instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

QUINTESSENCE

Choosing Voice or When Voice Chooses You

 
From the Start
 
Who did I think was listening
when I wrote down the words
in pencil at the beginning
words for singing
to music I did not know
and people I did not know
would read them and stand to sing them
already knowing them
while they sing they have no names
 
W. S. Merwin
 
 
How does any story tell its tale? Does the narrative speak in a voice that is distant and measured, addressing a full universe of characters and events as though we are that curious fly on the narrative wall? Or does the story speak in the diarist's voice, in a direct first person voice free with its secrets, private thoughts, and sometimes blissful lack of awareness? 
 
Point of view is the way we tell a story. The choice of a first person, second person, or third person narrative shapes the underlying structure and craft. When we talk about character voice, we shift to the perspective of character thoughts, feelings, and actions. In other words, attitude. In my experience, landing on the right point of view for a narrative often follows a sense of voice. Voice may be known to a writer from the first word she hears in her head­—before she's even put pen to paper. Voice may grab the plot outline or the rough beginning and shake new perspective into it, entirely flip the planned point of view. A writer may not see the right voice coming, but always knows when it's arrived.

 

The immediacy and intimacy that accompany a first person point of view closely connect a reader to the narrator. It may then become deceptively easy for a reader to confuse character with author. To entangle fictional first person narrative with the reading of autobiography or memoir—a confusion that illustrates both the power of a first person "I" point of view and its chief drawback. The narrative is story, not confession, and it is the writer's work to make that distinction. I recall a comment made by an editor who declared that he "never read first person if he could help it." I was puzzled by his vehemence. Was it a particular dislike of close voice, or action filtered through the perspective of a primary character? A reader would miss out on centuries of marvelous literary characters as a result of such an edict.
 
Second person point of view, with its curious, distant use of "you" to refer both to a self and subjective other, can at times feel standoffish to a reader who craves the straight heart of the story without the effort of figuring out who the "you" is in each instance. You as in me, or you as in all of us? The language can be intimate or distancing, depending on how the writer intends it.
 
Finally, there is third person point of view—distant and close, as well as the omniscient third—often thought of as the wide "stage direction" point of view. The writer unveils the story from the viewpoint of many characters, and the narrative may be perceived by readers as more objective, layered, or multifaceted, the way a film is. 
 
I began SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, my novel of twin sisters growing up on the road and finding their way into country music, with an omniscient (third person) perspective. I saw the sisters, Andi and Marley Stone, and their mother, Donna, in a universe of their own. I shook the narrative and watched how pieces swirled apart and bumped back together. I didn't yet sense the core of these characters, however. It wasn't until Marley jumped out—and for the "quiet sister" took a rather unruly attitude—that I understood this novel belonged to her. The moment I yielded to this first person point of view, the novel unspooled itself without a hitch. The twin with a voice of her own had something to say. Marley Stone had found her footing in the narrative and took the story places I never anticipated. 
 
All points of view available to the writer are valid and interesting ways for characters to tell us their stories. None are bad. All require craft and skill. In the end, I believe the characters eventually gravitate to the right voice and we are wise writers and happy readers to let them. 
 

Be the first to comment

Landscape As Character

In the Same Space
 
House, coffeehouses, neighborhood: setting
That I see and where I walk; year after year.
 
I crafted you amid joy and amid sorrows:
Out of so much that happened, out of so many things.
 
And you've been wholly remade into feeling; for me.
 
–– C.P. Cavafy, 1929
 
When it comes to writing, geography––the physical surrounds and locale of our real or fictional story––is more than just placement. Geography is also environment, history, belonging, experience, metaphor. When a writer uses geography as more than part of the setting, or the physical grounding of the story, it is because the landscape the story is set in, or draws from, is a character of the narrative.
 
How is that, you might ask. A character?
 
