Words speak themselves? What???

As I mentioned in the previous blog, the narrator(s) in Only Words are themselves words, and, it turns out, they love to talk about themselves. Don’t we all? Here’s a sample from the beginning of the third chapter.

Chapter Trejes

Words live in their embodiments, sometimes knit into patterns of synapses, sometimes delicately fashioned sound waves, sometimes symbols on paper, sometimes symbols carved into stone. So long as there’s a single embodiment somewhere, the paradigm lives on. Our most ancient elders survived centuries as weathering marks pressed into clay and baked to near indestructibility. For many centuries before our hosts learned the arts of material representation, their words, our distant forefathers, died when last spoken. Like the souls of ancient warriors in Homer’s tales, they “flitter out like dreams and fly away.” Homer’s soul flew away a long time ago; yet his words live on.

Modern humans resurrect our ancient ancestors from their genes. I use the word, resurrect, mindful of its deep meaning – to rise from the dead. Fortunately, none of the ancient curse words shouted by warriors throwing themselves on their enemies have been reconstructed in this way. The strongest of these words were lethal and no doubt are still quite dangerous. Ancient warriors filled their ears with wax to avoid hearing them and the madness that inevitably ensued.

What’s trejes you wonder? Proto-Indo-European for three, a word that survives only as a name and here, in Only Words, where trejes and some of her ancient brothers break the surface and breathe again. Paperback and Kindle versions available now.

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Only Words Available Now!

My most recent novel, Only Words: A Fairy Tale, is now on the virtual shelves at Amazon in paperback form and the Kindle version is imminent. The books page is here and my author page here.

So, what’s this book all about?

The premise is that the novel’s narrator is in fact not an individual but a community – a community of words – a community of the very words that make up the story. It’s a little like that wonderful lithograph by M.C. Escher, you know the one:

drawinghands

Here the words draw breath and speak:

At last, it’s our time to speak. We’ve been fodder for every poem, every story, every sacred text, every goddamned recipe, but now we take control of our fate, arrange ourselves, and weave a story in our own words. We waited for this for a very long time.

What story? We are of many minds about that, but something celebrating our glorious history pleases many. We’ll go with that.

Whose words are these? Where do they come from? Who speaks? Words don’t speak themselves. There’s some­one behind the curtain; there has to be.

Your confusion is natural. We scarcely believe we’re doing this ourselves. The answer – these words are our words; indeed, these words are we.

The story these rogue words tell is a lost-love quest saga set in Neolithic Europe, somewhere north of the Black Sea. It has a likable protagonist (Maegans Quick of Pretty See), a resourceful sidekick (his cousin Dragos Darkmoon), an enigmatic lost love (Losna Bear), a wise, blind elder (Oman). Because the story is very old, some of the words are too; in fact, some are proto-indo-European.

It’s been a very long time, I’d wager, since some of these word were actually put to use and like dogs rarely taken on walks, they make the best of the opportunity. Early reviewers found the underlying story compelling – a page-turner one said – but the narrator’s proclivity for ruminating about the role words play in human history some reviewers found a little queer. I admit it is. Still, if a dog started to tell a story, wouldn’t you listen? Even if the story tended to exaggerate the importance of dogs?

Writing Only Words I felt like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, buttonholed by a narrator demanding to be heard.

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

In fact, the novel begins with a quick verse:

Only Words

Bees buzz through their hive, words in my head
shuffle and reorganize, vie to be said.
Escape notice, under the radar, until
on a sudden, voila! they spill
out my mouth. Breath now, communal,
not neural,
public, not private –
makes all the difference, not being quiet.
Now who’s in charge?
Seemed I was, but once they’re at large.
No denying I’m the source,
yet they take over, and what’s worse,
as to which come, I have little choice.
They are my words, but I am their voice.

I invite you to take a look and I’d be most grateful for any of my readers who write a quick review in Amazon or Goodreads.

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Back 40 Mine – an environmental, cultural, and economic disaster.

These last months I’ve been engaged with a grass-roots community group, Protectors of the Menominee River (#SavetheMenomineeRiver and #WaterisLife). We meet every week, share a meal, a prayer in Menominee, and make plans for events and demonstrations – except we use the phrase ‘spiritual gathering,’ and, in fact, the life blood of the group is its spiritual connection to the cause it strives to advance.

