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)
The Forgiveness of God
you have so much to answer for
your immunity hereby revoked
escorted to the dock
subjected to a brutal cross-examination
where were you?
when were you aware?
what did you do?
complicit or negligent?
your answers unsatisfactory
throwing yourself on the mercy of the court
contrition the last refuge
once all other appeals are exhausted
© 2016 by Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
God the eternal scold
not the touchy-feely type
No wonder we’re so
lousy in relationships
denied parental approval
The times we needed
you offering stilted prayers
on sore bended knees
While you sulked in the
Aether using the ol’ guilt trip
to try and get your way
© 2016 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Just posted a new tale, bit of a brain-teaser, over at Scribd.
The story is called “The 1001st Night” and clocks in at around 1450 words. Very odd, but I like it. The way it weaves back and forth, exhibiting multiple points of view and perspectives and yet somehow coalescing into…well, see for yourself.
I’ll be adding it to my “Stories” page here (eventually) but Scribd has racked up some impressive numbers for me since I signed up and I thought I’d give them first dibs.
If you’re a real completist, you should probably subscribe to my Twitter link too because I’ve been known to post little snippets and Twitter-verse there and nowhere else. Just to keep everyone on their toes.
Glad to be offering new work for your perusal.
Hope you enjoy “The 1001st Night”.
Which always seemed like the perfect title for a porn film. But I digress…
Christmas approacheth and there is much to give thanks for.
First and foremost, my oldest son Liam returns from Brazil on Thursday; nearly four months away from home and hearth and, man, did we miss him. Having him back with us is the best Christmas present we could ask for. The tree is up and awaiting ornamentation, the Christmas CDs and (mainly) cassette tapes have been retrieved from the basement and dusted off. I know I have the reputation as being something of a curmudgeon but I love Christmas and there’s something about the holiday season that brings out the best in me. Even standing in a long lineup at the post office isn’t going to set me off (according to Canada Post, this is the busiest week of the year).
Other blessings of note doled out in 2012:
Three, count ’em, three new releases. Three books in one year? From me? That’s nothing less than miraculous. I’m delighted with all of them: The Last Hunt turned out far better than I’d hoped, a great story and a worthy addition to the western genre. I know I raised a lot of eyebrows when I announced I was working on a good ol’ fashioned horse opera, but I approached my task with seriousness and the respect of a true devotee. With the help of my father-in-law Ken Harman (a real, live cowboy) and folks like Lee Whittlesey, a superb historian and raconteur, I think I carried it off. Judging from the responses I’ve received, I’d say readers think so too.
The other two books are “Best of…” compilations of poetry and short prose. Stromata: Prose Works and New & Selected Poems. Both drawing from over two decades’ worth of material; slim, elegant volumes of surreal verse and prose poems. Beautiful, austere covers, powerful, intense material. I’m looking at them as I type these words and am still struck by what lovely tomes they are.
That’s the wonderful thing about being an indie author and publisher: I can supervise every aspect of my books’ creation, from their conception to their production and distribution. I even choose the margins and fonts, find the cover art. Etc. And I work with some great people, like my wife, Sherron, and my designer, Chris Kent, to ensure my books are as eye-grabbing, artful and evocative as they can possibly be. Check out my Bookstore page, see for yourself.
Shot, edited and scored three short films in 2012—have to admit, I’m most chuffed with “First Contact“, a surreal combo of music and images. Can you tell I’m a huge sci fi fan?
Also put together more of my ambient music, took lots of photographs, traveled more than I have in the past…
And the end of the year finds me plugging away on my next volume, a collection of short stories I hope to release in June or July, 2013. Already over 100 pages in and delighted by the diversity of voices, the unsettling and entrancing tales they tell.
Other then the expected sniffles and aches, we all stayed healthy in 2012—something else to give thanks for.
But I’m most grateful for my life, the freedom it affords me to follow my bliss, write in an atmosphere of peace and security, devote myself full-time to the task of creation. That’s what it’s all about. Birthing something that wouldn’t have existed, drawn breath, if it hadn’t been for your painful, protracted labor.
“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” (Robert Bresson)
For me, no other existence will suffice. Without the ability to create, immerse myself completely in my invented worlds, I would wither away, cease to exist in material form. A thing more sensed than perceived, shadow-dweller, incorporeal yet still cursed with sentience, formless but denied the release of death.
I’m honored and privileged to lead the life I do. That’s something I must never forget or take for granted. I’m blessed and renewed by the knowledge that I’m serving some higher purpose, contributing (in some tiny way) to the Grand Design. Sometimes, when I’m at my absolute wits end, that’s my sole motivation for continuing to put words down on paper. That and the unqualified support and faith of my family. Whatever successes I’ve had are the result of the love and encouragement I’ve received, the sacrifices those closest to me have made to allow me such a fortunate existence.
For that and much, much more, thank you, to my family and friends, my readers…and my Creator.
Couldn’t do it without you.
Wouldn’t even try.