How does a writer bring the hills, trees, or the wide flooding river into the story as a participant? Can the setting interact or influence our characters? Yes, it can. The poet understands, for example, the way the language of the river may be the language of loss. Or adventure. Or memory. A film might translate a script description of a moor into the brooding moments before a fatal encounter and the unspoken dread of our hero. We become engrossed in a book that is more about the secrets of a mountain than the adventurers who climbed it; or a memoir in which the four timbered walls of a house become a terrifying presence or a psychological mirror. Geography is landscape. From the weather, dwellings or structures, to the seasons at play. Writers turn these nonhuman elements, imagined or drawn from real life, into challenges and setbacks; pathways to feelings and decisions their characters face. The story of a final trip back home may begin with turning onto that familiar curve of the road, catching a glimpse of the faded paint on the door, the For Sale sign in the yard. The sea is as much a combatant or ally to the captain as the wind or the whale or the unreliable first mate.
 
As readers we understand more about characters from their relationship to their environment than we might perhaps garner from only their physical description. The farmer stands in the dry field in the dusty wind, legs splayed and arms crossed, searching the sky for a rain cloud. The rain falls but evaporates before it hits the thirsty earth. What do we feel if in desperation he waters a limp seedling with the sweat of his neckerchief?  What if he silently turns his back and walks away? The young girl on a stoop on the garbage-strewn street, drawing. What changes if we place this same girl, carrying a white fur muff, on a train traveling away from home, rocketing through a strange countryside? What if we place her instead at dusk in the kitchen of her grandparents' cottage and the kettle is whistling? Setting is all these details and geography is the landscape of these details. Geography in writing has a great pull on both the reader's memory and sentiment, and writers use this to bring vibrancy to their stories. Even a story that occurs in a single room, a cell over the course of a few hours, has geography. As readers we imagine everything beyond the cell that we do not see, we experience in this harrowing landscape of white walls all the emotions the character does.
 
When I began writing So Long As We're Together, I knew there were going to be three important landscapes in my story: a ramshackle lake cabin in the northern woods, a solitary late-night studio, and the stage––the performance venue of music. I felt all three landscapes had distinct qualities that uniquely impacted my singing twin sisters. These landscapes were vessels, like Greek amphora of old, gathering history, memory, and desire. I knew these landscapes would interact and interweave with the main characters, carrying voices of the past. Particularly their absent mother and a difficult history that was anything but forgotten. At one point I thought I might name the novel after the cabin, so significant was its role in the story. I soon understood it was the relationship between the sisters that framed everything, from the first night of rain in Seattle to the last sunset in northern Idaho. So Long As We're Together is a narrative of the ways we are and are not our shared experience and history. And ultimately, this is the landscape in which Andi and Marley find their footing.
 

Be the first to comment

IN THE CENTER OF IT


ONE LIFE TO LIVE
by Billy Collins

 

This is the only life I have, this one in my head,
the one that travels along the surface of my body
singing the low voltage song of the ego,

the one that feels like a ball between my ears
sometimes, and other times feels absolutely galactic,

the life that my feet carry around like two blind
scholars working together on a troublesome manuscript.

This is the only life I have, and I am standing
dead in the center of it like a man doing a rope trick
in a rodeo, passing the lasso over his body,
smiling inside a twirling of ovals and ellipses.

This is the only life I have and I never step out of it
except to follow a character down the alleys of a novel
or when love makes me want to remove my clothes
and sail classical records off a cliff.

Otherwise you can always find me within this hoop of
myself,
the rope flying around me, moving up to encircle my head
like the equator or a halo or a zero.


What a dazzling sketch of imagery. The mundane wrestling the extraordinary. What are we breaking, what are we taming? Our wants, our transgressions? Collins's poem breaks open a nugget of strange truth. To be human is both small and "absolutely galactic." Days and thoughts loop in continuous gyration. As if this one life were a tilting, dizzying ticket to ride.

 

We soon will end one year and begin another and I imagine that lasso tossed through time, whirling, whirling, circling over our heads. Is this the the year of mastery? Will the lasso sail around with ease? What is past is finished, and what is yet to come a thing of both hope and dream. 

