Category Archives: War

Introversion: A Legacy Through Poetry

Although this photo doesn't have much to do with my grandmother's poetry, I absolutely love it.  Something tells me she wasn't particularly fond of shooting a gun.  Perhaps she was humoring Granddad, also pictured.

Although this photo doesn’t have much to do with my grandmother’s poetry, I absolutely love it. Something tells me she wasn’t particularly fond of shooting a gun. Perhaps she was humoring Granddad, also pictured.

I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia.  My mother’s mother, Lucile Shanklin Hull, was a local poet and published several books of poetry about the region.  In her book, Lyrics of the Hills*, 1980, she celebrated the region and her community in Smyth County, Virginia.  Many of her poems feel designed to promote a warm and romantic version of the community, such as “The Gay Bazaar”:

Hurry, hurry, hurry
To the gay bazaar!
For just around the corner,
Where throngs of people are
All a-hustle and a-bustle,
There will be displayed
Such a carnival of color-
Mingled art and artless wonder
Eager hands have made. (48)

But in other poems, as is true of the region, there are quiet pools of darkness; she makes commentary about strip mining, rural poverty, and war casualties.  From page to page, there’s a rise and fall, mountain peaks warmed by sunlight—“From this tall pinnacle look far” (35)—to shady brooks haunted by loss: “She had come down the rocky path/ Winding along by Shooting Creek,/ And her clear young voice was mingled/ With the long, wild song of the water” (41).  In yet others, my grandmother expresses her grief and struggle with depression: “The things I fear have tentacles/ To reach the very core of me;/ They twine themselves vine-wise about/ My hidden self insistently (“The Things I Fear” 46).

While I was growing up, my family rarely discussed the darkness in her poetry; the mountaintops were emphasized, not the gloomy valleys.  I knew her as a young boy; she died when I was nine, and during years leading up to her death, her failing health had made it difficult for us to communicate.

When I was a sophomore in college, my mother showed me a folder of her unpublished poems.  As she handed it to me, a newspaper clipping fluttered out.  It was my uncle’s obituary.  Younger than my mother and her sister, he had died as an infant in 1938.  It was the first I’d heard of him.

When I asked my mother about it, she couldn’t talk about him—the pain, even after so many years, was still fresh—so I began rummaging through the poems, looking for those dark valleys in her work.  I came across a poem called “Unseen,” in which she writes frankly of her loss: “No patient toy dog keeps watch;/ No rusty soldier, staunch and true,/ Upon a seldom dusted shelf/ Waits endlessly for you.”  In Lyrics, there’s another poem which now I understand to be about my uncle: “When bugles blow/ And from afar/ The sound of war/ Shall echo near,/ He will not hear” (6).  She imagines him never having to go to war, never waking from his peaceful sleep.

I was startled by these poems; it challenged the notion I had of my grandmother as a person and as a poet.  I’d always read her poems as outward looking, whether she was describing life in rural Appalachia or making earnest objections to strip mining.  I’d not noticed the gloomy, tree-muffled streams in her poetry, the dark waters in which she reflected herself.  In her poem, “Introversion,” she writes:

I often come to you
So filled with thoughts of me
That your own finer self
I cannot see.

Perhaps you come to me
So full of you
That my own truer self
Is hidden too!

This poem is about failed communication, the inability for two introverted persons to reveal themselves to one another, how all that inward-looking can thwart connection, how our hidden-selves can distract us seeing others, from seeing the world.  Although short, this poem hits me hard because it has such clarity and because I see myself in it; I’m often captivated by my own internal world, sometimes blocking out the world around me. I am so much like her.

That her poetry, however quiet and moss-covered, tells me that my penchant for darkness, for depression kept at bay, is part of a legacy. If we’d known one another as adults, we would’ve understood each other well.

*Hull, Lucile Shanklin.  Lyrics of the Hills.  Radford: Commonwealth Press.  1980.  Print.

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Filed under Random Thoughts, Revising and Writing Process, War

“Writerly” versus “Readerly” Fiction

In the critical text, Crime Fiction, John Scaggs uses Roland Barthes’s distinction between “readerly”  and “writerly” as a way of understanding why certain forms of crime fiction, such as the hard-boiled novel, allow for a greater openness of interpretation from the reader, and why others, such as the Golden Age whodunit, often close interpretation off.

Scaggs writes: “In Barthes’s schema the two types of texts invite distinct reading practices, with the ‘readerly’ text inviting a passive reader who tends to accept the text’s meanings as predetermined and already made.”  Essentially, the readerly text resists interpretation; the reader merely swallows what is given him or rejects it.   The writerly text, however, lets the reader participate in the text.  “Because the goal of literary work … is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text,” Barthes writes in S/Z.

When I teach, I encourage my students to approach the texts we read, whether it’s Shakespeare or T. S. Eliot, as producers.  They often want the “one right answer,” but I push them to realize that, if they apply themselves and become good critical readers, they will discover many right answers in any particular text.

As a writer, I set out to create a novel which borrows from some of the more readerly conventions of crime fiction—such as clues and puzzles which serve as metaphors for a central character’s attempt to restore his chaotic mental state to order after returning from WWII—but resisted being closed or readerly.

Readerly texts reassure us with answers, and writerly texts ask us to struggle with the human mysteries they offer us.  At times, I’ll admit, I want to be reassured.  I want everything tidied up.  Like the character in my novel  (and my students), I want chaos brought to an orderly conclusion; I want the one right answer.  But then, once I get it (if it’s that type of story), I’m always disappointed, because it seems flimsy, fake even.  Tidy endings rarely happen in reality.

As I grow older, I’m learning to balance my craving for order with my passion for mystery.  It’s always a struggle, and it infiltrates all aspects of my life.  But, when I reach for a book now, I want something that’s finely orchestrated, carefully sculpted, but not closed off.  I want to create as I read, not merely absorb.

