So, I finally finished that blasted Forward. This was the thing, along with my extensive bibliography, that I was told to “play up” as a way of showing that we fiction writing program people are working hard to (apparently, someone is coming down on the creative writers…but the warning I got was cryptic).
The Forward is an answer to that.
It’s longer than I thought it would be. Maybe I’ll split it in half and have an Afterward. I think it’s fairly interesting though. It certainly isn’t formal.
So if you want to know what I’ve been writing in this epic poem, but don’t want to spoil it with little chapters before the main course, than this should be perfect for you. It has no spoilers and talks about things other than the plot – like why writing is a sort of magic (not just a cute metaphor for it), why I can “get away with it”, and what a crow’s voice sounds like . . .
“The next century’s task will be to rediscover its gods.”
“We have the right, and the obligation, to tell old stories in our own ways, because they are our stories.”
“Stories and images are fantasies. They are not real. They are more than real. For the true wordless reality of all that is possible in our lives, we must seek the white bird. But to do the impossible – to free souls imprisoned in hell – to make music from notes of the dead bell – to meet again the dead we have lost – to meet the dead – we need the Crow.”
-A.A. Attanasio, “The Crow Theory”
Remember, this is not a proper epic.
Crow, ruffling his black feathers from his perch on my shoulder, reminded me of this every step of the way. He whispered it to me, in a voice like two skeletons grinding together. It was my own fault. I summoned him. By my so potent art, I called him to my writing desk with archaic and archetypal rituals in the plasma cauldron of my computer screen. How is a raven like a writing desk? They both mercilessly taunt you during bouts of writer’s block.
“Do you really think you can get away with it?”
In writing this book, I was asked this question, in almost as many words, by three different people for three different reasons. Three is a magic number. One of those repeating patterns dancing through the spiral, encoded in the double helix DNA of the universe, the twin, cosmic serpents slithering up the sky ladder that twists on and on to beyond. The number three repeats through communal memory, loops back in on itself: the Holy Trinity, the three Fates, the three sons of Adam and Eve –Cain who baptized our race in the blood of Able – one to be cursed and exiled from the land of Nod, one to be a prehistoric martyr, both leaving their brother, Seth, alone to carry on the human race in the space between.
The hero of my story, Syth, is also a creature caught in the wasteland between extremes. The similarity between Syth and Seth’s names is coincidental, but when working with myth and communal memory, you find that patterns connect so completely on the spider’s web, that even if you don’t believe in the Fates – three weird ladies weaving their tapestry on the Forever Loom – you believe they might as well exist.
“Do you really think you can get away with it?”
Three ladies asked me this question. Never with malice or a sneer – these were not three bat-winged, snake-haired Furies – but, rather, three kindly threshold guardians, three friendly warnings.
The first, voiced her question over the digital-silk strands of the internet. Could I, as a male, get away with portraying a sexually abused, little girl – could my empathy capture trauma that was not mine? Her question was a straight-up query.
The second, I spoke with in a tiny coffee shop, too-too early in the day for my light-hungry eyes. Could I get away with writing a modern epic for a modern audience? Her question was congratulatory and almost a statement.
The third, spoke to me over the phone. Could I, as a white suburbanite, get away with writing about the voodoo and Caribbean culture – lost childlings of the Ivory Coast? She already had an answer in her head and her question was a challenge (to which this Forward is an answer).
And so I was questioned, congratulated, and challenged by my three flesh-and-blood Fates. My broad answer is: Yes, writers can get away with it. We get away with so much. We have a stage of unknown dimensions. We have trapdoors and smoke and mirrors. And we have words – oh – we have black top-hats with black hole hollows full of crawling words! I can scoop them out, like handfuls of ash, blow them in the air and stain white paper – paint it black with verse.
We have tricks. Even now, writing this, I’m using tricks – bits of textual chicanery and sleight-of-thought. We can copy quotes, the words of the living and the dead, paste them at the headings of our chapters and forwards to show off how erudite we are – how well read. We need not even read the sources of the quotations in their entirety; simply posting them indicates that we have.
Writers: conmen aren’t we all.
We have tricks. We know the equation: A plus B equals C. If we present A and then C, the audience will generate B. This is the basic concept to a con game or stage illusion or stage combat. If I show my fist, held high, over my opponent’s head, and then show it low, with my opponent falling to the floor, my audience will dutifully and subconsciously fill in B – the terrible, meaty connection of knuckle to cheek. I will stand at such an angle that the audience will never even realize my fist never came near my partner’s face – we stood three feet apart.
