Amateur Herbalist a Recommended Read


It’s been awhile since I posted to ArtsConflicted. Several months ago I moved the photography, and blogging about photography, over to     Recently I’ve been thinking of coming back to this page. And now I have the excuse–almost the perfect excuse. I’d like to share the writing of Louise Burley, particularly as she blogs Meanderings of an Amateur PEI Herbalist. Her latest post, “Feed Me, Seymour!”  is so skillfully articulated; yeah, I wish I could write like that. Read it. I think you’ll want more.

Going to Timmy’s with You


(after “Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara)

Going to Tim Hortons with you is better than a drive to Borden, New London, Hunter River, even Ebbsfleet, especially in winter when the roads are drifting in and the RCMP are advising “motorists” -– a word left over from an era when a man wearing a fedora needed an “operator” to complete a call to the woman he thought was his lover—she wore red shoes, but we didn’t know that because all we see of her is in calculated film noir shadows, but wanting a simile, I’ll say the word is left over like cold pizza from the night before.

Coffee with you is better, here in town at a Tim Hortons that both of us could walk to, if we had to, We push the steel and glass door, find shelter from the wind and snow, find warmth, and the only mumble is among three young kids behind the counter, indistinguishable, not that we’re paying any attention, but we feel their infectious camaraderie, or is it the richness of their energy that animates them and becomes us.

And what could be better than an idea growing between us as we stare at the table top remembering the heft the old white porcelain mugs, familiar as cliché. We talk of social media and A-D-D growing in a Petri dish. Your expression, not mine.

What could be better than a bottomless cup and a clock with no meaning, a to-do list left somewhere I don’t know–I’ve looked in my pockets, my wallet–and I wish I had it so that I could check it at the door like a backpack carried into Wal-Mart, or a cashmere coat removed in another film noir and delivered to an officious man at the theatre who hands me a ticket with the number 72 on it. I think of other lists, one once important that fell into the snow and the ink bloomed like a watercolour wash over lettering that tried so hard to be a new language, transcendent and Zen-like as I held it up, lines of calligraphy vertical, the words sliding off like drops of snow-melt that will appear next month, or the month after, on the branches of the would-be forsythia in your back yard.

Time disappears except for that nagging thought vandalizing the back room where I store things like the car keys, sleeping bags, and the notion that I should go to Cornwall for a haircut. But not today. I forgive myself without telling you, because I want you to believe that there is nothing better than being here with you, or so I tell myself as you begin to speak of depression and a change in meds, and it occurs to me that I dropped the once important list that blossomed earlier this morning, and that with an effort I’m not prepared to give, I could reconstitute it. Almost.

What would it be like to look into your eyes without guilt?

What would it be like to see you clearly and to know in that moment of visual penetration, my own clean nakedness, beautiful and soulful, stainless with no implications of dysfunctional sexuality and no hint of that vocal crescendo that is Elvis’s doing it “my way”, or Rufus Wainwright doing it his way, with Cigarettes and Chocolate, but more like Gershwin’s piano concerto in f, the intensity of which is so, so American. In a good way.

And I ask myself, what can you see through a Thorazine glass darkly? Oh that you could dance the dance of Salome, toss down the veils and emerge through all that fog that hangs heavy in the valleys of your discontent. Would you see any sunlight in my eyes?

When you belittle the well-intentioned but ignorant and ineffective efforts of Nameless, our mutual friend, I find myself uncomfortable, feeling the hardness of franchise furniture–when you say, “Why couldn’t she have … I realize that Little League baseball is better, especially in July, in a small town in Massachusetts like Boxborough or Hubbardston, metal bleachers, sparsely populated by eager fathers. The green of the grass is better. The red dust on Zoey’s uniform is better. After he slides into second and wipes his hands on his pants. And it doesn’t matter who wins, even though I’m aware of the cawing of the crows in the background, but apparently it does matter to the punk dad who stands up and yells at the ump, “Take your head out of your ass, asshole. You would have seen that Carl tagged him good. Zoey’s out for Chrissakes.” I want to ask the punk dad just how do you take your head out of your ass when you’re an asshole, but I don’t.

