What am I looking for? What do I want, as an artist and human being living in these strange, dangerous times?
I have a shelf of books devoted to religion and spirituality and I paused in front of it, scanning titles, seeking a message or—
Consult the Bible? Too obvious. But I have a collection of Sufi writings compiled by Idries Shah, so I plucked it off the shelf, opened it to a page at random and found this quote:
“Detach from fixed ideas and preconceptions. And face what is to be your lot.”
-Sheikh Abu-Said Ibn Abi-Khair
If the universe was trying to communicate something to me, it couldn’t have been more direct.
No more pissing about, Cliff, time to accept your fate, don’t shy away from whatever destiny has in store for you.
No fame and fortune for me, I’m afraid. I’m not a mainstream artist, I present my works to people undiluted, without apology, an alternative to the pap and kitsch mass-produced and excreted on a daily basis.
My oeuvre is not for those who prefer their diversions light and facile and entertaining. I despise escapism; my visions are darker, offering no comfort or reassurance.
Instead, I adhere to my hero Franz Kafka’s dictum:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
Yesterday, after spending most of the afternoon cleaning and re-arranging our garage (onerous task), I settled myself on the back deck with a glass of scotch, a small cigar, my notebook and a volume of The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert.
Herbert was a Polish writer who, despite growing up in an authoritarian environment, managed to compose magnificent, soul-rending verse.
As I was reading poems like “Mama” and “Chord”, I couldn’t help trying to imagine what it wold be like to live as an artist in a society where personal and aesthetic freedoms are strictly curtailed, the regime relentless in its pursuit of any kind of opposition, the smallest display of rebellion.
It was someone’s job to
scrutinize every syllable,
search each metaphor
and allusion for
significance, a deeper
meaning that might
subvert the apparatus,
throw a monkey
wrench into the works,
or cast the slightest
aspersion against the
omnipotence of the
…but artists like Herbert and Vasily Grossman and Andrei Tarkovsky managed, somehow, to frustrate their ideological masters, producing works of lasting genius. What was it that made them so strong, so immune to the powers of the state, when so many of their colleagues caved in to pressure, conformed, compromised their visions? Was it some form of faith? Pride? Strength of will?
My God, the courage it would take to stand your ground, refuse to dilute or skew your art. Would I be that strong under similar circumstances? Could I resist the blandishments and threats? Choose exile and disgrace over safety and security?
Which somehow led me around to:
I cannot see the
My faith is
not so simple,
I ask for proofs
and the universe
spasms of hilarity.
God is laughing
but I, stubborn
fail to crack
© 2017 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
While we were in Greece this summer I was exposed to “Cycladic Art” (3200-2000 B.C.) and, in particular, fell in love with a piece I saw in Athens titled “Stargazer”. Here are two photos of the real deal:
I couldn’t keep that little sculpture out of my head. We saw some wonderful art during our European jaunt (including outstanding exhibits in Istanbul and the Czech Republic), but “Stargazer” and a couple of other objets d’art were the most memorable.
I guess my wife finally got sick of me going on and on about “Stargazer” because Sherron made me a replica for my birthday, adding the finishing touches this past week. This is the end result and, man, am I pleased and honoured to own such a lovely work that speaks so intimately to my heart and my spirit:
“So tribe on tribe, pouring out of the ships and shelters,
marched across the Scamander plain and the earth shook,
tremendous thunder from under trampling men and horses
drawing into position down the Scamander meadow flats
breaking into flower—men by the thousands, numberless
as the leaves and spears that flower forth in spring.”
The Iliad (Translated by Robert Fagles)
It almost didn’t happen.
I mean, it was that close.
I’d checked into some bus tours to Troy before we left home. I knew there were day trips from Istanbul and they weren’t cheap. But we decided to wait to actually book the Troy excursion until we got to Turkey—I think we held out hope that our hosts would know the best and cheapest method of getting there. In retrospect, maybe not the wisest course of action.
