Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Feeding at Dandelions

Today for perhaps an hour I pushed around our reel mower, which, for those not in the know, is a non-motorized affair -- an equivalent in yard care (vs. the various noisy and noisome affairs that destroy suburban and village peace, while consuming deep-drilled fuel) to the pencil, pen, and typewriter in writing (vs. the electric word processor which so many writers take skittering across a million electronic landscapes).

At some point while mowing, my eye lit upon a lone dandelion bloom, which had upon it a feeding Sulfur. A butterfly. Both dandelion and Sulfur fall within the category of Vagrant Organism, since both happen to flourish readily under the conditions Caucasian rule has imposed on this continent -- conditions which include disrupted and damaged soils, and a narrowed range of dominant plant types.

So my eye was caught by this sight which should be utterly commonplace -- "vulgar," perhaps, in an older usage -- of a vagrant insect feeding upon a vagrant forb's sunny blossom ...

When this thought intruded: "How beautiful."

Butterfly flew away. Lawnmower, pushed along by force of my legs and bare feet, beheaded weed.

Alas, poor Beauty! I knew her ... well, momentarily.

Various thoughts filled me. We have seen few or no dandelion blooms in our yard for a month or more -- until now, when a handful are appearing again, here and there. We missed dandelion season completely, in terms of wine making, even though both Martha and I made noises about wanting to make some again this year.

Reflecting on missing this window of opportunity made me think that the people who realize most clearly the fact that dandelion blooms are fleeting in their coming and going are the home winemakers -- the ones who prize them, and know how promptly they must seize their chance.

What an utter puzzle it is that our society prizes lawns and loathes flowers that might disturb that green expanse, when the flowers themselves last so short a time. What a puzzle it is, too, that our society lacks respect for something that attempts to disrupt our un-beauteous lives with beauty. The disrespect arises, perhaps, because the beauty being offered is so commonplace -- even if not so common as it should be ... at least along our village street, where deleterious and long-lived poisons have ruined matters for even our most commonplace butterflies: for on this July day one might walk past yard after yard before spotting any vegetative sustenance that a lowly Sulfur might need.

How strange it is, too, to feel a celebratory twinge at seeing a butterfly that commands little respect even from lepidopterists. Sulfurs survived in numbers through the post-WWII disaster of DDT application and have thus far survived the neonicotinoids and other synthetic world-wreckers that have been unleashed by our so-called "agricultural" industries; their larvae feed on common vagrant forbs, as well as on commercially planted ones; adults produce as many generations in a season as they can, with the thoughtless abandon so appropriate to the vagrant.

Yet I felt the celebratory twinge, because while I have been seeing a variety of "better" butterflies in our garden I have seen none of these unassuming creatures for quite some time.

The fact that the rich and powerful among North American humans want all aspects of life aligned with the interests of their infinitely expandable pocketbooks has made our continent an uncongenial place for the poor, the downtrodden, and a supposedly commonplace butterfly.

The rich and powerful, mind you, regard themselves as the Beautiful People.

This I might believe, did they feed at dandelions.

For some reason the further thought appeared in my mind on this July day that writers should be like weeds: tenacious; recurring despite discouragement and attack; blooming predictably yet also, if lucky, unpredictably at other times, in some years; and commonplace.

Commonplace? Naturally. And should not readers, too, be commonplace? And beautiful?

I dream of the years before DDT and Agent Orange and Roundup, before Monsanto and Dow Chemical and Scott, before chemical lawn services, before the monoculture farming of the entire inner North American craton, before the gas-powered grass-shearing abominations that await sunny afternoons in every garage ...

Of the years when one kind of winged beauty by countless millions filled the air by day, and another sort, by night -- all of them alert and attuned to their vast world, and all of them alighting to feed at the countless millions available to them, in every variety, of blooms.

Cheers ...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Friendship, Kingsley Amis, and Gravy Planet

George Zebrowski kindly pointed out to me comments in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois and published in 2011, that seemed somewhat unfair to him. Early this month when looking for something else, I happened upon the fact that I could read Dozois's paragraph by means of Google's literary-property-transgression service, and found these words:

"Kornbluth is a complex, fascinating, and immensely talented figure now in danger of being forgotten, certainly a worthwhile figure for a biological study and critical reassessment if there ever was one. Unfortunately, clouds of controversy have swirled around the book from its release, mostly for the intensely unflattering portrait it paints of Kornbluth's friend and lifelong collaborator Frederik Pohl, which have caused Pohl to vehemently deny the veracity of many of Rich's 'facts'——all of which has cast something of a shadow over what by rights should have been one of the preeminent genre nonfiction books of the year."

Is "biological" a Google artifact? I hope so.

What I wrote about in my book, of course, I based on archived physical correspondence: facts——not, as Dozois puts it, "facts."

