Over the past couple of years, I’ve increased my readings of history, economics and politics, and I think that comes from my determination to better understand the world as it is unfolding, and gain at least a few hints into what the future might hold for those of us who are left vulnerable to larger forces because of our class/caste, income, race, etc.
I’ve kept track of relevant quotes, statistics and observations by jotting them down in a black notebook, filling it to the margins. Recently I came to the last few pages of the notebook and decided to try and distill what I had gleaned from my readings into a mini-essay.
I’ve polished it some, clarified my thoughts in a few places, but tried to retain the surge of inspiration and anger that provoked its composition:
“Now and then I see the truth above the lies…”
Paul Banks, “The Base”
The uneasy truce between capitalism and democracy is breaking down.
At some point—if it hasn’t happened already—we’re going to have to choose between those two opposing ideologies and that choice will define (and haunt) our species for generations to come. Which will it be: a smoothly running corporate machine or our personal freedom?
Slavoj Zizek (among others) insists we’re living in a “late capitalist” world.
Capitalism is in the process of transforming into a more autocratic version of itself—something like China or Singapore, where individual rights, many of the privileges we enjoy as a western society, either do not exist or are drastically scaled back. Doled out in increments by an unholy alliance between state and industry.
It has gotten to the point where capitalism can no longer tolerate the constraints of democracy. Anything that slows or inhibits growth/profit, must be neutered, rendered harmless. And that can be accomplished, for example, through trade pacts that supersede or nullify a country’s legal codes and charters, fatally undermining national social institutions and standards.
Environmental laws, legislation restricting monopolies or policing the financial industry, are anathema to the one-percenters and business elite. They still exist in a magical land where growth is limitless, the stock market their personal Ponzi scheme and there are sufficient resources to sustain their extravagant lifestyles indefinitely.
Their narrative simply does not allow for maintaining a more modest standard of living, conservation, thrift, environmental stewardship…
All their talk of GNP and GDP and TTIP, but they persist in refusing to factor in the short and long term consequences of ruinous, wasteful industrial practices, mindsets that more properly belong to the notorious robber barons of the 19th Century, rather than enlightened and highly educated men and women (okay, mainly men) of today. And the toll continues to mount: pollution and ecological devastation on an unimaginable scale, with all the attendant health problems; a growing disparity between rich and poor; human populations becoming more fearful and anxiety-wracked as they face a future that no longer guarantees food security, let alone the safety and sanctity of their homes and persons.
Clean air, safe food, pure water, human dignity and basic, inalienable rights…these things are non-negotiable. In fact, they are the basis for life itself.
Why would we cede responsibility over such crucial issues to petty bureaucrats and corrupt apparatchiks?
Have we become so lazy and stupid, such sheep, that we would willingly hand the keys of liberty to our warders and bare our throats to ravenous wolves?
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-linear 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
Copyright, 2013 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
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)
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;
but did not stay.”