As it turned out, neither of our Istanbul hosts had contacts in the travel industry, so with the help of Sherron’s cell phone (and a good wi-fi connection), I started searching for tour operators that included Troy in their itinerary. There were a few and, as I feared, they turned out to be quite pricey; indeed, too pricey for my tastes. I started pondering the possibility of leaving Turkey without seeing the plain of Scamander and the remnants of the Scaean Gate—I have to say, it didn’t sit well with me.
I read Peggy Albion-Meek’s The Great Adventurer, a young adult re-telling of the story of Odysseus, when I was nine years and was enraptured.
The prolonged siege of Troy figures prominently in the book, the wily King of Ithaca responsible for coming up with the scheme that finally breaks the stalemate. Other famous figures put in appearances and I soon developed a loathing for the haughty Agamemnon, while cheering as the god-like Achilles hacked his way through half the Trojan infantry, displaying a bloodlust that made even the mighty Hector quail before him.
Troy, needless to say, holds a special place in my heart. I’d put it right near the top of my “bucket list”. But it seemed like fate was intervening and unless I was willing to pay an arm and a leg, Troy might be out of reach.
Then, a sudden breakthrough.
A communication from one company confirmed a coach was available, quoted a fee that seemed reasonable…was I interested?
The mode of conveyance was a comfortable Mercedes mini-bus, extra spacious because there were only about six or seven other people accompanying us (most of them bound for the nearby the Gallipoli battlefield, not Troy). It was a lengthy drive, down the Anatolian coast, and at one point we had to ferry across the Dardanelles to get to Canakkale on the other side, where a different bus was waiting to take us the rest of the way to Troy.
And there it was. And there I was, standing amidst the weathered, crumbling remains of a place I’d dreamed about since childhood. Well…
A peak moment. Who would’ve believed it possible?
Because of the iffy political situation in Turkey (see: previous post), tourists were in short supply and, except for a German documentary film crew, we had the site all to ourselves.
Uran Savas is the most engaging, charming, knowledgeable guide I’ve ever encountered. Uran combines a winning personality with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Troy and its physical environs—he knows every square foot of the place. Uran led me around the extensive ruins, which span thousands or years, each layer revealing insights into the lives or ordinary Trojans and their ruling elites. In all, there were at least ten separate cities built on this site, ten separate eras represented. Uran could point out sections of wall denoting each of these eras, his erudition and quick wit constantly in evidence. Despite the blazing heat, he set a leisurely pace, not hurrying, pausing to point out certain landmarks or patiently respond to my seemingly constant questions.
Sherron hung back, taking pictures, including one of my favourites, where I’m touching a portion of a wall that dates back to Homeric times. That’s a keeper.
As a bonus, Uran introduced me to a good friend, the man who happens to be in charge of the on-going digs at Troy, Dr. Rustem Arslan. He answered a couple of my stammered queries and posed for a picture with us, before hurrying away, back to his duties.
End of a perfect day. Oh, except for that interminable drive back to Istanbul. All and all, it amounted to a time-consuming, wearying interlude—let’s see, we were picked up around 5:30 a.m. and dropped off back in Istanbul shortly after 10:00 p.m. Wow. Time-consuming, indeed.
We left Istanbul the next day, after ten days so confident of our grasp of the city’s commendable public transportation system we travelled to Kemal Ataturk International Airport via cab, ferry, bus and monorail, arriving on time and hardly frazzled at all.
We flew out of Istanbul shortly before 5:00 that afternoon. I realize I’m skipping a lot in this account, due to space constraints (like dealing with the persistent, ingenious carpet salesmen or meeting the remarkable Emin Senyer, a preeminent performer of Karagoz shadow puppet theatre), but that’s unavoidable. We must push on to Prague.
Yes, Prague. By reputation, one of the most beautiful cities on the continent. Boasting every modern convenience while, simultaneously, possessing a lengthy, storied past, the region frequently playing a crucial role in 20th century European politics.
One thing we immediately noticed was that it was a lot cooler and drier than Greece and Turkey. Almost like back home.
