(Disclosure: I originally wrote this for a website that didn't publish it. Oh well.)
A sputtering madman come too close to truth for comfort's sake, a sibilance, snake-like, winding through tall grasses of the mind, filled with visions in blinks and blasts, scenes that simmer and smolder and staunch away the blasé. Words that are caught within you, language in movement that molds the mover, reiterates the brain. These rhythms not only alter your patterns of thought, they re-lay the foundations. These are the ways of Jason Stumpf.
A slim volume, but not a thin one, his A Cloud of Witnesses is a taste upon the tongue, a dance of dialogue, words wrapping like ribbons around the little fingers of your brain. There is a music in them, these poems, a symphony told in blasts of scat beats, like thick little windows with differing views of a glorious whole. Take, for instance, this piece of “An Evening’s Entertainment,”: “The brute pianist broadcast the timbre of a piece not only by his digits on the tusks but in the way his nether-lip hung with each dissonance, quivered with each clever cadence to the one.”
These visions take the form of prose poems, mostly tight paragraphs, half a page at a throw. Not that they conform, however, to any paragraphic limitations, any inhibitions or predilections toward the expected. Dialogue, italicized, flitters through some of the works, a commentary either from or within the speaker or speakers referenced therein. Others, like “Line Upon Line” and “A Summary of the Missing Chapter,” read like lists. “How To Paint in Oil Colors” is told as a telegraph, stopped and started and stopped, like expressed breaths, shouts of insight from an unseen afar. And though they are poems, they are also stories, told tightly, in rhythmic breaths. “Dinner-Time,” for example, is short on words but long on implications: “Then, seemingly without alarm, in pantomime, and nearly in unison, each gentleman stretched his arms in an exaggerated yawn before excusing himself from the table, each one, to ensure the security of his secret.”
The use of language in A Cloud of Witnesses is masterful, meaningful, with the right words at the right time to pluck the right chords of the mind. Though the poems can feel disjointed, that disarray is played as a melody, rather than a cacophony, a swelling of symbol and metaphor. The lines have meaning in themselves and in layers and as pieces of a poem that plays its own part of a larger whole. There are sagas told in similes, lines thick with meaning implied and inferred.
There are references here, to the heavy hitters, the Joyces and Hardys and Tennysons and Nerudas, but also to films and paintings, and to that bounty of inference, the Holy Bible, from which the collection’s title is drawn and many of the poems’ images draw their inspirations. From “MCMXLIII,”: “From Adam to the epistles, male to mail, he read, and in dreams that year saw a flotilla of begats sailing near.” Stumpf is not afraid to cite his sources, to point to his points of inspiration, but the magic he makes from their collective spells is all his own.
In his “Epilogue,” the speaker makes a final request: “Things happen slow, you know, in plots so plan to stay a time and too, Dear Reader, burn this book when you are through, or else bury it. Idle things, they say, are the Devil’s.” Though I cannot condone this advice, I will request that if you should dispense with this volume after having consumed of it, that you lay its lines across your mind before you let it slip away. It won’t be hard to let them linger; they’ll find their own way in.
(Full Disclosure: I am a graduate of the University of South Florida's English: Creative Writing undergraduate program and Katherine Riegel was one of my professors, from whom I have taken one course (Intro to Poetry) and from whom I would have taken many more, had the slots not filled up like lines for registers on Black Friday. I like her, she's a nice person. I also took classes from her husband, Ira Sukrungruang, who is also a nice person, and one hell of a disc golfer. Know, however, that as much as I like someone, I am not afraid to savage the things that they do or make. Not that I plan to do so, as I was enthralled and enraptured by this work, but you know, honesty and all. That said, let us begin.)
It's a poetry collection, but it isn't. These pages drip with honeyed truth, with lines that ache in reflection and refraction, with memory through thick stained glass. There is more than creation here, more than whim, more than words made wonderful through selection and style. There is truth here. I can't just call it poetry. It is, to co-opt a term, poetic non-fiction.
From the earliest memories of failure in "Art" to the ones that have yet to be remembered in "After Both My Parents Are Dead," the poems of Castaway go beyond the dichotomy of truth and beauty to turn a life lived into a scattering of polished gems. They bear their cracks and weatherings, they resemble the pressures under which they were formed, but they come out shining and beautiful. There are rhythms here that one hears only in the afterglow, in the reflection of memory upon which one gazes in the quiet moments, after the dust has all settled. These poems kick up the dust, throw open the windows, spread a new light across old memories.