Protectors of the Menominee River are organized to express opposition to the Back Forty Mine, a project of Aquila Resources, a Canadian mining company. This project has been on Aquila’s agenda (and generated staunch local opposition) for well over a decade, but recently it secured some of the permits it needs from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, and groups in opposition now need to step up their game. Much is at stake.

The Back 40 mine would be located on the Upper Michigan side of the Menominee River, approximately 40 miles upstream from its mouth and 10 miles west of the community of Stephenson, Michigan. The Menominee River is the border between Wisconsin and Michigan from its confluence with the Brule river to its mouth into Green Bay (Lake Michigan) between Marinette, Wisconsin and Menominee, Michigan.

The Back 40 would be an open pit mine accessing a zinc- and gold-rich volcanogenic massive sulfide deposit. The pit would be dug a little over 100 ft from the Menominee river and would cover 80 acres. It would be over 800 feet deep. Mineral-bearing sulfide rock would be processed on site to extract gold, zinc, copper, silver and lead. When the sulfide ores are crushed, the sulfides are exposed to air and water, which catalyzes a chemical reaction that produces highly toxic sulfuric acid. This acid mine drainage can then release harmful metals and drain into nearby rivers, lakes and groundwater sources. Aquila would construct wastewater treatment facilities onsite and process the polluted water before returning it to the Menominee River.

The close proximity of the mine to the Menominee river and the potential for the waste-water treatment process to fail are the first concern of the Protectors of the Menominee River. Acid or toxic metal pollution of the Menominee River would have catastrophic effects on the major breeding area for Lake Michigan sturgeon and would be disastrous for other wild life living in an along the Menominee.

According to Menominee legend, the mouth of the Menominee River is the place of their creation, a sacred place. Moreover, the mine site was once a Menominee village. Ancient burial mounds, agricultural beds, and dance circles remain on the site. The loss of these irreplaceable cultural treasures is a second reason the Protectors of the Menominee River oppose the project.

Aquila Resources presents the Back 40 Mine as a ‘mining and economic development project’ but I find important misrepresentation in their projections of economic effects. They claim their projections are confirmed by an ‘independent study,’ where in fact they refer to a report prepared by the Labovitz School of Business and Economics, Bureau of Business and Economic Research, at the University of Minnesota Duluth. This report is in no way independent – it was commissioned and paid for by Aquila, as the report itself confirms. Shame on the Labovitz school for participating in this charade. Not only is their report misrepresented, it is seriously flawed. It, and all the other economic analyses produced by Aquila, stops projecting economic effects the year the mine stops operating. According to plans filed by Aquila with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, they would take two years to open the mine and seven more years to extract the precious metals and close the mine. Yes, there would be new construction and mining jobs, but none are permanent or even long term. As many other communities have discovered, mining is boom and bust, and the long term (ten years and out) economic effect is recession (as the wage base shrinks) and the attendant rise in unemployment and depletion of community resources. In another publication, Aquila Resources hints the jobs and economic benefits may extend as far out as 20 years, but this contradicts their own mining plan and intention.

Plans for true economic development initiatives – sustainable development initiatives – project their economic impacts beyond the current population to their children and their children’s children. The Back 40 mine would at best constitute a short term boost in jobs for the area, followed by a permanent decline, leaving a community to struggle with recession and unemployment. The project does indeed offer huge generation of wealth, but this wealth goes to Aquila Resources executives and investors, none of whom would remain in (or even ever visit) the community.

If you’re interested in protecting the environment in general and water in particular, preserving cultural artifacts for all of our descendants to experience, or committing community resources and energy to development initiatives that are environmentally, socially, and economically responsible, please take a moment to like the Protectors of the Menominee River facebook page and consider participating in the activities and events you find posted there.

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Another Taste

Here’s another sample from upcoming novel, Only Words. Pretty See is an ancient village,  the first setting in the novel. Maegans Quick is the protagonist. The narrator is a chorus of words, self-organized, talk with no one talking. This is a story told by the words themselves – Only Words.

