Saturday, March 5, 2011

Early Scenes from "Immortal For Quite Some Time"

March 1950, Farmington, New Mexico
In what eventually will become our hometown, for three days running, good citizens report seeing flying saucers. Between eleven and noon each day, hundreds of the alien craft thrill builders and teachers, cooks and civil servants, farmers and trading-post operators.
I was born seven months before the aliens were reported in Farmington. John was born fourteen months after their coming.
I have never seen a flying saucer. Nor, to my knowledge, did John.

September 1954, Paonia, Colorado
            The little engine keeps leaving the tracks to frolic in meadows. Flowers snagged in his wheels betray him. Pedagogical engineers hide in a meadow and jump up with red flags when he turns their way. He gives up frolicking, stays on the tracks, and grows into a good puller-of-trains.
            I put down my Golden Book to watch flatcars stacked with fruit boxes rattle past our log house. My mother leads me across the street to a warehouse. She knocks at a side door. It slides open. She passes her warm bread and a pot of steaming pinto beans through the opening to a dark-eyed woman holding a brown-skinned baby at her breast.

1956, Montpelier, Idaho
            My friend Bernie shows me the litter of birth-wet puppies under his front porch. Their father, he says . . . my dad said their father was a dead daddy horse.

1957, Montpelier, Lincoln Elementary School
            Pots, rings, or chase. We lay out our games of marbles on the playground. I drop my winnings into a blue-and-white-striped bag Mom made from a leg of a pair of overalls. It grows fat and heavy. I knot the drawstring carefully.
            When I’m not playing marbles, I watch a girl with patent-leather shoes swing so high the chains go slack. Her shoes flash in the sun. Her black hair flies in the wind. She knows I watch her.

1958, Montpelier
            Mrs. Sharp has enrolled us in a reading contest. We write titles and authors’ names on lined paper. I speed through dozens of little paperbacks. My list grows and grows. Mrs. Sharp awards me a round steel medal engraved with my name and the number of books I have read: 129.
1960, Farmington, New Mexico
            If it weren’t for our fierce soccer games on Ladera del Norte’s dirt field, I would gladly skip lunch to sit in class where our teacher reads another chapter of Little Britches. He’s tough. Determined. Good with horses. Ingenious. Saves his wages.

1964, Aztec, New Mexico
            Regional competition between junior-high bands. I carry my clarinet, she hers. We suck our reeds to keep them moist. We hold hands, speak in low tones, wish there were no end to the day.

1966, Farmington, New Mexico
            Late-afternoon light diffuse in the old Mormon chapel. The sacrament meeting is already an hour gone. The man standing at the pulpit intones the word of God. Sixteen-year-old boys and girls sit thigh to thigh in the back row, pass notes, play games on paper, brush hands.

July 1967, Farmington
            DR. GENE SMITH, ORTHOPEDIC SURGEON. I have swept his parking lot, watered his shrubs, cleaned his office, transcribed his tapes, and once almost fainted while I held a basin of warm water into which he squirted fatty yellow fluid drawn from deep inside a man’s knee through an enormous needle.
            Today, I’m working in the red glow of the darkroom, developing a set of x-rays. I pull the film from the chemical bath and hang the sheets to drip dry. I turn on the fluorescent screen behind them.
Gistening reproductions of Claudia Colter’s spine.
The bones curve ever so slightly from the delicate vertebrae of her neck down to the right and then back to the left before disappearing between the bright wings of her hips.
The bright wings of her hips.
            Again I trace the scoliostic curve, ghostly against the black film, deviating so beautifully from the strictly vertical. I study the dim arcs of ribs that frame her spine, the cunningly articulated vertebrae snaking down between the ribs. I picture Claudia in the next room, naked under the examination gown.
The thoughts arouse me, confuse me. I’m feeling what I’ve learned, in church, to distinguish as the fire of the Holy Ghost. I worship these pale images.
The door opens. It’s Dr. Smith: So what have we got? 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Immortal For Quite Some Time and A Reasonable Dictionary: Avoidance as Anti-Teleology?

A thoughtful email today from college roommate and friend Chuck Hamaker that points out a pattern in a couple of things I've written:


I just read your piece on your brother John from "Immortal For Quite Some Time," the one posted in BEPRESS as "Our Feet Are the Same"[]. I was struck by how similar what you wrote then was to what you wrote when you reported on your and Zarko's trip with Peter Handke [] -- the full account is here under the title "A Reasonable Dictionary": [].

In both instances, though it seemed you started with a goal of uncovering something about your subject, you consistently chose not to pursue the person of interest, through declining to meet or even to talk with anyone who actually knew them. You were an accidental tourist in an intentional location.

The places you go give a structure but the content is hardly circumstantial and hardly even tangential to the ostensible subject. I don't know if that's truly what happened or what you invented, it doesn't matter.

I am struck by the similarity of the modus operandi and the extreme "staying away" from the supposed subjects of your attention.

You mention in the Handke piece that you're worried about being a sycophant. I think it's something else, but not that.

In the piece supposedly on John, but not about him in reality, you encounter and interact with people, seem to stumble through, stay out of the way or don't really look, i.e. do not intentionally interact with anyone who really might have had some history of him. Ditto for Handke.

Anyway, for what its worth.


It's worth a lot Chuck, especially now that you connect the two and give me a chance to think about the similarities and the reasons. Let me add a couple of lines from the opening section of Immortal For Quite Some Time that was published last week in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought:

I look back at “Autopsy,” at my first attempt to tell this story. When I described the visit to the T&A Café I said that “we” went in, that “we” spoke with the owner. But the truth is: I remained in the car while Christy and Mom went inside. I didn’t want to talk with anyone about John. I didn’t want to talk period. Still, I wrote “we” and reported what my mother and sister told me. Caveat lector.

And here are some of the lines I think you were referring to:

11 p.m. Sitting in my motel room, I decide not to call, not to try to talk with Van. It’s a feeling that grew in me while I ate dinner. It became a conscious thought just minutes ago.
Van’s accounts would divert me from the faint traces I’m following. Life moves on. The immutably described, the absolutely defined is fixed like the butterflies I pinned to felt in a cigar box, wrong even when it’s right.

As you suggest, my reason for writing has mostly to do with a wish to understand myself in order to figure out how to live a decent and productive life. While I would like to know my brother in ways his early death made impossible, and while traveling with Peter Handke was memorable in part because of who he is, I have been using those trips, those investigations as a kind of scaffolding for my own discoveries. I'm the kind of detective who will never solve the crime because the facts of the crime remind him of other things.

Which gets me to the anti-teleology of the title of this post. In my experience, it is the people who claim to know the most who know the least. And claiming to know the most often has to do with claiming to know the pattern of history, to know how things will end. As I see it, our understanding is so full of holes that our only hope for understanding is to have a sense for how little we understand. Thus my distaste for straightforward biography.

No new thought that. It's been around since the pre-Socratics in many forms, some of my favorites in the German Romantics' penchant for fragments in lieu of systematic thought, and more recently in the work of Brian Evenson (Evenson’s recent story “Knowledge,” by the way, is a description of “precisely why I have still not written my detective novel”: “attempts to substitute another way of thinking about knowledge always end up derailing the genre").  But it guides me in a lot of ways, at least one of which you've discovered here.

The sketch is one I made of the statue "Victoire de Samothrace" in the Louvre. Looking at the support structures that keep it standing despite its frailty, I was struck by how this perfect and powerful statue is subject to entropy like everything we create. Our thoughts and our works are contingent and ephemeral. And that's to be celebrated, not papered over with lies.

thanks, my friend.