Prague was the one city both Sherron and I had at the top of our lists when we were planning our proposed Grand Tour of Europe. We felt drawn there, for a variety of reasons. To me, it’s the home of Kafka, Hrabal, Meyrink and the Capek brothers. A veritable hub of surrealism and the macabre and ground zero as far as alchemy and the black arts are concerned.
For my dear, puppet-crazed wife, Prague’s status as one of the world’s hotbeds for hand-carved wooden marionettes, not to mention innovative theatre and film, made it an irresistible destination. And there was one other attraction:
We spent over a week at a small penzion a half-hour from Prague, where Sherron took part in a workshop led by Michaela Bartonova. Michaela has a long and impressive résumé as a puppeteer and master instructor. Her students come from around the world to work with her and learn from her methods. This year’s attendees included participants from Canada (us), Israel, Spain, Hungary. And they were all sweet, wonderful people; we bonded with them, had many great, raucous conversations after each day’s session was over.
While Sherron was off designing and carving her creation (from linden wood, the Czech Republic’s national tree), I kept myself busy by journaling, reading, writing poems and hanging out with Zsolt–whose wife Aggie was taking the workshop for the second year in a row–and their kids, Philip and Heidi. We had a ball together and the week seemed to zip past.
I think the only thing we didn’t manage while we were in Prague was catch a glimpse of Jan Svankmajer, the legendary Czech animator. It would have been delightful to spend an hour or two in his studio or watching him at work on his latest effort, an adaptation of a Karl Capek story that was financed through crowd-sourcing.
Visiting Kafka’s grave and the museum in his honor were high points, as was the hour or so we spent in the Communist Museum (more properly titled The Anti-Communist Museum). Trying my first shot of absinthe…guzzling Czech beer…seeing a genuine Toyen painting…
A stop of the Millennium Gallery (not far from the Kafka Museum), introduced me to the work of Jiri Sozansky. Ondrej, a fellow fan of the macabre, showed me a number of prints by Sozansky, briefing me about the artist, a man who deliberately inhabits the far fringes of Czech art; I couldn’t resist bringing one of his pieces home with me. Very disturbing, unnerving stuff; not for all tastes. Search him out, he’s amazing (you’ll find one of his short films here).
What I won’t miss are those wicked, uneven cobblestone streets. For a metropolis renowned for being “walking city”, Prague’s city fathers couldn’t have picked a worse road surface. After the first few days traipsing around, my lower back and hips were in rough shape. Stretching and anti-inflammatories helped, some.
That said, I’ll put up with the cobblestones, endure the natural surliness that seems to be part of the Czech national character, I’ll even forgive the less than thrilling cuisine—
But how do they tolerate the tourists?
Yes, the tourists. Out of the various spots we visited in Europe, they were at their worst in Prague (particularly in “Old Town”). Swarming and pointing and gawping and barking at each other in a dozen different languages and dialects–and you could tell what they were saying always amounted to little more than: “Lookit that, honey, ain’t it neat?” Snapping selfies at every opportunity, imbuing each and every street corner or jutting steeple with significance. I was seated at a small diner and watched as a tubby, rather bookish fellow a few tables away took a picture of himself with his plate of food.
Selfies at a wall dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. Selfies in Wenceslas Square. Selfies framed in front of one of the innumerable castles or cathedrals…
I hate tourists and tried very hard never to act like one. We usually shunned areas where there was a high concentration of idiot foreigners but sometimes they were unavoidable. Streaming down the winding, constricted sidestreets, moving in groups, often consulting handheld gadgets, heads swivelling back and forth, eagerly seeking out the next attraction or point of interest.
Prague, you old whore
coquette of Mitteleuropa
adorned in gothic finery
enduring the rough pleasure
of marauding hordes
secretly derisive of their
offering your best
most familiar features
while assuring each of them
you’ve never done this before.
Every so often, Sherron and I would consciously try to slow things down, take a moment, seat ourselves on a bench or at an outdoor café and just look around, absorb what we were seeing, the little details that we might revisit later, in recollection. Trying to retain the strongest possible impression of that locale, that instant in time.
