Category: Literature

Somber Days

I won’t lie to you: it’s been a grim month here at Casa Burns.

We lost a couple of people very near and dear to our hearts and that’s never easy.

Awhile back, I posted a poem titled “The Grief Path” that did a good job of alluding to the sense of emptiness and pure anguish one experiences with the death of a loved one. It exposes the rawest emotions, the agony reaching right down into your soul, the seat of your faith. Only the passage of time offers a slim promise of solace. There is simply nothing you can do for it except keep putting one foot ahead of the other and wandering up that long, lonely track. Keening your song of sorrow and woe.

And then just when it seemed like the atmosphere was lightening, some of the spiritual and emotional pall lifting…

…the decision in the Colten Boushie case was handed down.

I had the privilege of meeting Debbie Baptiste, Colten’s mother, last summer, within weeks of her son’s senseless death at the hands of Gerald Stanley. I was immediately impressed by her poise and dignity, despite the weight of the incredible burden that poor woman was bearing. I couldn’t help wondering how she felt when she heard that terrible verdict read, realizing that in the eyes of a court of law, a fundamental Canadian institution we have been taught to honor and respect, her boy’s life was deemed worthless.

What can we say to her?

Is it sufficient to remark that sometimes Justice really is blind…and deaf and dumb too? Somehow, I doubt that will cut it. She has been let down at every point of this ordeal and at the end of the day, whatever happens next, she won’t be getting Colten back.

She and her many supporters have every right to demand answers regarding how the RCMP handled the initial investigation and their behavior toward Debbie and her grieving family in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

I’m pleased to hear talk of altering the rules of jury selection, but don’t foresee any speedy or significant changes to a system that has failed, disproportionately, our First Nations people since before Confederation, compounding the misery that everyday, casual racism inflicts on them, the stereotypes they must endure.

The only thing that gives me hope are the on-going efforts we’re making—through education and increasing knowledge of aboriginal history, cultural exposure—to reach out to each other, share our stories, growing together as a nation of nations. I know people intimately involved in this process, men and women who recognize the power we can tap into whenever we collaborate, combining our energy and spirit on meaningful endeavors that celebrate our diversity, the collective strength of the many.

That’s why I grieve, but I do not despair.

I know in my heart the good guys are on our side and the better angels within us will prevail.

It will take time, tremendous effort but we cannot fail, cannot allow the small-minded, the vulture-hearted, to steal the future from us and color it blood red.

We’ll do it for Colten and all the others who die without fulfilling their promise.

We’ll do it for Debbie and the mothers who weep for the children taken from them.

And we’ll do it for ourselves, to prove we are worthy of our roles as stewards of Creation and the children of a wise and loving god.

 

HST–Writing routine

Hunter S. Thompson became one of my literary idols when I was nineteen years old. Reading Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas changed my life…in good ways and bad.

Imagine keeping to a writing regime like this, day in and day out:

 

My daily routine involves a couple cups of tea first thing in the morning, long spells of staring off into space and endless hours of self-doubt and gnawing anxiety.

Clearly, I’ve been going about it the wrong way…

My mantra for 2018

New Year’s Eve I was pacing about my office, thinking about my plans for 2018.

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

Zang!

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.”

Ringing in the New Year

A bit late with my year end wrap up—we were away from home for the first Christmas in ages and I’m only now getting caught up.

A quick glance ahead at 2018 would seem to indicate a year of some promise. I have two books I am readying for release, the first a volume of poetry (The Algebra of Inequality & Other Poems), which will be out April-May. A compilation of my best poems in the past five years. I am currently in the process of culling and selecting from a roster of nearly a hundred and fifty; not an easy or pleasant task. In the fall, finances permitting, I’ll be publishing a collection of short stories, Electric Castles: A Book of Urban Legends. Two hundred plus pages of prose set in cities here, there and nowhere.

Two books in one calendar year—that will be quite a stretch for my wee press but I think we can manage (crossing his fingers).

Looking back on 2017, I see it as a year where I managed to dabble in a little bit of everything: writing, photography, painting, music…

Is it good that I’m no longer so focussed on writing, that it isn’t my sole obsession these days? Am I right to believe that any form of expression belongs in my oeuvre, regardless of the media involved?

