Charlie Olsen interviewed me last month and the results are up at Ashberyland! A big thanks to Charlie and all of the student writers over at this cool blog.
Of the works of prose I read in 2017, what book most affected me?
Children of Grace, by Bruce Hampton, a history of the Nez Perce War of 1877. It was up against some great contenders, including novels by Doris Lessing, Max Frisch, and works of non-fiction including Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.
The ‘children of grace’ of the title refers, ironically, to the phrase some White-European settlers, in the later nineteenth century, used to describe themselves.
There are many books on the topic of the 1877 war; I’ve read two so far. Hampton’s work impressed me with its objective (and deft) treatment of primary source details, a method of corroborating eyewitness narratives into a vivid panorama of on-the-ground facts. I felt physically dragged, marched, and coaxed over the landscapes of Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, squeezing with the Nez Perce horses through trail-pinching stands of lodgepole pines or crawling up from creek banks like the wounded tourists, caught unawares, who ended up shot and maimed in the brand new Yellowstone National Park.
I think it’s a reasonable guess that the Nez Perce War of 1877 is often understood as a conflict of ideology (manifest destiny) against native ancestry and territorial claims. After a dubious decision under President Grant to reduce the size of their reservation lands, the Chief Jospeh band of the Nez Perce tribe essentially fled. The result devolved into warfare, and it is this larger hybrid of retreat/persistence, aggression/defense, that Hampton fleshes out in detail. In doing so, he seems to trace the path of every bullet—I presume the retelling includes its portion of visceral gore both because of the nature of the record keeping of the U.S. Army, and the specificity of the tribes’ oral accounts. For those turned off by military histories and obsessions therewith, Children of Grace can help elucidate the genre. Perhaps there is something to be learned about human violence—and non-violence—that can only be gained by studying the daily grind of a war.
A view into the interior of an “Indian’s Agent’s” cabin, Spalding, ID,
Nez Perce Reservation. As a nearby placard reads, “From the time of its arrival
the agency was responsible for protecting Nez Perce lands
from encroaching miners and farmers.
This cabin represents a government policy that failed.”
I won’t soon forget Hampton’s account of the battle at Big Hole River, Montana, reasonably interpreted as a massacre. It’s important to remember that the Nez Perce ‘army’ was in fact the entire Chief Joseph band of the tribe, including women, children, the elderly, and any ill or infirm, along with a massive herd of horses. If Colonel John Gibbon, who surprised the Nez Perce by shooting directly into tipis full of sleeping families early on the morning of August 9, 1877, faced the dilemma of a war against people in flight, rather than against an army, it is not a dilemma he deliberated over very much. (Hampton does note his paranoia about a perceived trap laid by the Nez Perce.)
Assessing the fallout from this, one of many wrenching episodes, Hampton contrasts differing accounts side by side. On the numbers killed, for example, Chief Joseph estimated 30 warriors and 50 women and children; Wounded Head claimed 63 dead: 10 women, 21 children, and 32 men. Duncan McDonald, who interviewed survivors in Canada the following year, estimated 78 dead, with only 30 of those actual warriors. For some in the tribe, the events were difficult to discuss: “Decades later, when historian Lucullus Virgil McWhorter began collecting Nez Perce accounts…those who were children at the time were often the only witnesses willing to relate their stories, many of the older people finding it still too painful to speak” (Hampton, 165). The White-European narrative, in contrast, was sometimes jubilant: “the most gallant Indian fight of modern times,” proclaimed the Missoulan about the battle (181). Colonel Gibbon was promoted; one officer purportedly responsible for the death of nine women and children received the Medal of Honor (182).
A deer rests and hides in the shade at the Spalding township site,
Nez Perce Reservation, October 2017.
The events of 1877 tend to get lost in general presentations of United States history, overshadowed as they are by the Civil War, or, equally likely, ignored on purpose. Gratitude is due to any, like Hampton, who patiently draw our attention back to the Nez Perce story, one in which so many of the white so-called “Children of Grace” behaved wholly ungraciously (with some important exceptions). We continue to see strains of racism and dysfunction, directly inherited from that time, in government and culture, especially in the current deliberate attempts to return almost nostalgically to violence, to revel in ignorance. If we consider nostalgia as a kind of a-historical craving for the positive acclaim that accompanied racist aggressions of the past, it’s worth investigating to what extent such nostalgia also feeds the drives of advanced resource stripping in the pursuit of capital. Indeed, as resources deplete, the two motivations—nostalgia and capital—appear intertwined.