Dozois thinks it unfortunate that "clouds of controversy have swirled around the book from its release." May I say that too few clouds swirled? I had expected something other than utter silence about the nature of Pohl's acts, some of which I found despicable, and some, horrifying.

Why, for instance, did no stir erupt among science fiction readers who respect Hugo Award history and integrity, that among Kornbluth's multiple finished stories at his death was one entitled "The Meeting"?

Apparently some off-radar consternation did arise, in private channels, concerning Pohl's appropriation of Phil Klass's memorial volume: for Pohl did write briefly, if inadequately, about this issue on his blog. In public, however, to my knowledge, no such stir arose.

It does disturb me that Dozois joins miscellaneous dismissive commentators who assume they know more than does the biographer. His words here, "friend and lifelong collaborator," are akin to Patrick Casey's SFRA review comment on my book——that "the one-dimensional depiction of Pohl ignores the fact that Kornbluth remained friends and even partners with Pohl for the majority of his life." This seems to be all people "know" about Kornbluth, and all they want to know, since they persist in parading it as if displaying a great acquisition of knowledge. I wish these people would find a way to document this: for what I found in the correspondence was a frayed, contentious, occasionally ugly and several times completely broken relationship. Pohl in particular engaged in behavior that struck me, and strikes me, as unfriendly in the extreme——even at a moment when Kornbluth was in need of help; and his behavior after Cyril's death I find, as I noted, despicable.

Is friendship like a road of trust, with two lanes moving thoughts and goods in opposite but equivalent ways? Does it include some balance of giving and taking, offering and accepting?

If so, I find it difficult finding, at any point during the relationship between Kornbluth and Pohl, from the late 1930s into the 1950s, real evidence of a two-way friendship.

Kornbluth did evince feelings of friendship toward Pohl, at times, in various degrees: for he did give amply into the relationship. As Merril said of him, Cyril felt loyalty. The sense of old Futurian ties did persist in his heart.

We know this because Cyril wrote Gravy Planet to keep Fred out jail.

This knowledge we have from MacLean. We have it, too, from Klass.

How grand a gift this was! What utter, selfless generosity!

Yet before and after that supreme gift Pohl regarded self before others. He regarded Pohl above Kornbluth. He certainly regarded his own financial wants above those whose finances he held in his keeping.

We know his attitude went unchanged, moreover——for he never responded to Cyril's generosity with a return gift.

When Kingsley Amis made his famous, mistaken assessment, Pohl might have seized the moment to give something in return to Kornbluth. How small a gesture it would have been, to demur——simply to admit that Kornbluth was the one most responsible for the writing Amis admired.

How small a gesture——yet how grandly and warmly it would have reflected back upon him!

In 1952, with money from Gravy Planet, Pohl repaid some debts to society——and to some degree healed wounds he had inflicted upon a circle of writers. He found himself in the position to do so, however, only through having incurred an immense new debt to a fellow-worker.

He seemed not to understand that the new debt had no less reality than the old ones. Having avoided jail ended the matter in his mind, to all appearances.

Then in 1960 Amis calmly dismissed Kornbluth as "prolific and competent" and, on the other hand, spoke of seeing "pure Pohl" in The Space Merchants.

Amis also described Kornbluth's The Syndic as "a chronicle of minor wars following upon a major one." So did Pohl read that absurdly off-base summary and think that no one, surely, would take seriously the comment about "pure Pohl"? I rather doubt it——especially since, a few pages before, Amis had written those words that have appeared on so many book covers: "Frederik Pohl, the most consistently able writer science fiction, in the modern sense, has yet produced."

I find it quite interesting to discover, in glancing back through pages in New Maps of Hell, that Kingsley Amis engaged in a mistaken attribution. Take these observations from his discussion of the The Space Merchants, about the protagonist "escaping finally to a Venus uncontaminated by Fowler Schocken and his friends from an Earth that is still largely under the sway of the old régime. The closing scenes, on which I suspect the hand of Kornbluth lies heavy, offer little but adequate excitement and are not altogether a conclusion to the issues raised in the opening chapters."

Why does this catch my eye now? As readers of my essay in Cascadia Subduction Zone will be aware, after publication of C.M. Kornbluth I learned that older readers within the science fiction field had fallen into the habit of talking about and praising The Space Merchants even though they had never read the book. They had read only the magazine serial named Gravy Planet.

Amis seems to have been one such. He read the version that came out of Kornbluth's typewriter——not the gutted and sexually sophomorized book, which came out of Pohl's, and which lacks those "closing scenes" of "little but adequate excitement."

This discovery does give me a feeling of relief. How in the world, I have sometimes wondered, could Amis have liked The Space Merchants so well?

I doubt he would have. Instead, he enjoyed Gravy Planet, wrote about it with some penetration, and attributed it to Pohl——thus adding to the debt the latter felt needed no repayment.