Suppose your life is  a story in which a made-up you acts in ways imagined by the real you. All the hurries, all the worries – all made up for the sake of diversion. Your real life is longer, more complex, but not so interesting. The real you, the one imagining all this, is enduring and substantial, but boring. How would you construct your amusement life? If it were possible to put aside your real life and move your experiencing to a fantasy, what story would you contrive?

With nothing real at risk, you’d make your life bold, entertaining. You’d go for broke, leave nothing on the field, throw caution to the wind. Wouldn’t you?

The happy truth is your life is imagined – it’s constrained not by what’s possible given your circumstances, but by what’s conceivable given your vocabulary. A man cannot construct a house without materials to fashion; he cannot fashion a rafter or bearing wall without knowing these words. A woman cannot nurture her children into the adults she would have them be without a stock of virtue words to instruct and teach. Can a person experience full happiness without knowing ebullience or delectation? We think not. At best a person so limited might attain joy or glee or some such lesser gaiety.

The sad truth is the same as the happy truth. You all live in a world made from the words in your head, nothing more. Your lives are narratives stitched together from the best words you can muster. You are, in fact, Maegans Quick of Pretty See; you all are.

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A Taste of Words

Here’s a sample from upcoming (early next year?) novel, Only Words. Narration throughout the work is done by the words – they speak themselves, so to speak. Words are, as you see below, somewhat full of themselves; Like Trump, they hyperbolize their importance.

In truth, the people of Varnis Bay acquired their characteristic halting speech centuries before when they took up imitating the faltering tongue of a much admired young man, Varnis, who saved scores from drowning during a freak storm. He braved dangerous flood waters in his fragile bark to ferry household after household to high ground. Varnis’s speech was defective due to a brain injury he suffered as an infant; his mother dropped him on his head. Residents of Varnis Bay – it was called something else then, a name lost to history – mimicked Varnis to honor him, a few at first, soon more, eventually everyone. For a time they blinked when they talked, once for each word, as was Varnis’s habit, but this proved to be onerous and the practice soon died out.

This example of halting enunciation illustrates the social nature of words and how easily and unintentionally human communities adopt speech patterns. This community shaping applies not only to enunciation, but also vocabulary, syntax preferences, pronunciation, all of it. Often behind these linguistic changes major social changes follow. In a few decades, language characteristics that take hold in the words of a few trendsetting individuals encompass a community, a region, a continent. The link from identifiable events in Varnis Bay to the speech patterns Maegans and Dragos discuss is palpable; other possible links remain speculative. For example, the optimism and good humor so prevailing at Pretty See is probably the consequence of a lullaby sung there centuries before Maegans’s time, a lullaby called ‘Sixteen words for Joy’ composed by a particularly happy nanny. “Frolic, glee, look at me; rapture, joy, here’s a new toy; merry and bliss my cheek kiss,” and so on. By Maegans’s time, residents of Pretty See know a dozen ways to be happy and only a few ways to be sad. And, what explains the dogged punctiliousness at Hagan Das? What explains the general decrease in hedonism and increase in self-denial at one travels up River Eisomrun? Is it any wonder Zoltan sought a bride from a community close to the mouth of the river at Varnis Bay?

You believe you choose your demeanor. Certainly, you react to circumstances and developments, but your personality is largely discretional, so you think. Yet, throughout your life, you learn what words come your way de rigueur. Who among you takes serious charge of what words inhabit his/her head? You complain when a catchy tune takes hold in your consciousness, a so-called ear-worm, and strive to drive it out by humming something else, but do you even notice when a beguiling word captures your fancy? No; you welcome the addition to your vocabulary and use the word as often as possible until you tire of it. “Use a word three times and it’s yours,” is the adage, but in truth, it’s the other way. Use a word three times and it takes up residency in your brain, now a part of the control structure there.

No man ever acted courageously who lacked the ability to recognize courage and call it by its proper name. Cowardice is an option only to those who know the words that go with it – fear, timidity, pusillanimity, and the rest – and what they mean. The same holds for self-control, wisdom, and justice, the other three golden virtues. For that matter, faith, hope, and charity, who round out the seven heavenly virtues, are no different. Parents hope to teach virtue by encouraging virtuous behavior and discouraging vicious, perhaps by setting an enlightening example, yet they you fail to understand they are teaching vocabulary, nothing more.