I surface and hear the remnant of the continued complaint, “Why can’t they give her another job, something else to do where she can’t screw up as much … I turn my focus to the couple behind you, sitting in the corner—the middle-aged man and woman who walked in twenty minutes after we did. I know you didn’t notice. I try to imagine their home life, their story.  I see them losing a daughter, and that’s why they don’t care what others think of the way they dress. They’re as comfortable in their attitude as war veterans who join biker clubs. If only I could make you as comfortable in your own skin, say the magic word that would take down that totem print of ‘The Scream’ that hangs over your broken couch, and replace it with a window overlooking the Aegean, which is a far more profound and dramatic act than finding a word that fits more smoothly than “motorists”—a word fluid with soft consonants like ells.

Going to Timmy’s with you is better than writing a poem with the word “motorists” in it, which is why I want to acknowledge this moment, one more occasion of our connect/disconnect, you speaking in the past tense, and me writing, in my mind, in the present tense, and wanting ever so much to believe that my love for you has not diminished.


Excerpt from Sad Songs from Hush River. In appreciation of National Poetry Month, this and twenty other poems are available at Songs from Hush River

A special award of appreciation to the first readers to write reviews (can be short blurbs) of the book of poetry on the smashwords site.

Sad Songs from Hush River




Amblyopia, copyright 2015 Paul Vreeland — Undistorted, unaltered and usable home eye test charts for children are available at

Autumn cool, edge of ice on the playground puddles

we line up, first grade boys,

the girls on the other side,

waiting the morning bell the big double

doors to open to the red brick school.

Squinting into the light

I am “four-eyes” clumsy

heavy lenses in clear-plastic frames,

an opaque patch

remedial over one eye

so to teach the other one.

A fifth grader, older, bigger,

unconcerned about laws of the line,

comes up to me threatening in his presence.

Behind him, a flamboyant maple

gives up a few more of its crimson leaves,

drops them down

to the collection-in-progress at its roots.

He hawks and blow-guns a thick glob of spit

onto my face, my glasses,

the one clear lens and the opaque patch.

Helpless, I wish a barren wish

for a parent, an adult, a bigger friend

someone to make me clean again,

I remove my glasses, feel the glooey slime

in my fingers,

wipe them on my pants,

and know myself dirty the rest of the day.

Having made his introduction, he seeks me out

on other mornings, asks for my money

and I acquiesce

all my pennies,

even three nickels

sometimes a dime.

Days pass, the maple gives up being flamboyant

and I forget.

until he reappears

I stumble over my discomfort,

like stumbling over the pronunciation of a word

like “sharing” the meaning of which I’m now unsure,

something I thought I had learned.

I choose another, smaller boy;

go to him and ask, “What money do you have?”

No threat, I’m just bigger with a question.

He hands it over like he’s lost a game

and so on other days, I do it again.

One Saturday his mother comes to visit mine.

It has to be her ‘cause I recognize the boy in tow.

I am on the dead grass of the front lawn

watch them coming down the street.

She with an expression of determination and something more,

approaches, and with a wordless glance,

teaches me the feel of shame

before I understand

the reason for it.

My mother greets them at the door

they enter and I am summoned.

Why did I do it? they ask.

So I tell them of the older boy.

And in the telling I learn the feel of another word

long before the spelling.

Then it stops; the other boy no longer seeks me out

all the leaves are gone, we’re in winter jackets now

the skies flat November grey,

a dull-matte diffusion of light,

like heaven might appear

through the patch I am supposed to wear

remedial over one eye

so to teach the other.


Excerpt from Sad Songs from Hush River. In appreciation of National Poetry Month, this and twenty other poems are available at

A special award of appreciation to the first readers to write reviews (can be short blurbs) of the book of poetry on the smashwords site.

