Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Status of Truth in Edgar Allan Poe's Poem "To Helen"

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website maartensity.com. The published date and time has been adjusted to mirror the original.

When Edgar Allan Poe revised his childhood poem “To Helen”, he must have known it had enough potential to be added to his catalog of more mature and well-known works. Two oft-quoted lines, from the second stanza, are in fact from the revised edition:

On desperate seas long wont to roam,Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,Thy Naiad airs have brought me homeTo the glory that was Greece,And the grandeur that was Rome.

They are an obvious improvement over the earlier version. Compare the naïve descriptive style of the following, with the much more striking statement above:

To the beauty of fair Greece,And the grandeur of old Rome.

In the revised version, Greece and Rome become symbols, metaphors for glory and grandeur. The comparisons compel the reader to draw on known associations of Greece and Rome, and revise their hitherto held notion of those two concepts. A nostalgic sense of what grandeur and glory is supposed to mean is evoked because of the distance in time and space between the reader and those civilisations. After all, the reader has no first hand experience, and most readers would not have read any significant book of history to authorise (or cast doubt) on that statement.

The combination of limited knowledge and nostalgia allows the reader to project an imaginative presence of Rome and Greece onto the more abstract canvas of the concepts of glory and grandeur.
The statement suggests a definitive measure of those two concepts, and the remoteness of those measurements (Rome and Greece) makes it all the more plausible. The reader's imagination is given free reign. In this sense the poetic statement relies much on what the reader doesn't – can't – know, giving the poet a privileged status and authority as having a more direct and intuitive understanding.

While 20th century philosophy has sought to prove, at times, the inability of language to accurately reflect truth, these lines – in particular when contrasted to the less effective, albeit pleasant enough, original version – is a keen reminder that language does not always seek to clarify or explicitly delineate truth. Instead, the reader may be enticed by suggestion, and given a lead to explore without a firm factual conclusion being drawn.

The poet's endeavour in this case is a form of mythmaking, or myth enhancement, but its value should be sought in context: it lends the Helen of the poem--its proper subject--higher status and credibility.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review: Just After Sunset by Stephen King

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website maartensity.com. The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

Stephen King remains one of my favourite writers. When he's on form he's unbeatable. He writes page-turners like very few other people, yet keeps his characters live and fleshy, so that you always feel that they're in the room with you. Or you're out on the road with them, as the case may be, smelling the tar and the whiff of gasoline as you pass a lonely gas station next to the highway.

King has delivered some highly memorable short stories over the years. Leaving aside his novellas for the moment, eg. those in Different Seasons (which included Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, both adapted to film) and Four Past Midnight; his short works have included some very creepy stories indeed such as The Raft and The Monkey, and an implausible but very frightening story in The Jaunt. These are from Skeleton Crew. There is also the earlier compilation Night Shift, which contained such wonderful stories as Sometimes They Come Back, I Know What You Need, and Children of the Corn.

His more recent novels still contain elements of the supernatural in abundance, but they serve to enhance the more familiar, mundane realities of family life and relationships. The horror is no longer the focus of those stories. Lisey's Story is a good example.

The short stories in Just After Sunset are of this variety too. I felt the influence of Ray Bradbury (for instance in Willa) and a kind of homage to Lovecraft--of sorts--in N. (yes, that's the title of the story), but in general the stories are about people and their relationships, and the lineage of Raymond Carver is also discernible.

My verdict on Just After Sunset is that despite a few duds, there are genuine gems among them. What's more, their subject matter means re-readings could be rewarding.

On to the stories themselves.

Willa is one of my favourites. It is suitably dreamy, and the twist does not cheapen it--instead it produces the meaning of the story. There is something both sad and joyous in Willa and David's gradual realisation of their situation, and their authenticity amidst a backdrop of Americana is like something Edward Hopper might have painted: a glimpse of a genuine exchange of feelings between characters whom we will never get to know any better.

The Gingerbread Girl is an all-action story which has King doing what he does best--creating a story in which you simply have to know what happens next. By the time you're halfway through the story, you'll find yourself starting to turn the next page before you've even started the current one. It doesn't have much else to recommend it, but it won't matter.