 

I wish for you in this new year the deep belly joy of belting out your own song. Let life be that tune you hum in your head, the beat that carries you along. The sweet spot of this one life.

2 Comments
Post a comment

Carried You Everywhere


Today I remember an extraordinary poet, Galway Kinnell. This Irish-American poet's work was awarded both a Pulitzer (for "Selected Poems," 1983) and an American Book Award. An ardent individualist, Kinnell stood apart from his peers and the literary influences of the Twentieth century. He immersed himself in the gritty issues of his day and was a passionate advocate for freedom of expression. A poet of almost photographic sensitivity, his words pulse with an exuberant love of language, a lyrical style distinctly his own and possessing a rare and gorgeous musicality.

 

RUINS UNDER THE STARS
by Galway Kinnell


1

All day under acrobat
Swallows I have sat, beside ruins
Of a plank house sunk to its windows
In burdock and raspberry canes,
The roof dropped, the foundation broken in,
Nothing left perfect but the axe-marks on the beams.

A paper in a cupboard talks about "Mugwumps",
In a V-letter a farmboy in the Marines has "tasted battle…"
The apples are pure acid on the tangle of boughs
The pasture has gone to popple and bush.
Here on this perch of ruins
I listen for the crunch of the porcupines.

 

 2

Overhead the skull-hill rises
Crossed on top by the stunted apple.
Infinitely beyond it, older than love or guilt,
Lie the stars ready to jump and sprinkle out of space.

Every night under the millions of stars
An owl dies or a snake sloughs its skin,
But what if a man feels the dark
Homesickness for the inconceivable realm?

 

 3

Sometimes I see them,
The south-going Canada geese,
At evening, coming down
In pink light, over the pond, in great,
Loose, always dissolving V's-
I go out into the field,
Amazed and moved, and listen
To the cold, lonely yelping
Of those tranced bodies in the sky,
Until I feel on the point
Of breaking to a sacred, bloodier speech.

 

 4

This morning I watched
Milton Norway's sky blue Ford
Dragging its ass down the dirt road
On the other side of the valley.

Later, off in the woods, I heard
A chainsaw agonizing across the top of some stump
A while ago the tracks of a little, snowy,
SAC bomber went crawling across heaven.

What of that little hairstreak
That was flopping and batting about
Deep in the goldenrod,
Did she not know, either, where she was going?

 

 5

Just now I had a funny sensation

As if some angel, or winged star,
Had been perched nearby watching, maybe speaking,
I whirled, and in the chokecherry bush
There was a twig just ceasing to tremble.

Now the bats come spelling the swallows,
In the smoking heap of old antiques
The porcupine-crackle starts up again,
The bone-saw, the pure music of our sphere,
And up there the old stars rustling and whispering.

 

 

The imperceptible balance of image with emotion. Never too much, always exactly enough. Poet, translator, essayist, teacher. Galway Kinnell wrote about life, death, and the fragility of beauty. His obituary in the New York Times (October 29, 2014) concluded, "Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness," ending on these words of the poet, ''To me,' he said, 'poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.'"

 

I invite you to explore the wrok of the late Galway Kinnell. To close, from "Trust the Hours (Wait)":

 

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven't they
carried you everywhere, up to now?

 

 

Be the first to comment

The Last Flower

 

The last flower has opened on the stem,

the first two mostly done by now: call home.

 

I slipped my skin

walked off & left myself & left

 

feeling the first snow of the season falling

cold on my face running to catch that downtown bus leving

 

my life behind & abandoned my whole self, was I

a colt or a fresh coal afire with each chain of nerve

 

alive naked & loving the feeling of feeling

my heart beating feeling my blood too feeling

 

- Lightsey Darst, from "Thousands"

 

 

Lightsey Darst's quiet revolutionary poems, THOUSANDS, are written in journal form, in a notation of private thought that rages across the page. The above poem is taken from "Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2012."  A mysterious shift of awareness powers Darst's poem. I am drawn by the element of recovery. As though the shape of some unvoiced loss has only just revealed itself. The line "I walked off & left myself & left" traces the poet's slip from the familiar into the unexpected. Chasing her bus, a first cold snow swirling in her face, Darst surroundings dissolve on a wave of raw sensation. A transformation of presence. As if tasting a bite of watermelon we remember a summer in Kansas, a particular garden bothered by horseflies and dust. 

