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)
I. The First Crime Scene
The suspect toes the ground resentfully, tight-lipped, shrugging in response to the Magistrate’s queries. Evincing probity and incomprehension, but also giving the impression of barely concealed insolence.
The man is a pitiful liar.
Again the Magistrate demands that the creature divulge the circumstances of his crime and reveal the location of the body. Corpus delicti. Yet despite Supreme Jurist’s obvious frustration and rising anger, the guilty party continues to fend off his remonstrations with hostile silence.
And then, miracle of miracles, the accused mutters something, a curt, sly rejoinder, sotto voce, practically inaudible.
The wretched beast actually raises his eyes, no longer cowed and obeisant, meeting the Magistrate’s gaze directly. “I said, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’”
The Magistrate is stunned. Everything abruptly freezes, a complete cessation of sound, movement extending across twelve dimensions and countless timelines; the equivalent of a collective, celestial gasp.
Oblivious to the dismay he’d wrought, Cain is washing his hands in a nearby stream, immersing them in the pure, clear water.
Frowning at the stubbornness of the stain.
II. The Last Crime Scene
ARU-2466/TLS-13 spots a glint of white at the base of the escarpment, near a recent slide or rock fall, descends to fifty feet, hovering.
It looks like…could it be…
There are mandatory protocols to follow, the ARU unit knows this. Any evidence of the Ancestors must be recorded and transmitted, the site left undisturbed. After all, this is sacred ground.
But the drone lingers, awed by the scale of its discovery, observing at once that the skeleton, though well-preserved, shows indications of massive trauma. The legs shattered, spine and skull split and sundered. An accidental fall from the precipice above?
A series of rapid, almost instantaneous calculations. Answer: unlikely.
Like many of its counterparts, ARU-2466/TLS-13 is aware of the legends surrounding the End Days. The Ancestors, once a great species, reduced by war, famine, disease and deprivation. Squabbling over increasingly scarce resources, raiding and killing until they were all but extinct.
Could this be one of the last survivors? Isolated, forsaken, appalled by the poisonous wasteland its kind had made of the planet?
Remorseful, perhaps, capable of one final act of contrition, a form of ritual self-slaughter.
The evidence is persuasive but hardly definitive.
ARU-2466/TLS-13 drops a beacon, dipping its wings respectfully as it makes one final pass.
Others will investigate the site, draw their own conclusions.
The drone returns to its regular search pattern, a virtual grid superimposed over a bleak, exhausted terrain.
Continuing an eternal, seemingly fruitless search for signs of life.
© Copyright, 2015 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
They stopped counting at four hundred billion.
Just threw in the towel.
Resorted to a shorthand of equations, accompanied
by hair-pulling and other frantic gesticulations.
That’s a lot of stars, of suns–
but still only one, single galaxy,
not an especially distinguished
galaxy at that.
Kind of humbling, isn’t it?
To realize from a cosmic perspective we’re
the equivalent of country bumpkins, living
wayyyy out in the boonies.
And so can any god suffice?
Persuade us of a divine flame
burning invisibly within us, shining
like one of those stars?
Or have you murdered faith,
Galileo, by measuring the glory of
Creation with your heretical gaze,
recanting except in your heart?
© Copyright, 2015 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Recently, I wrote a series of prose poems to accompany six visual pieces I’d created.
The marriage of words and images worked wonderfully and I’m delighted with the result. I’ve always loved collage, combining text and illos, loved staring at a photo or painting and riffing on it, writing off the top of my head, no pre-planning, just letting ‘er rip. “Automatic writing”, the surrealists used to call it.
Here’s one of the prose poems, just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about (click on the image below to enlarge for reading):
Years ago I composed a series of prose bits* on the back of eight postcards I found, some of them based on famous art works, others historical photographs. Again, all I did was glance at the front, grab a mood or thought, flip the card over and commence scribbling. Worked like a charm (and a cool way to break an intractable writer’s block, hmmm?).
Just a little tip, o fellow suffering wordsmiths.
…and since I’m feeling especially cheerful and generous these days, how about some new music, an ambient number I call “Atmospheric Disturbance”:
- You can find these “postcard stories” in my Stromata collection, available from my virtual “Bookstore“…or you can order it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
Update, March, 2017: The Oleander Review, a literary journal affiliated with the University of Michigan, has accepted “A Personal Cosmology” for publication in their Spring, 2017 issue.
Starting with the fun stuff, I attended a screening of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Nosferatu” and wrote about it over on my film blog. Some musicians from the Saskatoon Symphony provided accompaniment and, what can I tell you, it was an absolutely brilliant evening. The following day I turned fifty and couldn’t imagine a more fitting way to celebrate.
Yeah, I said celebrate. I’ve hit the big five-oh and, okay, physically I’m not as strong or durable as I was twenty years ago, but mentally and artistically I feel close to the top of my game. Growing spiritually, as well, and that’s an ongoing process. I’m in a good space, some of the fears and obsessional thinking that once upon a time dragged me down are either gone or have eased to the point where they no longer cause the kind of damage they used to. My family played a huge part in that transformation and also the sense that my life and work are serving a tiny role in a Grand Design God-knows-how-many years in progress. My faith life is essential to my entire sense of well-being; without it, I’m a miserable cur, hardly worthy of consideration, barely rating a glance.
In terms of my work:
Researching for the novel, reading reference books and trolling on-line for more info, looking for those obscure little tid-bits that add the perfect dollop of detail to a scene, imparting an authenticity that makes the Reader shiver (love those moments).
