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Abstract 1“Out with the old, in with the new”, that seems to be the sentiment around Casa Burns these days.

Our youngest kid has now flown the coop and we are, officially, empty nesters. The house seems damn strange without our boys pounding up and down the steps, blasting music or bellowing at their video games in their basement hidey-hole. The silence, as they say, is deafening. But they’re both ready to be out in the world, anxious to be on their own. They’ll have their tough days, intervals when it seems like the whole universe has lined up against them. But they’ll make it. They’re tough and resourceful and bloody smart. Which gives them a leg up in any society.

So we begin 2014, Sherron and I, somewhat sorrowful, missing the lads but eager to get on with the next phase of our lives; back to being a couple again, exploring the world together, seeing where our dreams take us.

I’m fifty years old, as of last October, and that’s also made a difference. I thought any change or transformation would be largely symbolic but turning fifty combined with our sons’ departure has put a whole new slant on things. I feel like another man.

To start with, I realize that more than half my life is gone and if I’m lucky I could have twenty or twenty-five healthy years ahead of me (with my genetics, that might be pushing it).  That’s not a lot of time. As a result, I’m not going to waste any of it on stupid discussions, movies, books, music, feuds or anything that doesn’t further my pursuit of wisdom, joy and matters relating to the spirit.

I did a considerable amount of writing in 2013 (not unexpected) but I also found myself exploring other media, employing a variety of means to express myself. As a result, I created more visual pieces than ever before: acrylic paintings, charcoal drawings, lots of photographs, ambient soundscapes, even a short film. Will this trend continue in 2014 or were all these non-literary ventures merely an aberration? Experiments, nothing more.

We shall see.

I know that for some time I’ve occasionally experienced a certain amount of frustration with the limits of language and wish to communicate via non-narrative, non-Abstract 2linear means. Abstraction invites collaboration, interpretation, input from the audience/viewer. The vast majority of my visual work frustrates literal-mindedness—the equivalent of Rorschach Tests, shapes demanding speculation and discussion.

Not for everyone.

Obviously, one of the high points of 2013 was the release of my short story collection Exceptions and Deceptions. The book features what I think is our best cover thus far and includes a batch of stories drawn from the past fifteen years, a couple of them previously unpublished and available nowhere else. Every time I glance up and see it on my shelf, I get a tingle. Fans of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman take note: this one’ll rock your socks off. Trust me.

Another fun experience was collaborating with my son Sam on an instrumental number which he then incorporated into a short film for Sherron’s “Agassiz” mask/puppet production, debuting later this month. Sam’s film is a gem and as soon as he uploads it to YouTube or Vimeo, I’ll post a link.

Let’s see, what else…in November I was astonished to learn my volume New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) was shortlisted for a ReLit independent press award. My bizarre verse? Really?

Managed to read one hundred books in 2013, though at one point I didn’t think I’d make it to #80. A big surge in November-December put me over the top. The 100th book, completed December 30th? Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun. What a way to finish off the year.

I’ve been noticing how much my reading tastes have changed over the past number of years—hardly any genre stuff these days, except for a bit of SF and the odd mystery/thriller by LeHane or Philip Kerr. Much less fiction, overall. Gimme a fat, juicy history book any day.

We don’t have cable, so we don’t watch television. Have no idea what shows are popular on the boob tube and couldn’t care less. Ditto with movies. By far the best movie I saw last year was Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio”. Haven’t heard of it? Tsk, tsk. Grab it off NetFlix, buy or rent it from Amazon, do not miss this flick.

Music?  The new Queens of the Stone Age, as well as Nine Inch Nails (live), Steven Wilson, Mogwai, Benjamin Britten and Gene Autry’s Greatest Hits. Keepin’ it diverse.

Looking ahead: I’ll be working on my new novel, as well as prepping…ah, well, mustn’t give too much away. Let’s just say that Black Dog Press has a number of releases pending in the next eighteen months and there will be further information announced in the days to come.

All the best in 2014.

Thanks, as always, for dropping by and hanging out awhile.

Voyeur

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True story:

When I was around twelve years old, there was a program on CBC Television called “Pencil Box”. The show wasn’t very good (even for kids’ fare) but it did feature one interesting wrinkle: young viewers could send in a skit or playlet and, if it passed muster, a cast of  “professional” actors would stage and perform it.

