I am thinking of my dear Aunt C a great deal today. I wrote two poems about the pomegranates that grow at her house, and I’m sharing them while I ruminate on the beauty, and darkness, that we find in October, that most brilliant of months.
I walk the stony path from the flagstones to the garden,
Passing the cacti and succulents, the departed wisteria hanging
Like fuzzy green caterpillars over the veranda.
There are a thousand, thousand living plants here still,
The protea. Queen Victoria’s agave.
Their little lettered placards are fewer every year and so I forget.
Then I see the pomegranate trees.
I do not know their names, but I know them each—as I do my children.
The right hand is the denser plant, with smaller, redder
fruit, nestled among the rosemary.
The left hand is the wider plant, with bigger, rounder
fruit, so often pillaged by the birds and the ants.
I visit the right most first, and reach between the
netting to grasp the ready fruit.
It departs the bush with a soft snap and I
shake free the temporary inhabitants.
When the basket is full, I return to the white kitchen and
with her sharpest knives I score them and drown them
and free the inner flesh.
All beauty lives in the whorls of the pomegranate fruit.
The supple skin, those jeweled walls,
Bursting forth with a certain bloody, impossible plumpness.
In the sunshine the pomegranate glistens, while trails
Of deep carmine trickle through my fingers into
the basin, staining the counters.
I am at home with the pomegranate.
Her roundness. Her complexity.
When I smooth my thumb across her skin,
still warm from the autumn sun,
I sigh, reminded of passions. Of that
taste, ripe and tart and unexpected.
An indelible and ancient surprise.
I bite down on those
sourest seeds, feel the juice between my teeth
The cookbooks all have their ways
with her. Slice here, hit there. Sever and
break and tease out the juice.
I drown her, and slice her, and twist the
seeds in a clean old tea towel,
smell the tannic clarity she expresses,
dapple my fingers and forearms with her
One sip and I see why this fruit,
so hard won, has been so treasured.
How Eve could have been tempted.
But no. Eve would have understood.
have waited and teased the knowledge from
those deep, crimson seeds, and
Adam would have bitten straight in.
I didn’t hear “Stairway to Heaven” until I was about 18. I’m not sure how that happened, exactly. I was a huge classic rock fan, and musician to boot. I found Zeppelin when I was about sixteen, and had listened extensively to their first and second albums (which I had on vinyl and had copied over to tape). I remember standing in the kitchen at our house in Massachusetts, cooking something (as usual), and my dad telling me to take a break and listen to the solo in “Good Times, Bad Times” because it was one of the greatest in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. He was right, of course. But how I never made the leap to other albums, I’ll never know. It’s sort of like loving the Rolling Stones but never hearing “Paint It, Black” or “Satisfaction.”
But “Stairway” eluded me. I was a Beatles fan, and primarily listened to them during those teen years, only dabbling occasionally into other rock albums if I found them at yard sales or scraped together enough money to buy a casette (the only Beatles albums I ever bought on CD were the Anthologies). I didn’t like radio much. The only reference I had to “Stairway to Heaven” was in the movie Wayne’s World (a movie which I still know by heart), when Wayne goes to the guitar store and starts playing the opening notes only to be pointed to the sign: “No Stairway? Denied!” (They’re actually not the opening notes, and more on that here. No wonder I was confused.)
So, in my mind, “Stairway to Heaven” had a completely different feel. It was Zeppelin, so I assumed it was pretty gritty. I thought there had to be some blistering solo, lots of drums, heavy vocals complete with panting and Robert Plant’s signature orgasmic keen. It’s like, in some alternate universe, there’s this song called “Stairway to Heaven” that I made up that, well clearly, is virtually nothing like the actual song.
I know where I was when I first heard the song. I was at a computer. I believe I was listening to an early iTunes radio station (as music got easier to access, so, too, it got harder to avoid). The song was introduced, and I remember thinking: “Okay! Here goes!” and then… wait, what?
“Stairway to Heaven” might be one of the most recognized songs in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, but having avoided it for almost twenty years makes my experience completely different. Since this was before the huge popularization of the internet, I never searched for lyrics. I didn’t know there were Lord of the Rings references. I had no idea how gentle and emotive Plant’s voice was, nor how magnificent the solo during the bridge would be (and yet restrained and longing and perfect); the rhythm section is crazy good, and the whole song peters out in echoing longing like nothing I’d ever heard before. It was an experience, to say the least.
