Henry Miller “Reflections on Writing”

Today I went to a used bookshop across the lake from my little hometown.  It’s probably one of my favorite places in the world.  It’s in an old, 18-foot-high ceilinged long rectangle of a room with shelves and shelves up to the ceiling with ladders all over.  The wood floors all old and creaky as hell, and there’s a little coffee room permeating over the smell of old books.  Poetry books, literary fiction (tastefully chosen, no Nora Roberts), history, world religions, psychiatry, tons on shamanism and healing, war, westerns, floral, local, books on writing, books on poetry, all jammed in tight in sky scraping bookshelves and they somehow keep it organized.

So I came across The Henry Miller Reader, edited and with an intro by Lawrence Durrell, copyright 1959 I believe.  As most of you know, I’m a fan of Henry Miller.  When I first read Tropic of Capricorn in college I was shook up and stunned to learn that you could write like that–honest, no conformity but a telling of a story/life/times like he just opened up his brain or his soul without capitalizing on the idea that a soul is perfect and beautiful.  He makes fucked-up look just right.  And that’s a relief to me as a writer trying to figure out the form to my voice.  He hit a point in his writing that I think we all have to reach–where we think we’ve lost it, we’re no good, we can’t make it as a man/woman because we can’t write the way we think we should.  But then there comes the point–you throw ALL of those preconceptions out, all the noise out, all the how-to’s out, all the examples out–AND YOU WRITE FOR YOURSELF.  You write out of the pit you’re in, and you write the scum your in, the beauty you’re in, the truth you’re in, you’re not ever going to find a point or thee truth, but you hover around it and the whole of your craft (not the words, but the language) the whole of your intention, shines a light on a truth you can’t even name.

“I imitated every style in the hope finding the clue to the gnawing secret of how to write.  Finally I came to a dead end, to a despair and desperation which few men have known, because there was no divorce between myself as writer and myself as man: to fail as a writer mean to fail as a man.  And I failed.  I realized that I was nothing–less than nothing–a minus quantity.  I t was at this point…that  I really began to write.  I began from scratch, throwing everything overboard, even those whom I most loved.  Immediately I heard my own voice I was enchanted: the fact that it was a separate, distinct, unique voice sustained me.  It didn’t matter to me if what I wrote should be considered bad.  Good and bad dropped out of my vocabulary.  I jumped with two feet into the realm of aesthetics, the nonmoral, nonethical, nonutilitarian realm of art.  My life itself became a work of art.  I had found a voice.  I was whole again….”

“I had to grow foul with knowledge, realize the futility of everything; smash everything, grow desperate, then humble, then sponge myself off the slate, as it were, in order to recover my authenticity.  I had to arrive at the brink and then take a leap in the dark.” Read More

Two 55 Word Stories: In Other Rooms; and Emily, Emily

In Other Rooms

In the basement, one corner has no light bulb.  It’s where Barbie goes when she’s mad; I give the corvette a push into the shadows.  I drape my bruised body in mom’s shawls.  Above, dad drinks to Deep Purple.  I see the trees from where the wild things live loom over me in pencil scratches.

Emily, Emily

It came in the night.  I woke to it lifting my sheets; it made my nightgown bleed.  My doll saw it all so I ripped out her eyes before breakfast.  It came in the sunlight and singed my lips so I gave it my voice.  I choked out a doll that burned.  I ran, hungry.

Small Parts (excerpt from a work-in-progress) part 1

I remember sneaking up on him, crawling across the nappy green carpet in my scratchy nightgown. Sometimes staples stick up from hidden ridges and prick my knees. The carpet is green and smooshed like fields after a storm, with mysterious, stitched rivers dividing the landmasses. I crawl to the end table that’s dull and sticky. Two owls with glassy, yellow eyes sit on their perch, holding up the dingy lampshade. A glass ashtray takes up the rest of the room. I watch his profile as he smiles and talks with his brother–my new uncle–who sits among empty beer cans on the other side of the dim living room. They’re talking with words I don’t quite understand. He laughs, so I laugh. I like his dimples. I like everything about this strange, new character. We’re learning how to spell his last name. He wants us.