I pulled the equation, out of my black hat, to get away with bits of my epic. How do I capture, in writing, the War in Heaven? What does an angel yell when it pulls the heart out of its sibling? What do their eyes look like, these creatures more primal and vicious than a shark, more innocent than a fetal child? How does celestial blood flow? What does the death rattle of innocence sound like? Did the stars shiver?
I can’t do that justice. Not directly. But maybe I’ve already started. Those questions, above, contain a lot of A’s and C’s and by reading them, you are already imagining some bloody B’s. Your inner dreamscape is already painting scenes more awesome and horrific than ever I could pen.
The equation is my ritual. It’s simple. A, for Angel, is already done for me. I needn’t write a word. Everyone has an angelic image in their head: fat little Buda-baby cherubs or tall, graceful seraphs – glowing wings encircling, protecting – celestial voices singing the songs of serenity. Then I set off my trap door and show my C (for Collateral damage – for post-Catastrophe). I show my fallen angel hero, the sorrow-seraph, Syth – the stain left by B (the Biblical Battle). I show his ash-black skin, his shattered wings and twisted pinions. I sound his cracked-crystal voice. I show that the War in Heaven just broke his little harp – when he wants to play, he has to pull out his spine, string it with his nerve endings, and strum the dread-harp – the bent, metallic wailing of his chthonic pain. When the reader compares their A to my C, they understand the depth and horror of the unspoken space between.
The space between Cain’s teeth and Abel’s neck is the place where Syth dances, on the head of a pin, and he dances alone.
Then, I take the equation further, write the proof, show my figures add up. I break away, momentarily from the main plot – present a living, human war veteran. I have a better chance of capturing him. I haunt this poor vet with the renegade dreams and bad memories of my fallen angel – post traumatic stress from before Genesis. Indirectly, I showcase the War in Heaven. I illustrate this soldier’s bad memories and hint at how much worse the angel’s are. The mundane gives scope to the fantastic.
The equation of A, B, C furthers the pattern of three.
Click-clack-crack, went the pattern of three. So I looked at Heaven and Hell and a space in-between. I found Sheol, an ancient graveyard-limbo from old Hebrew lore. Neither punishment nor reward, it’s the gray land of doleful shades – the second cousin of Hades. Dante and Milton mapped out Heaven and Hell pretty thoroughly. But Sheol remained untrod, malleable. So I visited and revisited this underworld older than Heaven and Hell. It gave me latitude to write what I wanted and its longitude lay somewhere past Pluto, in an icy vacuum bereft of the pale-dead horses I did not want to beat.
Click-clack-crack, went the pattern of three. Three villains stalked my story’s periphery. I always thought the Three Beasts of Dante’s Dark Woods were frightening. I could still hear them yowl and growl and howl that they were wicked enough to merit more than a cameo appearance. So I updated them, promoted them to lead villain. Suddenly Sheol had a tremulous geography: a dark city, bordered by Dante’s Dark Woods and Poe’s Lurid Sea and around all that, a tenebrous mist – the whole mass had no real location, floating in the shadow between molecules in the Dark that existed before Genesis. Before the Devil there was the Dark.
Click-clack-crack, went the pattern of three. Three characters, three voices emerged to tell the story. Syth, my fallen angel, fractured hero, was there first, before the beginning, before I ever dreamed of writing an epic poem, conceived on a day-dreaming spring day in a high school literature class as we read a chapter of The Inferno. Just outside Hell’s gate marched human wraiths neither good nor evil and amongst these maggot-chewed souls unsure, were the sad angels who chose neither side in the War in Heaven – neither angel nor demon, floating in a soup of specters and shades – neither Heaven nor Hell. What a fascinating character, I thought, and I spent the rest of class lamenting how this ancient dead guy, Dante, did not see it, did not expand on the concept, only mentioned them for a few sentences.. Over the years, still nameless, Syth gestated in the shadow of my imagination, floating in dreams and REM-bryonic fluids.