But it wasn’t that song that was in my head. That song, like so many of our imagined realities, doesn’t actually exist. Or maybe it might someday. Maybe on another plane, some alien with a space-guitar is playing the notes of that song. I might never hear it, but it somehow exists. Even though it doesn’t.
This is all to say I’ve been thinking a great deal about perception, imagination, and experience. As writers and creators, we are a mishmash of these three facets. Just because we experience something doesn’t mean we perceive it; and just because we perceive it, it doesn’t mean it is as we imagined. When writing characters lately, I’ve been working very hard to think about these facets in their stories. Both are first person narratives, and both are telling their stories. Kate in Rock Revival is writing her story down for her daughter; Joss in Watcher of the Skies is telling his story to Maddie.
But their experiences are not mine. And even if, like Kate, they share my experiences, their perceptions aren’t the same. And their reactions, depending on how they imagined things going or not going, also differ greatly. What might be old and busted to me, may not be to them. Joss starts out the book as a godling in a man’s body, unable to tell clothing apart from skin. But he learns quickly, even if there are still some holes in his learning. He’s gifted to understand human emotion on a deep level, but that often gets him in trouble–just because you perceive something, doesn’t mean you should mention it (which he has a problem doing). And Kate, for all her tough talk, is an active alcoholic for the first third of the book. And even though it almost kills her, she still doesn’t really perceive it correctly. She’s unreliable, especially when it comes to her own faults (aren’t we all).
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearièd,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
The stories he’s making up in his head are better. All that panting, excitement.
That’s not just the scene on the urn, that’s Robert Plant! That’s my song. The one that doesn’t exist. It’s also every book I’ve yet to write. It’s every song and melody I’ve yet to play. And no, it’s unlikely that it’s ever going to be as good as the one imagined. But, with each successive attempt, it gets better. It gets closer. That’s what makes art and imagination so mind-blowing. We are pulling something from nothing, bringing art into the world through our eyes and hands. And nothing will ever be just like it.
And because it’s so awesome, here’s Heart covering said song recently. I can’t love this more if I tried.
So, my last post really did make it sound like I wasn’t doing NaNoWriMo, mostly likely. And apparently that’s the thing that got me going. Or something. I’m not going to try and explain it in too much details, but it goes something like this. I screwed up my back. I had to take medicine. I found out my kid does, in fact, have Asperger’s. My brain was mushy, I was in need of escape in the form of writing therapy that wasn’t going to require much editing (see: medicine), and my best friend Karen started talking to me about Joss Raddick. Readers of Pilgrim of the Sky know Mr. Raddick well, a godling of the water variety from Second World who eventually (and rather reluctantly) joins up with Maddie to help her get to Alvin in First World and prevent All The Bad Stuff. This isn’t the first time that Karen has birthed a book into my mind by just saying a few words. The entirety of The Aldersgate is due to her saying to me once, “I’m surprised you’ve never written anything with cowboys” or something to that effect, and I wrote back and said they’d have to be cowboyknights and, all that stuff happened.
Anyway. The words have been spilling out, most appropriately considering Joss’s nature. The book is entitled Watcher of the Skies, and while it bears the same title as a Genesis song, it’s taken from Keats’s poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”. Last night, though I didn’t think I was going to get much done because of feeling kinda crappy, I almost got another 3K in and brought the book to 30K which is, quite frankly, a really good chunk. And this draft is surprisingly solid. Or maybe not surprisingly. I’ve been contemplating Joss’s story for quite some time, and it was just a matter of getting the details right. The book is set up in a frame narrative. The beginning features Maddie and he talking, and he invites her to hear his whole story on a rather appropriate godling level. It involves a hand full of water and mushy ice cubes and one of my favorite phrases to date: “a drunkard’s communion.”
No, this is not the book I was going to write. But it’s the book that needs to be written right now. It’s perfect timing, which I think is the way that working writers can succeed at endeavors like NaNoWriMo. I really hate the pressure people put themselves under. As a novelist, it’s not like November is the only month I can write books in, and if I don’t it somehow means less. But life and projects have conspired to make this a most amenable month of writing–and it isn’t as if I’m writing that much more than my usual 1K a day. The stars have aligned and I am enjoying myself immensely.