I watched an episode or two and, as has happened with many writers since time immemorial, decided I could write just as well as some of the material being selected. At the time, I was obsessed with World War II, immersed in William Shirer’s The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, religiously watching episodes of “The World at War” (narrated by Laurence Olivier) every Sunday afternoon. I decided my piece was going to be an historical mystery and it didn’t take me long to come up with a concept. I scribbled out a draft in a couple of hours, sealed it in an envelope and sent that handwritten version to the show’s producers.

I wish I’d kept a copy.

And I would’ve loved to have seen the look on some poor, underpaid story editor’s face as he scanned the 3-4 page skit.

Good God…”

The plot involved a series of suspicious deaths that seemed connected in some way to a particular field somewhere in central Europe. The inexplicable and unsettling incidents baffle authorities, so they summon a master detective and this Holmes/Dupin type paces about, scrutinizing the ground until he is struck by a notion, does his research and sure enough—

He calls everyone together and announces his brilliant solution. Years before, after the defeat of the Nazis, the area had been used as a dump for some of the waste of war, including (wait for it), numerous canisters of Zyklon-B gas. The canisters were leaking, seaping up through the topsoil, and, voilá, it was those noxious vapors that were sickening and killing the local populace.

Everyone applauds the detective’s extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning, he takes his bows and…Fade Out.

Well.

My dramatized detective story wasn’t accepted.

My first submission and my first rejection.

But the note (typed on official “Pencil Box” stationery) was kind, encouraging to send more ideas and stories and perhaps, some day, one of them would make it on to the show. They also enclosed a free pin, which I’ve kept to this day.

Proof!

pencil box

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imagesOur little city officially celebrates its 100th birthday today.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a poem paying tribute to the river valleys that have been home and sanctuary to our species for many millennia. We’re blessed with a particularly lovely one here and I’ve often driven or walked through these hills and imagined this place when it was younger, wilder, populated by an entirely different kind of people.

Happy birthday, North Battleford.

Tigris

Irresistibly drawn to these green
descending hills, natural cradle
for a squalling, nascent civilization
offering the allure of water, game
shelter from on-rushing tempests &
killing winter winds that seek
but fail to penetrate the draws
& shallow, dipping coulees
grudgingly retreating only when
the first crocus, purple with apoplexy
sends them packing back to their
Rocky Mountain redoubt

Summer settlements along the
sandy riverbanks, for trade &
contact after another hard winter:
fishing & hunting & sport
rough games to occupy the young men—
old feuds recalled, raids re-enacted
blood alliances forged between families
& lodges, only the occasional grass fire,
torrential hailstorm or inevitable drowning
dispelling the illusion of idyll

& so it was & remained until one day
(overcast, with a promise of rain)
on the horizon, no attempt to hide
(there! there! see?)
strangers & from the look of them
they’d come a long way…

Rounding the big curve, topping the hill
the familiar sight of the river valley
spread out below us & then crossing the
newly repaired bridge, gazing down at the
olive-colored water, suddenly realizing
Heraclitus was wrong, this is that same river, we
are merely the latest arrivals, on our way to
supper with friends in Old Town, who will
excitedly tell us about the moose spotted on
the island, offer to show us the nest of the
Great Horned owl so that we, too, can
endure her cool, dispassionate regard, whispering
so we don’t spoil the moment

© Copyright, 2013 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

 

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100_0742It has something to do with the persistent damp. Seepage; the ground fluid, churning. Things constantly coming to the surface that are better left buried.

In the spring, when the snows subside, dissolve away. Sometimes a careless farmer will plough up the wrong field. Or children will make a grisly discovery in the woods.

We have been condemned, collectively, for those dark times. You would think we all owned Kalashnikovs and a cluster of hand grenades.

They will not forgive the desecration of the churches. Those pictures. Awful, awful. Though some of us insist they were faked…

Listen, we can’t keep apologizing for the past. What’s done is done. It could happen in any modern, civilized state.

They want to call it genocide but we reject that.

It was war and terrible things occurred.

We won’t be treated as pariahs.

We have sinned but are answerable only to God.


100_0743

 

 

Copyright, 2013  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

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"Gulag"After a long drive across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, Frazier arrived at a long-abandoned prison camp near the town of Topolinoe. The camps along the Topolinskaya Highway were among the most dreaded destinations in Stalin’s gulag, the prison system that claimed the lives of more than a million people during the height of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Frazier walked through one of the barracks where inmates starved and froze in the Siberian winter: “This interior offered little to think about besides the limitless periods of suffering that had been crossed off here, and the unquiet rest these bunks had held.” As always, Frazier locates the apt historical anecdote that captures the horror with precision. He tells the story of two child prisoners who were given a pair of guard-dog puppies to raise, then struggled to find names for them: “The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”

-Joshua Hammer (from his New York Times review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia)

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’76 Corral

All that’s left are your bones:
broken, splintered stelae
jutting from unpeopled places
where hope used to reside
but has long since departed.

