Archive | October, 2014

A Hallowe’en Poem

28 Oct

long road_charcoal

The Preacher of Pumpkin Patch Lane

by Martin Slag

 *  *  *

The Preacher of Pumpkin Patch Lane had terrible things on his brain.

In a town just a few miles south of obscure
Between Sandalwood Beach and Blueberry Shore
And also in the middle
of Nothing

There was a clearing in the forest
Surrounded by foxglove and stone
And a pumpkin patch
The land made fertile by a nearby bog
Scorched in the shape of an oval
From a U.F.O. landing some hundred years back

Where under a Hunter’s Moon
And floodlights with batteries as big as barns

Through clean black air and rustling vineyards
And over the ghost-whine of baby raccoons

The preacher spoke

His pasty face caked up with make-up
Fat body squeezed into his
Trademark powder-blue suit
And patent-leather shoes
That slithered and glistened like some alien metal

And the people listened

They listened with mirth as he sang, spit, spun
Told tales of the uncommon and the uncomfortable
He spoke of death and depression
As if these were old friends
Owing him large debts
Of droughts and famines and earthquakes and tsunamis
He warned of werewolves and warlocks and zombies
Of dark winds and other dread things

He gave them recipes
He taught them new math
He showed them how to set their clocks
So that it was never midnight
And how the wizards made their foul chowder
Using goatsmilk as a base (one must never allow
Their children to drink from the tits of a goat)
For this—it was well-known—was another ingredient
In the Conjurer’s vile broth

He told them which part of the rhubarb to eat
And which parts were deadly poison
And which parts were merely awful
And where to put this and where not to put that
And what kind of nip to feed to your cat
And also how to tell if your tomatoes were ripe
And when to tuck your children in at night
And what you could put in your pipe—and how to smoke it

“Do not let your wives indulge in tattoos,”
Said this creature in the blue suit
And shiny black shoes,
“Or else they will run off with warrior-dwarfs
And their children will fall from the womb
With heads like turnips”

“Protect your lot,” he said
“With red paint to stave off rot
Slay your livestock once each season
You don’t want to give wolves a reason
To kidnap your pigs”

He went on like that for a while
Never cracking a smile
Standing on the stump of an old fat Oak that he may have cut down himself

Until, as bats emerged from their caves
There arrived a woman named Hester
Wearing only one shoe, and a nightgown
And though she was obviously mentally ill
The crowd did not move to molest her
As she split the congregation like a drill cutting into a board

And there—
Where the preacher gave his sermon
Hands raised in praise
By witness of the sanguine moon and the
Baseball-stadium lights—

The woman stepped onto the stage

“Assault!” cried a man in the audience
As the crazy woman reared back her arm
To strike the poor preacher

“I said what I’d do if you came here alone,”
Said the woman in the lily-white robe
“I’d flog you in front of the village—I said it!
These people aren’t your playthings
Although I give you credit
For putting on this hypnotic display
Your sermons are more fun than monkeys at play
But lacking in some utterly crucifiable way
For if they only knew
What ridiculous things you do
In your hours away from the stump”

“Left alone in the world you would barely survive
For an hour—and yet
You’ll tell all the world how to care for their pets
And what color paint to use on their barns
But you can’t even pick up your own room
You haven’t yet learned how to operate a broom
Nor mastered the toilet, the shower, the stove
Or the kettle—how could you?

“You’re only five”

The villagers came forth to challenge the woman
“He saved us from eating wizard’s pudding,” they said
“And from boiling the leaf of the rhubarb—
Without him we’d all be dead

“He taught his elders history
And our children manners
He helped us salvage our crops
And restored our appreciation of cats
And got us to string up that weird schoolmarm
Who was involved in all manner of wicked’ry”

“Superstition!” cried the woman,
“The stuff of a child’s bad dreams
Of wet beds and thrashing, moon-lit screams
You ought to be shamed for encouraging him
You all know my son is a simpleton

“It isn’t so hard to take care of your plants
One hardly needs prayer circles, potions, chants
You need only science, and patience
And care
You preen them, you feed them, you sprinkle their roots
With chemicals to make the fruit grow fat
And when the rain comes you allow them to drink—
Did you think it was any more mystic than that?

With that the woman stepped into the switchgrass
And led her son home by kicking his ass

In the Winter there came a freeze
Like none the village, or the world, had seen
And yet no one starved—his mother was right

They were only pumpkins

But without any witches or wizards to fear
The people stopped slaughtering their steer
And slicing up their pigs
And milking their goats
And pulling their crop
And feeding their cats
And smoking their pipes
And tending their plants
Until there was nothing left in the village
But rhubarb

Months, seasons slipped by
Then years
The Moon made its cycles
Some starved; others thrived

The preacher returned to the village
One Hunter’s moon
His face full but not fat
Blond hair turned jet-black and grown out
To fall beneath his shoulders

He’d come here on a lark
On leave from University—wanting to see
What had become of his pulpit

The baseball lights were covered in moss
Inhabited by thirsty birds
Making them look like huge metal scarecrows

The foxglove was gone, and so were the stones
Having been picked clean by robbers
And would-be assassins

The steamy bog with its bullfrogs remained and
So did the raccoons, and the caves full of bats

