Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

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

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 ...