The Tree on Henderson Road

The Tree on Henderson Road - copyright 2015 Paul Vreeland

The Tree on Henderson Road — copyright 2015 Paul Vreeland


Three years ago (August 2011), my son and I were driving to his father-in-law’s home in Ross Creek. The sun was low in the ‘golden hour’ of afternoon sky when I saw this tree on Henderson Road. We stopped to photograph. Back in Canada, I processed the image. I worked with it again and again, but could not bring out in the image the magic of that moment. Returning to Australia in December, I knew I wanted to go back and photograph the tree. We waited for the sun to descend before heading back to Henderson Road. I think now, that maybe we waited a bit too long, which is to say that I’m more satisfied with the image, but not completely. Most probably, I never will be.


I’ve come to love the landscape of Victoria State because of the trees, particularly the Eucalyptus, more commonly known as gum. The ‘Tree on Henderson Road” is a gum, but I wanted a more precise answer. Without an arborist, the answer may be hard to come by because there are about 800 species. Australian writer Murray Bail isn’t one to waste that fact. In his modern-day fairy tale Eucalyptus (1998), a widower named Holland busies himself planting trees. Lots of trees. Lots of varieties. When his only child, Ellen comes of age and beauty, he informs her that she can only marry the first man to correctly identify each and every tree on the farm.  I’ll be looking for Eucalyptus, winner of the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and a New York Times Notable Book of 1998.

To say that the trees have character is an understatement; they have spirit. I’m not the first photographer to believe in trees. Continue reading

“When a thought of war comes…”

Is the world really getting worse?

I participate in two study groups. One is comprised of five friends, and our weekly discussions on ethics and spiritual identity are punctuated by personal stories of life’s lessons. We are inspired by the writings from Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, and our togetherness is rich.  This past week we were encouraged to reflect upon the statement:

When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. ~’Abdu’l-BaháArising to Serve_Chinese

The second study group I attend has progressed to the second book in the series entitled Arising to Serve. We are a group of about six who have been

together for some time. Our numbers and membership have varied over the years, but whoever is present at any given sessions shares his/her understandings after reading the material in English, Chinese, and Farsi, and our cultural diversity helps to ensure that we are learning from each other.  Last night we talked about peace and saw how even our intimate little gatherings are personally transformative and how they are also instrumental to our community-building efforts.

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions. ~Shoghi Effendi

While I have been familiar with the statement about the “thought of war,” the practice and mastery of the exhortation has been another one of those disciplines that from time to time has its moment in the sunlight of my otherwise cloudy attention. But this post isn’t about the regularity of discipline. Rather, I’d like to share a few recent insights about the statement—insights that beg the application of other disciplines.

I’ve taken up Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Penguin Books, New York, 2011). It’s a surfeit of statistics and analyses, a compendium of reviews of modern research on the subject of war, and a personal narrative.  Sounds dry doesn’t it? But Pinker is a talented, if at times irreverent, writer, and I find the book is a compelling read. For example, I appreciate how he begins the chapter on “The Civilizing Process” by relating how he, as a child, questioned his parents when they informed him that he should not push food onto his fork with a knife. “I lost the argument, as all children do, when faced with the rejoinder “Because I said so,” and for decades I silently grumbled about the unintelligibility of the rules of etiquette. Then one day, while doing research for this book, the scales fell from my eyes, the enigma evaporated, and I forever put aside my resentment of the no-knife rule.” What follows is a brief introduction to a book by Norbert Elias,  graphs showing the decline in homicide rates in England from 1200-2000, an explanation of “cutting off your nose to spite your face”, a discussion of  what was happening in Europe as thousands of feudal states gave way to a handful of monarchies and as “A culture of honor—the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions,” and subsequently the reason why we do not push our peas onto our dinner knives.  The next chapter, “The Long Peace” is where things really get interesting. I won’t give away the conclusion that is offered in the book’s title. That’s not my point. Pinker isn’t the only one who suggests that things are getting better. (More on that in a moment.) My concern is that “a thought of war comes” to me again and again and again on the hourly news, in coffee shop conversations, and whatever print media I set my eyes upon. It seems to pour in upon me, as I suspect it does upon you.