 

The daily self has met the deeper dreamer. 

 

I thought of this poem today and that opening, The last flower..., noting an unmistakable mark of fall color, of rust, crimson, and dry brown, in the wilderness foliage. Trees standing silent in a stagnant haze of wildfire smoke and heat. No breeze rustles the leaves, there is no murmur of birdsong or insect life. It has been a difficult, burning summer in the Northwest. Yet the turn toward a changing season is unmistakable here. The downshift. Letting go after a fierce season of difficult growth. This transition in seasons feels equally personal. As though I, too, will turn a corner. That I will have "left myself & left," rediscovering what is lost as though new again, experience what is hidden as seen.

 

Autumn can be a rest or a beginning. Perhaps both.

I am ready for my heart beating feeling my blood too feeling. Aren't you?

 

1 Comments
Post a comment

Motions

Mosaic, Pompeii

 

How came ye muffled in so hush a masque?

- "Ode on Indolence," John Keats


Waiting coils inside her and licks and licks its paws.

I go through motions already made in another life [wrote the husband].
The room is cold. I must unpack. But not yet. Night is almost here.
Another one without I was going to say but that would be weak.
Another one.
I stand firmly on the foundation of the love I fashioned, yes, our love.
You will disagree. But look inside yourself. there you see a world
traveling silently through space. On it two specks. We are
indissoluble. Three minutes of reality! all I ever asked.

She stands looking out at rain on the roof.

 

 - from "The Beauty of the Husband," by Anne Carson

 

A good book plucks us from the present and lifts us from our preoccupations to chart navigation coordinates we've never flown before. A good book sits in our parlor like the most charming and giving of guests, discussing the world at length long after the last page. A good book is an all-night diner, our favorite people seated across from us, stirring coffee with a bent spoon, chin in hand, asking, "And after you decided to do that, then what?"

 

Anne Carson, in her book-length prose poem, THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND, a fictional essay in 29 tangos, examines the philosophy that beauty is truth, an ideal made famous by John Keats in his 1815 poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn." In his meditation on the perfection of an object, in this case an antique urn, Keats reframes the poet's traditional use of ekphrasis to redefine beauty. Beauty is more than an aesthetic ideal, Keats argues, it is a reflection of an object's inherent, authentic truth. The organic essence is the perfection. Carson twists the ideal of beauty yet again in the story of a marriage, THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND. In this sharply observed telling, Carson employs a framework of "tangos" to chronicle the passionate back and forth of the couple as the prose sweeps through a concentric narrowing to the truth of the couple's marriage. Truth becomes personal, subjective, illusory, intimate. The relationship's beauty released in the telling. Beauty, like truth, we understand can be cruel. Transcendent. To quote the poet Masahide, Barn's burnt down. Now I can see the moon. 

 

A good book dwells within because it resonates. We have touched the edges of understandings we sense to be universal, eternal. Motions we have already made. A good book offers truth, sometimes beauty. Always a new way of seeing. "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit." A sentence from ULYSSES by James Joyce and perhaps the most beautiful sentence in the English language. I gift it to you. Be overwhelmed.

 

 

1 Comments
Post a comment

Good Enough

 

VARIATION ON A THEME BY RILKE
by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic - or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.


We try so hard to be perfect, we miss life. 

 

What if we stop the pendulum swing of self critique and judgement. Allow our souls to find center, to come to rest. To neither push nor desist but just hold space for awhile. In that sacred space embrace our permission to be. To luck into, to try, to change our minds, to give it a shot, maybe fail... Perhaps settle, ever so gently, into ordinary happiness.