The second voice emerged when I started playing with an epic plot – in much the same way a child tests a loose tooth with the tongue. Syth was a shattered, brooding figure, one who didn’t take sides in the first conflict. He was not a conventional hero, not even an antihero. He needed prodding. Someone had to contact him, and by her most potent art summon him to task. An eccentric, old voodoo priestess came to mind. And voodoo, or vodou, was already a perfect spirituality for my story, mixing, as it does, both Catholic symbols and allusions with ideas from more animistic and shamanic beliefs – allowing me to populate my world with angels, saints, nature spirits, and dead gods. A religion where Death is a lecherous and lovable old man who drinks too much, smokes obnoxious cigars, and tells dirty jokes under the shadow of his top hat – the laughing Death of a culture of hardship and infant mortality, a culture that had to learn humor in dying. Look at the grinning skeletons in Latin American and Caribbean artwork – wicked grins that are a refreshing alternative to the too-too serious, overindulgent, mascara-stained, Byronic frowns of today’s macabre youth. I found that the main difference between that grinning-skull culture and my puritanical birthright was that the later feared and avoided death and sex while the former found healthy humor in it. And so, Mama Nancy, street priestess, emerged with her purple shades and spider hands to call Syth’s name into the dying light, to ask the angel of ash to dive back into Sheol and save a little girl’s lost soul.
The third voice flew out of space the second Mama Nancy began her chant. The great epics of the past began with the invoking of the muse, a call for inspiration. But, what if the muse wasn’t just an abstract that the narrator addressed in the first stanza? What if the muse talked back – wasn’t reliable – was mischievous, devious? What if this muse spoke in half-truths and had to be placated, appeased, and conned into giving up the story? And so manifested Crow –the dark muse – the shadow muse, not a spirit or a god or a ghost, but something more eternal: a symbol. Crow will tell you, on the sly, that he is the trickster god of Native American lore . . . or he is the dark omen carrier and death harbinger of Europe . . . or he is the twin ghost-ravens sitting on Odin’s shoulders as he dangles on a noose from the storm tree . . . or he is the black bird sitting on the pallid bust of Pallas, with eyes of a demon’s dreaming, quoting, “Nevermore” . . . or he is the bird you saw eating road kill the other day. Crow is all of those things and none. He is the substantial shadow cast by them or they by him. He’ll tell one way or the other, but he’s a notorious liar. Crow is also greedy and ravenous. He gobbles entrails and eyes. He eats memories and mind. He drinks dreams and belches dark poetry into the ears of the sardonic. His memory stretches back all the way to the long ago, to that time when his feathers were white. Mythologies from every continent remember that Crow was once white. However, none of the mythologies agree on the event that stained his plumes black. Only Crow knows for certain. Through much prodding, I was able to get my muse to tell me the story. But then again . . . he may have lied.
And what a strange internal conflict that is. The idea of the unreliable narrator is nothing new in literature, but even though the reader may be uncertain what the truth is, it’s assumed the sneaky author does. I, however, chose to conjure an unreliable muse and so even I might not have the story straight.
And so, I had my trinity, three voices, each with their own section of the page – though some of them talk more than others, for while Mama Nancy says what needs to be said, Syth tends to brood quietly, and Crow loves the sound of his own harsh voice. As things progressed, I discovered that these characters were also three masks, three means of dealing with trauma and pain (at least three I can recall using): the bleak brooder, the clever mender, the dark joker. And I shuffled and reshuffled them – the Angel of Ash, the Street Priestess, the Dark Muse – three archetype tarot cards of the soul.
I think the first step I took in “getting away with it” was conjuring Crow because he is many things and always a trickster, and tricksters are the ones to call when you want to get away with something. Tricksters are the shape-shifting archetype, the grinning animus, the laughing spirits, who challenge and steal from the gods. They have the power of wily audacity. Crow was one of the first, flapping through every mythology back to the beginning, back to paintings on cave walls, before cave walls, born in the long ago, birthed in a black hole, from an abyssal egg, from the ravenous hunger that swallows light. Crow, the thief, learned to eat rotting flesh, to steal life from death, to pluck memories from eyes and now there are ghosts trapped in his plumage and every stray feather that falls away contains a moaning story, there for any writer willing to pluck the quill.
Crow had what I needed: a cunning sharper than the life-harvest scythe and an ancient audacity. He pickpocketed fire from the immortals (never mind what you heard about that hack, Prometheus). Crow dared to steal the sun from the sky. And just as Mama Nancy, in my story, summons Crow with voodoo, I summoned him with word-weaving.
And make no mistake, words are spells. Storytelling is a magic of a sort. When cave paintings transmogrified to symbols and sounds we invented a whole astral plane of abstracts. We created time, became aware of a before and an after. We invented dreams and the ability to conjure things that did not exist. We are only able to fly because some storyteller dreamed of the idea, tens of thousands of years before it became a reality – the science that took place between is merely an incidental formality, a ritual, lip-service to physics. Someone had to dream the story of flight first, whispered into his or her ear, by something perched on the shoulder, ruffling its black feathers.
