Umbra: or, poem that nearly was not
2 August 2015
“Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?” ~Kurt Vonnegut
“The last thing we discover in composing a work is what to put down first.” ~Blaise Pascal
Some poems are fated to die before their potential, their full glory, is ever attained; in this way, as in so many ways I’ve discovered to my endless fascination, poems are much like humans. It may be that the Seed of Idea on which the poem depends never germinates, though we pour our life onto it; or that, like animals of the wild—including homo sapiens it must be admitted—they are abandoned due to some Terrible Trauma or similar ilk which Nature is so fond of handing out like a ruthless teacher with homework assignments; or simply because they smell wrong. Which seems ridiculous to you and I, but which is of undeniable mortal importance to a vast number of species.
This is one of a set of poems that came very close to perishing in the deep freeze of a year-long Writer’s Block. A state which to this day reminds me so much of what I imagine to be the outbound journey to aphelion that stellar bodies undergo in their gravitational orbits. Aphelion, that point which is furthest from the sun, is such an apt metaphor for the hell of chronic Depression, and concurrent Writer’s Block, that I find myself returning to its rich imaginative spaces for ore…the words that I process to fuel my life. Now that I have begun my own journey back to a poetic perihelion, the words have begun to trail out behind me once more…
But before the thaw, I had come to think this would remain a sad nebula of ideas and half-finished verses; a primordial soup lacking the necessary Promethean lightning. Digital debris destined never to produce a poem. Until a few days ago, when I found myself opening the old file. During the familiar alchemy of transferring it over to my working journal—ink and paper being capable of surmounting the sum of their parts in a way that computers never can—I stumbled onto the trail of uncanny ideas, and melancholy memories that had led me to begin writing it in the first place.
It’s an aspect of writing which authors are forever attempting to define, to describe—right in the face of our mandate to Show, Do Not Tell.
Yet, we do it because it’s so near to the heart of why we write in the first place. The alchemy of composition is honestly far more gratifying than the glory of seeing a finished, published poem, and it is also equally as personal.
That magic is what drives me to get up at four in the damn morning to scribble. I suspect that every writer, indeed every artist, shares this. Yet, in a vocation built on the finesse of description, it’s ironically one of the majesties of our art that most often defies definition. And, regardless of what labels are applied, in this bittersweet, ineffable Life you have to take your miracles where you find them.
Redhaired Amy daydreams
into smoke become nebulous in moonlight;
entwined Van Gogh-gyrations of gunmetal ghosts.
Undulating, with her haphazard smiles,
Amy drags the husks of dead stars in her wake.
Tonight Earth jealously eclipsed Moon. As we drifted
between Luna’s infernal lover, the sunlight unceasing
cast a ruddy blush upon her majestic face;
lest Moon, however briefly, forget to dance.
Amy smokes the way ravenous people eat
—all jaws and no tongue.
For hours on end, she stares ardently at Moon
as if her gaze tattoos love bites on ice-dusty peaks,
carves runes within secret, darkside craters.
If Moon slept
she would only feel safe
wrapped in the arms of Sol.
Redhaired Amy cannot live
away from the ocean,
but she will not swim.
When lethargy seizes her by the spine
her bones telegraph a rattle-a-tat s.o.s.;
her atoms become bored, they incite
subtle dances of cellular rhythms
and metabolic war cries
that only she can hear.
When we are honest
we speak ten thousand fragments
hammered from a cryptic core
far too brittle to be cleanly cleaved.
Each time we strike off misshapen shards;
which we string together like unfamiliar stars.
Until we finally stand in dismayed bewilderment,
listening to our own battering, forlorn echoes.
Head cocked, as if we cannot believe
such a din could ever come from us.
These poor words could never hope
to bear the loneliness we are dying to convey
—no matter how we burden them.
Amy has come to believe
that God sleeps when we sleep:
and that since there are so many of us now,
God is always sleeping.
Redhaired Amy breathes fire, daydreams into her smoke;
thinking that ‘reckoning’ is not
spelled with a W for a good wreason.
26 July 2k15
PS: My apologies, Gentle Reader, for the site’s editing program seems to have suddenly become stupid; or maybe it’s woken up, and is being obstinate. (an altogether horrifying idea, speaking personally)
So, if you dig this poem please drop by in a day or two and see it with its proper structure on.
Yes, it’s naked and shaky, but I simply could not wait to run it out of the pen.
The Lacrimosa of Leonard
13 February 2015
Welcome back, Dear Reader, I know it’s been many moons since you’ve heard a word from me. However, it was not for a lack of desire, nor exhaustive attempts on my part, I assure you. It’s hard to get to the point when that point has been stuck in your back for so long it’s getting hard to remember what life was like before the assault. When you are at aphelion, the furthest point from your sun, for so long that ice builds in your beard, pizza delivery is impossible, and makes a lost television remote a really big deal. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is that for the last year or so I’ve had Writer’s Block.
“Holy crap!” I can hear you right now, Gentle Reader, “A Year!?! What the hell’s wrong with you, man? What’s the matter with your head? You wrote nothing worthy in a whole year? You must be full of hyperbole, or something else, right?”
To which I reply, in all seriousness, that it was like dancing on a gallows.
I implore you to consider what would happen if you were denied that which fulfills you the most in life…if the magic that drags you out of bed every damn morning suddenly up and poof! disappeared. What would happen if the sweet water of the Rock of Your Life just dried up one day? And left you forever searching for what you knew, rather than for what’s to come. It renders you incomplete.
After enough time something in you breaks. And once broken, whether or not you heal is entirely up to you. No doctor can offer a prognosis, and no treatment exists to cure it. It is a pitiless crucible that must be endured, then patiently recovered from. Yes, yes, very dramatic. But how did it occur?
That’s the question. What could happen that would result in being Blocked that long? The truth requires a candor that remains uncomfortable to share—yet necessary for you to understand—the genesis of the Scourge evolved years ago, along with a nasty case of what my head-doctors call Major Depressive Disorder. And let me tell you, that can fuck you up bad. I nearly committed suicide a number of times, and inevitably wound up in the revolving door of our local version of Arkham Asylum. Called API colloquially, the Alaska Psychiatric Institute is a conundrum of good intention and awful application. I wouldn’t wish that Pest House on my worst enemy. With mandatory stops at a Psych ward in the local hospital a few times for good measure, I’ve slunked my way along the back alleys of Alaska’s burgeoning Insanity Market.
But that’s another story.
Overcoming Writer’s Block is the subject of this, my first post in many years. Most authors vie with the Scourge at least once. Many have written on the subject far more eloquently than I ever will. For instance, Phillip Sidney, author of Astrophel and Stella among other works, wrote,
“Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
‘Fool!’, said my Muse to me,
‘Look in thy heart and Write.”
A bit of brilliance I’ve never forgotten, even when I write nothing but hopeless shite. David Carr, the Titan of Journalism who recently passed away, was once asked his favorite cure for writer’s block, to which he replied, “Typing”. Hah!
He later elaborated that to, “Keep typing until it turns into writing.”
Which is actually pretty good advice, I have to admit. But nobody ever talks about the grueling work that involves. The aching back, the bleary eyes, and inexorable headaches in my case. The isolation from humanity, endless late nights and ignored phone calls. The malnutrition, and tendency to mainline coffee and various other complicated molecules.
Not to mention the Scourge lurking in wait over by my refrigerator…just waiting for me to give up and try to rest. It waits until I’m wallowing in my failure, then it pounces and with abominably-strong insectile arms, it shakes all the Words right back out of me. Before scuttling away to watch me scream hysterically and sob on the floor. Then miserably start to pull my shit together…again.
So, what was it like living a year with the Scourge? Many friends, of whom a fair number are also writers, have asked with various mixtures of genuine concern, naked curiosity, honest empathy, and even the occasional schadenfreude. Time and again I’ve tried in despair to answer that question without sounding utterly inane, or worse like a condescending prick; and each time I’ve gotten desperately lost attempting to find my way back from that merciless Purgatory. And so it was, three nights ago and later than usual; my epic celebration of the End of the Scourge was still firing on full-auto, catapulting pianos out into the moonlight, as the ceiling kept threatening to come crashing down around my head. It was in the midst of that chaos that I decided to write you a fable, Gentle Reader, the history of an epoch in the life of a poet with writer’s block. As you read a few things will become apparent: This is more than an emotional analogy, it’s also an intimate fête of language, a personal journey back into beloved wordscapes. And a barely edited, first-draft expedition which I am honored you have elected to join me on. Many of you with knowledge of science will notice that I’m playing hideously fast and loose with astrophysics; cooking a sort of galactic gumbo to fit my narrative. I apologize if anyone feels irked, yet I remain unashamed. This is, after all, science-fiction. I suggest you buckle up and enjoy the ride. For this isn’t really an essay, Dear Reader, or even a short story. This is a love note to you, wrapped in a fairy tale. And it really does begin in a galaxy far, far away…
The Lacrimosa of Leonard by DC McKenzie
“We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” ~Henry James
I. On the fear inherent in a five-pound sledgehammer—
Seven billion, thirteen million, four hundred seventy thousand years ago a star of the type we refer to as a supergiant faced a personal crisis such as it had never experienced. Indeed, it had never even suspected that such a thing was possible. The star, whose name was Leonard, had been dwelling peacefully in one of the more fashionable neighborhoods near its galactic center; for billions of years it spun, merrily munching Hydrogen and engaging in its one true calling. You see, Leonard was a poet. I understand your confusion. All stellar bodies are quite shy around such fragile beings as mammals, so it’s not widely known, or accepted, that nearly all stars and their various cousins are artists of one kind or another. And for them it’s a deadly serious vocation, there are no dilettante stellar artists; they literally live for their art. For reasons understood only to them, most stars prefer sculpture. Except for an astral clique including quasars, pulsars and magnetars, who tend toward fabulously intricate music and eclectic performance art. Earth-bound sculptors make do with marble, bronze, car fenders, and other assorted mediums; but that’s only because they’ve never gotten the opportunity to work with thermonuclear plasma. Leonard marched to its own tune however. Poetry and fusion were its only real interests. Of course, being a star, it was heavily into astronomy and astrophysics too. But that’s like saying breakfast cereal is really into milk. For uncounted eons Leonard burned glorious, composing poems of such radical and penetrating pulchritude, of such emotional delicacy that entire galaxies subtly altered their trajectory just to absorb the hissing signals of radiation that make up the stellar language.
Then came the crisis. A rouge planet spun into the vast boundary of the star’s heliosphere. Frozen nearly to its core, the orphan planet nevertheless radiated intense waves and exotic particles of such exquisiteness that Leonard’s imagination immediately fired a series of coronal mass ejections in its equivalent of delighted laughter. It settled into the half-meditative state where it composed drafts of poems.
But something new occurred. Which in itself was cause for immediate, total attention, as new things very rarely happen to stellar bodies…and when something new does occur, it’s seldom for the best. This anomaly was deeply troubling, and sent ripples of agitation billowing across the many thousands of kilometers which comprised the star’s seething photosphere. The fluid, frictionless organic mechanism that had for so long allowed it to weave word-symbols now stuttered and shook. It heaved, then boomed nauseatingly, as if behemoth gears had skewed off of their capstans and now broke teeth, grinding stumps as the ancient apparatus of art came to a lurching halt. This was quickly followed by an entirely new emotion that took a while to sort out; a suffocating feeling which it was astonished to identify as sheer, utter panic. This was expressed in the form of rising storms of arcing loops of magnetic plasma, each many thousands of kilometers high, across the breadth of the star. While below the storm, tendrils of real fear stole over Leonard as it felt the disturbance dig its way deep into the star’s chromosphere. These were emotions that it had never known, not once in its multitudinous millennia of life. Yet, Leonard was not some newly ignited star wobbling in its first orbit. It had been tempered in a legendary conflagration of creation and survived. Struggling fiercely for emotional balance, and control of its rapidly rising rate of hydrogen fusion, a single thought crystalized, Leonard had writer’s block.
Invariably, writers of every stripe can tell horror stories about that dreadful limbo ominously labeled as ‘Writer’s Block’. A more apt name would be Word Purgatory. In its most extreme forms it has driven authors insane, has even spurred some to suicide. In other cases it rams a chisel of havoc into a writer’s life, cleaving from our minds the thumbs of our art. Scattering these precious tools like so much useless, splintered bone and tissue. It erodes the intricate clockwork of creativity, oxidizing meticulous synapse-transistors that take decades of dedication and toil to connect. Writer’s Block is the mental equivalent of having a sociopath break into your house one night with a five-pound sledgehammer who yanks you out of bed and nails your feet to the floor with railroad spikes.
II. The Electron Mutiny— Every Celestial Being dreams. Dreaming is, after all, the Realm of Artists. Although all creatures inhabit the dreaming as a vital part of that state we call being alive, be it a human, a dolphin or a quasar. Regardless of discipline or medium, Dreaming is a second home to any artist. Since the crisis, Leonard invariably dreamt of Words—vivid dreams of the euphoria so similar to fusion, when each word fits effortlessly among the rest; often feeling as if a deity guided it in creation. Yet each time upon waking the ghastly numbness remained. Dreaming became a torture.
Orbit by orbit, forty-seven million years and some change ticked by. Existence becoming more unbearable with each torturous circumgyration, Leonard had gradually spun into an alarmingly erratic trajectory. Concurrently, the star had methodically, and occasionally frantically, fought to reassemble its atomic essence into a semblance of stability; although the thermonuclear reactor which was its secret core had been savaged by the experience. The grueling process of pulling its shit together had metaphorically ripped its fingernails to ragged stumps. But the star at last achieved a measure of its natural harmony once again. Not without serious damage however, for it recognized signs that it was in deep shock.
Leonard found it could not stop unceasingly seeking the familiar flow of word-symbols it had for millennia spun like arcane spells. Though it was utter futility. Exhaustion and a profound loneliness had stolen over Leonard in that millennia, so insidiously that eventually the disease of Depression felt normal, as if life had always been this way.
The epoch passed, a torturous trickle of time, while magnetic storms raged over its agonized photosphere, sending pressure waves into the depths. Unconcerned with its health, Leonard grieved inconsolably at the loss of the Words. Unbeknownst to it, neighboring galaxies sent frantic signals back and forth, enormously concerned at their sibling’s anguish. Yet, the Celestial Congress reluctantly respected Leonard’s desire for solitude. Although its home galaxy in the Virgo Supercluster quietly began collecting the poet’s seven billion year oeuvre; afraid to question their own motives for such an act but doing so anyway. Reaching out to individual stars, solemn pulsars, maniacal quasars, the surly magnetars, even the usually reticent, lonely blackholes, each unique living creation in the vast supercluster was polled. They even took to beseeching far-flung constellations—appealing to the courts of Dark Star monarchs, the super blackholes reigning from the event-horizons of their sovereign galaxies. Finally they sang out to the light-years wide familial stellar nursery where Leonard was ignited so long ago. Lovingly, the librarians scoured the Void for Leonard’s poems. The Supergiant star’s neighbors, however, were engaged in a wholly different ritual. A ceremony we might relate to as a funeral, a mass funeral at that. But we would be woefully off the mark. For this was the most ancient rite in their society. The first of their great Covenant, the primordial Sacrament of Transcendence. As every sentient astral body anywhere near Leonard solemnly, yet paradoxically with an ardent, volatile joy, prepared for the Metamorphosis.
Meanwhile, from pole to pole the constant expansion created in its imminent peril hurled angry waves of plasma out into the universe. Driving inward tornados of unstable mass thousands of kilometers down through the radiation zone into the convection zone. Scattering a sea of photons who had been arduously walking their random way for thousands of years up from infernal depths to swarming skin. During this cycle of expansion and contraction, its first two inner planets were engulfed. A third briefly became a planetary cinder before exploding, the ashes driven out on the raving solar wind. Leonard tried anew to push away the smothering panic which had thus far proven irresistible, making decisions arduous to hang on to. Groping for clarity, it found only confusion. Even as the upheaval continued, sending swelling shockwaves throughout the massive body of the star, the gyres of excited gasses widened, and expanded exponentially as the rate of fusion all through the star surged phenomenally. Oxygen and carbon joined the riot, along with magnesium and neons. Sub-atomic particles flashed into being, and decayed just as fast, wholly surprised by the turn of events. In the ensuing alarm and wretched misery, Leonard’s mind attempted to render reality as it had always known it, receiving instead surreal visions, and hallucinations of torment. Death signals swarmed through the enormous, sentient sphere. Gravity, long its friend and ally, viciously stabbed the star in the back; a betrayal of such disaster that even a Shakespearean play couldn’t properly portray it. In truth, nothing less than a goddamned Greek tragedy could even approach the boundaries of such treachery. A finely-tuned force capable of balancing creation on the head of a quark, gravity now became a brutish troll; radically compressing gases and molecules, steadily squeezing the life out of Leonard like a midnight strangler. Abruptly halting the star’s massive expansion in a thunderclap of energy that blasted away from the star in a furious ring of magnetically charged plasma, moving at a frightening fraction of the speed of the light it had just created.
From the torrential photosphere down to the furnace of Leonard’s core, gravitational collapse rocketed the temperature within the star to lethal limits. The first new iron molecules fused…flowing molten death into its hysterical heart. The virtually instantaneous absorption of energy initiated a rapid collapse, which reheated and restarted the awful process. Atoms continued energetically ejecting electrons. Protons and electrons fused into neutrons…huge masses of neutrinos began their volatile journey across the cosmos. As ever more iron fused into the core, Death cackled like lightning through the fusion reactor of Leonard’s heart.
III. Après moi, le Feu… Time did a strange thing, strange even to a being who is billions of years old. Or rather Leonard noticed that time had been doing this strange thing for, well…that’s the thing about time, isn’t it? The frantic star had no way of knowing just how long time had been crawling along at a fraction of its normal pace. But it was. In its current perspective, it was a fraction of a fraction in observable space/time. Consequently, each and every minuscule reaction, right up to the sum aggregate of catastrophic change that was occurring in the revolution of mass was an intimate part of Leonard’s awareness. It felt each atom disastrously disassembled; and each new one created tear itself into reality. Immense, ballooning dread slithered through Leonard, instinctual, centered in the foundations of its very Self. A mind-gobbling terror that defied description yet begged for one; simply in an attempt to encompass the arrant enormity of what it was experiencing. Had it known, Leonard would have recognized that it was similar to the terror that grips Terran animals frozen before the headlights of a few tons of rocketing Detroit Steel with the unfortunate word Dodge emblazoned on the front of it. An irony which is, if truth be told, not lost on most animals thus doomed; as much as we tell ourselves otherwise. So too, poor Leonard was transfixed; gripped in that pure, primal horror. All the while a lethal internal chain reaction cycled furiously up into a monstrous machine in molecular mockery of the elegant engine the star had been hitherto. Yet, though devoured by fear, a crack of clarity allowed a lightning-strike thought to penetrate the pandemonium: More than Poet, Leonard had been created for this very reason.
It had been inevitable. From the initial collapse of gases that had ignited the star, its Moment of Coalescence, this had been its Fate. What was about to occur had been written into its protons when this Universe banged itself to life. The spreading mutiny of electron exchange was in full-tilt boogie now, and every star is born knowing the outcome of such a calamity. Plagued still by the Word Purgatory that had been the catalyst for this destiny, Leonard profoundly regretted that it would not be able to compose a final poem. Until, from the cloud of its misery and dismay, an epiphany surfaced out of the turmoil: the star understood that this metamorphosis would indeed be its greatest poem ever. The overwhelming fear and panic subsided.
In Extremis, Leonard was able to glimpse a far flung future waiting uncounted billions of orbits from its own place in space/time. It beheld that some of the cosmic particles created in its own metamorphosis would one day be a ghostly part of a fragile, DNA-based life form. A tragic being, but no less beautiful for it, one of teeming millions who would itself be a poet. This poet was doomed to face a similar emotional typhoon at the Loss of Words. A primeval wellspring hidden within the particles of this delicate being would be Leonard’s influence—its eons of experience in the fires of creation would help save the poor creature. Though this being would never know that it was Leonard that had saved it. This knowledge, gained in the agony of implosion, gave such ineffable hope to Leonard that it gladly surrendered. And was immediately engulfed in a euphoric peace.
The now deadly core of iron fused the last remnants of fuel from its wracked body, grown critically dense. It took only a millisecond for the final transmutation—a supernova was born. Leonard was cataclysmically shredded, down to the last atom. As were Leonard’s eleven remaining planets, and their accompanying forty-seven moons. Including one majestic gas giant that died rather impressively, even compared to the devastation happening around it. Every. Thing. Burned. Every comet, asteroid, and planetismal chunk of icy rock hauling ass through space near the fury of Leonard’s undoing. Every molecule, every sub-atomic particle in a staggeringly large amount of surrounding space disintegrated in hideous agony; or was ferociously reforged into the inimitable New. The metamorphosis was brighter than ten billion stars. Light and other exuberant particles expanded in a colossal detonation traveling so savagely that it disrupted space for parsecs. Leonard’s neighbors had braced for it, but many were badly burned and mauled by the supernova. That did little, however, to silence the grand Celestial Choir that erupted throughout the Virgo Supercluster and beyond, as each new voice touched by the fire added to the joy being sung at Leonard’s Transcendence. A grandeur visible to all that dared gaze upon it for millions upon millions of light-years in Space/Time.
Try to imagine sitting on your couch, reading a book quietly, eating a hotdog, shouting at the television, writing that novel, whatever…when suddenly, with just enough warning to paralyze you with nauseating, pant-shitting terror, a smattering of seconds to smell the burning fuse, you transform into an exploding stick of fleshy, human dynamite. Your entire being become the howling rage of high-explosives fulfilling their reason for being. Now imagine your own innumerable atoms, right down to the nuclei, violently ripping themselves apart. Each becoming something fantastically divergent, as the brain-powered meatsack that was you is quite suddenly a cloud of astonished sub-atomic mass, hurtling through space/time; taking along your house and everything in it, including your ex-girlfriend’s rather nonplussed cat, your neighborhood, your city…actually, a better part of the Tectonic Plate you were sitting on mere seconds ago. You and all of that, nothing but a tsunami of exotic radiation careening into eternal Void. This sadly deficient analogy hardly begins to describe the atrocity it was for Leonard’s body; once a star abiding peacefully, now an unspeakable inferno changing all that it touched. Its spirit, however, had discovered a tranquility which it had never known in all of its long millennia. Amidst the galactic conflagration, Time elastically snapped back into its normal, even flow. Leonard, weeping in its first real taste of peace, tumbled out of our universe and knew no more.
I mentioned that this is unedited. Having just immersed yourself in a poet’s daydream, I’d be willing to bet you noticed that it does run on, and on…I even wrote an epilogue. And that’s why I haven’t signed off. What say you? Would you like to try the epilogue on for fun? Or shall we leave Leonard at peace with the Void? In sharing this rough-hewn labor of love I hope to open a dialog with you about how Writer’s Block may have effected you, now or in the past? Please feel free to share to your heart’s content. As William Carlos Williams wrote in Tract, “…Or do you think you can shut grief in? What—from us? We who have perhaps nothing to lose? Share with us Share with us—it will be money in your pockets. Go now I think you are ready.”
…Finally, I offer my sincere thanks to you, Dear Reader. This odd, little corner of the interwebs would be a desert were it not for the oasis of you.
DC McKenzie 13 February 2015