He hears me laugh and slowly turns an annoyed, oily face in my direction. My hair is still wet from the tub. He puffs a large cloud of cigarette smoke into my shiny face. They laugh. I cough and laugh, too. They keep talking. It means go away.

Bones …for John. I’m sorry dad.

he stands in the gap between the

frozen birch trees

he looks back, hair in his eye

I catch a glimmer maybe

his glasses are gone

his jeans are still faded

I think of my frozen fee on

the icy ground

in this frost where I

don’t belong

he would’ve spoken

but I guess you can’t say

anything in Limbo

I am pale and small here

I slip away, back, and he moves

forward

to the dark crevice

between the wide white bones

of the woods

it was all so quick

I forgot to smile back

so say I love you

to say goodbye

it was too late

thoughts echo in this space

gives them room to be heard

Lady Daydream

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
A Lyrical Travel Essay, my first

A Kind of Daydream

Lady Day’s voice dips and drones and flattens the back of my throat as we open the summer together.  I’ve waited a whole year for this.  My car coasts so easily on the black road that climbs up and swoops down green hills, as if I’m not even driving but simply along for the ride.  The heat comes in from all directions; it radiates through the glass and wilts the lilacs on the dashboard; it blows in the front windows and weaves out the back.  I’m sweating but I welcome it as much as I welcome this annual tradition.  Somewhere deep within the miles of trees, our cabins await us (along with about two dozen other family members) on clean, clear lakes just beyond Delta in Bayfield County.

White clouds and treetops scroll across the silver hood and up the window.  Shadows dance across my arm as I steer the wheel.  Through muffled static, the notes from the piano lightly dance up and down scales, and the trumpet sounds miles away –backdrop rhythm.  The bass clarinet’s riff swaysaaaaaaaaaa and blunts my spine, taps my sandal on the pedal. 

…like a summer with a thousand Julys…you intoxicate my soul with your eyes…

Her voice is the long, velvety cord that laces all the different sounds together in a lovely, melancholy song.  I reach to turn her up.

County E slopes into County H and disappears behind a wall of oaks around a bend.  This is where the road begins to wind and zigzag throughout the countryside, taking its sweet time to reach Delta.  A series of sharp angles skims us past Benson’s Horse Ranch, where horses graze fearlessly close to the fence, barely looking up at the flash of chrome and blaring trumpets.  Another turn and we ease parallel with a grove of maples and pines behind the familiar old fence that is becoming less and less visible in the overgrowth of bramble and daisies.  I wonder if it all looked the same sixty years ago.  I wonder if someone drove through here in a shiny black 1940s Coupe –my dream car –listening to Billie Holiday crooning out of the radio.  I imagine the reflection of leaves rolling over its rounded surfaces, the quiet whir of the white-walled tires, my fingers curled around the slender wheel.

…all of me…

Everything is alive and bursting green.  I drive well below the speed limit; I am in no rush to get there.  I have carried the same thought every year since childhood –the faster we get there, the faster the long-awaited week of camping will be over.  But now that I’m older, the drive has become one of my favorite parts.

Pavement gives way to fine rocks and ruts, and we are swallowed up by the national forest, hidden from the sun beneath the canopy.  I look in the rearview mirror and see my toddler sound asleep.  Her plump cheeks are pink from the sun, and the gentle breeze that floats through the open windows cools her skin.  Strands of golden hair wisp this way and that around her face, which has lolled to the side of her car seat.  Life is good.  If I could choose my heaven, it would be this drive, unending through this country on a bright summer day, just Emma and me.