 

Emotional and mental ebb and flow are not the antithesis to life success. Perfectionism is. In the pursuit of "perfect" lies the negation of all that is not. Perfectionism is an eraser we drag across life. Crossing out what may have been our best efforts, our bravest moments. Scars of bootstrapped, gut wrenching, all-out-there struggle. All those unwanted gifts of deepest courage. When we devalue our smallest efforts, be they honest, sufficient, or barely forward motion, we also devalue our human nature to strive.

 

Humans are not born perfect, they are born to evolve. To seek to understand, to take action, to plan, to expand, to be joyful. Life is not a target. There is no bulls-eye. Life is about process. About being vividly, messily, actively present in our own skin. Accepting that wherever we may be in our lives, just getting by or progressing along the spectrum of our goals... Well, good enough. This is today.

 

Carpe Diem. Put down that edit pencil. Stet. Let today be a day of presence.

Be the first to comment

A Memorial Day, Then and Now

 

And still it is not enough, to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the immense patience to wait till they are come again. For the memories themselves are still nothing. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

I found myself reading back through old journals this week, thinking about Memorial Day. I stopped on one from seven years ago. Those of you who know me, know that I come from a long tradition of military service, and have many generations of family members, including my father, who lie in military cemeteries in the United States and around the world. Here is part of what I wrote in 2011:

My husband is buried above the wild and tumultuous Spokane River, downriver from the traintrestle bridges. Freight trains roll high above the river, making their way across the continental U.S. Great diesels haul palettes of stacked container goods and seemingly endless chains of barrel cars of crops, oil and chemicals, and the double-decker slatted stock cars. The cars sway down the tracks and then disappear from view through narrow granite cuts in the basalt mountains. We called them "wishing trains," because we'd whisper secret wishes crisscrossing the roads beneath them as they passed. My husband liked the idea that for all eternity he would lie beside the wide, wild Spokane River, in view of those industrious magical trains. Nature and commerce. Chaos and fortune. Our lives are ruled by them.

On this day, Memorial Day, breezes wave ribbons of color along narrow cemetery paths lined with the stars and stripes. Families, lost looks on their faces, clutch plot grids and wander the treed acres looking for their buried. The hands of little ones are tucked in the hands of grownups; in the little fists small flags or bunches of garden lilacs. America does not forget its loved ones. It does not forget its soldiers. Yet the numbers buried in the green shade seem to swell in a continuous sea of monuments. Already a newly engraved stone, a simple bench, stands next to my husband's. A nineteen year old boy, lost in Afghanistan. Someone's son, someone's brother. There are two flags flying in his honor, on the grass the gift of a baseball mitt.

Bending low, I place a flag in the ground the requisite distance (a boot length away) from my husband's marker. A Vietnam era Air Force veteran, he was proud of his service. I couldn't help but think of our own boy, now twenty, at the US Naval Academy, his life at a crux point as well. National service opens us to community beyond family. Opens us to our shared identity as American citizens. In the fall my daughter will run her first half-marathon for Team USO, proud of our soldiers, her brother, her father, and all those whose names she does not know. Those who came before her and follow her now, hands open and ready to do whatever work needs doing. Whether serving in the military, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the USO, or organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross, let us take a moment to thank the persons we meet giving of themselves to America and to the needs of the world.


In the time since I wrote this, my daughter has become a physician, committed to the well-being and needs of others. My son has become an electrical engineer, using science in the invention and service of technology and art. Their father still lies beside the murmuring river downriver from the rumbling trains. Time has passed, and things have changed. And yet, the families come to the cemetery this and every Memorial Day, bearing their tiny flags and garden flowers.

Let the poems of memories carry the day. Whomever it is you think of on this day, whomever it is you miss, I know you will find peace in the devotions of remembrance. I give you love.

 Read More 

2 Comments
Post a comment

Call and answer

Bernini, Rome

 

Hush, beloved. It doesn't matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendor.