In his preface, Pinker writes:

This is a big book, but it has to be.[Indeed, 800 pages.] First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and the scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.

Also distorting our sense of danger is our moral psychology. No one has ever recruited activists to a cause by announcing that things are getting better, and bearers of good news are often advised to keep their mouths shut lest they lull pe0ple into a complacency… (p. xxii)

So perhaps by reading Pinker’s book, I am opposing a thought of war with stronger thoughts of peace. Isn’t that what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is telling us to do? Ah, but am I turning a blind eye to the truth? I realize that Pinker has his detractors, and that there are fact-based counterarguments to idea that violence is on the decline. Whatever the case may be, building peace is work, and the hardest work of all may be in my own mind. I take responsibility for my own reactions knowing that I can’t make presumptions about yours. (Although I am interested. Write your comments in the box below.) At any rate, this is where I am encouraged to begin–where we are encouraged to begin.  Our thoughts have consequences, as do the changes we make in our thinking.

Continue reading

Reading Through Perplexity and Grief

clip_image004Even the first epigraph is a hook. Thomas à Kempis. “Everywhere I have sought rest and not found it, except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book.” A few months ago I read The End of Your Life Book Club (Knopf, 2012) by Will Schwalbe as I had promised myself. (See my blog posting “Reading, Writing, and Vicarious Longevity” — October 2012). Schwalbe does well to honour his mother and the relationship he had with her, particularly through their shared reading, but for me the book lacks depth. Schwalbe’s career as a publisher is both an “in” and a distraction; he’s not a common reader and I couldn’t identify with him. By contrast, Nina Sankovitch’s, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading (Harper, 2011) held me.

At dinner that night, I raised my glass of Italian white, just poured out by our efficient waiter, and looked Jack in the eye. I had his attention.

“To my year of reading,” I announced.

“You’re really going to do it?” he asked.

I nodded.

“A book a day? How about a book a week?” he asked.

No, I needed to read a book a day. I needed to sit down and sit still and read. I had spent the last three years running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement. But no matter how much I crammed into living, and no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t get away from the grief and the pain.

It was time to stop running. It was time to stop doing anything and everything. It was time to start reading.

“To your year of reading, then,” Jack seconded, and clinked his glass with mine. “May it be everything you want it to be, and more.”

My mother suffered a stroke in late November, and I moved into her apartment in northwestern Connecticut to be close while she was in rehab working with the physio and occupational therapists. I found Tolstoy and the Purple Chair in a pile of books (more like a mountain of books) by her bed. At the end of Tolstoy Sankovitch lists the 365 works she had read that year, and mom had checked off the ones she had read. Continue reading

Blogs by Fictional Characters ?

I like this idea posted in “The Writers Community” on Google+ by Teri Chetwood: 

I really recommend everyone try their hand at fictional blogging. That’s where you write blog posts as your characters. It’s not just fun, it’s good practice, you can build a following, and you can end up with enough posts to make a book you can self-publish. (Since it’s already been published, most publishers won’t touch it, but you can publish it yourself.) That’s what I’m doing with my upcoming collection of blog posts and short stories, The Fabulous Cornwall Sisters.


A Novel in Ten Days: Bragging Rights & Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2013


In October Access Copyright invited its members to “Showcase Your Creative Space,” and it has been posting the submissions on Twitter.