Here we are, in the heart of football season, as the last of the gold and ochre leaves turn and fall and are covered with the first wisps of snow. In high schools across the country, champions are being crowned, and at the collegiate and national level, the final, crucial games of the year loom large. Football is not the national pastime, but it is the national obsession. Here we have a book for the obsessed.
Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden, in twenty-two article-style chapters, outlines the evolution of football from the birth of the single-wing under Pop Warner to the edge of innovation, the A-11, through interviews and overviews with the men who revolutionized the game. From Vince Lombardi to Don Coryell, from Buddy Ryan to Dick LeBeau, and with dozens of stops between and beyond, Layden dives into twenty-two of the revolutionary offensive and defensive systems which revolutionized the way football is played for one team and forced change in all the others.
The book is not for the novice, the absolute casual fan, through Layden's writing is incredibly approachable and inviting. One should come to it knowing the difference between the 4-3 and the 3-4, should have at least a passing knowledge of the passing game. It is also not a manual, not a step-by-step breakdown of how to run the Veer or the Triple Option.
What this book is, and what makes it so great, is a sort of genealogy, a history of the offenses and defenses you watch your teams execute every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Layden visits the coaches, watches the game film, has the diagrams drawn by the men who first drew them. He goes to the source, the originators of these systems, even finding, most times, that the sources are obscure, are a panoply of innovation through desperation and an incredible amount of co-option and cooperation, more than one would even imagine for a game that can be so cutthroat, so violent and unforgiving in action. Layden opens his book with a quotation, by famed Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, that introduces the ethos that is so peculiar and so prominent throughout his many interviews:
"Aww, hell, that's the great thing about football coaches. They'll kick your ass on Saturday afternoon and then they'll tell you how they did it."
Coaching is a fraternity, as Layden discovers, and most coaches are quick to acknowledge that their innovations are mostly polished mirrors of what some other grizzled coach had come up with when he knew his boys were outmatched. Whether it is the vogue of the Wildcat and its Single Wing roots or the dozens of flavors of Air Coryell, coaches are quick to use anything they can to gain an edge, and quicker still to pass that knowledge along to the next guy who needs a leg up on a stiffer opponent.
If you are intrigued by the Xs and Os of the game, are fascinated by the magic in motion and the cerebral aspect of the game, you cannot go wrong with this book. It is insightful, inspired, and at times downright hilarious, for the legends Layden looks to are still only men, with turf under their toes and hints of smiles in their eyes. Their passion bleeds through to the lessons they impart and the young men they feel blessed to tutor. Pick it up and give it a read. You'll never look at the game the same way again.
Sometime in the last several years (my memory is mushy, call it 2005) I decided that I would no longer pose for photographs (meaning, in this case, those huddled group affairs, the "we're people at a place who can smile" sort of things). In addition, I resolved that I would no longer take posed photographs. Why? Because they are a lie.
"A lie, huh? That's pretty strong, there, Josh. Aren't you being a little too acerbic?"
No, imaginary counterpoint, I'm not. (And big ups for using a fancy word like acerbic and not just saying asshole. You could have. You'd probably be right.)
Here's why: When we're out in public, out enjoying ourselves, we're in a groove, a moment of pure us-ness. When you ask us to pose for a photograph, we are taken out of that rhythm of honesty and forced to enact a fraud, namely that we're all smiling and huddled together at some point, primped for a camera. The camera, a stand-in for a narrative eye if there ever was one, acts on the behalf of others, depicting a view they've missed but that is captured for them, a moment in time to be later reflected upon. The problem with posed photographs is that these moments never really happened, nor would have happened, outside the intervention of the photographer.
The real advent of this decision came via a wonderful little piece of slipshod technology: the cellphone camera. By removing the indicator of capture, that bulky Nikon, and replacing it with a clever little ubiquitous spy, one can move past the inherent feeling of being captured, of preemptive primping and breath-holding, and allow for moments in time to be cut out of the air for posterity. When you don't know you're being watched, you tend to be more honest, and honesty is so much more intriguing than artifice. Not that cellphone photos are ideal, mind you, but their method of capture sure happens to be. They may be dark, they may be grainy, they may be blurred, but they are true.
Now, this isn't to say that I can't be cajoled. I've appeared in photos that weren't purely captured moments, because, let's face it, pretty women make pouty faces that I just can't say no to. But I still refuse to cooperate fully. I photobomb my own likeness, to assure the audience, though more than likely only myself, that I'm not doing this by choice. I'm acknowledging that I know this is a farce and that I'm willing to play along, but damn it, I don't have to like it. Am I accused of ruining the occasional photo? Yes. Do I give a flying fuck? Not in the slightest. It isn't my job to help you lie, dearie, so don't act so put out when I refuse to.
