Something Will Occur: The Collected Poetry of Claire Vreeland

SWO_Front_Cover
My mother, Claire Vreeland, came to poetry late in life, thanks to a woman she met while visiting my family on Prince Edward Island. That woman was Doris McKay of Vernon Bridge, an artist, teacher and Baha’i, and their meeting was a life-changing, mystical and magical experience for Claire who was then a journalist working in Connecticut.  Not so unusual as it sounds; a visit with Doris was a mystical, life-changing experience for many, and it was an experience my wife and and I wanted to give to Mom. We thought that Doris would get a kick out of it as well, and so we engineered it. In our minds, we’d take Mom there, and leave her. We knew from our own hours with Doris, that once their conversation began to flow, they wouldn’t want it to end, and it would continue late into the night and into the first light of dawn. After a nap, it would pick up again, and so it did.  We drove Mom down to Vernon Bridge and retrieved her the following afternoon.

In her latter years, Mom planned a couple of books, one of which was titled Something Will Occur. She had written her dedication to Doris McKay, as well as an introductory article “Doors of Perception,” describing that time in Vernon Bridge. In it she wrote:

For many of the visitors, most of them probably were already Bahá’ís, the visit was always a bountiful feast or a wondrous deepening that kept them talking in the muted lamplight until the wee hours of early morning. For others, the entire experience was an overwhelming revelation. None left her presence untouched and much they learned there reverberated throughout their lifetimes, prompting them to greater efforts and attainment.

Doris was never satisfied with superficial conversation. She became impatient with excessive social niceties. With Doris, you plunged right in to the very essence of reality. You became recklessly yourself at your worst and Doris would be just delighted with you because she saw you whole. She saw what it was that you could not see or know about yourself. She opened your fountain of creativity until more and more of the good and shining things began to bubble up. You and she became jolly conspirators in finding out who you really were. You would leave feeling lighthearted and free, full of life and energy. And then you would want to take those you loved for a visit to this legendary woman.

At my very first visit to Doris, when I read to her some of the story I had written about Horace Holley, she told me I wrote poetically. This was disturbing news to the print journalist I was at the time. But she insisted that I was a poet. She told me about the Fibonacci sequence of numbers that appeared in nature, in the staggered number of leaves in plants, in the whorls of the chambered nautilus, that appeared again and again in the scores of great music, in the rhythm of good poetry. Much later I was to learn more about the mathematics of Fibonacci and about poetry and creative process… and also what it is to become a Bahá’í. mckay-fires-many-hearts

She wrote her very first poem “The Yellow House” about that visit, and she continued to write poetry, finding publication in US journals and winning a few awards along the way. She later encouraged other writers through the life writing courses she taught at the local community college and through the writers’ groups she mentored.

Describing the visit, Claire said that she had read to Doris some of her writing about Horace Holley. Holley (1987—1960) was born in Torrington, Connecticut, the town where Claire worked for the Register/Citizen newspaper. She spent hours researching the man who had become a prominent contributor to the development of the Baha’i Faith in America, and who had later been appointed to a select group to oversee the propagation and protection of the Faith on an international level. They were called Hands of the Cause of God. Claire’s work on a Holley biography did no see fruition while she was alive, and fortunately her work has been taken up by Kathryn Jewett Hogenson, a skilled researcher and talented writer, author of Lighting the Western Sky: The Hearst Pilgrimage and the Establishment of the Baha’i Faith in the West (George Ronald, 2011)   Perhaps this will be Claire’s most significant legacy. Time will tell.

In the meantime, I have compiled, edited and published in limited quantity Something Will Occur: The Collected Poetry of Claire Vreeland.  The book includes a few of the poems she wrote about Prince Edward Island. (Her earlier prose about the Island appeared in her weekly newspaper columns, and one of her first articles, “Second Best Place on the Island—The Dump with a Guest Book” was included in the History of Baltic Lot 18.) I don’t expect the book to be a wildly successful commercial venture here. Most of the copies will be distributed in Connecticut and Florida to friends, relatives, and to the libraries she frequented. If libraries issued gold cards, Claire would have had several. 