“The world is a lot more fun when you approach it with an exuberant imperfection.” – Chris Baty

Earlier this year, it must have been July, I was visiting my daughter. I can’t remember whether I was the one who was first attracted to a book on her bookshelf because of its title on the spine, or whether she drew my attention to it. However it came my way, the title of Chris Baty’s book, No Plot, No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days,  spoke to me in ways some of my daughter’s other recommendations haven’t. (She recently presented me with The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud, a 2010 Giller Prize winner that stumped me. Why did it win a Giller? I was put off immediately by the inaccuracies in the drawing of the soldier’s uniform on the cover, and later when one of the characters addresses a sergeant as sir. Turning the last page I was still wondering if the novel had a plot. You’re probably wondering how, being as put off as I was, I made it to the last page. Stupid, I quess. You may remember that only 800 copies of The Sentimentalists were published by Gasperau Press in Nova Scotia, and the week that the Gillers were announced, the book was unavailable in the bookstores. Sales of the ebook soared, and the The Sentimentalists became a Kobo best-seller. Seems to me there was more of a story about the book, than in the book. By the way, if you disagree with my assessment of Skibsrud’s novel, I’d be happy to read your polite replies. There is a comment box below.) Sorry. I’m getting off track, but a detour such as this serves to increase my word count, an essential goal of NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month, the topic of this posting.

Chris Baty’s book attracted me for two reasons. First No Plot, No Problem, speaks to my way of writing. A character or two will nudge me towards the writing of a few notes. When I can no longer overcome their insistence, I begin to write their stories. I have no idea where the narrative will lead and trust that the characters will tell me where to go. I was attracted to the title of Baty’s book because when I write, I don’t have a plot, and I dearly want to be assured that that is “No Problem.”

The second reason for reading No Plot, No Problem was the idea of completing something. Those of you who have been reading my posts know of my “unfinished novel” and how its characters have influenced me. As a matter of fact my first posting was titled “The Dreaded ‘D’ word: Or How the Internet is Not to Blame for my Unfinished Novel.” And dear, oh, dear, look at the date. August 2012. Regrettably I’ve moved that novel forward by only a few chapters, and the characters are “sleeping” in the same drawer where three other wannabe novels languish. Continue reading

16 nonfiction forms and how to write them — David Miller

16 nonfiction forms and how to write them (via Matador Network)

16 types of nonfiction, how “truthful” they are, and tips on how to write them. NONFICTION describes communicative work (typically written, but also including diagrams and photos) understood to be fact. Implicit in this, however, are the varying…

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No News from Poems: Story Truth and Happening Truth

Crow Drive

Crow Drive – copyright 2013 Paul Vreeland — “All photos are lies.”
Coming soon, the “No News from Poems: The Photography Companion Piece

As I write this, Mary-Ellen is taking the train back to Hartford after having visited Hilda’s gallery in the backwoods of the western Massachusetts boondocks. She’s trying to digest the intensity of Hilda’s questions, knows that something of inner significance has transpired, and, in trying to recollect what has happened, finds little to hold on to, except the gift of Cézanne’s pen. And so it is in my unfinished novel — a work of fiction. I’m lying.

Picasso is reputed to have said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” During the past several weeks I’ve been preoccupied with the nature of art and truth, more precisely the nature of writing and truth. It started during a working session of a writers group I belong to. We were critiquing a poem about an event in the author’s life, and I suggested the deletion of a couple of words that I thought weakened the piece. The author, a seasoned journalist, defended her work claiming that she wrote about the event as it happened and, if the words were taken out, she would be lying. Too late for her to heed the advice of Archibald MacLeish: “Young poets are advised by their elders to avoid the practice of journalism as they would wet socks and gin before breakfast.”

Well, poetry is not journalism. We know that. And if my friend’s work was edited to become a stronger poem and a journalistic lie, what truth would the poem then tell? So how is art the lie that tells the truth? On one level the question is a philosophical one, and there is no shortage of verbiage on Historical Truth vs. Poetic Truth. But I am not satisfied with the answers Aristotle and Plato offer.

Why am I taken up with this? Why has it become an issue that I cannot let drop? I have found that writing is an exercise in honesty, a striving to become ever truer to a voice, and in the case of the unfinished novel, writing truer to the wills of characters like Mary Ellen and Zach. Honesty is more than an moral imperative; it’s hard work and it takes times. This is the third revision of “No News from Poems” because the earlier drafts weren’t as honest to this essay as I want to be. And it is through writing, and through the help of others in the writers groups I belong to who critique my work and point out my weaknesses, that I discover what I am about, and what I want to say.

