Specter of the Spheres: Prologue

It’s probably not fair to spend years on this blog teaching writing and prose techniques and critiquing other novels without ever showing my own. Here’s the prologue from my newest book for your enjoyment.

Specter of the Spheres

Prologue

Priestess Elienne squinted toward the southern horizon. The blood moon hung low, and time was short until daylight burned again. The grand arch glinted in the moonlight, marking the entrance to the underground vault. They would make it in time.

Her defender swarm pattered a rhythmic beat across the ruined lands and lulled her into a trance as they pressed forward. Each defender looked exactly the same: smooth obsidian shells that came up to her knees and eight razor-sharp legs. They had no eyes or faces. They moved by sensing the priestess’s heat signature or potential enemies.

Elienne knew from her studies that people would have called them spiders in the old language, but this wasn’t quite right. They were larger, and they had an intelligence spiders didn’t have.

They also harbored the souls of dead people. This was how they got their name: specterlings. They weren’t ghosts, though, a common misunderstanding of how the necromantic arts worked. A priestess had incarnated the shells, merely giving the illusion of life.

Elienne’s head snapped toward the western hills as the lead defender cried out its warning signal.

The sun?

No. A lava nethermental rushed at them, and the first crawler darted forward to protect the priestess.

She shouted, “No! Get back!”

The specterlings swarmed forward anyway, not understanding the true danger. Their only trained goal was protection. In most circumstances their leg blades would shred any threat: the swarm a stampede of razors.

Molten rock oozed out of the nethermental’s body, leaving a trail of dark pumice. The huge body rose to twice her height. It swung its boulder arms viciously at the attackers. Bits of lava and fire splattered haphazardly.

Elienne had no time to figure out who would have breathed life into such a destructive golem—probably one of the Persuader’s minions. She watched in horror as the lava hardened in an instant, trapping every one of her defenders.

A bright trail of fire arced and crackled through the air as the beast swiped at the lead crawler again. The crawler’s incinerated body melted into poison, a last-resort line of defense should all the specterlings die.

But the lava nethermental stomped over it, unfazed. No one had predicted such forces would try to stop her. Elienne needed time she didn’t have. One of her remaining specterlings had to remain alive for a banishment enchantment.

She pulled a dark purple crystal from her pack and slammed it into the sandy ground. It poked out at an awkward angle but stayed upright.

A vibrant glow emanated outward, and she began to sing in the ancient language.

Swipe: two more specterlings down. Poison pooled outward, and Elienne’s breathing doubled as she realized she might be too close to it. Her flesh body was not immune.

There isn’t time to move away, she thought.

She continued to sing with intense focus. The crystal shook under the tension in the winding melody. The song carried Elienne away from the scene. She closed her eyes. The beauty hurt. Her body shook with the pain, and she took it all upon herself. She needed more pain than ever before if she was to kill the powerful beast.

The ground now shuddered under the weight of the nethermental as it trampled closer. She opened her eyes to see the damage. Only one specterling remained. Elienne looked at where the nethermental’s eyes should have been but only saw oozing rock.

It somehow knew her location and moved directly toward her.

She needed that last specterling as a sacrifice for the necromantic ritual to work. As the nethermental’s swipe came forward, she completed the song and pushed pain into the crystal.

The crystal converted the pain to energy, which shot into the specterling. The defender called out a dying shriek, and Elienne relaxed. The specterling died before it received the blow from the nethermental.

The energy from the sacrificed life pulsed into the blazing golem in an ascendant burst. It landed with a sharp crack, and the beast collapsed into a lifeless heap of black rock, still glimmering from the heat.

Elienne fell to the ground, panting from the effort. Her small army of defenders were dead, and now she was on her own. If any more danger appeared, she’d have to fight without necromancy. She looked to where the monster had been, and the world distorted in waves from the shimmering heat.

Elienne pushed back to her feet and returned the depleted crystal to her pack. The sands tumbled under her feet, making the long journey harder than it needed to be. A heavy weight pressed on her shoulders.

She didn’t think she could continue; the ritual had taken too much out of her. Every muscle in her body drooped toward the ground, begging for rest. The singeing pain lingered from the ritual, but the sorrow at having failed her people hurt worse.

