Lying To The Dog

I used to have a little motto in my writing practice: Never lie to the dog. See, I used to read my poems out loud to my dog. We had a deal that what I read would always be the truth, even if I made it up. I got to thinking about that one time, after she was gone, and I wrote this little something out of that general idea.

It is a very short “story” or vignette, not based on anything in my life at all, except the constant prescience of dogs. I let it age like cheese for a while, then brought it out and prepared it for you.

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.”
~ Faulkner, Light in August

attending mystery

I was just going to post a vignette for you to read. I’m polishing it up to get it ready to submit for publication. I think it’s about ready to go. It’s got a clean shirt on, and a good hat to keep the rain of its little face. It’s awfully small – only two pages – to go out alone in the bold and verbose world, but I’ve done my best by it. All the rewriting set me to ruminating a bit, along these lines:

On a recent morning, drinking my coffee and listening to the critical whispers of my carpets, I read a very nice – meaning thoughtful and well-crafted – article in the LA Times about death. Rather, about a man who will soon see the end of his life, and whose lifelong career in thantology and suicide prevention has made him a unique subject for consideration in the matter of impending death.

I should clarify that if the perspective of this article is to be entertained, it is not this man who will see the end of his life. One’s death is experienced by others.

Here’s an excerpt from Waiting for death, alone and unafraid, Los Angeles Times:

“In death, things become mere things — the statue of Venus in the backyard, the gyotaku print in the kitchen, the Melville-inspired shadow boxes — no longer animated by memory, the story of their provenance. It is as if their atoms loosen and dissipate.

The meaning of death is loss and sadness and inevitability. On the wall above the bed, he has hung a print by Breughel that covers a crack in the plaster. Here an army of skeletons wages war against humanity, and compared to the Chagall overhead, it’s a bleak and macabre picture of the final hour that without angels or signs of salvation is unremittingly godless.”

Here’s a paradox: if death is experienced by others, and things become mere things, how is it that the things – mementos, memories – which are the legacy of our loved ones become so abjectly, enormously dear? I think the writer of that article has it backwards. Things are things until they’re all we have left. I have things that came to me from hands still warm and hands now beyond cold, and I have enough compassion for myself and those who gave them to me to know better than to call them mere.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.”

What is such a widening circle? To me, it is a consciousness of compassion, and that consciousness is the function of poetry; in other words, the exploration of authentic human experience. We are all in this together.

There is a subset of authentic and universal human experience which we can call true for everyone, and which really make our emotions ring. These are the primary colors of our daily lives, the things which we carry everywhere, everyday, and which define us. They are love stripped of romance, fear free of titillation, and death devoid of pride. Also, the small moments and rare intangible things which offer consolation.

The problem for a poet who sits down with a notebook and a pen and hopes to dig in to truth is that these things are just so intangible. But then, intangible things are the poet’s brush and paint. We have to live with that. We have to stare death in the face because it is in the great commonality, and keep it right here – right here – in front of our dusty spectacles. And not blink. See the metaphor …. be the metaphor.

Does it help to be a little crazy?

Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. Some of the spies are detached observers, such are glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. [Nabokov, Signs and Symbols]

There is a line in the book A Separate Reality by Carlos Casteneda which has stuck with me since I read the book in 1986, though I’m not going to spend a chunk of my finitude trying to find it and be exact: “I have my aly, the little smoke has shown me my death with great clarity.” And The Chink from Robbins’ Cowgirls says “Ha ha ho ho and hee hee.” I say it’s a mystery.

OK, maybe I’m getting a little carried away. My point is that poetry is for saying the things that are unsayable, for naming the truth the dog would tell you if he could talk. The poet William Stafford wrote this about that:

Your good dogs, some things that they hear
they don’t really want you to know —
it’s too grim or ethereal.

And sometimes when they look in the fire
they see time going on and someone alone,
but they don’t say anything.

Mark Twain wrote, “The dreamer’s valuation of a thing lost–not another man’s–is the only standard to measure it by, and his grief for it makes it large and great and fine, and is worthy of our reverence in all cases.” And I say Amen, and if anything depends on red wheel barrows and white chickens, then everything depends on how my grandfather watered his tomatoes, how grandma smoothed a quilt on the bed.

We are attending a mystery, a continuous and ineffable transubstantiation of Being, no less than the passage of galaxies through needles’ eyes, no greater than an hour pulling weeds in the front yard by the gate. Perhaps exactly the same size as a dog’s collar or a homemade pie. And how can we sit down and try to write it? Because of something John Gardner said, “The organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind.”

That is compassion, and that’s the job of the poet, isn’t it? We aim to write something beyond us, something that can’t be contained by the margins of the page. We fail. Words fail. We keep writing. And in the end, what remains is a final kindness. Which brings me to the end of my post.

Here’s that little story for you.

fetchez la vache

I’m working on my first book of fiction. I’ve written poetry for many years, and some short fiction. They say that poets can’t write novels. So I’m throwing myself against the fortifications of that insidious abstraction, in what has become a very long seige. An historic guerilla occupation of hostile territory.

Fetchez la vache means get the cow. A little something for my fellow Monty Python fans.