…I see your face in every flower…

We reach the sun-bleached “Fresh Farm Eggs 4 Sale” sign, and I know we are almost there.  The car rambles across the bridge Read More

(excerpt) Broken Sidewalks

The basement is everywhere.   A corner houses shelves of limping cardboard, labeled by some thin marker zigzag that can’t be read because there’s no light bulb over there.  We call this the dungeon and sometimes it’s where Barbie goes when she’s mad.  I give the pink corvette a push and she sails into the scary shadows.  In the corner by the steps, old sheets and sleeping bags are weighted down on ledges and chairs, some twisted and knotted around the metal poles to make forts and rooms.  I see all the lace and concrete finery in the Snoopy sheets; in little padded nooks, my lipsticks and mirrors shine.  Pink high heels swallow my feet to the ankles and jewels hang heavy in my hair.  The space where we couldn’t get the sheets to reach is the gap between worlds.  Above the webbed ceiling sits dad in his rocker, chain-smoking to Deep Purple.  But down here anything could come at us–monsters, princes, Johnny Castle from Dirty Dancing.  The trees from where the wild things live loom over us in colored pencil scratches.

Flat Affect

there is a piece I lost
a great, big piece I lost
and I don’t know where I am.
I slipped away once upon…
I stole inside where touch and sight
could never reach me.
It was, truly, a brilliant escape
but it had a high cost
I can’t suffer the balance.
There is a piece I had to give
I don’t know which or how
but there is a piece I lost
and I spend all my time
searching for it
and that’s what makes me
tired.
So tired that I forget where I am
and all the other pieces
keep crashing into each other,
losing their places,
looking at me,
waiting for me to fill the space.

Limbo

          A palm reader told Nikki that you were caught in Limbo.  I listened to her guilty cry from the other end of the line and imagined you in a hazy purple space where only your eyes existed—looking away, stirring with something.  I imagined you in this blank, vast nothingness without form, waiting. 

            The night you fell and died on the floor of a bar, I was dancing in another city—wasted.  You used to pull us behind the tractor—us three bouncing in the wagon around and around the old farmhouse.  Grandpa sat at the kitchen window drinking Old Style, staring at the humming birds.  You breathed beer in our faces as you put band aids on our scrapes or shushed us until we forgot our hurts.  I searched for treasures in the dirt driveway—round beer tabs, pennies—beneath the pink blossoms that fell like snow from the apple trees.  You climbed one of them and roped a swing around one of the branches as we stood below, catching the petals on our eyelids.  I sat on your long lap of faded denim while you let me steer the old mower.  I held onto the skinny wheel, arms spanning its perimeter.    

            On the weekends that you had us, we’d wake you up on Sundays, jumping on your bed.  You were fresh smiles and morning kisses, reaching for us and laughing.  An itchy, beige blanket divided the one room we shared on the second floor of the farmhouse; it glowed in the sun that filtered through the yellow shade.  You were the kind of dad that waited until we were in the tub, covered in bubbles, before you came in to wash our hair.  I brought you a cassette tape of me singing Patsy Cline—I was five and knew all of her songs by heart.  You said you loved it and played it every time we came.  You took us out on a country ride in the brown boat of a car.  Nikki and I sat up front, Jodie sat in the back.  You held a beer and my door swung open when we drove through a pothole that made my feet hit the dash.  Gravel and green blurred by; Nikki held onto me and John Denver sang.  At dusk we’d walk through the fields where the broken barn fades and we’d weave around the hay bales high as mountains, taking turns holding your hands.  These were the years that sopped and soaked into your memory.  These were the girls you knew us by—toddlers clinging to your knees.

            You became persistent and sidetracked when, a short time later, we got a new last name.  You were being replaced.  We stopped calling you daddy.  We trailed behind you in the garden giggling your name “John, John, Daddy John”.  It was the only time we saw you mad and we giggled even harder.  Then we started seeing you every other weekend.  Then it was once a month.  Then maybe Easter.  They told us you were “slow” and “simple”.  We didn’t know what that meant; we knew you were like one of us, and you quietly did whatever we would say.  We knew you loved us.  You showed up crying and pleading after a few months had gone by, begging to take us for the next weekend.  They gave you another try, and we waited in our pretty dresses by the front window.  Mom watched us as the time slipped away “Goddamn him” and we went upstairs to change.  We were told what was wrong with you, “He’s…an alcoholic.”  “He’s…mentally slower than…”  “He’s…stuck.”  I had wished you would’ve understood what was wrong with me.  I wanted to crawl in your lap and tell you our new dad was the monster under my bed.  I’d imagine what you’d do—the look that might’ve flashed through your big blue eyes, the fall of your sheepish posture, broad shoulders sinking—you with your helpless hands, embarrassed; passive hands, scared, your brain slowly mushing into a sponge.  I learned you could never save me.  You slinked away to the bars for good, every day, at ten a.m.. 