Here's what it comes down to, really: pictures should be capturing the truth, raw and real and revelatory. There's enough fake in the world, and enough fake-makers to populate it. Why be another one?
(A footnote, since I don't know how to make pretty looking footnotes quite yet: if you are pictured here and object, let me know and I'd be glad to replace your less than flattering photo with a different one. I have others that would work just as well.)
Well, see, there are a bunch of reasons. For one, because it is, in fact, a science fictional story and because it is, it is also a story about who we are as seen through another lens. Science fiction, or at least all good science fiction anyway, is an askew view of the normal, a way of looking into things by looking at what they are, are not, could be, could not be but are hoped to be, wanted to be, or even desperately hoped never to be, even as they seem more and more to be that way, at least a little further down the line. They are an extrapolation that points not forwards and not really backwards but at the now and what the now portends.
For another, because it is a time travel story, and to do a time travel story well, as this story most definitely was, one must take some serious forethought into it. Charles Yu has done his homework and shows us that he has without showing us that he did. I know, I know, it's all a bit roundabout, but it doesn't make it untrue. The best sorts of speculative stories adhere to Hemingway's Iceberg Theory. Yu's just happens to be one whopper of an iceberg. A bow breaker of an idea.
For a third, because in the bends and loops and twists that Charles pulls us through, he arrives at these truths that are so true that we know them to be so, know them to be so obvious that we nod along with them, both in acceptance and also in a little inward sort of anger, anger at ourselves for not having thought them before, or thought them so simply or so eloquently as he has. For instance:
"Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years."
See what I mean?
But why, beyond all that, did I love this book? Because it is the kind of story I love the most, a story about fathers and sons. My own impetus toward writing has a great deal to do with, and a great stemming outward from, the conception of the father figure and the role that plays in the construction of the son. What motivates the father also tends to motivate his son, in such a way that we want so badly to be what we know to be good in our lives: what our fathers are, or to be what we know to not be good in our lives: what our fathers were. This struggle between two sorts of ideals, two conceptions of who we are as blurred copies of what we came from, drives young men to greatness and ruin, and has for ages and ages. Stories of fathers are stories of triumph writ large upon the tableau of their sons, and the interaction between the two, especially here, most definitely here, echo the same forces that all young men come to deal with at some point in their lives, whether they prefer to or not. We are our father's sons, either in reflection or in opposition, but that voice drives us in ways we have trouble understanding or accepting. This story was a great example of such.
Pick it up. I highly recommend it.
We have a complicated relationship, you and I. For the longest time I denied you. Held you out of my life as a demon, a mistress of whispered blisses and joy-blind slides down torn and turgid tracks. I heeded the authoritative klaxons, was even awarded for their echo. I was, as defined, good.
I saw you, sure, saw your smirk upon the faces of my friends, your scent on their fingers, turned tightly through their hair, leeching from their pores. I saw your scattered path upon the grass. I wouldn't walk there, though. Not for anything.
Curiosity is a hard thing to brook. When possibility lingers there, always just off the end of your fingers, the current it conjures can overwhelm. So I dipped my toe in the water. I let you whisper on my lips. I didn't feel anything. Not hot, not cold, not happy, not sad. Merely throat burned and muddled, confused. "That's what I was missing, what I was being warned away from? I don't feel anything."
"It's common, the first time, not to. Try it again."
I did. I kissed again.
"This! This is what I was missing! This is what they warned me about? This?!"
I'd been hoodwinked. Again and again I walked that foggy path, our fingers entwined, and again and again I did not die. Didn't ache, didn't hurt, didn't crave through clenched teeth or turn toxic in my need. It wasn't anything but a key to a door I didn't know was there, a door to your little chamber inside myself, a room with a particular sort of view.
It was a beautiful bloom.
We met in parking lots. In alleys and between dumpsters. In rooms with toweled doors and scented candles. Even, when we were feeling frisky, out among the open skies. We were lovers without a love nest, making do with where we were, what we had, who we were. We were young. We were in love.
It has been a rocky romance. You've cost me, dear, cost me more than you've ever paid. You became not merely a jealous lover but a crutch, a method for coping with a world that, whether through your tint or not, I do and can not know, looked harder and harder to exist within. But you were there. Your arms were always open and always so inviting, so warm to the touch, so tender upon the lips. You made it easy, or at least easier.