Words are magic. Castings of propaganda formed dictatorships and counter-spells of revolutionary words helped bring them down. Souls have been immortalized with the necromancy of requiems. And what witch’s curse of spoiled milk or deformed cattle could come close to the fearful hex of a satire, that can, if properly cast, destroy a person, not only in their time, but their memory for generations.
And it can be a costly magic. How many writers have fallen to vice and insanity? I can think of one melancholic poet who listened to Crow’s raven-whispers and wrote with Crow’s moaning quills – and he suffered carrion-bird shadows over his heart and we still don’t know quite how he died. In fact, there is little difference between the writer and the madman. Both hear voices. Both cast counter charms and illusions as defense against reality. Einstein knew that reality was also an illusion, albeit, the most persistent one. The sole differential between the storyteller and the lunatic is that the former is just clever enough to make a vocation of it, to appease the normals. This definition of sanity seems to have only one prerequisite: a paycheck. And what a thin line that is.
Tricksters are the most dangerous archetype. Their moral compass is complex and inconstant. They have the power to cross lines, transcend taboos, test cultural morality. They find weakness, point it out, make us laugh at it, endow us with the Fool’s wisdom. Politicians and preachers hate the Trickster because he keeps them honest, he tests systems, finds the cracks in their words, and when he feels particularly wicked, gifts them with invisible robes, tricking them into dancing naked in the streets. Politicians and preachers have strained to remove the Trickster from the modern moral and spiritual paradigm. But the Trickster is a shape shifter. He can hide. He can wait.
But these are not the traits that make the Trickster the most dangerous archetype. His true power is unique to him; no other character can pull it off. The Trickster has the meta-fictional ability to look up, past the phantasmal sky of his fiction, and see the printed page, past the printed page, straight into the eyes of the reader and the writer. He can test his own story. The Trickster is the only character that can not only attack other characters, but threaten to tear apart his own mythology. And Crow tore at my mythology, pecked it apart. Even in the very words on the page he tells me and the reader that . . .
This is not a proper epic.
Don’t trust this epic. It has shifty eyes. The muse wants to eat the woman who summoned him. The meter is as broken as its hero. Its own poetry is shattered by internal discords, broken bones scraping its own nerves. But then, after the ordeal, Crow, like a proper trickster, smiles sly and I realize that maybe this is how this particular tale should be told.
Crow is dangerous. He doesn’t behave. I can’t control him. Look. I’ve spilled more ink over him, in this Forward, than over my hero. I originally intended to make witty banter about how Syth is a new look at the Byronic Hero. But Crow would have none of it. He is greedier than entropy. I originally intended Crow to be a sardonic commentator in the verse of my epic, but he took over and most of the words are his. His gallows humor bleeds into every page.
But with Crow’s perils, he sprinkles his erratic gifts. He picks at the weaknesses of the poem. He keeps it from taking itself too seriously. Dark stories and melancholic characters can quickly turn to dripping, overindulgent verse. Brooding, unchecked, becomes spiritual masturbation. But Crow keeps it honest, if irreverent.
I called and Crow answered, I think, because my method was congenial to his pallet. I call my writing method grave digging. Late at night, I take a shovel, and I dig into old myth, folklore, poetry, news, music, random thoughts in my journal. I exhume a motley collection of body parts – jam them into place – sew it all together with big, messy stitches.
I throw the switch:
And sometimes the shambling amalgam sings and dances. Sometimes it bursts through the wall, loping off to terrorize a village. I recapture the creature, revise, re-graft, making finer and finer stitches, until the seams disappear. I fall in love with all my monsters, despite their flaws, and have, reluctantly, only unmade a few unruly children (harvesting their parts and storing them in my laboratory for later experiments).
And so, well after the witching hour, I dug the dead soil for spare parts to build an epic, while Crow watched from above. I dug wide and deep and found a copious amount of appendages: heads, eyes, wings, and tentacles (voodoo prayers, angelic lore, bits of scripture, classic rock lyrics, Dante, Byron, Poe, beat poetry, animistic concepts of carrion birds). I checked the back shelves for spare parts – found a few of my old short stories and grafted them into chapters – found a poem I’d written about coming upon a tree of vultures while jogging, and jammed it into the socket – found a horribly failed piece of fiction that still had a killer opening line, and hacked it off with a bone saw.
I stitch madly.
I pray it will walk when I feed it lightning.
Crow cackles above, saying, Though this be method, yet there is madness in ‘t.