One of the most exciting parts is that I’m getting to explore Second World. If there’s one thing the reviewers let me know it’s that they’d wished I’d dabbled more in alternate history. Well, I’m doing just that. The book takes place starting in the late 18th century and moves to the early 20th–and let’s just say the historical/religious/economic landscape isn’t the same as you’d expert. I’m not going to be too spoilery, but there’s lots of poets, cameos by Percy and Mary Shelley and Keats and Byron and Wordsworth and Coleridge, and even mention of crazy old Blake (okay, some are significantly more than cameos, but y’know). Plus I get to explore various twains in their previous incarnations–Randall, Matilda, and Alvin are all present, sort of. Other versions of them. And I finally get to have fun with Athena. She’s a cross-dressing theatre owner of African descent. You know, as you do. I’ll have a lot more to share eventually, but for now, I’m just giddy about this book.
My pithy advice to those of you writing this hectic month is to be kind to yourself. Learning to write is like any good habit. And while it’s lovely that so much energy is poured into the month of November, it’s not the only time to write. It’s okay to step back and say it’s not a good time, professional or fledgeling or proto-fledgeling. It doesn’t make you a failure, it makes you a person who has a life and deadlines and responsibilities and maybe, just isn’t ready yet. If you want to be a writer, whatever that means, you’ve simply got to write. You’ve got to strike when the iron’s hot, and when it’s not. My issue with NaNo is that it doesn’t produce a book. It produces part of a draft. In 2008, when I “won” (whatever that means) it was very helpful, because that book did become Pilgrim of the Sky. But it’s been four years since I made an effort, and time it was primarily because of a need to escape and an excuse to keep away from Rock Revival. The timing was right for me. It may be right for you. But it may not be. And that, friends, is really, really okay.
Anyway, I have a few hours alone for the first time in almost a month, so I’m going to put it good use. For all your NaNoers out there, good luck to you!
Joss meets Andrew La Roche, Randall’s predecessor, in a tavern, while his friend William Wordsworth encounters Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the first time.
“You still haven’t told me your name,” La Roche said, taking up a cup of tea and stirring it gently. He managed to do so without a single clink against the China, so precise he was.
“It’s Joss,” I said. “Joss Raddick. I’m from Cumbria.”
“I daresay you are, it’s written all over your vowels,” La Roche remarked with a knowing smirk. “But I knew of you the moment you were born. The others argued with me, but I have a sense for these things. As you do.”
I nodded. “I felt you. Until you snuck up on me.”
“Slipped beneath your senses,” he said. “I was out of the rain, out of the river, out of the water. I dry rather quickly when I want to.”
Having no idea what he was talking about, I added, “You’re… warm. That’s the only way I can describe what I sense. Warm. Bright. Dry.”
“Hmm, yes, indeed,” he said. “And I have a particular aptitude for the healing arts. And poetry.” He said this last word with particular relish. “As you do, so I have heard. You’re a kept man, Mr. Raddick.”
I didn’t quite know what he meant by that statement. “Kept, sir?”
La Roche sipped his tea. “Hmmm… yes. You’ve been tamed, so to speak, by that curious little lake poet, Mr. Wordsworth. I’m sure he’s been a most impressive teacher, as poets are so often, but he’s using you for your light. For your inspiration. Surely you’ve figured that out by now, yes?”
I snorted. Of course I had figured it out. But it didn’t make the situation any less difficult. “He has been kind to me. He’s taught me things, about how to fit in, about how to experience… how to be a human man.”
“And what makes you think you are not a human man?” La Roche asked. “I’m genuinely curious, not attempting to pass judgment on you, Mr. Raddick.”
“Not sure what to say to that,” I said. “It’s just something I know. Humans come from women, born in a big egg that breaks open and spills water on the earth. A stream of blood and birth. That’s not how I came about.”
“Well, we have that in common,” La Roche said. “I was awakened. In a young village lad, some centuries ago. In Southern Gaul. It was quite strange. I awoke, and walked away from the family that had raised the boy. He was no longer. I entered him like water into a gourd, and have since made this body as I’ve willed it. I don’t always have to look like this, but I prefer it.”