            At fourteen I sought out your apartment on one lousy Sunday.  I knew you had been living out of your car but then moved in with your brother.  You didn’t know my face when you opened the door.  “You looking for Francis?” you asked politely.  Well it had been seven or eight years.  Frightened and nervous after I said my name, you offered me a quick seat at the little kitchen table.  I stared at its gray, marbled top and at the laundry and boxes and rotten food strewn about.  You caught hell though I didn’t really want to give it to you.  I had mixed up all your intentions and put them under my bed.

            Weeks later, I broke into your house in a fever.  I dashed up the stairs and found your bedroom where I rummaged through your things, not caring to put anything back.  I was disappointed to see you hadn’t thrown our things away.  Our pictures covered the cracked walls and the letters we’d sent you over the years lay in neat piles around a bare mattress.  You still had the cassette tape of me.  Auntie Carol later told me you played it all the time—in those lost years.  I knew that smell of you—I still do.  If filled the dank, yellow house with the lonely hallways.  I wanted you to come rushing for me.  You would’ve repeated things you’d heard like “there’s no such thing as monsters” and I would’ve persisted like a child that there was.  You’d be drunk.  You’d never fill that void.  I wanted to cry for you when I stole out the front door.

            We were in our twenties when we looked over at you in the funeral home.  Your lashes were long and waxen.  Your eyes bulged beneath their lids.  Your large hands with the bitten finger nails were gray.  Random thoughts shot through my mind in that cold room where they released all of the alcohol from you.  As your children, we were to go through your house and choose what we wanted.  They gave us your address and it took us to a different side of town, near the lake.  This place was hollow and empty aside from the trash.  No food, no laundry basket, no towels.  Old Style sat warm in the refrigerator.  The same clothes you wore when we were little still hung in the closet, reeking of you.  I kept a shirt.  An old, beige blanket was nailed up over the window.  Letters were found here and there in the laundry and newspapers across the floor.  I searched for treasures—keepsakes.  Beer tabs and pennies.

            You called me Salt because of my white-blond hair.  Nikki was Pepper.  Jodie was Paprika.  “I love yous’, I love yous girls” you used to always say.  You never tried to teach me to be tough—you always let me cry until I was better.  So alone, so alone, and did you realize that in the end?  Did you feel it in those short hours before you were drunk again?  Did your brain sop all that away?  The bartenders said you carried pictures of us three in your wallet and showed us to them every day, bragging about where we worked and how we were doing.  Somehow you kept up on us.  Nikki can’t stop holding your shirts.  She shouldn’t have paid the five bucks to the gypsy.

My Virginia

I would have met you at the water if I

were then without a daughter; I would have

held your hand–I’ve known you before.

I would have decided on the hour–on

instinctual impulse–when the lower

haze of swaying moods send me down.

I would have called you I bet,

and the moon would’ve been full and

I would’ve ran barefoot in my nightgown

to meet you at the edge.

We would’ve known, I think, not to speak

about blue darkness and moon shafts shifting

across pale dandelions between our toes.

But chemistry comes in capsules now, Virginia,

and I dare say it’s like breathing under water

in a beautiful menagerie of imagination

where thoughts come with a reign and scale–

for weight, not matter.

But sometimes, like those nights we’d dive,

I fear my words are pebbles,

I risk giving them meaning and shape

and find shame from their sudden emptiness,

I fear it’s left me

until I think of you–my shared reflection

in the water, you with so much more grace,

but I can only build you up as a writer

and a fighter

and I drop a little stone to wrinkle you away

and I see my face, blurry and rippled,

brilliant in the moon.