She was a priestess who had taken on vows. It had been over a millennium since the last failure, and that had wrecked the world. They almost hadn’t survived. With how things were now, all life would end this time.

Elienne glanced from her feet to the horizon once more. The arch marking the entrance to the vault grew as she approached, and she realized there was still hope. A quick flutter of energy titillated her chest, but the blood moon hung low. If the heat of the sun peaked the horizon, she’d be burned alive—darkness or moonlight were the only viable possibilities for survival.

She pressed on faster, not caring about her own life. It would be sacrificed at the coming ritual in hours anyway. Each one of the seven sects would send one priestess to complete the ritual and keep the world going.

They were seen as evil by most. Necromancy looked like an unnatural art to the rest of the world, and people had tried to squash them since the dawn of time.

But they weren’t evil. They protected life through sacrifice. Without death, there could be no life. Why couldn’t people understand that instead of sending these beasts to destroy them each blood moon?

Elienne shook herself free of these thoughts as she felt the sun burn her shoulders. She despaired that she had failed in her duty. She had been trained as a priestess for this one moment. The ritual kept the gods appeased. Without the ritual, during the full blood moon, the caverns would crack open and be exposed to the sun. They would all die, and without them, the humans would die as well.

Elienne ran with all her might. She couldn’t let that happen. A vicious scream came from her lips as the sun rounded the horizon. The lava nethermental had caused too much of a delay.

She reached the steps leading down to the vault, but the heat was too much; she collapsed. And with that, the end of the world began. The fools who had sent the monster knew not what they had done.


Six figures towered over Elienne, each adorning the black robes of a priestess. Every part of her body hurt. She could tell there were bruises all over. Flashes of the scene struck her memory: tumbling, crying out, and cracks of flesh on stone.

Elienne blinked several times as she tried to get her bearings.

One of the other priestesses said, “You made it. We didn’t think you were coming.”

She didn’t say anything. What was there to say? They’d all be dead the next night when they sacrificed themselves—no need to make friends. They had a job to do.

She looked around in fascination. Elienne had wondered what the inside of the vault looked like since she was a child. Now she had a single day to explore it. She cautiously pushed herself to her elbows. Her voice was shaky.

“What happened?”

Another priestess said, “We don’t know. We heard screams and rushed over. The vault sealed itself, so we’re safe now.”

Another said, “You should rest. You’ll need your strength for the ritual.”

Two of them swooped in with bizarre coordination, and Elienne felt too exhausted to resist. She gave in to the arms as she was carried to a different chamber. Seven beds were lined along the wall, and the two priestesses set Elienne on the first one.

She let the blackness overtake her.

The sound of whispered voices woke her, and she had no idea how much time had passed. They wouldn’t have let her sleep through the ritual. One of them noticed the stirring and called over.

“It is time.”

A pang of disappointment filled Elienne. She had dreamed of the vault her whole life, and now that she was here, she wouldn’t get the chance to see it before sacrificing herself on the altar.

She stood from the bed, still shaky from the pain song. A sudden fear filled her. What if she didn’t have the strength to go through with it? The upcoming ritual sacrifice would take much more concentration and intensity than the simple banishment spell she had done on the nethermental.

Elienne pulled herself from the bed and limped to the huddled group. Each step brought a sharp pain to her ankle, and she wondered if she had broken it while falling down the stairs.

One of the priestesses asked, “Can you make it to the altar?”

Elienne nodded. The group trudged along, up the stairs to the altar on top of the vault. She didn’t expect the simplicity of it. It appeared to be a stone statue with none of the intricate flair of the temple they worshiped at back home.

Seven circles rounded the altar, one for each priestess to stand on.

The group knew exactly what to do. They had all trained for this moment intensely. They waited for the proper alignment of the blood moon through the aperture in the statue. When the moment hit, a dark blood stain appeared across the altar symbolizing the first sacrifice that saved the world.

They held hands, and the priestess from the Haiel faction began the song. Each faction had a separate part of the song, and none had heard any of the other parts. A thrill filled Elienne now that she would get to hear it in full. After a few measures of the melody, the second priestess joined in.