Harvey's Dream was genuinely scary. It is masterfully written. King says he wrote it in one sitting, and I suppose it is one of those conceived in its entirety. Subtle yet devastating.

Rest Stop is about a chance witness of domestic abuse at a public restroom, who suddenly uses the unreality of the situation to toy with a different persona. A fascinating story.

Stationary Bike probes the unresolved conflicts that lurk in the mind, and the uncertainties that underscore apparent success in a new endeavour. A man tries to lose weight and reduce his cholesterol after a warning by his doctor, but the more successful he becomes in doing so, the more he finds there is a backlash from the part of him that benefited from being obese. It is an imaginative story, and I don't want to give away too many details.

The Things They Left Behind, although apparently supernatural, probably has more to do with the residue of emotions that do not disappear just because that person has gone. The "things" of the title is the objectified locus of those residual traumas that need to be returned to those who are most capable of looking after them, perhaps dissolving them. Not my favourite story, but not bad.

Graduation Afternoon had me smiling. It has a wonderfully over-the-top ending (of the tried and tested variety) that in effect renders some of the more serious utterances by the characters comical. Comedy-horror?

N. reminded me of Lovecraft, but it is fair to say it wasn't my favourite story. I found it both predictable and derivative, in the sense that King tried to emulate Lovecraft rather than take him as a starting point. As a result the outcome was more or less what I would have expected, and the journey wasn't particularly interesting. Pass.

The Cat From Hell. This story is gold. I loved it from start to finish. It's classic King and harks back to the good old days.

The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates is heartfelt with poignant moments. Once again, it is more about the relationship between husband and wife than about anything supernatural. It almost felt like the story could have developed more, but as it is it still works.

Mute is not quite as effective as it could have been. This might be because part of the ending is predictable, and the other half relies on it gaining psychological depth that I wasn't sure was there all along. As a yarn it was well-written though, as always.

Ayana reminded me a bit of The Green Mile - there is even a moment wherein the main character complains of urinary tract infection. However the denouement of the story is different, and more mysterious. A satisfying story and with plenty left to the imagination. Just the way we like it.

A Very Tight Place is more like The Gingerbread Girl than it is like either Ayana or Willa, in other words it is more about action and tension than about subtlety and emotion. It is quite effective though, another fine page turner of a story, and there was something more English than American - Roald Dahl perhaps - in the ending.

King's stories are never merely cerebral exercises. He always gives them texture, and the characters are seldom less than vivid. You can practically hear the twang in their voices, and the smell of cigarettes and beer on their breath. This most recent compilation of King short stories continues his long-standing flirtation with the short fiction form, and is full of variation. It shows him in fine form. There are one or two stories the occasional King reader might prefer to skip - N. would be first on my list - but on the whole it is a rewarding experience. Several stories also felt like they had movie potential. It's amazing how cinematic his story-telling feels.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

'You Take This Path' published in Streetcake Magazine

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website maartensity.com. The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

When I came across Streetcake Magazine a few months ago, I was pleased to see a small, independent magazine that publishes experimental fiction. The magazine's banner reads "The magazine for innovative, visual and experimental writing". The writing tends to be poetry, short prose pieces, or extracts from longer works.

The magazine is run by Nikki Dudley and Trini Decombe, who is from Chile (the latest issue is dedicated to Chile following the devastation caused by the earthquake). The magazine often features their original work (I particularly liked What do I wanna paint? by Decombe in issue 9), and my impression is of passionate writers who run the magazine out of much more than editorial interest.

They were kind enough to publish my visual poem You take this path, which you can view in Issue 9.

you take
this path that you
have taken
every day you take
you take to the sea
i have become
the image that you
want this image
that you see
but today
i am alone
today, this day
        i de
 li    be   rate
to     di ss olve
 sos olve my
        sos love
      l i k e  a
clam         S.O.S
  l i k e
  ommmmm re
    r e turned
          same p a t h
to find you
    but you had r e