The Good Story

“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

He always tried to be a good story. Through the years, as paragraphs drifted by and settled on his shoulders, he offered no protest. As words have been gathered by the wind against curbs and gutters, against chain link and picket fences, caught in the weeds that persevere, he simply put them in his pockets, moving on. He is a work of small phrases but that has been his job, to collect these little things and keep them cleared away. He has done it carefully, without complaint. But to take up all of it was just impossible; so much was left behind. It’s not his fault. He’s just one simple story, after all.

It started well enough, and happily, though he was born on a day when it clouded suddenly, rained and stayed dark, and everyone said it was much too late in the year for that sort of weather. They said the ocean seemed to be thinking about something, deeply. And that maybe someone would go out for abalone, dive down and be caught in one of those thickening blue-black thoughts, and not come home. It was that kind of day. The divers saw it and stood on the dock for a long time drinking coffee and shielding their eyes with their free hands, watching the ocean think about death. Then they put their gear away and tossed the dregs of their coffee into the water and went home.

Looking back on it now, he sees they must have known that he was born that day, that he was probably the context, if not the point of view, of all that earnest brooding air, he’s been held to blame. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

As a child, he learned to put small things together, line them up. Subject, object, verb. And it was all predicated on time, which he saw laid out before him in great galleys, on a table in the morning sun. He wandered here and there through phrases of melody, past periods when everything seemed to stop. And taking a breath, he would rise and fall again. He was a child on a slide that stood shining in damp grass – the sun was barely even up! – and anything was possible if he followed rules, dropped nothing that was given him to hold or let it

break away too soon. That’s not so much responsibility.

The problem comes with wanting to grow, to take on more of self and life, to be an important story of substance, tinted with green flecks of meaning that glitter across the room. He wanted to be a work like that, a tale to turn heads, drive conversation at parties, be mentioned now and then. “Yes, but you really must read …” and they would know his name. So he grew, and took on height beyond a single page of pretense and prefigurement.

As he grew, he took on heaviness and time. He had to slow down from a dance to a trot, then to a less readable jog. Before he learned he had to walk – that the only way to make it through, to find a happy way to end, was to lean back in a comfy chair and take his time about it all – a worse thing happened.

His voice changed. Just a little. You probably wouldn’t have noticed. He didn’t reveal his narrator, or anything so bad as that. But he found his vowels creaking now and then, and when he stood and tried to speak, what rattled out was tinged with grief. He had learned to pick up bits of memory, and use them here and there to start a scene. This is something stories do. It can’t be helped, since future tense is conjectural at best.

So he turned one late spring windy afternoon and went to see his grandfather, who had been a long novella about work and holidays and dogs. He had been built on a backstory himself, so he had so much good advice to give. Keep your lines clean and sharp, stand up straight, and always leave them wanting more. And one last thing, boy. Tell the truth.

It helped. It really helped a while, I think. He tried to going on living well. One word after another, that’s the key to happiness. And if you block, just say the next right thing. But all that doesn’t last forever, not in a town this small, not for the long and heavy haul, not on page two of any life that drifts through drafts like this. Sooner or later, everybody makes stuff up.

Like the time he met the unformed ghost of no one in particular, which rose up from a warped and dusty hardwood floor and came at him, and moaned. And how he screamed and hit the screen door at a run, and fell out into the yard. The house stood like a dull and dying thing made of trees in the August heat and laughed at him. A story should be more fun than that, and brave enough to stand and face the unseen world in which it lives. I know that you agree.

He wanted peace. He grew weary of page after page of getting up and eating life, then lying down. He knew what everyone thought about him, that he was the story of a rainy day and the pensive sea and how the men could have died, their bodies swept away, dissolved, digested by the churning engine of the world. He knew it was useless to change the subject after all, that it was carved on his synopsis, and it would mark his grave in fading ink.

But one day he got up late, after all the writers were gone for espresso and scones, and their computers were idling with screensavers of lost and knotted pipes. He climbed to the top of the hill; the hill that is bald on the top, weedless, a scorched and freckled pate of rock. He stood and looked down on the harmless, mostly useless town. There were no factories, no feedlot, no winery or mill. What do those people do all day? Just the houses and the school where he started, waiting in line to climb the slide.

I am not a story of the sea, he roared. And the birds scattered from the trees below and all around. I am not a tale of sad weather, not anymore. I am a story of children in a carnival, with a teacup ride and a Ferris wheel. I can tell you about cotton candy and getting sick in the grass, and ring toss games that aren’t quite fair. I know about going from ride to ride with your father, and him buying your ticket for the carousel. I have seen his face go bright and brighter, every time you come around. And what about the dogs? I could be a story, damn you all, about dogs and how they eat and sleep and play. I could show you a little dog, running in a dream.

We know that that’s not going to happen. We knew from the opening paragraph how things would all turn out for him. No death, no publishable demise, no bright turn of phrase to give the reader hope. He’s not that kind of guy. We read near the end of the story Rust Abides. He doesn’t understand the phrase, but feels persistent truth in it, a sense of doom, an unremitting entropy.

We writers have a place for things like this. It’s not an envelope addressed to the big city. Why pay for the postage, just to buy rejection slips? It’s certainly not the wicker waste can by the desk. He’s maybe just a shade too good for that, with all he’s learned and all he’s suffered stoically. He understands what happens now, and you can help by stepping back. Just watch, as he stands and brushes the crumbs of consonants from the front of his shirt and from his jeans, and slips himself quietly into the drawer.

© Kyle Kimberlin
7/20/2007