Looking down from a viewpoint along Idaho State Highway 95,
above the Clearwater River, near Lewiston, ID and the Spalding
township site. Emissions from a pulp mill vaguely reflect
the the shape of a sunflower in the foreground.
The war that ended 141 years ago strikes me as having created, for the European-settled Pacific Northwest at large, some genuinely bad karma. Our detachment (intentional or not) from a more fair and complete history is disorienting; it lends the currently more dominant culture a kind of ephemeral spookiness, as if we’re non-cognizant of where we are in time or even place. Hampton’s work can help one gain proper bearing, in both senses of the word, not just in location, but in sum: to know how one fits in such a history requires effort—at the very least that of recognizing and remembering the burden of the past.
For those interested in more on this topic: William Vollmann’s novel The Dying Grass covers the same events. I haven’t read it, but it will probably be my first book by Vollmann.
The Last Indian War by Elliott West is quickly readable, though by necessity less painstakingly objective. West also explains connections to the contemporaneous developments, e.g. the telegraph.
1877 was a tumultuous year, as Michael A. Bellesisles describes in 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently, which I haven’t read. As it feels like we are in the 1870’s right now, I may check it out soon.
This video moves the viewer through an infinite honeycomb of mixed Euclidean and hyperbolic space.
(For those rationing article views, link goes to New York Times website.)
I rediscovered a childhood toy, the Spirograph:
It’s nice having more patience for it. Like all meditative piece-work, it increases focus, decreases stress.
It's on a border between drawing and copying, handwork and machine motion, intention and accident. In that sense it’s easy to pick up, one breezes through the apprenticeship…
The basic kit comes with red and blue pens, but adding color explodes the possibilities. Test patterns backlit in a window:
On tracing paper, layering is intriguing:
I’m reminded of some of the lifeforms in Ernst Haekel’s Kunstformen der Natur, or Art Forms in Nature. Here, for example, are selections of his drawings of siphonophorae, which is an order of sea creatures that float in fascinating colonies of individuals. The order siphonophorae includes the Portuguese man-o-war, which mimics jellyfish.
Some geometric constraint related to the spirals seems to be at work in these body shapes. Perhaps it has something to do with the concept of “action minimization,” the tendency of all motion to follow, basically, the path of least resistance. (I picked up this concept from The Quantum Rules by Kunal K. Das, a simple layperson’s book on quantum physics.)
These particular lifeforms have 8 repeating features of various shapes. For these colonies, does the number 8 provide some necessary biological function, within its own unique constraints of 'eightness,' via action minimization?
The hardware for spirographic drawings, meanwhile, are more like like gears tooled to reproduce a path of least resistance for a given mathematical relationship. They sort of unveil an answer to an unknown question. With more than seven variable pen-positions on each wheel or oval or other gear shape, the element of surprise doesn’t tend to fade very quickly from the overall project.
All of this got me thinking about an absurd idea of gear drawings. What if there were huge collections of gears not 'limited' to spirals, but could be used to make actual drawings—for example realistic horses, buildings, or landscapes? Perhaps the gear sets would arrive in little suitcases, along with thick catalogs of various instructions.
For example: To make the horse’s neck, turn gear 42 along arc 5 for three notches. Now turn gear 22 along arc 12 for 8 notches…
It would be the player piano of drawing. But more flexible, in that the drawings could be changed into collages of scale and proportion, expressive of the permutations of the gears. One could easily whip up some centaurs combining horses and bats…produce a fruit tree with the sequence intended for veins…style a rectangular chamber that weeps until it’s oval…
Of the ways into poems, one way has reliably worked for me. A variant of the “cut-up” method, which I believe is traced to William S. Burroughs, it might be called negative erasures, or From Prose Chaos, or, after Duchamp, “With Hidden Noise.”