I feel such a tremendous sense of satisfaction when I see one of my books that also features cover art that I helped create or devise. That’s empowerment, I tell you. Watch for the cover of that aforementioned volume of poetry, come April; it’s one of mine as well.

I managed to achieve my target of reading one hundred books in 2017—actually, the final tally was 103. I also watched over a hundred movies last year and I’m be posting my favorites over at Cinema Arête in the coming hours.

Here’s my “Best of…” picks for the books I discovered and devoured in 2017. My reading, as ever, far-ranging and eclectic, about evenly divided between fiction and non-fiction.

Best Fiction of 2017

The Street of Crocodiles (Stories) by Bruno Schulz

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Tsar of Love & Techno (Stories) by Anthony Maara

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

We The Animals by Justin Torres

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Sleet (Selected Stories) by Stig Dagerman

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

The North Water by Ian McGuire

Honorable Mention:

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Trajectory (Stories) by Richard Russo

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash

Flings (Stories) by Justin Taylor

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

Poetry:

The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert by Zbigniew Herbert

War Primer by Bertolt Brecht

Flying at Night (Poems 1965-85) by Ted Kooser

Non-Fiction:

Scarcity: Why Having So Little means So Much by S. Maullainathan & E. Shafir

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Post-Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason

The Dilemmas of Lenin by Tariq Ali

October by China Mieville

The Lost Amazon edited by Wade Davis

The Art of Space by Ron Miller

A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros

Keep Watching the Skies! American SF Movies of the Fifties by Bill Warren

Honorable Mention:

A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre

Unknown Pleasures (Memoir) by Peter Hook

Footnotes in Gaza (Graphic Novel) by Joe Sacco

Trouble Boys (Biography of The Replacements) by Bob Mehr

 

New poem

Delinquent

Offer us a stick
we’ll sharpen it to a point.

Provide us with clear, running water
we’ll build a dam.

Show us how to plant a garden
we’ll raid our neighbors’ plot.

Teach us to sing
we’ll write anthems.

Make up a god
we’ll supply the jealousy and hate.

 

© Cliff Burns, 2017

Celebrating you

Ah, the grand adventures we’ve had.

Last year’s trip to Europe will be pretty hard to top but I’m convinced we’ll manage.

Thirty-plus years together and every single day is still fun, the hours in your company a treasure beyond assaying.

We’re essentially very silly people. We laugh a lot. Two irrepressible clowns. Our humor definitely veering toward the strange and bizarre. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, the Marx Brothers, Jacques Tati, “Team America”, and the bookstore gals in “Portlandia”. The sharper the satire, the more expertly the scalpel wielded, the more we like it.

Because if you start taking life too seriously, you quickly figure out, to paraphrase David Thomson, the world doesn’t really want to be saved. And that, as they say, is a mighty hard row to hoe.

Better to experience existence with a healthy sense of the absurd, gales of incredulous laughter, rather than tears of self-pity.

More than three decades of shared joy, passion, a long history of creative collaborations (including two terrific sons). Always seeking to inspire one another, egg each other on, pushing the envelope, aesthetically and spiritually and experientially.

We’re the damnedest couple. I’ve never met a pair like us, with so much obvious affinity and chemistry and yet two totally different, independent, strong-willed individuals.  We’re nothing like clones, our differences can be quite profound. We’ve had some heated arguments and they haven’t always been resolved. Some are on-going and irreconcilable. Like your insistence that Justin Trudeau isn’t an airhead and humans are fundamentally good, wisdom and faith will prevail, offering a bright, shining future for our species…

What I most appreciate is your ferocious loyalty, the way you’ve supported me, my life’s work, from the moment we officially became a “couple”, recognizing and acknowledging the importance of literature to me, to my very essence. Never a flicker of doubt, despite some tough, trying times. We’ve had to sacrifice quite a bit, struggled financially to maintain my status as a full-time author and not once have you expressed any resentment or criticism.

There’s a line I sometimes quote from an otherwise forgettable Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good As It Gets”. At one point he says wistfully to Helen Hunt: “You make me want to be a better person”.

That’s it. That what you do, not just for me, but for everyone who comes into contact with you.

Thank you, Sherron. For all that we’ve shared, for everything still to come.

“Forever and ever…”