Why am I taken up with this? I do a slow wake up and realize that Mary-Ellen has brought me back to this. She is the immediate reason why I need to explore the question. You see, Mary-Ellen is an aspiring journalist and her writing is paralyzed by the thin line between writing from the head and writing from the heart. I’ve given in to Mary-Ellen before because she is my character and I want to know who she is, what makes her tick. She is also the reason I’ve read David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire, and Capote’s In Cold Blood. Zach, another character in the unfinished novel has asked me to read The Port Huron Statement. Mary-Ellen and Zach are fictional characters living out a life in the canyons and ideological divides of the 1960s. They’re fictional characters, the fruit of my lies, and they are influencing the decisions I make about how I spend my time. Mary Ellen may be the immediate reason for this questioning, but I’m beginning to see how larger “issues” are slowly being worked out through her. She has had the upper hand this month.

In an earlier chapter Mary Ellen read the serialization published in The New Yorker magazine that later became In True Blood. She made a trip out to Holcolm, Kansas, to see how the landscape compared with Capote’s descriptions. She wanted to know if he was telling the truth and if he could be trusted, because the idea of narrative non-fiction meant something to her.

What truth would the poem tell? What truth will Mary-Ellen reveal? Whenever I have questions I research. Google first, libraries second. Using Google I find a curriculum for high school students particularly relevant—David Reynold’s “The New Journalism: Narrowing the Gap between Fact and Fiction” offered by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute[1]. I know that I am on the right track because In Cold Blood is one of three books it features. In lesson one, Reynolds asks his students to define “fact” and to identify the types of literature where facts are found. Another lesson assigns them the task of determining what is meant by “the truth.”

Working my way through Reynold’s curriculum I read The Things They Carried next. What a treasure. Tim O’Brien, writing about writing, offers more answers to Mary-Ellen’s question. He’s is an excellent writer, and I find The Things They Carried a compelling read. O’Brien talks about the vagaries of Truth in a chapter entitled “How to Write a True War Story.” He says, “It’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way.” Obrien

O’Brien is beginning to talk about the same problems of honesty that I mentioned above. Again, it’s not an easy matter of just sitting down, picking up the pen and deciding to write the truth. I identify with him because he’s honest about his struggles with honesty; howbeit I think he’s been more successful. I appreciate the example he offers of his story, “Speaking of Courage.” That story is followed by a confessional chapter entitled “Notes” in which he explains how “Speaking,” first published in The Massachusetts Review in 1976 and later anthologized in the O’Henry Awards Prize stories, was true, but not true enough. “Something about the story had frightened me,” O’Brien wrote. “I was afraid to speak directly, afraid to remember – and in the end the piece had been ruined by a failure to tell the full and exact truth about our night in the shit field…. When the piece appeared in an anthology of short fiction, I sent a copy off to Norman Bowker [his combat buddy who inspired the story] with the thought that it might please him. His reaction was short and somewhat bitter. “It’s not terrible,” he wrote me, “but you left out Vietnam. Where’s Kiowa? Where’s the shit?” Eight months later Bowker hanged himself.

If I were teaching Reynold’s curriculum, I might ask the students to read “Speaking of Courage” and note only the facts. I might ask them to re-write it as a newspaper article. Playing the news editor, I’d ask them, “So, what’ve you got?” Perhaps the exercise would prove the point that Reynold’s makes:

Facts rarely appeal to the emotions and almost never approach the implicit reasoning for actions; they contain small conflicts if any, and similarly do not require or inspire passionate responses.