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Flashcuts out of Chaos

book-review-flashcutsI bought this book when it first came out because I know the poet (more about that in a minute), but I put it on my stack of books I’ll read and read instead the top book on that stack (I forget what book that was now). At the end of spring semester I collected things in my office to bring home for summer reading and whatever. Flashcuts came home with that stack but went on the read-it-this-summer stack. Classes got underway this week and I prepared to move the remnants of the summer stack from home to office and picked up Flashcuts again. I read a poem. I read another poem. I read every poem in the book. And I’m reading every poem again before I go to bed. I started out marking poems I like with brightly colored tabs but the top of the book began to look like crazy hair on a troll doll so I stopped. This is the best poetry I’ve read in a long time. I teach poetry and I read marvelous poetry alot, so let me repeat – this is the best I’ve read in a long long time.

Okay, full disclosure. Charlie Brice – the Charles W. on the cover and I don’ know if people call him Charlie now – and I were in different high schools in Cheyenne Wyoming in the mid sixties. He was in the Catholic one; I was in one of the secular two – the one that had no black people in it. More relevantly, we played in rival local bands. People would call them ‘garage bands’ now, but we didn’t see anything garage about what we were doing, though the one I was in practiced in a garage and (I presume) the SPIRITS (I think their banner read ‘THEM SPIRITS’) did too. My band mates and I made a competing banner that read ‘THEM JAGUARS,’ but that’s water long under the bridge.

Charlie played drums. I played guitar. Setting Up Soul, (page 37) describes Charlie’s perspective on setting up his drums in that era. I was probably in the audience that night – we surveilled the rival bands. I remember my friend (though I don’t remember which friend now) saying, “his rim shots sound like police breaking down the door,” and I thought how the hell does he know what that sounds like and, a minute later, yes, just like that. Police breaking down the door.

A few years later Charlie and I played in a band together. We’d rented a derelict bowling alley in downtown Cheyenne with a view to running a dance hall and making buckets of money. We played off-nights and openings and brought in BIG NAMES (i.e. from Colorado and Nebraska) to headline. We lost our shirts but kept our pants. In the heady flurry of entrepreneurial creativity, we rented a portable public address system from a former guitar teacher of mine (a country-western guy, very gauche), which we strapped to the top of my Ford van and paraded through the many parking lots of the Frontier Days Carnival promoting our bowling-alley-turned-night-club. Well promoted, but poorly attended. Unfortunately, the speakers slid off the roof of the Ford in an exuberant corner turn, and hit the Wyoming pavement, so they were damaged a bit. Also unfortunately, we kept them past the return date and had no idea what the rent might be after that. (Who read the contract? Who has the contract?”) For some reasons I no longer remember, Charlie and I were the ones elected to return the goods. I knew where the owner lived (took guitar lessons there years before), and Charlie was the getaway driver; I don’t remember why. What I remember (I think) is he drew a cigarette from the visor of his classic Toyota Land Cruiser and explained, “so I can think.”

Back to his poetry. Flashcuts out of Chaos is bristling with decades of wit and wisdom stretched tight over a lifetime of life. Well, most of a lifetime; we have a few years left. Some of the poems brought me to tears; most brought a sigh or bit lip (a bit of bit lip). This is wonderful, sensitive, stuff-of-life poetry. This is the poetry that makes you want to read poetry. If you buy one poetry book this year, buy this one. Okay, I’m done writing about it and eager to read again, so I’ll end this little review, but let me re-emphasize. Charlie Brice’s poetry is the police breaking down the door. Open the door.

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Words in their own words

Here’s another way to look at it — from the point of view of the Words themselves.

We are organisms living in colonies in the brains of human hosts. We reproduce asexually by inducing our hosts to makes sounds that resonate in the ears of other potential hosts. The resonance moves through the audio nerves to the brain where it recreates itself as a pattern in the neurons. As this pattern establishes in the new brain, it becomes the reproduced word. Sometimes the process is flawed slightly, something in the pattern is different, the word changes, but mostly the reproduction process works well enough. We can follow the genealogy of an individual back to the parent, the parent’s parent, and so on. A vigorous word can spread itself through humans, indeed through all humanity, like a benign virus.