The harmony produced a dark, strange sensation inside of Elienne. It was nothing like the painful beauty she was used to. Her turn came third, and she started the song. She focused hard at producing a clean tone when the first notes came out raspy.

The sounds meshed, and her voice cleared. Pain entered the song with her voice, and she saw the others cringe who hadn’t started their part.

They needed to take on the pain. It was essential to the completion of the ritual.

The rest of the parts joined, one by one, and each brought its own emotions to it. The cacophony of the counterpoint almost made Elienne falter. It was hard to focus on her own part when so many strange sounds kept coming at her and making her feel intense sensations: rage, lust, and even joy.

As the song intensified to the point of no return, the blood stain brightened. Elienne feared they had sung all the way to morning, and now the sunlight would burn them before they succeeded.

The light brightened more and more. But it wasn’t the fire of sunlight. It had no heat, just an intense whiteness.

She was blinded by it but kept her focus on the song. A burst of ecstasy exploded in Elienne’s gut, and she couldn’t sing anymore. It didn’t matter, because the song ended, and all that remained was the light.

Specter of the Spheres - High Resolution

A note on genre and buying options if you’re curious:

The full novel isn’t quite as fantasy-oriented as it sounds. It fits better under the category of magical realism or slipstream (if you know what that is). Here’s the description:

The world ends each blood moon.

But a faction of priestesses sacrifice themselves to keep it going. What happens when Aceline wants more for her life and decides not to do it?

Wallace has chased his dream of becoming a poet for a lifetime. It leads him toward a mysterious aurora.

Robert just wanted to connect with other humans in a world dictated by screens, algorithms, and addiction.

These three become linked across worlds, and each must uphold their end of a quest to prevent catastrophe at the hands of a tyrant in a land full of necromancy.

It officially releases tomorrow as an e-book. It will be free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers and can be pre-ordered now. Also, the paper version can be ordered now, and you will get the e-book free if you get the hardcopy.

Amazon page here.

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Literature is for the Other

I’ve decided to end my silence by responding to a recent Tor article by Liz Bourke entitled Sleeps With Monsters: On the Question of Quality.

I have one main beef with it, and it comes as a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of literature. But before I get to that, I want to address a throwaway comment that gets at a pet peeve of mine.

She says, “Past a certain level of prose and structural competence, ‘quality’ is a nebulous concept.”

No, it’s not. This is one of those things people say that aren’t true. In the best-case scenario, she hasn’t thought very hard about this. In the worst-case scenario, it’s a rhetorical trick used to defend works of dubious quality.

If quality were as nebulous and subjective as Bourke wants us to believe, all editors may as well quit. Let’s inform the big publishers they can save millions of dollars a year. Those suggested edits won’t improve the quality of your manuscript.

Why waste time as an author even going beyond your first, rough draft? Your edits might change the words on the page, but there’s certainly no sense in which you’ve improved the writing, because, hey, quality isn’t a real thing. While we’re at it, no more literary agents. Everything in the slush pile is a masterpiece to someone.

Since this was published at Tor, let’s also inform those people at Writing Excuses that they’ve wasted twelve years of their lives teaching people the ins and outs of various aspects of the craft of writing. Because, hey, that’s like just their subjective opinion, right? Following that advice can’t improve the quality of your writing. Quality isn’t even a well-defined concept.

What about the hundreds of books on writing and writing programs across the country. Call up Robert McKee and tell him story structure is meaningless. Let’s burn our copies Strunk and White, since prose style doesn’t matter. We can save universities tons of money by canceling Freshmen Composition classes, too. Why not kill the whole English department? What’s to be learned in a literature class when all that matters is what you subjectively feel as you read. Those professors can’t add anything.

I’ve done dozens of “Examining Pro’s Prose” articles pointing out aspects of high-quality writing. I’ve also done a few “Lessons in the Fundamentals” pointing out low-quality writing.

Anyone who has consider the idea for more than a few minutes knows that quality is not a nebulous concept. The notion of “quality” is reasonably objective and fully separate from whether anyone connects with or appreciates the product. One is related to the craft of writing, the other to the art of writing.