Cheers ...

(Amis, by the way, took particular interest in "The Midas Plague." Pohl once wrote to Kornbluth acknowledging that the latter contributed many bits of "business" to that story, even though publicly the former never held the story out as collaborative. Strangely, I just looked in C.M. Kornbluth and found only one reference to that story in the index——which means I failed to include that information, misplaced the relevant document copy or notes during writing, or simply missed indexing it. Any one is possible.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

On Richard Bowes, Poem-Writing, and "Jacket Jackson"

I have been thinking lately of words Rick Bowes penned about a collaboration of ours entitled "Jacket Jackson."

That oddball novelet has reappeared thanks to Fairwood Press——in Rick's collection If Angels Fight.

I read the book in its entirety earlier this month. Since I had been away from his fiction for several years, due mainly to being preoccupied with a reading programme that kept me mostly clear of the contemporary, in returning to Bowes's stories I was returning to a too-long set-aside pleasure.

I find it interesting how well several of these stories still stand on their own: for these became parts of novels, and lost their separate identities within greater wholes. I had not revisited them since enjoying and admiring his novels Minions of the Moon and From the Files of the Time Rangers. Yet qualities that made the short works attractive, in those times before the novels existed, remain unchanged. In particular the allusive texture of his sentences retains its power to take the reader in several directions at once: forward in story-time; and backwards or, it often feels, inwards into now-fading personal-historical memory. It does one or both of these while conveying hints concerning a larger understanding of the contemporary-fantasy worlds in which Bowes's characters and readers find themselves.

The peculiar flavor of Bowes stories arises in part from the aspect that makes me want to call them nonfiction fantasies: for they open the way photo albums do (or did, in days when people kept photo albums), in presenting discrete moments, one after another, from a fixed and absolute past.

The turning of album pages, the succession of tableaus, the procession of frozen moments: it goes on, utterly believable because, whatever limits or distortions might have arisen in the pointing of lens or eye, a focus upon a truth centers each record or memory.

Photographs make past moments part of our contemporary moments——and so they offer means for achieving an immediacy that is layered with public or private history. The note in a Bowes story that gives it its contemporary feeling arises because the story usually involves factually recent events and perspectives, and because a common, Bowesian narrator, who lives within the stories' lead characters, is there turning photograph album pages before or behind their eyes, and before and behind the reader's.

For those various narrators, moreover, the contemporary moment being witnessed, remembered, or forgotten may be found in 1950, 1980, or 2010——one at a time, or all at once.

(For these or similar reasons, the use that Classical gods make of photographs works effectively upon the reader, in the wonderful novelet "The Mask of the Rex"——just as it works effectively upon the other characters in the story.)

Nestled among stories built upon this layered contemporaneity, "Jacket Jackson" may seem out of place. Clearly Rick thought otherwise, though, in including it. As fiction the story works for the same reason it fails: it is a mixed-up extemporaneous extravaganza pasted together by two congenial but quite different writers. (This wonderfully disastrous approach I recommend to anyone). It contains some layered contemporaneity but features above all one location, or quasi-location, that is utterly non-contemporary, utterly unrooted, utterly ridiculous——and utterly central to the tale ... if we dare call it a tale. Whatever regrets I might have about this extravaganza meet their answer in the fact that, as this collection makes clear, the mercurial humor that is so strongly a part of Rick Bowes the human being seems only weakly a part of Richard Bowes the writer. Yet the fact that I wrote some absurd passages in "Jacket Jackson" allows me to state that I wrote only some.

How clearly I remember dwelling upon Rick's contributions, when the steadily enlarging manuscript would make its return trip to me. I would do so with great pleasure: for he was playing offbeat melodies so well that they were irritatingly funny.

Rick in his introduction to this story mentions the poems that are a part of it: "Like magic Mark produced them whenever we decided one was necessary (and even once or twice when I just wanted to see another one)." Rick did contribute in this area, as in all others: for I sent him masses of lines, often barely poetical——and he neatly edited them with the sense of compression that is his and that gives much of his writing such pithy character; and he worked at them with a certain musical sense. Bowes would have nowhere near the stature he does had he failed at developing his voice. Voice arises from one's sense of phrasing, duration, rhythm and miscellaneous other concerns that may rate more attention from the average musician than from the average writer but receive it in equal measure from an accomplished writer.

Those words of Rick's that I have dwelled on in recent weeks I quoted above: "Like magic." In my past half-year of consciously returning to basics, where I could, and trying to rebuild my craft on a more secure basis, in a sense I have returned to a practice I developed in the 1980s, with regards to poems——a practice of revisiting my lines again and again. These days I find I must keep doing so until I can determine if I actually have even the seeds of a poem. Yet in those trickle-downer years my ability to separate valid lines from invalid often fell short. What Rick says is, in a real sense, true: for I can conjure words at a moment's notice, let them flow, and then be done with it. For probably the major part of my writing life, however, I have not known exactly what to do with the resulting abundance.