The stump was rotted out and caked in bird scat
Though he stepped onto it anyway

His tiny powder-blue suit was stashed away
In a box in an attic in an old house in the middle of Nothing
The patent-leather shoes that were once his prize
Having been lost in a flood and sent down Main Street
On a massive trash-strewn wave

He opened his mouth to speak
For the first time in fifteen years
In a voice that only the bullfrogs could hear

And he himself heard nothing

In a town just a few miles south of obscure
Somewhere west of Blueberry Shore
In a clear in a wood over which banshees once flew
And dark winds once blew
Now, splashed across the forest floor
Was a sea of roots and calcified chutes
Vines of pumpkin which grew
And still grew
But blossomed no more

Art & Words copyright Ernesto Barbieri 2014


Creature Comforts

13 Oct

“Faust” by William Henry Margetson (1885)

(I was asked by Grey Matter Press — who published my story “Wombie” in their fantastic Equilibrium Overturned anthology — to blog about the nature of evil, and how it relates to my writing process. Be sure to check out the work of my fellow contributors over at the Grey Matter blog.)

*  *  *

It is said that if you want the reader to dislike a character in a story, make him harm an animal.

Classic example: Man comes home from work, kicks the family dog. Pretty bad — but is that really the best (or worst) we can drum up in our collective imaginations?

We harm animals every day, after all — we stomp spiders, swat flies, shoot at squirrels when they invade our strawberry gardens; we are complicit in the murder and torture of animals simply by breaking eggs into a pan and frying some bacon; we do all of this before breakfast.

We harm each other, too — by backbiting and gossiping and bullying. With words and with weapons — by carpetbombing huge tracts of desert for no good reason. All the little acts of unkindness we do to each other, all those times we were too busy to say hi to the bum on the street, or to pick up the phone and call a sick relative. All the horrors of all the wars being fought for the rich. A thing called scaphism which I dare you to look into. Racism. Duplicity. Genocide.

And yet the swiftest, most accessible route to eliciting a feeling of “evil” in the reader is the old punt-the-puppy trick.

* * *

“The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” — Jonathan Franzen

I have two rules for writing. The first rule is that a book is not a static, solid object; not an ornament on a shelf, not a collection of pages bound by leather and twine. It is a thing of motion, with a revving engine behind it. Sometimes with the whole force of nature behind it: a hurricane. A thing swapped easily between friends, and among cultures, passed down through generations as if by osmosis. For a book to succeed, it has to move.

The other rule involves a Creature.

* * *

The Creature is the road disappearing beyond the horizon. It is the thing the story is chasing. It is the wonder to the endeavor, the mystery, the magic. It is the horror hiding in the closet. The shark swimming underneath the surfboard. The Creature may just be a general sense of menace, encroaching upon the lives of bracingly bland people, such as you will find in Franzen’s The Corrections or Alice Munro’s better stories. In David Cronenberg’s film The Fly — still one of the greatest influences on my writing — the Creature is an actual creature named “Brundlefly” … but the caves of literature are painted with the faces of rawer, and yet somehow more grotesque creatures, creatures with names like Fagin, Lear, Voldemort, Mephistopheles. Character and conflict are all good and fine, and sometimes even dandy, but the Creature is why we really turn the pages. Why we keep our foot on the gas. Why we plow through the bridge rail. Why we drown.

* * *

“My definition of evil is unfriendliness.” — Muhammad Ali

(Not lost on me: that the man who said the above quote was paid to punch other men in the face, in a rather unfriendly fashion.)

But evil is not a punch to the face, or a bullet to the brain, or a man sleeping with another man’s wife, or murdering his best friend, or selfishness or avarice or psychopathy or even unfriendliness.

Evil is indifference.

Indifference to the sad, paunchy man who comes to work every day and does his job and does it well and eats shit from his coworkers and boss, and then goes home and polishes his guns. Indifference to the girl with a bow in her hair that makes her feel pretty for five minutes before her father comes along and snatches the bow right off the top of her head, and crushes it under his boot. Indifference to all the things we crush under our boots, merely by walking along.

All of which is to say that if you want the reader to dislike you … be indifferent to her. Fail to seduce her. Ignore her, for even one sentence, one second, and she will go away, because the opposite of love, in the end, is not hate; and the opposite of good is not evil: it’s indifference.

* * *

The Creature in my story “Wombie” is a large, goofy-looking rodent with an unknown organism growing inside of it. Our protagonist is a man named Dr. Ethan Sarvas, whose task it is to identify the parasite, and to take radical action once he realizes its horrific intent. He does this not out of professional obligation or even a vague sense of duty to his own species, but out of sheer dumb curiosity. Which is to say: out of love.

I like doing this — giving my characters impossible problems that they have to solve for me, and handicapping them with cynicism and cowardice. I’m partial to broken characters who find themselves acting bravely at the absolute worst moments. I enjoy putting them into the lobster pot with snakes and spiders and scorned lovers and loaded weapons and apparitions from beyond, and cranking up the flame. I even harm some animals in the process. I do this because to spare the creature, to treat it gently, to euthanize it prematurely, would be to rob the reader of the gift of Caring — and what could be more sinister than that?

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