Life has been spinning by at a trajectory altogether too fast for me these days, but that’s what happens when you smoosh an actual career in between being an author, a blogger, a mom, a sister, a wife, and an editor. It’s really unfair of me to complain, since it’s the bed I’ve made, but thankfully our summer beach vacation is looming just around the corner and I am looking forward to a week with as little technology as possible, and basking in the sun reading books and maybe (just maybe) doing some writing.
Which is not to say I haven’t been writing, only that the writing is slow. Instead of writing at usual breakneck pace, I’ve been reading quite a bit in preparation for writing Glassmere, and am currently about three quarters of the way through Edith Wharton’sThe Age of Innocence(which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 — the first time it was awarded to a woman). I’d read Wharton before, in college, during a modern novel class. We read The House of Mirth and I was rather depressed after reading it. And at the time I was pretty much opposed to anything American and modern, so I really didn’t read her as I ought to have.
But that’s the joy of growing up and continuing to read. I am absolutely besotted with Wharton at the moment, and in love with her ability to turn a phrase and move me with words. I often speak of Keats as being delicious to read — that is, his words seem to taste good when you read them. There’s a musicality to Keats, to his careful words selection, that just makes my brain vibrate. Wharton is very similar, though obviously through prose. Take this bit, for example:
“It would presently be his task to take the bandage from this young woman’s eyes, and bid her look forth on the world. But how many generations of the women who had gone to her making had descended bandaged to the family vault? He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?” — Book One, Chapter 10
The book deals with many of the same issues I’m working through on Glassmere (though it’s set in the 1870s, much still holds true). And the tone is just… well, it’s very similar to the tone I want to achieve with Glassmere. Initially I attempted a more complicated tone, hopping from character to character in that English style, but I find it doesn’t achieve what I want it to. Part of it has to do with the fact that it’s a historical book, and the readership now isn’t familiar with the setting–adding even more complication with multiple points of view just muddles it up. So, even though the book has made a decent start, I’m going to rewrite it all again strictly from Evelyn’s point of view. Wharton does this with Newland in The Age of Innocence to great success, with a narrator following him closely and revealing his innermost thoughts. However, the narrator’s voice is distant enough and strong enough to be able to zoom out on occasion to comment on the society at large, which would work far better in the context of Glassmere as well.
Glassmere needs to be smooth, especially considering where the story ends up (low, low magic, but it’s there). And Evelyn is the heroine of the story, even if entirely unconventional.
Still, what strikes me the most about writing this book is how much reading I’ve done just to make the first 10K. Between the diaries of women written at the turn of the century to the countless historical articles to the novels of the period (most notably lately The Edwardiansand Howards End— two very different but marvelous books) I’ve spent the majority of my spare time these last few months ensconced with books. It even inspired me to buy a Kindle for my birthday, which has proven wonderful for reading all these public domain books (and it doesn’t cost me a penny past the purchase of the device!).
But enough about that. Additionally I have been following the creation of the book cover of Pilgrim of the Skyby my friend and astonishingly talented artist Brigid Ashwood. Her ability astounds me, and to see Maddie come to life in vivid color (down to the mille-fleur jacket!) has got to be one of the most exciting moments of my writing career to date.
The book is slated for December, but in the mean time I am also working on a bit of a novelette that will accompany pre-orders for the book, which is an epistolary addendum to the book. It’s written between two of the main characters and serves as a sort of appendix to the book, by explaining some of the more complicated magical workings of the twains, while revealing some back story. For the first time I’ve been able to slip into first person with Randall, who serves as Maddie’s love interest in the book, and I’ve got to say it’s immensely enjoyable. And easy. Some characters have such loud voices that writing them seems to take no effort at all.
And there, a post. There are many other things going on in the realm of the real, where my father is preparing for a second heart surgery (very risky) and work is eating me whole. But the written word is a solace in the storm, and even if I don’t have time to write it I’m doing as I’ve always done: reading. Just as when I was little, curled up with C.S. Lewis for the umpteenth time, so too will I weather this… clutching my Kindle.
I’ve been waiting to talk about this until it was official but, hey, look: official! And awesome. I had the privilege of coming up with a project together with Brigid Ashwood, a brilliant artist and fellow lover of speculative fiction. The piece in the upcoming issue is entitled “The Wakened Image” and it’s a look at some of the “made” women in mythology, taken from the Mabinogion and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Brigid helped me brainstorm the subject, and then I wrote a three-part poem in blank verse; Brigid provided some astonishingly beautiful pictures to accompany the text.