The advantage (or dis-) that occurs in collaboration is that one can send random verbal efflorescences to one's collaborator without taking the time to taste, to savor——to see what of it might be broth and what, gray water (harmless, and not odious, but not what we would call an addition to a soup).

These days I find myself spending at least days, often weeks and sometimes months working at a poem. Not constantly; more off and on. When I was first thinking of writing on this subject, two weeks ago, I jotted a line that came to mind, depicting the aim of the process: "Going past the obvious and discovering the empty spots you are always littering into your words." The feeling has grown on me that I have written countless poems that I have left unwritten. The "written" form that appears on the page, no matter how often revised, only appears to be what it might have been. The poem itself lies somewhere within or behind the page——unseen.

"Jacket Jackson" features for a foreground character a young poet, Christopher, who ends as a loser after a chaotic series of colorful complications. I had started aiming at something different, for his fate——as did Christopher himself, as a character. (He did enjoy an odd, unpredictable life, somewhere in that unknown place in-between our two Richian and Bowesian writing realms.)

Had I not been within a lost period myself, when I was surrounding myself yet again with nebulous, hastily swirling words, might I have given Christopher actual poems? And had I done so, might his creative power as the maker, the creator, of an utterly non-contemporary and nonsensically underpopulated city——the City of Castoff Futures——have stood unshakably, to have triumphed in the end?

I suppose nothing would have saved Christopher. He was an improvisor——reflecting the fact that Rick and I were improvisors.

Christopher created a city of nursery-rhyme idealism ...

And we two created an oddly amusing, picturesque ruin of a story.

Ruins do draw the curious, as you know ...

And look: here I am drawn back to gaze upon this one, yet again ...

Cheers ...

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Cask of Purple ... and Poe's Prose

The other day my eye caught on a line written by a writer with experience, who was giving advice to one without:

"I can't advise on how to make one's writing more Poe-like because I don't admire purple prose."

It being his birthday today I feel it only fitting to let Poe's prematurely buried spirit utter its "Nemo me impune lacessit." To say Poe's prose is purple is to call it, as this writer also does, "the overwrought, some say hysterical, prose of Poe." This writer offers it as representing one end of the writing spectrum, with the "minimalist approach as used by Carver and at his best Hemingway" as the other.

To say some among Poe's narrators are overwrought and sometimes hysterical seems to me fine, as a statement. So does saying that some among Poe's narrators are saturated with rationality. We could also say that some are murderous, because of their being actually murderers; or that some are witty. Poe himself takes no place among the characters in his stories. His stories require that their narrators be someone other than Edgar, in order to work.

Clearly Poe put words in his narrators' mouths, or writing hands. I hope no one sees this as a damning observation: for he did so with a fine command of his materials.

Clearly, too, Poe worked in a literary atmosphere influenced by the Gothic; and his genius likely found this influence inescapable because complete escape offered no particular attractions. Yet his vision arose from within a sphere of other influences, as well, including that of Milton—although some readers may regard Milton, too, as "overwrought."

In any case, even if an author's narrator's expressions might seem to do violet violence to the English tongue, for someone to take that one narrator's narrative rhetoric from among the variety to be found within that author's works, and then to glue that particular rhetoric-name as a generalization upon that author's prose, strikes me as unfair to the author, and unbecoming to the one so gluing.

One might as well call "The Cask of Amontillado" purple in its prose because its hapless character Fortunato, who is not the narrator, in essence purples himself with wine.

Poe's prose offers many examples of his utter clarity of expression, as well as his economy of expression. These should offer correction enough to any accusation of purpleness in his prose.

(At a time when I was reading more Hemingway than I have in recent years I happened to read "Amontillado" for what seemed the first time. It may well have been my first time as an adult reader. I recall clearly my impression upon emerging from it that Hemingway would never have become the writer he did without Poe's story to point American letters in the direction it did.)

While as a reader I relish some wildly absurd passages in Poe's stories, I cannot call his prose in general wildly absurd, even as to its content. The absurd, however, has its place as a technique in his tool box. Similarly we would find Gothic excess to be a technique in his tool box. Similarly, too, we would find expressive restraint.

Among his stories we encounter some among the most analytically constructed works we ever will. In thinking and speaking about Poe we need to keep in mind his distinct and distinctive grasp of literary craft.

Grapes going into a crush destined to become Amontillado, by the way, I imagine must be darkly purple. Any excess of color falls away, however, by the time of casking. This happens to some degree naturally during the wine-making process.

Yet it happens to some degree, too, thanks to the skill of the winemaker.

Cheers ...