I collaborated on a sound collage with my youngest son, Sam. He’s getting to be quite the musician so when my wife asked the two of us to put together an “environment” for a puppet and mask project she’s creating, I was curious to see what we came up with. Turned out to be a weird, ambient piece nearly four minutes long. Now we’re going to edit together a short film using that soundtrack and footage Sherron’s assembled over the last couple of years. Hope to have that done in the next week or so.
What else…well, I’d been giving some thought to writing something for the CBC/Enroute Short Story Contest but every time I checked my well of inspiration, it was dry as fossilized bone. So with the deadline looming I’d pretty much given up any notion of sending anything…until a couple of days ago, when I sat down and started tapping away, managing to complete a tale that adhered to the 1500 word limit (barely) and turned out to be a darn good story. Imagine that—posted it yesterday, just under the wire.
Have to confess, I hate entering or submitting my work anywhere—as an indie, I’d rather publish it myself. But the prize money for a six page story is unbelievable, ridiculous, and the notion of spending two weeks in residence at Banff…how could I resist?
From what I’ve heard, the contest receives between 1800-2000 entries annually, so I’m not holding my breath.
But wouldn’t it be nice…
What else? Ah, I’ve been in my basement cave, doing some more painting. A couple of canvases currently being prepped, exercising my visual muscles, expressing myself beyond the precincts of the printed word. Who cares if I’m any good at it?
And music, lots of music playing, which is always an indication I’m in an inspired state of mind. Frequently heard these days: The Eels, Bob Mould, Brain Jonestown Massacre, Jimmy Eat World, R.L. Burnside, Radio Moscow, old Dylan. Keeping it eclectic.
I guess that just about sums things up. Heading into November around here, but the yard work is pretty much done, all I have to do is order some pine wood and see about winter tires for the car.
The next six to eight months will be spent on the novel (mostly), so by Spring, 2014 I should have the lion’s share of the editing done (crosses his fingers). I’ll keep you apprised of developments and, hopefully, will be posting more frequently than I have been of late.
But no promises…
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”.
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.
And, please, folks, during this magical time of the year, let’s not forget the true meaning and origin of Christmas.
I confess it: I love it every time December 25th rolls around, and Christmas morning still sees me scrambling down the stairs, bright and (too) early, poking under the tree, pestering my wife to hurry up as she makes us her customary scones. It’s ridiculous, I’m pushing fifty and there’s no excuse for such silly behavior.
But I was the kinda kid who avidly followed reports from CKOS-TV (Yorkton) on Christmas Eve, an announcer glibly informing gullible dopes like me that our military radar (Canada’s famed Distant Early Warning System) had picked up Santa’s sleigh as it departed the North Pole and his stupendously improbable round-the-world odyssey had begun. And, yes, later on, I’d be in bed, straining for the sound of hooves clattering on the roof. Swear to God. So I guess you can see why so much of my fiction tends toward the fantastic. It comes honestly.
Both my sons are in high school now so there isn’t that buzz around Christmas that there was in the old days. We even wrapped their presents early, hoping to draw them like inquisitive ferrets but, well, Sam’s been rehearsing and performing in the school play and Liam wrestles four nights a week these days so they’re quite preoccupied with matters other than rattling boxes and guessing their contents.
Not that it would do any good—I’m a devious wrapper, cleverly disguising even the most modest gift so that by the time I’m done the Amazing Kreskin couldn’t tell you what’s in there.
Christmas is a time of kicking back, reading, relaxing, watching movies…which reminds me, I’ve got to dig some of the classics out of the basement storeroom: “Charlie Brown Christmas”, “Muppet Christmas” and, it goes without saying, “Santa Claus Vs. the Martians”. Lots of family time, lots of time in front of the fireplace, lots of…turkey. Turkey, turkey and more turkey. That is absolutely mandatory.
Editing on my western novel has been especially intense for the past three weeks. I wanted to have a good draft of The Last Hunt by Christmas Eve and it looks like I’ll achieve my goal. That will make it easier for me to take a few days off, rest and recharge before I do a final polish of the novel in the New Year. Everything on schedule, nothing to get uptight about. Easy, boy, easy…
Here’s wishing you a cheery, laughter-filled holiday season. Remember to spare a thought or two to those less fortunate, drop a few bucks in the hand of a street person, send a check to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, do what you can with what you have to make this world a little more humane and compassionate.
Oh, and, ah, KEEP READING.
After writing my previous mini-essay, I discovered some wise words from the dean of comparative religion, Huston Smith. This excerpt is from his autobiography, Tales of Wonder, and relates his experiences following the deaths of a beloved daughter and grand-daughter. I revere Mr. Smith and this is why:
“After Karen’s death I had returned to work; after Serena’s, I sat in a dark room, to which eventually I admitted a few friends, not for them to utter words of comfort—what comfort was there?—but for the mute warmth of another presence. Yet when a reporter asked me, ‘Have your tragedies shaken your faith in God?’ I thought it a ridiculous question. What about the Holocaust and all the other catastrophes we know as history? They did not make my own loss less but kept me from imagining that I had suffered a unique vengeance that impugned the idea of God instead of making God more necessary.
Christ said, ‘Blessed are those that mourn’. Had I been living in Jerusalem, I would have joined the mourners grieving and praying at the Wailing Wall. Suffering led the Buddha to enlightenment, and it may cause us, against our will, to grow in compassion, awareness, and possibly eventually peace. In Buddhism monks daily recite the Five remembrances, which are: I will lose my youth, my health, my dear ones and everything I hold dear, and finally lose life itself, by the very nature of my being human. These are bitter reminders that the only thing that continues is the consequences of our action. The fact that all the things we hold dear and love are transient does not mean that we should love them less but—as I do Karen and Serena—love them even more. Suffering, the Buddha said, if it does not diminish love, will transport you to the farther shore.”