It’s easy to write the facts, especially when they’re fresh. Journalism must, by nature, respond to calls for immediacy. The information must be “timely,” and if it is not timely it’s not journalism. What appeals to emotion and reasoned response comes later through reflection. There is a distancing in time and space between an event be it a mortar attack or the announcement of this week’s market price for potatoes, and the stories and poems the event inspires. “With distance, one also sees more clearly,” writes Yahia Lababidi. “Art as I understand it, and this includes philosophy, is about cultivating a certain distance so that we might, in turn, lend our vision to those in the thick of historic events. Which is to say, one cannot evaluate the play while sharing the stage with the actor.” We need both “speed of coverage and slowness of reflection.” Lababidi writes with an inspired eloquence, and her article, “Poetry, and Journalism of the Spirit,” is the most insightful I’ve read this month. I recommend it highly.

“It’s time to be blunt,” O’Brien writes opening a chapter titled “Good Form”:

It’s time to be blunt.

I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.

Almost everything else is invented.

But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.

But listen. Even that story is made up.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.

“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say, “did you ever kill anybody?” And I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”

Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”

Time enables O’Brien to distance himself from the mortar attack he writes about in “Courage.” And having had the benefit of even more time and distance, he sees it from another vantage point, retells the story and offers another truth. Vision, re-vision.

It’s time to be blunt. I’ve written hundreds of pages about the war in Vietnam—a war I didn’t experience directly. I wasn’t there; I didn’t go. I wrote my war stories, The Biography of Not Being There, about my time in the US Army in 1969 in the first person. I tried to be honest. But my attempts were not honest enough to satisfy me. Now the unfinished novel finds Mary-Ellen and Zach caught up in the events of that same time. The stories I tell are informed by my experiences, but the novel is fiction, and I know there are things that will happen in the story that will surprise me. Something compels me to write about being young in New England during that era. Is it survivor’s guilt that drives me? I don’t know. A lot of it, whatever it is, has to do with the truth and the betrayal of truth. And a lot of it, whatever it is, has to do with vision and re-vision. There are some truths that become evident when presented in the first person, and other truths are discovered in the second. Some truths can be presented through the immediacy of journalism, and different truths through the lenses of fiction and poetry.

In 2011 Tim O’Brien spoke at the Arlington Public Library. He read his short-story, “Ambush,” and confessed that it too is purely the product of a novelist’s imagination. None of it is true, he said, and then described it as being “completely and utterly true–truer than true,” explaining how art is the lie that tells the truth. “When you turn on the news,” he said, “what do you get, eight died today by an IUD in Bagdad. You get a number and maybe a place, and that’s it. You get very little beyond that.” The intent of this story “Ambush” is to look at one event, one death and to “give a face to something that is largely anonymous.” He said:

“I participated in dozens, scores, maybe fifty ambushes… and this story is a way of gathering together all that terror and all those long nights in the dark waiting to die or to kill–one or the other—into one story focused in time and in energy and geography—a single trail junction—bring together those myriads of forgotten places, forgotten nights that was my time in Vietnam into something you might see and smell and feel. It’s a way of collapsing my own thoughts years afterwards, looking back at those long nights into a single event in the hope that you might feel something of what I felt…”

You can watch O’Brien’s hour-long presentation on line.

The Things They Carried is about a soldier’s experiences in Vietnam. It’s a book that explores the process of writing and the efficacy of fiction. It’s also a book of moral philosophy. It’s a book I would recommend to Mary-Ellen. The trouble is, Mary Ellen, taking a train back to Hartford, is occupying a space in time predating the publication of The Things They Carried. The trouble is, Mary-Ellen can compel me to read her book list, but I can’t compel her to read mine. The trouble is Mary-Ellen doesn’t know that while she rides that train towards Hartford, Charlie Company is preparing to enter the village of My Lai and that the American nation will be victimized by undifferentiated story truths and happening truths.