These mortal remains
attest to your brief presence
like weathered tombstones
of the forgotten dead.

Were there an epitaph,
it would be unsparing:
“Here lies one who lived
but did not thrive;
who came
but did not stay.”

July, 2012

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It’s been two years now, and a lot of posts in that interval, so maybe more recent readers haven’t seen my review of the legendary Gospel of St. Nicholas.

I love the notion of these “lost gospels” that keep cropping up.  One of these days, I’m hoping they’ll uncover some indisputable ur-text that begins with the words:  “Jesus and his buddies were pissing it up one night, tossing around ideas for a really cool religion…”

Enjoy the review and from the Burns family to all of you:

Merry Christmas and all the best in 2010.

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We’re fast approaching the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon.  My recollections of that day are very clear;  it made a deep and long-lasting psychic impression on me.  I’ve tried to express something of that magical time in this short film, titled “July 20, 1969″.  My wife Sherron helped me put this snippet together (using the wonders of this here new iMac).  The pictures are from the public domain, the music plucked from Garageband…the text derived from a short prose work I completed years ago.

This anniversary (Apollo 11) seems to be affecting me more than this sort of thing usually does.  I firmly believe watching those fuzzy pictures from 250,000 miles away was an absolutely seminal moment from my childhood, those few days igniting my fascination with science fiction, other worlds, distant spaces, journeys into darkness, etc.  I’m pleased to be able to pay tribute to the exploits and achievements of the Apollo program and I hope our little film gives some small hint of the sense of wonder and excitement I felt back then…emotions I retain today when I look at the pictures, see their faces, and have a clearer understanding of the daunting obstacles they faced, the sacrifices they made and the grandness of vision our forays into space represent.

This film is dedicated to the lads of Apollo 11:  Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins

And the crew of Apollo 1:  Roger Chaffee, Edward White, Virgil I. Grissom

Thank you.

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twilightjpeg.jpgTwilight

by William Gay
(Anchor Canada; PB; $22.00)

 

“…he climbed up a chimney to a corridor above the stream and entered into a tall and bellshaped cavern. Here the walls with their softlooking convolutions, slavered over as they were with wet and bloodred mud, had an organic look to them, like the innards of some great beast. Here in the bowels of the mountain Ballard turned his light on ledges or pallets of stone where dead people lay like saints..”

Cormac McCarthy; Child of God

The comparisons are inevitable.

Two southern writers, both of whom employ lyrical, macabre prose to delineate the wicked hearts of people inhabiting places far from the lights of the city, an outer darkness where ordinary rules don’t apply.

Rather than shy away from any association with his celebrated colleague, Mr. Gay acknowledges and embraces it, to the extent that he quotes from McCarthy’s Suttree—“The rest indeed is silence”—to begin the second half of Twilight.

The similarities are there but Gay’s worldview is nowhere near as dense, unrelenting and hopeless as McCarthy’s. McCarthy is a poet, his method studied, deliberate, his word choices rich and sinuous but always scrupulously measured and metered; Gay practically gushes:

The wagon came out of the sun with its attendant din of iron rims turning on flinty shale, its worn silvergray fired orange by the malefic light flaring behind it, the driver disdaining the road for the shortcut down the steep incline, erect now and sawing the lines, riding the brake onehanded until the wheels locked and skidded, then releasing it so that wagon and team and man moved in a constantly varying cacophony of shrieks and rattles and creaks and underlying it all the perpetual skirling of steel on stone.”

-opening sentence of Twilight (italics in the original)

Gay’s Granville Sutter finds his closest fictional relative in McCarthy’s oeuvre in Lester Ballard, from the aforementioned Child of God. Both kill without remorse and don’t shy away from the bloody part of the business. There is much to fear from a man who is capable of terrible deeds, acting without flinching, proceeding without so much as a backward glance. Such a man is to be avoided and you certainly wouldn’t want one as an enemy…

Corrie and Kenneth Tyler finds themselves in Sutter’s murderous sights owing to a combination of bad judgement, a desire for vengeance and, it must be said, a certain amount of plain, old fashioned greed. They stumble across the grisly postmortem shenanigans of the town’s resident undertaker, Fenton Breece. Breece likes to ah, tamper with the cadavers he has access to in his professional capacity. Corrie is determined to make the mortician pay for interfering with her father’s body and inflicting all manner of macabre indignities on his helpless clients.