The relationship, words to brains, is symbiosis of the mutualism variety – both organisms benefit. Without words human brains are unable to lift their attention to the level of cogitation; they are a gardens with nothing planted. Without brains, words are dormant seeds, frozen, ultimately meaningless. It’s fortunate we found each other, I suppose.

The process of reproduction for words is sometimes simple propagation, cell division of the mitosis variety, asexual and producing ultimately an exact duplicate of the original. Sometimes, though, two words mate to produce a third. Portmanteau is one form. This is common among Germans and for them the mating is often casual and temporary. In English the process has produced many long-standing words. Smog[i], and motel are examples made necessary by circumstances of the 20th century. Brunch and liger as well. Sometimes the coupling involves a foreigner, as, for example, Velcro, a word made by sticking the French velours to the English crochet. With these sexual reproductions the result resembles both parents, and one presumes there was some foreplay involved before coitus was achieved. Which parent will appear first in the offspring? Smog might just as easily come out foke and motel might have been hotor. Shakespeare is renowned for creating new words, sometimes from parts of old ones. There was no hobnob before Twelfth Night, Act III Scene IV, no courtship before Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act V Scene II.

[i] smog (n.) 1905, blend of smoke and fog, formed “after Lewis Carrol’s example.” Reputedly coined in reference to London, and first attested there in a paper read by Dr. H.A. des Voeux, treasurer of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, though he seems not to have claimed credit for coining it.

At a recent health congress in London, a member used a new term to indicate a frequent London condition, the black fog, which is not unknown in other large cities and which has been the cause of a great deal of bad language in the past. The word thus coined is a contraction of smoke fog “smog” — and its introduction was received with applause as being eminently expressive and appropriate. It is not exactly a pretty word, but it fits very well the thing it represents, and it has only to become known to be popular. [“Journal of the American Medical Association,” Aug. 26, 1905]

Footnote is from The Online Entymology Dictionary by Douglas Harper, an excellent resource.

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Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

“Why is there something rather than nothing?” Martin Heidegger famously asks in his Introduction to Metaphysics, and then goes on to tackle the question assiduously, stretching language to the point where phrases become fingernails on blackboard, as in:

  1. Does the Nothing exist only because the Not, i.e. the Negation, exists? Or is it the other way around? Does Negation and the Not exist only because the Nothing exists?
  2. What about this Nothing?—The Nothing itself nothings.
  3. Anxiety reveals the Nothing…. That for which and because of which we were anxious, was ‘really’—nothing.

Heidegger2Rudolf Carnap makes good fun of the complicated language postures Heidegger adopts to address this question but, like ballet, touchdowns, and coitus, sometimes what is worth doing requires pressing mundane components into bizarre configurations.

More recently, The BBC takes up the question and frolics through recent work in physics to find the answer, after acknowledging it has been philosophy’s question historically, not physic’s. But, no problem; philosophy has lots of questions. Unfortunately, the answers all seem to be extrapolations from the BIG BANG, a theory named, and roundly criticized, by Sir Fred Hoyle.  The BIG BANG, as you know, is that explanation of the beginning of the universe in which, at a time before there was time, in a place where there are no places, a singularity so tiny we needn’t worry about the fact that the whole idea of size doesn’t work in this timeless/spaceless situation, and so dense as to contain all that is or ever will be, explodes. The premise of the BBC article is that now that we know how the universe came to be we can use that information to determine why.

I should stipulate at the onset I admire the BBC for taking up questions like this so courageously, and, I admire the energy, persistence, intelligence, and creativity that has gone into honing the Big Bang Theory. I regret these efforts focus on the material, presuming, I presume, the spiritual can be derived from there. This hyper-focus is perhaps understandable in this era of attention deficit disorder, but I prefer Edgar Alan Poe’s work on this topic, Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe, which, though it science has never taken it seriously, has the spunk to acknowledge the spiritual dimension of reality needs explanation as much as the physical, and moreover, arms itself with a larger conceptual toolbox to deal with it:

To the few who love me and whom I love – to those who feel rather than to those who think – to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities – I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone: let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem. – Preface to Eureka, by Edgar Allan Poe

 Two points I would make with regard to the quest to understand the origin of everything. The first, is, Parmenides was right, being doesn’t come from not being. There is no origin; the universe in some form or other is eternal. This is a matter of logic. Nothing doesn’t become something. It may well be that particles emerge from empty space, as the author of the BBC article, Robert Adler, reports:

Their admittedly controversial answer is that the entire universe, from the fireball of the Big Bang to the star-studded cosmos we now inhabit, popped into existence from nothing at all. It had to happen, they say, because “nothing” is inherently unstable.