What one doesn't notice, however, when they depend upon a crutch, is how they tend to atrophy toward its continued use. You were so easy to love that you grew hard to set aside. I brought you everywhere with me, all the time. You were always on my mind, a peach whose nectar flavored everything in reach until the only thing I tasted was your honeyed lips upon my own. I was lost in bliss. And I have to find my way out.
See, here's the thing: It's not you, it's me. I can't go on like this, living like you and I are all there is. Because we're not. I'm not. I'm so much more than this, than our little corner of this great big world. And I'm holding myself back, if only to be with you. I can't anymore. I'm sorry.
Look, we knew it would be this way. That it couldn't be forever. I set dates, drew lines, and yet broke them and crossed them to be with you and you alone. But I can't any longer. This can't go on. It has to end here.
We'll go our separate ways, you and I, walk our separate paths where they diverge, here, at the tips of our toes. I'll walk along a while, feeling our ways wander apart across each passing mile. I'll be alright alone. I will.
I won't say I won't miss you. That I won't look back. But I must be Orpheus and you my Eurydice. You must stay and I must trudge on, alone, and even empty a while, but whole again.
Goodbye, proud Mary, goodbye.
Two items jumped out at me today while sifting my RSS feeds (though a more apt descriptor should really be applied, in that it is an addictive behavior) (injecting? scarfing? smoking?) today.
Item the first: From the NY Times blog Freakonomics (in turn from the writers (and others) of the wildly successful book of the same name), this article, with the soul stomping headline: "The Burden of Incarceration: 1 in 28 Kids Have a Parent Behind Bars". You don't even need to click before it hurts. One in twenty-eight?
Imagine your high-school English class. Pick one of those cherubic faces from the crowd. The frail blond boy in the back, scribbling on the cover of his Mead notebook, adding shadows and depth to his daydream doodling. Or the pretty girl sat up perky in the front row, her tight knot of auburn hair held firm under a plastic claw, or pinned in place with a pair of chopsticks, eyes darting from her notes to the board to the teacher, trying so desperately to take it all in. Imagine them waking up every morning, coming home every afternoon, going to bed every night, aware of and aching over a mom or dad-sized absence in their lives. One less pair of arms to hold them in their sorrow, to smooth away the pain, to embrace them in their triumphs. One in twenty-eight.
Item the second: From the Christian Science Monitor, this gem: "'Feds Radiating Americans'? Mobile X-ray vans hit US streets". Now, aside from the admittedly fearmongery headline, I'd like to know just who decided that this passed the Fourth Amendment sniff test and went ahead with the roll out of these vehicles. Which bureatchnick thought this was OK? And does anyone know where one buys feathers or tar in quantity?
I'm sorry for ruining your day. When the spouse asks who got you all riled up, you can tell 'em it was Josh's fault. And then send them on over to see for themselves.
So, just under two months, huh? And nothin? God am I terrible.
So here's the thing: I haven't had much to say. This blog sort of functions as my own tiny little publishing house, an open forum for the presentation of the crap that comes "gushing forth" from my brain hole. And that tap has run dry.
Now, this isn't to say that I don't still have opinions about things, or things I'd like to say. What it means is that I haven't had anything to express that I necessarily think I need to foist off upon the masses (Heh, masses. There's some wishful thinking).
I do have a review sitting in the hopper that should get pushed out pretty soon, and if I can think a little more cogently on it, a sort of semi-manifesto/self-criticism that is also in a draft stage. Also I'm working on cleaning up a short story that I'll publish here (for free!) before I start foisting it around for sale.
So, you know, maybe keep an eye out?
So it's been nearly two weeks without content. I am a terrible host.
Another part would be my pronounced procrastination and apathy. I'm not into the rhythm of updating and any excuse not to is enough to allow myself to slip. I'm working on it. I hope I'm getting better.
However! In the next week I should have a new essay up, a review of a ridiculous foodstuff, and other interesting tidbits to share. Heck, maybe I'll even pull in a reader or two.
I can't promise daily content. I know myself too well for that. But there will be content, and I hope you enjoy it with me.
Less than a week in and I nearly blew the whole operation! I wrote nearly 1000 words of a draft, but they aren't the right ones yet, so that got shelved. Instead you get this status report-y filler post.
I managed to finish the home page background image today, as well as learn the code I'll need to implement it. Now I just need the header image and a few stylistic pieces and we're in business. Also, once I settle on the header I can take a crack at a color scheme that's more exciting than the current B & W. In the process I also retaught myself Photoshop, which was...interesting.
Hopefully by midweek everything will be coded and moved server-side. Until then, it's back to the grind.
With a short break, that is, to see if I can make something palatable out of this: