Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

#703




The Lenny



It was not a pretty sight
the way he fell to earth
his body racked with poetic spasm.

And I watched them jam
that thing into his mouth
but had to turn away as he screamed:

"Not my words! Please
don't take my words away."
But it was too late. It always is.


26 September 1989
 

There is a scene toward the end of the biopic Lenny where Dustin Hoffman yells out the following:

Lenny Bruce
 
Please! Don't take away my words! They're just words! I’m not hurting anybody!

That’s where the title of the poem comes from. The body owes a debt to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the scene where Jack Nicholson gets electroshock therapy. Somehow the two ended up blurred in my head.
 
People often ask what you’d rather lose, your sense of sight or your hearing. But what if you’re a writer and you’re forced to have to choose between your ability to write and your ability to see or hear? What would you pick? I remember during those three years in the nineties when I couldn’t write I felt like I wasn’t me; I’d lost my sense of poetry. What was the point of seeing and hearing if you can’t write about it?

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Song for Night

He who has a why? to live for can bear almost any how? – Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Maxims and Arrows,’ Twilight of the Idols


 
 

In an interview on NPR in 2007 Chris Abani said:

[M]y understanding of the world is that the most sublime things co-exist with the most devastating things in every context, in every culture, in every situation. And what transforms the world is not the denial of those things, but it's actually the recuperation of them, literally, through love. And not love in a sense of the Hallmark Card situation, but as a force that sort of ensures obligation. It's almost a primordial human nature, this compelling thing that makes us want to be better, that want to connect with other people, and that we can see how oftentimes that it's the transformation. It's the transfiguration of things that seem dead or ugly into things that can become beautiful and sublime that there is never despair. There's always only the subtle movements of hope through our lives.

This is what Abani hopes his readers will take away from his novella Song for Night which on one level tells the story of a fifteen-year-old soldier’s trek to rejoin his platoon; on another it’s a spiritual journey through Nigeria, a coming to terms with what he has become. The book opens as follows:

What you hear is not my voice.

I have not spoken in three years: not since I left boot camp. It has been three years of a senseless war, and though the reasons for it are clear, and though we will continue to fight until we are ordered to stop—and probably for a while after that—none of us can remember the hate that led us here. We are simply fighting to survive the war. It is a strange place to be at fifteen, bereft of hope and very nearly of your humanity. But that is where I am nonetheless. I joined up at twelve. We all wanted to join then: to fight. There was a clear enemy, and having lost loved ones to them, we all wanted revenge.

He’s not taken a vow of silence; he’s not been struck dumb by the things he’s witnessed; no, the reason he’s not spoken in three years is much simpler and far more shocking:

A week before graduation [our commander] took us all into the doctor’s office. One by one we were led into surgery. It was exciting to think that we were becoming bionic men and women. I thought it odd that there was no anaesthetic when I was laid out on a table, my arms and legs tied down with rough hemp. […] I stared at the peculiar cruel glint of the scalpel while the doctor, with a gentle and swift cut, severed my vocal chords. The next day, as one of us was blown up by a mine, we discovered why they had silenced us: so that we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams. Detecting a mine with your bare toes and defusing it with a jungle knife requires all your concentration, and screams are a risky distraction.

The boy, as you might have gathered, is a mine diffuser:

Our job is to clear roads and access routes of mines. Though it sounds simple, our job is complicated because the term access routes could be anything from a bush track to a swath cut through a rice paddy. Our equipment is basic: rifles to protect against enemy troops, wide-blade machetes for clearing brush and digging up the mines, and crucifixes, scapulars, and other religious paraphernalia to keep us safe.

Needless to say the “crucifixes, scapulars, and other religious paraphernalia” do a very poor job and when the boy’s story begins he’s coming to after another of his team’s been blown up. He finds himself unexpectedly alone:

[P]rotocol demands that we count the dead and tally the wounded after each explosion or sweep. Stupid fools. Wait until I catch up with them, I will chew them out; protocol is all that’s kept us alive.

Alone, probably in enemy territory, he has to orient himself, decide where his unit will have headed and do his best to catch them up. If only to chew them out. As he travels and tries to avoid capture, booby-traps and wild animals he starts to tell us his story, about his father, the Imam, how his mother kept him safe in the ceiling, how they both died, why he joined up, his first kill, his first rape. He’s an intelligent boy from the city “not like one of the village fools that hung around us and were baffled by the simplest things like how to open the occasional sardine tins we were lucky to get with the strange-shaped keys—especially as the tins didn’t have keyholes” but still is easily charmed at the start. Three years on the scales have fallen from his eyes but what else does he have?; his comrades are his family. A particular amusing incident he describes—the book is not without humour—is where the troops get shown “American Information Films that looked like they had been shot a hundred years ago.” One of these shows what to do in the event of a nuclear attack—hide under a desk. He has three problems with this:

    1. Where would we find desks in this war?
    2. Would the army provide them and would we have to carry them around ourselves?
    3. Why would anyone hide from a fireball under a wooden desk?

None of that matters now. Only one thing, to get back with his pack, with what’s left of his pack; there have been losses, most notably Ijeoma, the only girl and his rock.

The boy, named My Luck by the way, is an Igbo, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. Most are Christians and most of them Catholic so when My Luck’s father converts to Islam it doesn’t go down well. As the boy says, “I will never know why my father chose that path; one that put him outside his own community, his own people … and made him a thing that the people who would later become our enemies feared: a hybrid.” His mother does not convert. His grandfather tells him about the myths and legends of his people’s past. So he has well-rounded, if somewhat confusing and conflicted, ontological views.

A constant throughout the book is the river. Obviously when navigating you stick close to landmarks you can identify and the simple fact is communities are drawn to rivers for all sorts of practical reasons; if he needs resources or information he needs to find people or at least where people have been. The river in question is called the Cross. It’s the main river in southeastern Nigeria and gives its name to Cross River State. The origins of the name, however, are murky:

There are many tales about how the Cross got its name. There are always many tales here, Grandfather said. Don’t trust any of them, he always cautioned. Trust all of them, he warned.

This is typical of his grandfather who’s always saying things like “Why put the ocean into a coconut?” in place of more straightforward and helpful answers. On his travels My Luck encounters an old man called Peter who’s been living off bananas for years since he’s too old to hunt:

“Why is this river called the Cross?” I ask [using sign language], since I can’t put my finger on what is bothering me.

“Because we all have to cross it someday,” he replies.

I shake my head. Why can’t old people ever answer a question without using a riddle?

The simple fact is he can’t escape the river and it begins to take on a greater significance than simply a geographical marker. Could there be more going on here? He’s pretty sure he’s concussed from the bomb blast and that certainly would account for some of his confusion but not everything. He thinks he sees ghosts. Others act as if he’s a ghost or a demon; Peter even makes a sign on the ground and has My Luck step over it before he’ll engage with him. The colonists might have changed many things when they arrived but old fears die hard.

In the 1980 film Breaker Morant Major Thomas, a defence lawyer assigned to defend three soldiers accused of war crimes, tells the court as part of his closing monologue:

The fact of the matter is that war changes men's natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations. Situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed and have been replaced by a constant round of fear and anger, blood and death.

This is so true of My Luck. There are several scenes in the book one could describe as tragic and how do you pick the most tragic? The first time he rapes a woman is a hard one. His commander orders him do it. He’s the only boy in the troop who hasn’t at this point:

“Rape or die,” he said, and I knew he meant it. As I dropped my pants and climbed onto the woman, I wondered how it was that I had an erection. Some part of me was enjoying it and that perhaps hurt me the most. I entered the woman and strangely she smiled. I moved, and as much as I wanted to pretend, I couldn’t lie, I enjoyed it. The woman’s eyes were tender, as if all she saw was a boy lost. She stroked my hair tenderly, whispering as I sobbed: “It’s all right son, it’s all right. Better the ones like you live.”

Worse happens—some he’s involved in, other stuff he just witnesses—but no one could be expected to go through it and not be changed. You hear stories about me who’ve been to war who won’t talk about their experiences even many years later. It’s not hard to understand why.

Any other book that dealt with the life experiences of a twelve-to-fifteen-year-old-boy would probably be called a bildungsroman. Reading this book, however, forces us to completely reassess an expression like “coming of age”. What we have to keep in mind too is, in Igbo culture, boys come of age between nine and twelve so My Luck would have already been viewed as a man when he joined the army even if he hadn’t gone through any formal ceremony. In many respects Song for Night might arguably be described as an “anti-” or failed coming-of-age story; given the job he’s been assigned death was only ever a matter of time and, as we’ve read, at least one of his comrades never even survived basic training.

Oddly this isn’t an especially political book. The rightness or wrongness of the war or even war in general is not debated. Abani is more interested in psychological truths, for example, as My Luck’s story reaches its end he finds himself asking: “If we are the great innocents in this war, then where did we learn all the evil we practise? ... Who taught me to enjoy killing, a singular joy that is perhaps rivalled only by an orgasm?” It’s the same sort of question he’s forced to face during that first rape.

In an interview on Truthdig, Albani says, “Much of Africa is presented through poverty, through drought and war. [But] you’re not presenting people, you’re not presenting countries, you’re not presenting complexity, and so people can’t care about an amorphous mass called Africa.” What we care about are individuals. Look at someone like Malala Yousafzai.

The only problem I really had with the book was the language. We know My Luck’s an intelligent boy who went to school up until he was twelve. Well I was an intelligent twelve-year-old and there’s no way I would’ve used some of the words he uses in day-to-day conversation. It’s a minor gripe overall but it bothered me enough to mention it.

This is a difficult book but it’s not unnecessarily graphic. The boy describes what he sees and is honest about what he’s done. The war’s changed him but has it ruined him? I don’t want to give away the ending but a word that crops up in other reviews is “sentimental” and, perhaps, it is. If you can look beyond that it raises the question of just what it might take to transmute empathy into true understanding.
 

Further Reading

Homogenization is a Mother Goddess Swallowing Up Difference
Ethics and Narrative: the Human and Other
Apparitions of Planetary Consciousness in Contemporary Coming-of-Age Narratives: Reimagining Knowledge, Responsibility and Belonging
The storyteller function in contemporary Nigerian narrative
The Child Soldier’s Soliloquy. Voices of a New Archetype in African Writing
The Amalek Factor: Child Soldiers and the Impossibility of Representation

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

#702



Belvedere



(for B.)

The evening came sprinkled
with particles of poetry:

feelings gripped so tightly
they seemed they could fit
within a glimmer in an eye
or into the trace of a smile.

But when preserved in words
such moments can last forever.
And they often form the most
beautiful blue crystals.


20 September 1989
 
 
A belvedere or belvidere (from Italian for "fair view") is an architectural structure sited to take advantage of a fine or scenic view. While a belvedere may be built in the upper part of a building the actual structure can be of any form, whether a turret, a cupola, or an open gallery. Or it may be a separate pavilion in a garden, or the term may be used for a paved terrace with a good viewpoint, but no actual building. — Wikipedia
This is a wholly inadequate poem. I love it. I love it dearly. But it fails to capture what I was aiming to: the effect B. had on me. Words really are useless. I’ve hear talk of writers inhabiting ivory castles or even garrets although I mostly think of artists when I hear that word and Stravinsky. (If you’ve ever seen the room where he wrote The Rite of Spring you’ll know what I mean.) Me, I climb up into a belvedere the better to see what’s going on around me. It’s not quite an out of body experience or anything like that but I am aware of a division between the me who’s experiencing whatever it is and the writer who’s watching all and making notes. I’ve no idea what was so special about this particular night. It was probably a night like any other. B. was a regular visitor to our home. We were probably just watching a film. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure came out in February and I’d been making all my friends watch it. Maybe she was part of a group. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
 
Why blue crystals though? That is lost to me.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

#701



Point of View



I sent away for an opinion
        of myself.
It was a five-page form but I'd
        heard it was worth it.

The one that came back
        was rather short
so I put it on a pedestal
        to make it look taller.

Then the cat knocked it off
        and, from that height,
it had little choice
        but to shatter.

Good thing I'd taken a photo
        for posterity.


5 September 1989
 
 
I’ve returned to this notion several times over the years, the abstract turned concrete. Imagine your wife asks you, “How much do you love me?” and you go, “Hang on a sec,” dive behind the back of the sofa and hand her this huge lump of stuff: “THERE!” Makes more sense than throwing your arms wide and going, “This much,” or saying, “To the moon and back.” I used answer questions like that with a number plucked out of thin air, “3.7,” or “4.25 and climbing,” or “eleventy-nine.” I mean it’s a stupid question. How much do I love you? Loads. What do you want me to say? “More than you love me.”
 
I do love in the poem how the narrator has to go elsewhere for his own opinion of himself. It’s just silly. But then the whole thing’s silly. And yet… What is my opinion of myself? In 1989 I’ll tell you one thing, it wasn’t very high. But it was fragile. I got that right.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

#700



The Bedroom in Autumn



It felt older.
But so did we.
And the rhythm of life was slower.

Even the bells hung
in the cooler air
to open the way for echoes past.

Now the fading shadows
reach out of the tired bed
as if, just to touch us one last time.


4 September 1989
 
 
This is the second in a sequence of poems. The first was originally entitled ‘The Bedroom’ (#591) and when I’d finished it as far as I was concerned it was done. Three and a half years later this one popped out of nowhere. It would be 1996 before the other two arrived within two months of each other.
 
For a guy who doesn’t have much time for ghosts or other spooky things I’ve actually written a fair bit about what happens after death. The dead are a great literary device; that’s my only reason. In this poem the “fading shadows” are echoes or whatever you want to call them of the lovers from ‘The Bedroom’. In fact this whole series of poems ends up being about what I guess you’d call a psychic imprint, i.e. an echo of an emotion, an emotional memory of an event that occurred by those who experienced it. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anything like it myself but when has lack of knowledge or personal experience ever stopped a writer?
 
If you want to read the complete sequence it was published here in 2012.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

#699


Reflections



No
we are not ready

to
go skinny dipping

in
one another's souls.


29 August 1989
 
 
I’ve never really got haiku. I like the idea of it but at this point I’d never written one nor even attempted to write one. That wasn’t how the words came to me. And then this thing appeared out of nowhere, a quiet and contemplative—dare I say reflective?—poem. It’s a poem that always pleases me when I come across it. It’s the kind of poem that feels like a slow exhalation after a deep breath. It’s also the first poem where I think I managed to balance content and form: three stanzas, each six syllables in length and—to my mind at least—evocative of ripples.
 
What I always note, every time I read the poem, is the opening, “No.” This is a response. To what we never know, other than a request (an imaginary request I have no doubt) to get to know me better. I was all about appearances in 1989. The last thing I’d want anyone to do was get to know my soul, my dark and selfish soul.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

#698



The Lights of Zebulun



"On you go. Go on!
Show us something poetic.
Do one of them poem-things.
What do they call it? A sonnet.
Yeah, do us a sonnet."

So I opened the eyes
of the blind men there
and unstopped their ears.

But they didn't want
what I had to offer:
"Too bright! Too bright!"
they cried, "We can't see!"

So I brought down the curtain
and left them in the dark.


29 August 1989


Zebulun was the sixth and last son of Jacob and Leah and the founder of the Israelite Tribe of Zebulun. The name in the poem, however, refers to the land of Zebulun, part of Israel's northern coastal plain. This is where, according to Matthew 4:13-16, Jesus moved first when he began his ministry to, according to Matthew at least, fulfil a prophecy spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." I had two other scriptures in mind when I wrote this poem: Matthew 12:38: "Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, 'Teacher, we want to see a sign from you'" and Matthew 13:57: "But Jesus said to them, 'A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and in his own home.'"
 
I'm no prophet but I am oddly enough a truth-teller although, as we've seen evidenced this year, truth has never been less popular. "Tell us what we want to hear," the people cry and so the candidates do. Although being deemed worthy of the accolade 'Word of the Year 2016' I have to say the term post-truth was a new one on me but there’s another relatively new word that didn’t get as much attention: truthiness, defined by Oxford Dictionaries as "the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true." We do indeed live in strange and troubling times.
 
I don't know about you but many times over the years when people've learned I'm a poet I've been asked to recite one off the cuff. And they're always disappointed because they were expecting something light, something that rhymed, more Pam Ayres than... well, most people would struggle to come up with another poet; Robert Burns would probably still get a mention here in Scotland. Entertainment has its place—I'm not against entertainment—but I say again, it has its place. It's worrying when the charismatic charm the public and end up in positions of power.
 
"Whoever has ears, let them hear." (Matthew 11:15) You will know the truthiness and it will set you free.
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