Who knew if we’d be able to manage another trip of that magnitude? Was it likely, given our financial situation? And maybe that’s why for us it was never about rushing around, patronizing all the usual tourist traps, checking them off our list and then moving on. Never stopping to reflect, experiencing Europe on the fly, through the window of a car or bus, doing our level best not to interact too much with the locals…
Interact we did, chatting with folks from every walk of life, people who quite often weren’t shy about sharing their views with us, once they realized they had an attentive, appreciative audience. We tried to be open, receptive, patient…and were rewarded with some memorable encounters and exchanges. Mustafa, one of our guides on the bus to Troy, so passionate and knowledgeable about Middle Eastern history, comes to mind; and what about Anke and Dick, Alex and Suzanne, Michaela and Ralph and Uran and Zsolt and Aggie and Emin and Ali and Eva and so many others. They shared their stories with us, welcomed us into their lives and homes, offering fresh perspectives, opinions that often didn’t jibe with what we were hearing back home.
That is the greatest benefit of traveling to a distant land and no virtual environment, no documentary can come close to emulating the experience of physically being there, at Mycenae or Epidaurus or Troy…or even buying bottled water from a cheerful vendor not far from Galata Tower.
Feeling the ground beneath your feet, hot sun directly overhead, the welcome chill of the plastic bottle against your skin. Knowing this is real, an authentic moment.
Turning to each other, clasping hands, conscious of the adjacent funicular tracks. The vendor wants to know where we’re from.
“Canada?” He grins. “Very far. Welcome! Welcome!”
Bidding us good day and waving once we’re underway, another smiling face, another encounter to add to our scrapbook, situated alongside brochures, ticket stubs and a smooth, streaked pebble collected from the beach at Kiveri.
Mementos, when photographs no longer suffice.
The final two lines of my travel journal, composed upon our return to Canada:
“For a time, I was able to forget who I was, see the world through young and innocent eyes. What do you call that, except a blessing?”
I had a dickens of a time with the cover of Righteous Blood.
For some reason, I resisted doing what I’d done on previous occasions: go on-line, to a site like RedBubble (or some place similar), tap in “dark fantasy art” as my search term and see what came up.
For So Dark the Night I must have looked through over a thousand images. Easily.
Not only was the effort of actually finding art to match the mood and message of Righteous Blood daunting, if I did manage to identify an illo that appealed to me I’d have to locate the artist (not always easy), secure their permission to use their art for a reasonable fee (ditto) and then, y’know, come up with the money for the transaction.
Earlier this spring I needed a break from writing, retreated to my basement dungeon where I like to paint and shoot my strange, short films, and slopped away happily on a couple of canvases. Both pieces turned out well, but my favourite was inspired by apocalyptic thinking: global warming, the massive wild fires that have raged around the world due to drought conditions and human tampering. I titled it “Red Skies” and quickly recognized how it might be the answer to my cover art woes.
Mark Rothko was definitely an influence, wouldn’t you say?
I sent a Jpg of “Red Skies” to Black Dog Press’s longtime cover designer Chris Kent last week, told him to use it as source material but not feel slavishly bound to the original. We had to be careful with other people’s artistic efforts but I wanted to give him permission to play with the image to his heart’s content.
Chris is a full-time teacher, a husband and father, an athlete constantly in training…but he also has an artistic side that he loves to indulge, a passion for design and art that’s very much a holdover from childhood.
Over the next few days, he tinkered with my painting, spitballing me a few initial notions like this one:
But I got a sense these first salvos were sort of tentative, Chris not sure how much license he had to tamper with my work.
But then, with his next flash of inspiration, he abandoned all fealty to the original and just fucking went for it. I opened up the file he sent, sat back and gaped at the shattered, fractured version of “Red Skies” that now graced the cover.
And went absolutely mental over it.
Sent him a few minor suggestions, nothing of any great import, he went away did some more polishing and then delivered the final version. His masterpiece.
What do you think?