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Filed under Classic Novels/Mysteries, Contemporary Novels/Thrillers, Teaching and Writing, War

War as a Catalyst for Questions

War—or at least the shadow of war—figures prominently in my novel, Dodging and Burning.  Although little of my novel takes place in the midst of battle, its influence is pervasive.  I’m not sure why I have such an interest in war.  I’ve never served in the military (nor have I ever had the desire to) nor has war ever had an impact on my life in an overt way.

All the same, my interest is real.  Perhaps, it’s the same reason why I’m fascinated by crime.  Like crime, war presents a moral quandary, and although we’d like to believe that it can be easily resolved in our minds (killing for one’s country isn’t the same as murder for personal gain), I don’t believe that for the men and women who serve it’s ever that simple.

At the end of the year in sophomore English, I teach W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, one of my favorite novels.  After returning home from WWI, the central character, Larry Darrell, begins a spiritual journey to understand the lost of a friend and fellow soldier during battle. His acquaintances and loved ones at home don’t understand his need to live an unconventional existence and travel the world on, what appears to be, a fairly impractical spiritual quest.

Larry says, “‘Who am I that I should bother my head about this [his quest]? … Wouldn’t it be better to follow the beaten track and let what’s coming to you come?’  And then you think of a fellow who an hour before was full of life and fun, and he’s lying dead; it’s all so cruel and meaningless.  It’s hard not to ask yourself what life is all about and whether there’s any sense to it or whether it’s all a tragic blunder of blind fate.”  The questions that arise from Larry’s experience are universal. The violence of war has forced him to ask these questions; it has heightened his sense of mortality.

Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor uses violence in a similar, if even more potent, way in her short fiction, such as “A Good Man in Hard to Find” and “Greenleaf.”  In each of these stories, a central character has a spiritual revelation moments before her violent death.  Violence—and imminent death—force these characters to face mortality, to arrive, in a flash, at their spiritual destination.  Maugham, in contrast, allows Larry’s experiences during WWI to be the catalyst for his questions.  His journey takes time, patience, and above all fortitude.  It is a life-long quest.

Although the principle characters in my novel don’t go on spiritual quests per se, they do set out to explore both each others identities as well as their own.  The journey to self-discovery and the struggle to make meaning out of one’s existence are closely related (if not one in the same), and in both The Razor’s Edge and my novel, violence, particularly the violence of war, ignites this exploration.

(Of course, I wasn’t aware of this connection until I re-read The Razor’s Edge this spring.  I love how great books can bury themselves in your subconscious and emerge again through your writing.  There’s something truly remarkable about that.)

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Filed under Murder Mysteries, Revising and Writing Process, Teaching and Writing, War

Photos offer perception, not reality

Earthquake in Chile

Gregory Crewdson

Through the next series of blogs, I’m going to explore three topics—photography, murder mysteries, and modern war—that have fascinated me for some time and, as a result, influenced my novel, Dodging and Burning.  In the spirit of blogging, I encourage readers to comment on and add to the discussion of any of theses topics, particularly since I’m still in the process of discovering how they overlap with one another.

In graduate school at Bread Loaf School of English, I took a wonderful course called “Through a Glass Darkly: Modernity, Photography,
and the Art of Seeing,” and for the first time, I understood how important the invention of photography was to the evolution of 20 century literary sensibilities.  We read Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, and Susan Sontag’s On Photography, both of which are texts I’ve returned to many times.

Photographs haunt me, because they seem to claim, “Here it is, an unquestionable fact, a frozen slice of time!” but these glossy paper rectangles can hardly be indisputable evidence of an absolute reality.  How many times have you looked at a photo of yourself and thought that doesn’t look a thing like me?  Or do I really look like that?  The discerning viewer understands that photos offer another layer of perception, perhaps an enlightening or moving layer, but it is not reality, if for no other reason than we experience reality in three dimensions, not two.  If you believe that what you see is fact—if seeing is believing—then you are buying into the illusion, and frankly, I find that troubling.  Yet, media corporations, the purveyors of our visual culture, are banking on that very assumption.

In her essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag writes, “Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.”  When approached artistically, when a certain stylization can be detected, such as in Gregory Crewdson’s images, photos suggest a clear photographic vision—a photographer’s individual attitude toward the world he or she sees—and work to enrich culture and, perhaps even, self-understanding.  However, when photos are approached journalistically, such as images of the war in Iraq or the earthquake in Chile, in order to document a major historical event, I become immediately suspicious of what I’m seeing.

In those photos, so often, we aren’t thinking about the photographer, we’re thinking about the event, and we’re taking a two-dimensional moment, one photographer’s perception, and applying it to the entire reality of the event.  Sontag writes, “The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: ‘There is the surface.  Now think—or rather feel, intuit—what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.”  However, if you’re not thinking about what you’re seeing, if you don’t realize that you’re seeing an interpretation of an event, then you could, potentially, be making assumptions about the reality of that event which aren’t true.  You are engaging in a sort of irresponsible imagination, like the compulsive liar who begins to believe his or her own lies.

In my novel, I set out to explore what happens when the image of a murdered woman is re-contextualized, showing how little my main characters do really understand about what they are seeing.  Because of this, the following questions arise:   Can you ever have the whole story?  If you can’t, then can you rely on your imagination to fill in the gaps?  If we are only left with our interpretation of events, then does that make honing in on an absolute reality impossible?

I’m still wrestling with these questions, and I feel uncertain about the viewer’s moral responsibility in the act of imaging what lies beyond the edges of a journalistic photo.  Perhaps, the only responsible thing to do is to remind yourself that the act of interpretation is an imaginative act, that looking is creating.

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Filed under Murder Mysteries, Photography, War