Several years ago one could to receive hundreds of junk emails advertising Cialis and/or sup-prime mortgages. At first these emails were not filtered into junk at all. Later, the senders attempted to trick servers with odd typography and pasted-in wordlists.
That the lists rode along the ads for pharmaceuticals and loan sharks lent them a certain hilarious, and also potent, quality. Signals of someone casting about and copy-pasting abounded, e.g. tiny floating bits of news articles or HTML from the sender’s own email program.
Here’s one of the lists:
Check out Duchamp’s piece “With Hidden Noise.” Think of the prose chaos in the wordlist as a skein of words surrounding a hidden subject—a noise. Because it’s made of words, the skein is never quite the same. The hidden noises are therefore many, emerging with your noticing (and notice).
Whether your poem is “noisy” per se is up to you. It seems to me that noise is contingent on the state of capture: release cancels it out.
Choose your blend of constraint + personal creative authority. Decide on adding connective words or whether to make changes according to the needs of the emerging poem. For example, if a word from the list proves to be not right, consider replacing it with a word that rhymes with it (another hidden noise).
I came across a copy of W.S. Merwin’s Lament for the Makers. It’s an anthology about the size of a 45rpm record, constructed as an elegy for some of the poets Merwin admired. The work of these poets—twenty three of them—comprises the anthology. It’s a nice basis for a book; embodying the title poem lends it certain come-to-life vividness.
Constrained by brevity of lives and of presentation, he chooses unexpectedly from mostly familiar poets. Sylvia Plath’s “Words,” for example, caught my eye on the first flip-through. For Dylan Thomas, he offers “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.”
I didn’t know the poem myself, but right away the title indicated that it was going to be a difficult one to pull off. Dylan Thomas manages it. I found myself in the surprising position of reaching for an anthology to read more Dylan Thomas—it had been awhile.
Michael Robbins writes of Dylan Thomas’s work that “self-seriousness is the major trope” (the whole short piece is worth reading). But in “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” Dylan Thomas enacts a kind of stepping down from proclaiming. He reveals a flip-side of self-consciousness. He sort of contrasts himself.
Self-seriousness, meanwhile, to use Robbins’ more specific term, is seductive. As such, as a writer’s writer, Dylan Thomas can lure one into imitation—big mistake. Perhaps a writer-reader, from a conscious stance—at least specifically avoiding imitation—can use, burn, that intense energy, and produce something different.
In any case, so prompted, I turned around and wrote some prompts.
I might add one: create a selection of poets to anthologize, and explain your selection. Attempting to do that in a poem, as Merwin does, would be a real challenge, I think, especially for more than about seven of them*. But if you truly adore (or mourn) the poets you chose, it might work wonderfully.
First read Dylan Thomas’ poem “The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.”
In a letter, Thomas wrote: “I make one image…let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together; a fourth contradictory image, and let them all within my imposed formal limits, conflict. Each image holds within it the seeds of its own destruction, and my dialectical method, as I understand it, is a constant building up and breaking down of the images that come out of the central seed, which is itself destructive and constructive at the same time…” (as quoted in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry).
The first stanza of the poem illustrates this technique, a complete ‘seed cycle’ within a formal limit:
"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer..."
Write a poem using this technique, or a variant of it.
Adjust compression (the spacing of the contrasted elements) as needed and experimentally. Also, adjust the formal constraint (rhymes, stanza shape), or jettison it entirely.
Less Death’s Dominion
First read “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”
Write a poem so unexpected, that death shall have no dominion in it at all. The goal is to strain (or non-strain) to write not only with freshness (a familiar goal that in and of itself seems to yearn towards a writerly "death shall have no dominion" on its own), but literally to create an open, clear, deathless field or vista or space in which everybody has a star “at elbow and foot.” Is it possible?
The interesting thing about Dylan Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” is the extent to which death does have dominion in it.
For this exercise, however, the poem should be different; death will have no dominion in it, not even in paradox. It will be a poem from another world.
* See the notion of "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," which suggests that humans can hold onto about seven new concepts at a time.