The men of Charlie Company, preparing to go into My Lai, were told that whatever they would find was the enemy. “There are no civilians,” Captain Medina said. News of the subsequent massacre of mothers, infants, children, and old men was suppressed. But the persistence of Seymour Hersh, a dedicated investigative journalist, brought the My Lai massacre and the cover up to the public’s attention in 1969, and he received the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

At the time I was a boot-camp recruit at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and I wanted to rub the My Lai massacre in the faces of my superiors. I remember the day they had us run at sandbags with fixed bayonets. We were to scream and run and stab the bags. The drill instructors watched as I ran and stabbed the bags, screaming, “Kill the babies. Kill the babies,” thinking is this what you’re training us to be?” A few months later a coalition of artists in New York City took the now famous colour photograph of dead My Lai children and made it into a protest poster. One weekend I went to New York and brought copies of the posters back to the base and distributed them, an action for which I could have been charged.

O’Brien helps me to understand that there is nothing moral or immoral about the average soldier’s participation in a war. The men of Charlie Company were broken men. And how can you expect someone who has lost a moral compass, someone who has grown up in a church and has heard the sermon “Thou shalt not kill” and then has come under the authority of another who says, “Kill and if you fail to follow orders, you will be shot for treason,” how can you expect that person to account for the truth. There are no standards for a broken man. The survivors of Charlie Company, like the survivors of the Rwandan genocide, like the First Nation survivors of the residential schools, spend years grappling with the story truth and the happening truth. After more than forty years, O’Brien says he’s still sorting it out. Is it possible that we are all victims of history, that we are all suffering forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that we are all trying to find the honest stories that tell us who we are and what really happened to us? Or maybe the trauma hasn’t ended yet and there is no “post.” Maybe we’re holding on to moral compasses that no longer work as they once did. Is it possible that we are listening, waiting to hear our true voices and to recognize ourselves? I feel that part of me is locked in 1969—a part of me that needs to tell a story, and retell it in order to catch a glimpse of what really happened, or is still continuing to happen.

“And so it is that I have come to realize the role of poetry in times of crisis: Vision.” writes Yahia Lababidi. “By ‘vision’ I mean that unblinking witness is only half of the equation. This is what I mean by seeing over the head of the times. It is not enough to bear witness to Now; journalists, to an extent, do that. Poetry lends us a third (metaphysical) eye, one that collapses distances, at once reminding us of our essential selves and who we can become. This vision provokes more insight than mere sight…Poetry, at its finest, can restore our sight.”

Earlier in this post I wrote, “Poetry is not journalism. We know that.” I could be wrong. Jane Dwyer Garton writes of a collaborative effort between the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Poetry Foundation: “Make It News: A Symposium on Poetry and Journalism.” Garton describes the second part of the 2007 symposium that “looked at the poet as journalist and the journalist as poet to examine what poets and journalists can learn from each other. The premise of the session: ‘Increasingly, poets are writing documentary poems that ‘report’ on an event. Many journalists also turn to poetic prose in order to convey a perspective that cannot otherwise be presented.’[2]

I think of two Nova Scotians. Both journalists, both poets. Alden Nowlan and George Elliott Clarke. Clarke said, “I’ve always thought that there was an artistic component to journalism, that it was related to poetry and that it was good to try and blend them as much as possible.”[3]

And Alden Nowlan. Here’s his poem “In the Newsroom”.[4]

Phone the woman’
whose husband and kids
were killed, we need
more information, the
editor says.
And each time you expect
they’ll hang up
after cursing you
for the ghoul
you know yourself to be.

But that almost never happens.
Almost always they sound
very formal but pleased
the newspaper has called.
Often they’ll insist
you hold the line while they check
a date or a spelling.

Not having had time
as yet to remember
that death is permanent.

How I love Nowlan, and how I love this poem. And yet, as I include it here, I notice that Nowlan uses the same words as my fellow writer in the writers group. You remember how I suggested the deletion of certain words to make her poem stronger? They’re here. The words “almost always”. But in this case I say, leave them in. Leave them in.


[2] “Take Me to the Intersection of Poetry and Journalism”

[3] “Poetic Journalism,” by Nina Paris in The King’s Review

[4] from The Best of Alden Nowlan – selected and introduced by Allison Mitcham, Lancelot Press, Hantsport, NS, 1993.