Souls Unsure is an amalgam work. The main plot, Syth’s journey through Sheol, told by a street priestess and a dark muse, deviates into tiny, self-contained prose interludes, told by all sorts of souls unsure. The plot moves, not in a line, but a spiral. It’s an epic with epic scope, but painted in finer brushstrokes, tiny windows of stained glass to peer through. This is not about the great heroes or legendary wars. Archangel Michael’s flaming sword is nowhere in sight and the Devil only gets a 666 word footnote. Rather this is a story made up of fleeting glimpses of those who fell through the cracks of creation. Souls Unsure is one of those composite photos, a large picture made up of tiny images. Squint your eyes and the little pictures fade and a face manifests.
If it winks, I’ve succeeded.
“Do you really think you can get away with it?”
Can I get away with writing about the Vodou culture? I think I can. I’ve done my reading. I’ve been down pungent streets and creaky shops in New Orleans. I’ve even been to the Ivory Coast, kicked up the dust of West Africa – I met a Mandinka chief – I gave my shades to a barefoot girl in a Fulani village and saw her smile bigger than the sky – I looked into The Door of No Return, in the slave castle, on Goree Island, perhaps the last portal viewed by slaves who’d help birth Vodou, or at least representative of such portals.
I visited the continent where crows and ravens still wear white, on their chests and necks respectively – little badges in honor of that time, in the long ago, when Crow was still white – for the corvids of Africa have the oldest memory. I traveled there, as a tagalong to a very gracious group of African Americans making a trip to their ancestral homelands. But then . . . Africa is the cradle of civilization, the womb of humanity. If this is true, then I was making a homeward trip of a sort, though by the pallid cast of my skin, I’d been away a lot longer and my ancestors had made an inverse transformation to Crow’s. But this is not a story about race. It does have motifs of black and white but these are symbols than race, the yins and yangs birthed in the Big Bang. This story is about forces so primal and ethereal that they would never even notice skin color. In Sheol, where Death looks gigantically down, everything is gray.
Can I get away with telling an epic poem to a modern audience? I think I can. People still like the epic, they just gave it new masks: movies spanning trilogies – comic book stories, with the modern Olympians swinging and flying over buildings, spanning decades – Tolkien and Lovecraftian mythologies that live past their authors. People still like poetry they just renamed it, blare it from thumping speakers, windows open, top down, speeding down the road.
The cog-work of my epic seems to function, the physics of my dark spirit world setting work, the inhabitants animated, and once put down, move about on their own. And like works of imagery and allegory, this one seems to mean a lot of little things, though I’ll let the reader find his or her own meaning – if there is one thing that Crow and I share, it is a loathing of didactic tales. But I will drop one penny-theme into the whishing well – the Nietzsche idea that conviction is a greater enemy of truth than a lie. Unbridled conviction created Heaven and Hell. Humanity and the Souls Unsure have to huddle in the shadows between. As does Syth. Between the unhinged poles of the sanctimonious and the depraved, suffers the silent. Unbridled conviction is really the laziness of never second guessing one’s self. And thus, a weakness masquerades as a virtue, as they often do, and Syth’s hidden strength has, since The Beginning been etched on his pain-wracked form as a weakness, because no one second guesses themselves as much as the sad angel that didn’t choose sides. He becomes our patron saint – the platonic fence-sitter. He’s perched there now, broken wings twitching like a dying moth.
Among other things, my poem is for anyone ever caught in the middle of an argument, finding only frothy insanity in either direction.
Finally, can I get away with presenting that little girl who’s trauma is not my own? I think I can. I can stretch out my empathy. I have Crow’s moaning quills. Though I have never suffered that level of trauma, I have swam in its wake. I’ve embraced friends who’ve had that kind of pain inflicted on them – listened, unblinking as others told me of traumas self-inflicted.
And there’s something else. While those who have felt the stab of trauma that great can describe the particulars, the flavors of the pain, the rest of them might toughen up. Their nerves might shut off, just enough so that they can no longer feel the small nicks and cuts that ripple around the greater wound in reaction. Though they feel that great pain, they no longer know its context. Though they walk, barefoot, across that valley of cracked, obsidian glass, their feet are calloused, only feel the largest, sharpest shards. My feet are still soft. I feel the bite of every scratch. I bleed from every puncture.
The bloody-foot-print trail becomes the path of the plot, the ink of the story. Where there are two sets, Crow was hopping after me. Where there is one set, he perched on my shoulder, whispered skeletons in my ear. I invite you to follow the crimson trail. I admit, it is messy at parts, but, I think, fresh. You’ll feel it between your toes.
This is not an apology.
This is not a proper epic.