~ "The White Lillies," Louise Gluck

The aria and the catalyst.

I am deep in the quiet hours thinking back to an essay on passion posted here in 2010. My mind is looping down riverbanks of slow moving thought as it did then. I am thinking about connections, the bonds of romantic love. Eight years ago I wrote about the question of truthfulness between couples, saddened by the infidelity and subsequent breakup of the marriage of a friend of mine. At the heart of their parting lay a painful truth neither had wished exposed, and when brought to light fatally erased the foundation between them. He played roulette and lost. She wished she'd never known. What was their truth? Did it matter, or was its value entirely in what was lost?

The fundamental song in dramatic love is the aria. A longing opened wide across the octaves. And then from the wings, an echo. The entrance of a duet. A melody and a response. A call and an answer. A cry and a caress. Two voices that sing the heart's passion. In the twining melodies, in these whispered dreams, dwells a wordless language. What we ask for and what we are given. What we offer and what is taken.

The call and answer determine the fate of the lovers.

I am thinking now of the French film "Coco & Igor," the story of the complicated, secret, and oftentimes emotionally harsh relationship between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Who called out first? Who answered? Much of their exchange remains wordless, physical. The interplay of their passion, and the way obsession fuels their individual art underscores the importance of the secretive nature of this exchange. Two muses. The lives of others. What was sacrificed to art. The affair itself not important, what mattered to Chanel and Stravinsky was its bonfire of inspiration.

There are so many arias, so many whispers we do not hear.

Romantic love is, finally, what is made of it. Are we lovers content in the small, sacred moments of living? Or lovers skating uneasily across life's dangerous territories? Love is perhaps only as permeable, as pure an elemental essence, as what we give of ourselves. How we value one another. Do we build or destroy? Some of us love in a kind of rhythm of labor, an endless garden we diligently and attentively hoe. Some cast nets to the sea, discover the catch gone and love onward in sorrow or separation. Others hold the hand of someone in comfort. Others fall into that certain slant of light that gilds the heart, left with an imprint that haunts forever.

Love unfurls. Place a rose on your kitchen table and watch the bloom drench the passing moments with its grace. Unlike Coco and Igor, or the dramatic opera, most of us love in quiet, ordinary ways. We experience love as an act from the soul as transformative for the lover as for the beloved.

Yet there is no denying that elemental spark. Love is catalyst. Once lit, what will you make of it?


 Read More 

Post a comment

sacrament, mystery, light

"How to Build a Cathedral," Cildo Meireles, 1987 copper pennies, cattle bones, pavers, wafers, black cloth. The Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin

 

Does a poem enlarge the world,
or only our idea of the world?

- from "Mathematics" by Jane Hirschfield

This image is of a 2013 art installation at The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The installation occupied (at that time) an entire room of its own. A room within a room, in which the art work, "How to Build a Cathedral," filled the entirety of the subdued space.

The light dim, the atmosphere quiet. The visitor is permitted to step inside the installation, which is curtained on four sides by filmy ceiling-to-floor black mesh curtains. Inside the closed mystery of the curtains, one may stand or walk the square perimeter of the installation upon an interior border of plain gray pavers. The ceiling within the space is constructed of a mammoth "chandelier" of cow bones suspended in uniform order from the ceiling and lit from above. The white bones funnel downward to join with a thin central cord constructed of stacked Eucharist wafers, and downward still into a sculptural seabed of shiny new copper pennies.

This art space has all of the sacramental hush and reverence we associate with the interiors of cathedrals, composed of the metaphoric elements with which we erect them. Rock. Bone and muscle. Ritual. Money. And death.

Sacrament, mystery, light.

Cildo Meireles has conceived an experience for us that improbable as it would seem, is made profound by our innate human inclination and worldly cultural intention to honor what we believe to be sacred. A space for contemplation. A space constructed of the elemental world. What is sacred, born of the ordinary.

 Read More 

1 Comments
Post a comment