the text.
8:34: Reader One notices – as he is speaking from a local Cafe where he often avails himself of free wi-fi - that the young man and woman at the next table are starting at him with barely concealed disdain. Is it his usual problem with phones and headsets (the tendency to speak into them with more volume than is strictly necessary or wise) or is it the intellectual tenor of the conversation they object to. Do they think of me as pretentious? He wonders. If so then they are wrong.
12:12: Both Readers debate the interconnectedness of the tales and try deducing if the protaganist from the first parable is that same figure who finds himself navigating the eerie landscape of parable two. Interestingly the two raeders contextualise this same stetting in different ways, with Reader One seeing it as post cataclysmic, while Readet Two retains the possibility that the narrator is steering his canoe through the contemporary darkness at the edge of town.
14:21: Reader One is interested in the way that MB conveys a sense of landscape in this story. He compares this to J.G Ballard (no stranger to barren locales, scarcely populated) and the flatness of Ballard's prose. MB, by comparison, is effusive, lyrical, lush, almost epiphanic. Reader Two concurs. Rather than being aligned with the starkness of Ballard, the writing more closely adheres to traditions of American nature writing. Thoreau, etc. Dare one throw Whitman into the mix? Also there are echos of Huck Finn, what with the mode of transport, and the elegaic tenor of the prose. What a lot of Americana!
16:12: Both readers pause briefly – while Skype warbles ominously – but all is good. Their connection holds firm and true.
16:48: For Reader Two, the girl picking berries towards the end of the story is key to its understanding. Meanwhile Reader One zones in on his favourite sentence from all three pieces. 'The trees would go to war for her'. That, he thinks, is both strong and conscise.
17:32: Reader Two talks about the third parable, and once again they try placing the action in time and place. Is the young victim, Neils Ulman's son, or his grandson? What decade are we in? Which century? The questions mount up, and, for all their earnestness, the two readers are, in truth, no match for these slippery tales with their countless unmoored elements.
18:01: Reader Two focuses on the boy's secret identity, and the squandered lore that goes with it. Both reader's consider what innate knowledge means, and this leads to riffs on the limits of human comprehnesion, the process of wonder, the riffle of synapses.
Things are heating up!
28:12: Reader Two cites Heidgegger, and Chomsky, speaking of metaphoric clearings, the recurrent aboreal motif in MB's book; the density of information online and quantum theories of sense (now I get it/now I don't).This is the point at which Reader One's head starts hurting on accout of all this hermeneutical thought and those giddy implications which are too much to countenance in one sitting. Heavy, he thinks. This here is some heavy talk. He checks his watch and realises that he has five minutes to get to another engagement up the road. Not that he's sorry to be running late. In fact, it's been a blast.