Fundamentalists of all stripes yearn for Armageddon, a “great cleansing”, a final accounting that will separate the sinners from the righteous, the forsaken from the saved. Whacked out environmentalists and New Agers look forward with gleeful anticipation to the upheaval and destruction that, according to the Mayan calendar, are due to wreak havoc on great tracts of the planet on or about December 21st, 2012. Weird. Please note: these folks are usually separated by huge, yawning gulfs in terms of their philosophy/ideology and yet here they are pining for the same thing: the wholescale destruction of vast populations of their fellow human beings.
It will start in the Middle East. Ancient scores settled with modern day technology. The Holy Land rendered uninhabitable, reprisals that envelop the world.
Or maybe a dirty bomb in Manhattan.
A meteor from outer space.
Everyone in agreement that mankind is doomed…and deserving of every rotten thing about to happen to us. A pox on our heads!
I find this kind of thinking hateful, a self-loathing pathological in its pure virulence. Both sides are also seemingly allied by their belief in “original sin”—homo sapiens are vile and depraved from birth (and maybe before). We are beyond redemption (most of us) and should pay the ultimate price for rejecting the presence of a higher power (God or Gaia; it amounts to the same thing, right?).
Our crimes against the environment condemn us, no question. We have stripped and burnt and undermined and defaced a substantial segment of our natural world. Our voracious appetites, rampant consumerism and selfishness have also directly contributed to a disproportionate amount of suffering inflicted on the majority of our planetary brothers and sisters. We possess every creature comfort and it is entirely at their expense. There’s a First World because there’s a Third World.
Hey, I get all that.
But I also know that we walked on the moon. Sent down a paper-thin craft, guided by a computer that was little more than a glorified pocket calculator. Got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface, then brought them back alive. And we’ve dispatched robot probes to just about every planet, even have a vessel on the verge of entering interstellar space…
Think of the books, theater, dance performances, movies, the artwork and architecture we’ve created; the way we’ve related to our environment in positive ways.
Now try to conceive of the complexity of the minds capable of imagining such things. Men and women imbued with gifts and insights which allow them to alter the way the rest of us perceive the universe.
We know of nothing more astonishing or inexplicable than the human brain. It makes the fanciest, state of the art super-computer look like a, well, a soul-less calculating machine. Which is what it is. Sorry, all you geeks out there.
The brain is capable of extraordinary mental leaps and bounds, possessing a muscularity and agility belied by its rather mundane appearance. Two pounds of inanimate tissue containing trillions of nerve endings. Every millimeter interlocked through ever-changing networks of electro-chemical connections. A magnificent feat of engineering. Clever beyond its designer’s wildest dreams.
Maker of horror and holocaust.
Jesus Christ and Buddha.
Of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
…penicillin and Groucho Marx.
Keep screaming and waving your pictures of Kigali and Katyn…meanwhile, I’ll continue my stream of conscious rant/monolog about the Salk Vaccine and the eradication of smallpox.
I will concede there’s strong evidence we’re killers, born and bred.
But we also come equipped with a conscience, a little voice that insists we atone for our wrongs. It allows us to acknowledge the darkness but prohibits us, by specific commandment, from despairing, even in the complete absence of light.
There’s been a lot of bad news of late. Friends and close acquaintances in dire straits. A memorial service for a kid only a few years older than our boys. Death seems to be hovering in the air around us, playing eeny-meeny-miney-mo with people we care about. A cruel, arbitrary figure, a Shade with a mean streak.
We’ve reached middle age now and we have to expect losses. Like the old Doors song goes: no one here gets out alive. But it’s not right when it’s kids who are afflicted and young mothers and devoted partners…blameless ones who shouldn’t be singled out for torment or earmarked for an early demise. They deserve better. That they should suffer is unfair and a universe that permits that to happen can’t possibly be caring or sentient or the slightest bit aware of our existence. A cold, dead universe. Endless and eternal and empty.
I know nothing of the physics of death. I can’t tell you the weight of a human soul or confirm that such a thing even exists. I’ve tried reading up on the science—the conversion of matter to energy and the possibility of alternate universes, hyper-realities—but, in the end, my intelligence and imagination just aren’t up to the task.
All I know is that I love you and these recent, grim reminders of mortality make me appreciate what we have and give thanks for every drawn breath. These bedside vigils and funerals are rehearsals for a time that is bound to come and we lose one of ours. That may sound selfish but it’s not. Our grief is just as sincere and our sympathy for what those poor families must be enduring genuine and heartfelt. We imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes and our souls quake. When faced with such a horrifying spectacle, we avert our eyes.
To experience the death of a loved one is, to my mind, the ultimate test of faith. Can your belief system withstand a loss so profound? Can your theology and/or worldview accommodate an agony that rends your very being? Can your God bear the heat of your anguish and rage?
We’ve been together a long time, you and I. Not only in this lifetime but before that. We’ve known each other and always recognize one another each time we meet. As long as you are with me, I can survive anything. I truly believe this. Grief and despair may make me a shadow of my former self but as long as I am comforted by the knowledge of your existence, I will persist, I will struggle; against the odds, against the darkness, believing to my dying breath that being your lover and confidante ennobles me and gives me purpose, the will to go on.