The first twenty or thirty pages of Twilight make for tough sledding as the evil that Breece is enacting is revealed to the reader. Corrie convinces her reluctant brother to help her extort money from Breece and it’s at that point that Sutter is called in, charged with the job of putting an end to the blackmail.

The second section of the book is a protracted chase scene. There’s too much foreshadowing of Sutter’s eventual fate and I never quite figured out his odd fixation with Kenneth Tyler. The roots of the connection remain undisclosed and, to my mind, quite unfathomable.

Twilight is a dark book, not only in terms of the disturbing imagery but also in its depiction of the backwoods people, the bleak secrets they harbour, the corruption that engenders. They are a hard and mean bunch, seasoned by grim fortune, embittered rather than ennobled by suffering and privation. Young Kenneth Tyler has no resources to fall back on when he runs afoul of Sutter, no assistance or relief forthcoming from the hostile and suspicious community he was born and raised into.

The settings are well-elaborated, the world Gay paints vivid and multi-layered. Here’s Tyler in the wilderness, finding himself shadowed bygayjpeg.jpg wild dogs. He makes camp and cooks a rabbit he has killed:

He ate and tossed the bones beyond the circle of firelight where they were contested with snarls and he could see their green eyes moving about like paired fireflies. When the meat was gone and he’d lain down to sleep with his rifle for bunkmate he could see a circle of their eyes drawn about the fire and in his mind he could see them stretched out, chins on paws, warily studying the fire and this strange god they’d adopted. As if they’d wearied of this wild life of freedom and hoped he could give them back what they’d lost of civilization.”

Mr. Gay tells a tall tale but at least he tells it well. The territory is remote, barren, depopulated, pocked with sinkholes, dotted with abandoned factory towns, overgrown graveyards, dissolving machinery. Ghosts of the past loom up everywhere.

Few acquit themselves well in Twilight and there’s no deliverance here, redemption in this case amounting to survival and little more. It’s a primal, ferocious novel, a thriller and then some.

It makes no apologies for itself, eschews pretension and therefore earns our respect.

Note: At no point during the course of this critique did its author once use the term “Southern Gothic”

 

 

coverjpeg.jpgMarco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

by Laurence Bergreen
(Knopf Canada; HC: $36.95)

Marco Polo, the dauntless explorer. World traveler and raconteur. Shameless liar and self-promoter. Confidante of Kublai Khan. “Il Milione” and his bottomless store of fanciful tales. Respected merchant of Venice. Prisoner of war…

Held under house arrest by the Genoese after a calamitous naval battle, Marco, in his mid-forties but already packing the experiences of ten lifetimes under his belt, entertains his captors and fellow prisoners with stories of his adventures in the realm of the Mongols. Another prisoner, Rustichello, proposes they collaborate on a written account of his rambles and the two of them set to work. Rustichello is more partial to Arthurian romances, it’s true, but this Polo fellow tells a fine tale and, besides, it’s something to do to while away the long hours of captivity. Sometimes their imaginations get the best of them; Rustichello, in particular, is never one to let mere facts ruin a good story.

The embellishments they concoct diminish a great work, testifying against its veracity as an historical document. Sometimes, not content to be a mere observer, Marco puts himself front and center, undeservedly claiming credit, exaggerating his importance. Before we get too far into his Travels, his father and uncle (arguably greater explorers than their kinsman), disappear from its pages, reappearing only sporadically. Brazen egotism, a reluctance to share the spotlight…or an editorial decision, axing them to streamline the plot?

Mr. Bergreen’s conversant and agreeable biography of the Venetian explorer makes for a good introduction to the man and the era he lived in. I had no idea there were so many different versions of Travels extant, miscopied and incomplete, fragmentary or expurgated, some renditions twice as long as the others. There is no definitive text. Which is closest to the original? Historians finding it difficult resisting the temptation to fill in the gaps with speculation, extrapolations. These might amount to learned guesses…or, on the flip side, unproveable notions (Marco may have become addicted to opium during a lengthy sojourn in Afghanistan). Without hard evidence they contribute little to the historical record, suppositions based on the slenderest evidence, a tidbit of malign gossip, deserving of a footnote, nothing more.

Mr. Bergreen does an admirable job of setting the scene for us—his descriptions of 13th century Venice are convincing. He recreates the Polos’ arduous expeditions with clarity and we get a keen appreciation for the ordeals they endured throughout their three year trek to the court of Kublai Khan.