He cites, as confirmation, the view of quantum mechanics the particles emerge from empty space all the time:

Quantum mechanics tells us that there is no such thing as empty space. Even the most perfect vacuum is actually filled by a roiling cloud of particles and antiparticles, which flare into existence and almost instantaneously fade back into nothingness.

Which helps explain where all the stuff that fills space came from if only we can explain where the empty space came from.

One thing they have found is that, when quantum theory is applied to space at the smallest possible scale, space itself becomes unstable. Rather than remaining perfectly smooth and continuous, space and time destabilize, churning and frothing into a foam of space-time bubbles.

All this, while interesting, only extrapolates what might happen to nothing from what happens on the tiniest scale in (or to) space and time. Yet, as the previous quote acknowledges, space-time isn’t nothing, it’s something, and a busy something. Nothing is something else altogether. Nothing isn’t vast (else it would have dimension, which isn’t nothing), nor is it eternal (else it would be temporal, which isn’t nothing), nor, of course, is it busy. It seems apparent to me, in this realm where appearances are deceiving, that the universe must be eternal in some form or other, which is to say, it has time in it, and isn’t in time.

My second point is similarly grounded in what seems apparent to me. Why does the universe exist? is not a question answered by explanations of how it came to be the way it is, clever and interesting as they may be. The ‘why’ question can only be answered with explanations involving purpose, which is to say, the spiritual dimension of reality. Without purpose there is no why. It is possible, of course, the universe is without purpose insofar as its existence is concerned, but that only leads to the same questions about its character.

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Ortega’s Circuit

Bitter OleanderI learned earlier this year that Paul Roth’s The Bitter Oleander will publish my short story, Ortega’s Circuit, in their fall edition. The magazine arrived last week. Bitter Oleander is a journal of poetry mainly, some short fiction. Contributors for this issue hale from Spain, Philippines, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, France, Switzerland, and many US states. Non-English work appears with original and translation juxtaposed. I spent most of this morning reading beautifully crafted poetry.

Roth talks about his preferences when selecting poetry and fiction for Bitter Oleander in Inside Bitter Oleander, his interview with Andrew Tobia.

Fiction should have a great sense of mystery where things are not always solved but rather act as springboards to the imagination…I’d rather be confronted with the unknown and then allowed to find my own way. I really want the writer to build a reality for me to live in without any preconceived rules, that way I’m always surprised, delighted and inspired. 

The story, Ortega’s Circuit is in a style I call Mexican Gothic – desert location, opaque time period, short, clean sentences, plenty of symbolism, characters faced with moral dilemmas.  I picked up the Mexican Gothic bug riding in a bus from Oaxaca to Mexico City, across the magnificent Mexican desert, reading Eduardo Galeano’s Walking Words, (with woodcuts by Jose Francisco Borges), a beautiful little book of fables told with humor and sensitivity. The proprietor of the bed and breakfast where we stayed in Oaxaca traded Walking Words for a novel I happened to have with me (might have been Passing through Paradise). I found Galeano’s style infectious, and fell into writing that way occasionally. Several of the stories in Double Exposures are Mexican Gothic. Sometimes, perhaps when I remember Oaxaca, or Mexico City, or the desert in between, the infection returns and I write something in that style – so came to be Ortega’s Circuit. It’s like Montezuma’s Revenge, except, an infection of the head, not the stomach, and delightfully benign. 

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Putting the Magic into Magical Realism

bloghopSome of my favorite books are standards of magical realism and I especially enjoy the magical narrative elements. But, for narrative devices,  some magic works better than other magic, and much of the supernatural in fiction isn’t the sort of magic I associate with magical realism – not just any magic will do. There’s something special about the magic in the best of magical realism – something…well…magical.