You are all the proof I need. There are terrible things afoot, a darkness creeping in from the edges. Let’s treasure our time together, love, rather than allow fear to take from us all that is worth keeping and preserving. We must refuse to allow mortal dread to defeat us and it is our shared strength that will save us. In the face of death, affirm that we are alive and full of passion and joy and foolish dreams. Confronted by the worst, we pledge to show a brave face, while clutching at each other for the companionship and comfort we know we will find there.
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.
Or…maybe you do.
Living in abject fear, a state of near unbearable suspense, day after day. How wearing that can be. Because that’s what we’re talking about here. A mindset centred around dread, a soul-sucking sense that things are about to fall to pieces and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.
How can someone exist like that? How can they face getting up in the morning? What keeps them going?
Questions only the uninitiated, the smugly secure would dare ask.
Y’see, what the preceding sentences have failed to convey is the intoxication someone like me feels when a potential crisis peters out into insignificance. The surge of relief that provokes can’t be matched or simulated by any mind-altering drug I’m aware of.
And on those rare occasions when my worst fears turn out to be justified, the sense of relief and vindication I experience is…sublime. I actually tremble with the sick pleasure a junkie must feel just as the needle hits its mark. I’m like Chicken Little, running around, clucking with excitement and joy as big chunks of the firmament crash to earth around me.
“Rawwwwk! Told you so! Told you so!”
I’ve always been a worrier, possessed by the certainty that happiness is transitory and danger lurks around every corner. My childhood was like that, perhaps even my infancy; the baby who always makes strange, no matter how many funny faces you pull. Filled with such foreboding when faced with each new encounter or experience that I was literally sick to my stomach. Vaccinations, the first day of school, a trip to the dentist; preparing for these minor inconveniences as if they were a very public and brutal form of execution.
I can recall nearly wetting myself whenever I was called down to the principal’s office. It invariably turned out to be something mundane, a message from my parents, a form that needed to be picked up. I’d exit the office and immediately make a beeline for the nearest washroom.
My high school years were no better. So fraught with painful anticipation, consumed by a nervous energy that burned off every ounce of my frame; I weighed about 125 pounds the day I graduated. A long, thin stick insect, whittled down to the quick by neuroses. Not an attractive figure.
There’s been some improvement since then but I still get thrown into a tizzy over relatively commonplace occurrences:
* A stopped up drain means ripping up the basement floor and paying an astronomical fee to some greedhead plumber (it turns out ten minutes of roto-rooting and a $150 touch does the trick)
* A stalling car means replacing the engine, maybe even being forced to buy a new(er) vehicle (no, actually the spark plugs need changing)
* One of my sons having a grumpy day is an early manifestation of a depressive personality (nope, he just got out of bed on the wrong side that morning)
And did I mention that I’m a borderline hypochondriac? Now there’s a lovely combination. So every ache, every twinge is magnified in importance, exaggerated, fretted over. A belly ache could mark the onset of pancreatic cancer. A rare headache could mean a malignant brain tumour. See what I mean? And what about this latest development, waking up at 5:00 a.m. in the morning with low-grade nausea. Not out and out sick-making, just a weird, unpleasant feeling in my lower gut. Does this mean anything? Is it significant in any way?
That nervous energy sometimes manifests itself as a racing heart. Occasionally I get little jolts and twinges. And with a family history of heart disease that could be an indication of a problem. Or not. But, let’s be candid here, one day–it might be tomorrow, it might not happen for decades–my fears will be realized, my body at last betraying me and those small aches and pains will coalesce into something genuinely life-threatening, something that keeps on growing until it blocks some vital pathway or invades and compromises a critical organ. Punishment (or reward) for all those years of waiting for something serious to crop up, a final confirmation of the bad news I’ve been expecting all along.
Each day I pray for release from the irrational fears that afflict and bedevil me. I place myself in my Creator’s hands and repeat my personal mantra of “health, happiness and wisdom” over and over again. Not only for myself, but also for family, friends and loved ones.
I know sooner or later it all comes to an end. Each one of us, at last, runs down, ceases to function, the machinery wearing out with a grinding of gears, sparks, smoke pouring from our ears. No one here gets out alive.
Funny, I don’t really fear growing old. That doesn’t factor into my thinking. As a catastrophist, of course, I have serious doubts I’ll live that long.
Frankly, knowing the end is nigh will undoubtedly come as something of a relief. It takes so much fucking energy and strength constantly fretting about money, not being able to properly provide for my sons’ education, what if something happens to the house. Etc. etc.
The sense of panic that almost unmans me when I can’t shake the thought that I might not be up to the task and that, inevitably, life is going to present me with an intractable problem, something I can’t solve, hide or ignore. I am hounded by the knowledge that I’m really not that smart or strong or brave. And that the time will come when my weaknesses and vulnerabilities will be exposed (Christ, better anything than that). The worst feeling, the greatest terror I have is that I won’t be able to save the people I love or prevent some terrible personal apocalypse that will consume them while I watch, helpless to intercede. My resolve failing me at a crucial juncture, my faith evaporating away as I face on-rushing danger. Something I glimpsed a long time ago.
Remember? I tried to warn you of its impending approach, tried to make you understand the severity of the situation…but you told me it was all in my mind.