Mr. Bergreen’s biography makes it clear that young Marco experiences quite an extraordinary transformation in the course of his journey through the Near East and Asia. When he first sets out he is full of loathing for the disparate cultures he encounters, their perverse sexual practices and savage, pagan beliefs. But gradually his haughty Catholic sensibilities are won over by the courage and toughness of the Mongol people. Whereas he has been led to believe they are a savage and uncivilized race, he recognizes a different reality and has a complete change of heart. He becomes their biggest fan.

khanjpeg.jpgWhen they finally reach the great Khan’s capital, the Polos make a good impression on their host—to the extent that he enlists them as part of his massive civil service.

The Great Lord’s court is a melting pot of cultures and he is not averse to using intelligent and trustworthy agents of all nationalities to fulfill his schemes and designs. Marco’s admiration for the Khan is profound: here is a canny ruler who displays ruthlessness and guile, a shrewd intelligence and, as a result, has achieved the highest seat in the world. Surely he must be the greatest of all men, wise and just in his way.

But Marco’s admiration for the aging Khan is severely tested by the evidence he sees of the ferocity of the Khan’s reprisals. Troops loyal to the sovereign lay waste to great swathes of land, killing or uprooting many people. Any uprisings or displays of disloyalty are severely punished…as Marco discovers when his duties take him through present-day Burma and Vietnam. The Mongols wage total war; frequently none are spared.

After seventeen years of devoted service to the Khan, the Polos approach their master and patron, expressing a desire to return to their homeland. He is not immediately receptive. There have been embarrassing military setbacks in Japan and, most recently, Java. The Mongols’ air of invincibility has been shattered. The Khan has lost face and feels that the foreigners in his court enhance his prestige.

But a pretext presents itself and the Khan reluctantly allows them to accompany a princess to the lands of an important ally. From there, they will have royal fiat to go where they wish within his empire.

They make it back to Venice but find that during their extended absence, relatives have presumed them dead and divvied up their possessions. They manage to settle their affairs and, thanks to the riches they’ve brought with them from the East, are able to establish themselves among the city’s gentry.

But Marco finds the sedentary life of a merchant rather boring after sharing a ger (tent) with the fierce and noble Mongols, the boldest and finest people on earth. He’s middle-aged when he’s captured after the Battle of Curzola and incarcerated at the Palazzo di San Giorgio with Rustichella.

After his release he returns to Venice, where he does well for himself. Despite his affluence and excellent circumstances, Marco earns a reputation for being difficult, litigious. He marries and sires three daughters but one gets the impression that for Marco, like Ulysses in the Tennyson poem, his friends and family “know him not”. His time in the East changed him irrevocably, set him apart from his fellow men. He is a stranger to them; he has seen things with his own eyes they cannot conceive of.

At the end he is bedridden, wasting away, a sad fate for such a vigorous and ambitious man. He dies during his 70th year, at home, likely the last place his restless soul wished to be.

coleridgejpeg.jpgHis Travels grew in fame and stature, his name acquiring the trappings of legend. Columbus read and re-read his copy of the world’s most famous travelogue. Coleridge recognized the mythic power of the stories…

After all, that’s what drew so many people to his Genoese prison: to hear wild and thrilling and bawdy yarns of exotic, far-off lands; the flora and fauna, the untamed wilderness, but, mostly, to learn of the people who lived there, their bizarre, heathen practices:

One Mongol custom in particular astounded Marco: the marriage of dead children…When there are two men, the one who has a dead male child inquires for another man who may have had a female child suited to him, and she also may be dead before she is married; these two parents make a marriage of the two dead together. They give the dead girl to the dead boy for wife, and they have documents made about it in corroboration of the dowry and marriage’…”

The two families behaved “as if the bride and groom walked among them, erasing the boundary between life and death. Afterward, ‘the parents and kinsmen of the dead count themselves as kindred and keep up their relation…as if their dead children were alive’.”

Whether secondhand or first person, real or imagined, factual or fabricated, the Travels amounted to grand entertainment to people whose perspectives were narrow and blunted. After all, foreign excursions were perilous in those times, involving no small amount of danger. Conditions on sea and land were harsh, danger ever present, travelers constantly set upon by marauders. Most never ventured far from the safety of their home villages and cities. They made for an eager but skeptical audience, their imaginations fired by accounts of worlds they would never see, while their practical mindsets insisted none of it could be real.

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