Compiling these poems has been a journey for me. I was surprised at the number of poems she had written. Surprised as well at some of their content. My journey has also been one of grieving and remembrance. I an earlier posting I had written about Winsted, the town where I grew up. I wrote about moving Mom to Florida and having no reason to go back to Connecticut. That post https://artsconflicted.wordpress.com/2014/07/25/no-reason-to-go-back/#more-266 was also about grieving and remembrance. Losing my father, then the geography of my childhood, and now my mother, I see the gradual erosion. The losses comprise a familial cultural heritage, and I’m further surprised to experience them as something much more than I had expected.  Putting this book together has been an attempt to put those losses at rest. Only an attempt. I hope it is more successful as a tribute to her, and to the love I have for her.

Doris McKay’s autobiography Fires in Many Hearts is available from Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Fires-Many-Hearts-Doris-McKay/dp/1895456037

Lighting the Western Sky can be purchased from Amazon as well: http://www.amazon.com/Lighting-Western-Sky-Pilgrimage-Establishment/dp/085398543X

And, as of this writing, copies of Something Will Occur (166 pages) are available from me (paul.vreeland.ca@gmail.com) for $29.95 CDN including shipping. 

Can you identify the mystery poet?

Mystery_Poet
Here’s another poem from “Sad Songs from Hush River” available at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/471447 offered in recognition of National Poetry Month. I wrote “On the Morn of Your Eulogy” as an exercise using another poem as a prompt.  My poem follows the structure of the original, including that of the title which is something like “On the Eve of Your Departure.”  Alas, I cannot relocate the inspiration and I am unable to credit the writer. Can you help? Do you know who the author and the poem might have been?  Suggestions appreciated.

Tell me you weren’t cracking up,

You had but the one suckling child

and you still held an artist’s brush with confidence

even hope.

 

I promised you by your tired eyes that you were a well-tempered palette.

You promised me by your tired eyes that you were a well-tempered palette.

And all the planets promised both of us by your tired eyes that you still

perceived the colors of truth completely

 

Who could not go on living?

 

My pen will be glad to have been a record,

The brush to have been your lover,

I to have been blessed to touch the hem of your dress

in the quiet of evening.

 

The scout has lost his compass,

The sailor his anchor,

And I — I feel my mind eroding–ragged holes exposing a stormy sky,

That my time too is ticking down

That your daughter is more than a daughter, and the sun is more than a sun.

 

What is the word for tomorrow?

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.

www.broomfieldsbox.com

 

5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You “It sucks.” – Elements of Practical Critique: Part I

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Rain on Wright’s Creek (after applying the judges’ suggestions) copyright 2013 Paul Vreeland

I entered a version of the image above in the 2013 PEI Photo Club Annual Show in the Black & White category.  The judging of the show took place a few days before the exhibition was installed at The Guild in downtown Charlottetown.   Three competent professional photographers, invited to serve as judges, had been given access to the digital images well in advance and had been instructed to give ample comments –critiques intended to help photographers to learn how to improve their craft.  The evening of the judging was the first time they had seen the actual prints, all about 8 x 10 mounted on foam core. The images were laid out category by category on tables for their assessment. I was among the club members in attendance, listening closely to the judges’ comments. (The judges, by the way, had not been given the names of the photographers.)  My image, “Rain on Wright’s Creek” was eliminated  early; it was one of the first to be put aside. “Nah. It’s been sharpened. It’s over-processed,” said one judge answering the rhetorical question, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Another judge agreed. “A softer treatment would have served it better,” answering the question, “How can it be improved?”

I had mixed feelings. I was disappointed.  I liked the way my eyes would not settle, but jumped from raindrop ring to raindrop ring, much in the same way as they did when I had stood on the banks of the creek. And while I was disappointed—a disappointment that was heightened when the image that I had submitted in the next category was also quickly eliminated,  I was also heartened by the comments. I knew I could go back to the image and work to improve it. In less than a minute, I had learned something.

Learning is at the heart of critique.

If you want to learn how to write, you have to learn how to read. You learn from reading, reading, reading and from writing, writing, writing. You cannot improve your craft without continual learning, and the best, most relevant source of learning is from the skilled critiques of trusted fellow writers. If you want to learn the art of photography you have to get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot, study the photography of others, and learn to give and receive meaningful practical suggestions.

Before discussing the elements of practical critique, I’d like to discuss two things I have learned about the nature of critique:

  1. Practical Critique is neither praise nor condemnation

Several years ago when I took up my pen and dedicated myself more seriously as a writer I joined a writer’s group. Since that time I have been a member of a few different groups. In each of them, however, the members took time to study the work of another member and to offer comments to help the writer improve. But when I joined that first group, I was looking for praise.  I wanted others to ooo and ahh say things like “wow!” and “Hey, that’s great.” When I moved beyond the need for praise, I wanted the comments and plenty of them. I took the critiques home and re-worked my pieces.  I may have moved beyond the need for praise, but I have not overcome it; I’d be lying if I said I don’t want praise.