The issue isn’t available yet, but soon. I’ll keep you posted. I am so excited to share this piece, and definitely squeed a little seeing my name on the front of Weird Tales. Who wouldn’t?
I don’t know what I was expecting in regards toBright Star, though I suppose I thought it might irk me a bit, as biopics tend to do–especially when concerning authors. Far too often it seems directors need to sensationalize the stories, add sex and intrigue, muddle up the plot so the movie reads more like a Harlequin than a historical account. In some ways I’m one of the worst kinds of audience members to please in cases like this; I’ve read Andrew Motion’s Keats biography (upon which the film is based), I’ve read close to every Keats poem and a vast majority of his letters and criticism. I’m hard to please.
But from the opening credits–a marvelous close-up of Fanny sewing through linen–I was captivated. The performances are simply inspired, the set-design perfect. Instead of dolling up the late Georgian style, as so many films tend to do, Campion used the starkness and simplicity to draw attention to the characters and seasons. The energy between Abby Cornish (Fanny Brawne) and Ben Whishaw (Keats) practically vibrates on screen. Paul Schneider deserves credit, too, for his portrayal of Keats’s best friend, the poet Charles Armitage Brown, whose condescending and misogynist ways were enough to make me squirm in my seat and mutter darkly under my breath.
I was particularly struck by the way in which Campion allowed the conventions of the time period to add tension to the film, especially in regards to the relationships between women and men. Keats and Fanny play a dance of absolute sexual chemistry but without true release. Charles Brown is ever antagonizing Fanny because he believes she’s inconstant, flirty, and an all-around bad influence on Keats. When the three have a sort of showdown of the minds, Brown is so vicious to Fanny that she simply cannot say a word. Where Campion could have written her witty dialogue and a perfect comeback, she withdraws entirely. You can feel the pressure and panic in Fanny’s response, far more powerful than anything that could have been conveyed with words.
Yet words are truly the heart of the film. As Keats gets progressively more ill–he contracts tuberculosis, a disease that wiped out nearly his entire family–the poetry becomes just as important as Keats’s connection to Brawne. The language needs no help, as Keats, in my mind anyway, is likely one of the greatest poets to ever put words to paper. But to hear the lines recited as if for the first time, to be caught up in absolute magic of the poetry and thrill of creation, is something I’ve never seen demonstrated so well on film. As a writer and lover of poetry, those scenes alone were enough to bring tears to my eyes.
There are many more things I could say about this film–the costumes, the music, the use of light and dark–but in the end it is simply a fine film, likely the finest I’ve seen in the last five years. It kept me thinking far after I left the darkness of the movie theater, the words of Keats’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale” still flitting around my brain.
To keep my brain nimble and, um, creative, I’ve decided to start a Thursday poetry tradition here. I can’t promise the poetry will be awesome, or inspiring, or even good. But once upon a time I fancied myself a bit of a bard. So, here goes.
Delight and the Word
Delight and the Word met in a fever dance
under the shadow of the ship’s mainsail–
the creak of weathered wood and the hum of the engines
When the Word’s mouth opened, all was
softness and breath, the hushed moist maw of
the Beginning and End.
But Delight was wilder and her hands were fleur de sel;
her eyes stood out like marbles of joy in her mottled face.
And it was she who began, pulling apart the Word’s
mouth with her hard, delicate fingers and pressing down
on the prow of the ship, frenzied and shaking.
Her rough fingers traced
glittering trails down the Word’s spine,
and each shuddered in turn.
Though they both felt the
wood give way beneath them, it was only the Word who
cried out–for it was then she knew that the ship was Pain.
And Pain was everything.
Delight punched through Pain’s rumbling engine,
ripped at the hoses and belts, and the Word wept
as gasoline flowed through her lips, down her throat.
Pain had come.
The Word plunged beneath the ship while Delight struggled
above, tearing Pain apart chunk by chunk;
metal and plank, rope and tattered cloth.
The Word watched with bubble eyes as
the swirl of Pain and Delight churned the waters.
The Word waited. She breathed a whirlpool
and spoke: “I am. I am. I am.”
And when Delight sank lifeless into the
depths below her, the Word loosed a single word:
Delight shattered–she refracted, diluted, dissolved into
a billion grains of sand and salt–and was whisked away.