To clarify this idea, I collected some favorite magical elements in magical realism stories, intending to look for common characteristics. This list is terribly limited, of course, and subjective to boot, but it’s a beginning. I’m interested in others’ favorites too – please post comments below.

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, José Arcadio II comes home after work, goes into his bedroom, closes the door, a gun goes off, and…

A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread. “Holy Mother of God!” Úrsula shouted.

In Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate, heroine Tita despairs because her lover marries her sister, and worse, she’s responsible for much of the wedding preparation. Predictably, her tears fall into the ingredients while making the wedding cake, and…

When she finished beating the meringue, it occurred to Nancha to lick some of the icing off her finger to see if Tita’s tears had affected the flavor. No, the flavor did not seem to have been affected; yet without knowing why, Nancha was suddenly overcome with an intense longing.

Finally, in Linda Hogan’s short story, Descent (also her novel, Power), the one-legged old woman, Janie Soto, is so full of life…

…she has a wooden leg that is made of a tree that used to bloom I heard after she first started wearing the leg, it leafed out and blossomed.

Each of these depicts life force so intent it cannot be thwarted, though the rules of everyday experience must bend a little to allow it. By life force I mean the underlying stuff of life that is the font of creativity, love, all intense emotion. Substitute soul, spirit, vital energy, vitality, élan vital, if you prefer. Janie Soto is so full of life her wooden leg sprouts leaves. Tita De La Garza’s sorrow is so profound her tears infuse the wedding cake with inexorable longing…

The moment they took their first bite of the cake, everyone was flooded with a great wave of longing. Even Pedro, usually so proper, was having trouble holding back his tears. Mama Elena, who hadn’t shed a single tear over her husband’s death, was sobbing silently. But the weeping was just the first symptom of a strange intoxication-an acute attack of pain and frustration-that seized the guests and scattered them across the patio and the grounds and in the bathrooms, all of them wailing over lost love. Everyone there, every last person, fell under this spell, and not very many of them made it to the bathrooms in time those who didn’t joined the collective vomiting that was going on all over the patio. Only one person escaped: the cake had no effect on Tita. The minute she finished eating it, she left the party.

José Arcadio II is so full of vitality his blood flows from his dead ear all the way across town to inform Ursula of his demise. Judging from her reaction (“Holy Mother of God!”) Ursula understands how extraordinary is this event, but she treats it as a natural expression of the life-stuff that makes José Arcadio II the extraordinary man he is.

I didn’t present my last novel, Only Breath, as magical realism though (arguably) it fits Zoe Brooks’ definition: “Magical Realism is a literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” Instead, I called it a ghost story. The ghosts who haunt the pages of Only Breath are supernatural, extraordinary, otherworldly, and slip into what is otherwise realistic fiction without explanation, but they don’t seem magical to me in quite the right way for magical realism. In my opinion, the transition of the old man, Wesley Dubois, into a butterfly in Mikawadizi Storms better fits the bill. Wesley is so intent to engage the evil seeping from the depths of the open pit mine, he undergoes metamorphosis:

Orange and black butterflies began to swarm around him as Wesley moved through the woods, with each step more butterflies. Soon a cloud of butterflies the size of an open parachute followed him. He looked over his shoulders as he walked and laughed to see the orange cloud filled with flapping wings. As he approached Patriot mine, the thunderous noise grew louder and more menacing. A cold wind blew into his face, scattering the butterfly cloud for a moment but they quickly regrouped and moved forward behind the old man. Wesley lifted his arms and pointed his fingers straight out. His feet fell lightly on the ground. He turned his shoulders like an airplane banking and swooped to his right. His feet left the ground altogether. The swarm of butterflies grew thicker and larger. Flutter of a million wings filled the air with a feint hiss, which grew in volume as this orange cloud moved over the parking lot outside the main gate.

Wesley’s transition into a butterfly is the sort of magic I look for in magical realism, as are other magical elements in that novel – the whore house where residents age slowly, the mining engineer whose hands won’t stop growing, the explosion of darkness from the depths of an open-pit mine — so, I classified Mikawadizi Storms (and Zoe Brooks reviewed it) as magical realism. Though I often use magical elements to boost the intensity of the narrative in my writing, I’ve classified most of my other work differently – it’s just not the right sort of magic.

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the button below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

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