Praise may feed my ego, but it teaches me little. Similarly condemnation teaches me nothing,  but it is much more dangerous. It serves no useful purpose and can kill my creative spirit. (See 5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You It Sucks below.)

I had an idea of how to critique a short-story or an essay and I did my best to offer constructive criticism.  My first writer’s group met every week and I was blissfully happy with it for the first few sessions. Then a member brought poetry. While I had written the occasional poem, I had no idea how to critique poetry. I fumbled. I didn’t give the poet her due. She gave me her skilled and considered suggestions, but I was unable to reciprocate. I signed up for a course in poetry writing with Sue Goyette ( http://writers.ns.ca/members/profile/87 ) through the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia. I became a better poet, and I began to learn to critique poetry.  As much as I wanted the writer’s group to help me to become a better writer, my experience with it taught me that I had to give as good as I got. In other words, if I wanted help in becoming a better writer, I had to learn how to give a better critique.  Which leads me to point number two.

2. There is no such thing as gratuitous critique.

Writers and photographers and unnumbered artists of other media post their work on the web. I’ve cruised the communities on Google+ and I’ve looked at sites promising forums for photo critique. I have posted my work to Picasa, Flickr and 500px accounts. I have seen many fledgling artists upload their work begging for feedback. And what I find, in the case of photographers, is an abundance of dim praise and a dearth of positive and/or negative criticism.  When it comes to writers posting on-line, I’m sorry. but I’m not about to give freely of my time to read the work of a stranger, let alone take the additional time to compose a thoughtful list of suggestions. My time is not that free. And so it is with most other artists. The posted appeals for critique go unanswered.

Writer’s groups work, or at least the most of the ones I’ve been associated with do (okay, my first group was a disaster, but that’s another story) because it takes face-to-face time to build knowledge and, more important, trust. Knowledge of the others’ competence as writers will determine the credibility I give to their critiques. If I truly admire a person’s craft as a writer, it is most likely I will give his/her comments about my own work more serious consideration than the comments of a person whose writing is, for me, questionable. There  have been times when I have gone to accomplished writers in my community and have asked for more detailed critiques, and writers have come to me for the same.

It takes time as well to build trust.  The writer’s group to which I presently belong (TWiG—The Writers in Group), is a safe, comfortable environment in which I feel free to reveal myself by sharing the drafts of my precious creations. And I am comfortable with the feedback I receive, because I trust the other members’ intentions to help me.  I dare say, there is a great deal of love among us; we share a sense of common vision and purpose, and we are aware of ourselves as a community. I doubt that this can be accomplished among on-line strangers.

If you want serious critique, you have to pay your dues. You have to earn trust and credibility, and you have to give as good as you get. For these reasons, I believe the face-to-face meetings of photo clubs can be the greatest resource for practical critique.

There is no such thing as gratuitous critique, and outside of a well-groomed photo club, gurushots.com is the best place I know to learn about the art of practical critique. If you want detailed critique from the professionals at gurushots, you pay a modest fee.

And, as promised, here it is:

5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You “It Sucks.”

  1. “It sucks,” is a form of condemnation and condemnation serves no useful purpose.
  2. The desire to create is a spiritual gift mirroring the impulse of the divine. My job is to enkindle the flickering flames of that desire with a kindly tongue and practical advice. What right do I have to extinguish the fire.
  3. Condemnation does not build trust or contribute to a sense of community and common purpose. If you want to lose your membership in the artistic community, offer condemnation. The reciprocity of the Golden Rule applies.
  4. Condemnation does not accept the pursuit of artistic development; it does not accept the potential and possibility that my work can/will improve.
  5. Saying “It sucks,” reveals more about my ineptitude than it does about your craft.

Coming up: Part II – “Every Image is a Lesson.”

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…

Continue reading

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. http://mantlethought.org/content/poetry-and-journalism-spirit

“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. http://library.arlingtonva.us/2011/04/30/author-video-tim-obrien/

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.


[1] http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2006/3/06.03.09.x.html

[2] “Take Me to the Intersection of Poetry and Journalism” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-dwyre-garton/take-me-to-the-intersecti_b_155276.html).

[3] “Poetic Journalism,” by Nina Paris in The King’s Review http://kjr.kingsjournalism.com/?p=198

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