End rant and on to the real point of this post.

Bourke writes:

I wrote a column in September about the utter shock of feeling catered to, of feeling seen, of feeling centred in books as a queer person. It was a shock that brought home to me that this is how straight white cis men can rely on feeling when they come to a narrative. After a lifetime like that, it must be disconcerting to experience narratives in which you are present but not central.

It must be alienating to come to narratives where you are an afterthought, or not there at all.

Sit with that for a minute. Just sit with it.

You can feel the smugness emanating from those words. She feels so clever, like she’s struck upon something profound. I almost feel bad that she has literature exactly backward in its importance.

More than any other art form, literature can transport you inside the soul of another person no matter how distinct their identity or experience is from your own. We read literature precisely to get the understanding and empathy that a perceived other is just as worthy of compassion and consideration as our own in-group.

It’s why I chose to be a writer.

It is such a shallow, egocentric, and frankly embarrassing admission to say an important revelation of your reading life was seeing yourself represented. Literature is for the other, not for the self.

Some of the most profound reading experiences of my life were reading James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, and getting a glimpse at what it was like being a bisexual black man in very dangerous time for both of those identities. And The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Jhumpa Lahiri and Joan Didion and Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison and and!!!

These books all made me a better person precisely because I was not represented as the main character. They gave me empathy and understanding I wouldn’t otherwise have had.

People who LARP (live action role play) have a name for this: bleed. When you inhabit someone other than yourself, those effects can be profound and lasting on your life. The narrative experience “bleeds” over to real life. This only happens when reading about people dissimilar to oneself, and it’s the most important and powerful part of great literature.

(My next novel delves into this concept considerably).

You know what wasn’t a powerful experience for me? Seeing myself as a main character in a book. I’m gay, and I can’t even tell you the first time I read a gay main character. I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower in high school, and this had a gay side character. If I had to guess my first gay main character would be from the novel At Swim, Two Boys. That is a beautiful book, but I don’t know for sure.

Do you know why this wasn’t a “shock” to me? Because I already had that experience. It was me. There wasn’t as much to learn from it. I’ve also never had trouble jumping right into the mind of a character of any sexual orientation, gender, race, etc.

I find it kind of disturbing that Bourke thinks people other than herself (namely straight white cis men) would find a book centered on a character of differing identity “disconcerting” and “alienating.” This probably says more about her than about the people her article is lambasting.

I’ve just made the correct argument for quality diverse literature in the world. It allows people to inhabit the other and find common ground and understanding. It unites through revealing the human condition.

You know what is not a good argument for diversity in literature? To see yourself represented. That creates a useless bubble, and I’d be embarrassed if I read books for that purpose.

As a postscript, I wouldn’t make the same claims about visual media. Representation in film or tv, where you are separate from the character, and their physical traits are present all the time is a different scenario and underscores how important literature is as a distinct storytelling medium where you inhabit another person for a time.

Difficult Subject Matter in 90’s Song Lyrics

I don’t want to make one of those click bait “the 90’s had the best music EVER!!” posts. One can find really terrible music and really excellent music in any decade. It would be a futile task to claim one decade had the best music.

I went down a strange rabbit hole the other day, though. I just put up a song on youtube and let the autoplay happen while I worked on some other things. It shifted into some sort of 90’s nostalgia playlist, and I kept hearing very surprising lyrics. They were songs I knew from living through the time, but they handled difficult subject matter in subtle and beautiful ways I hadn’t noticed.

I’d be surprised if songs like these could get on the radio today, but I distinctly remember hearing both of these songs on the radio in the 90’s.

Let’s start with “Round Here” by Counting Crows. First off, I’d like to point out that the song is through-composed, already something that could never happen today. The song appears to be about a depressed girl who attempts suicide. But it’s also about the disillusionment of growing up and finding out all those things you were told in childhood probably didn’t matter.

If you think it’s farfetched to have so much in one “pop” song, listen to it a few times. It’s all in there and more. A quick google search brings up wild, yet convincing, interpretations. This “universality” is the hallmark of great song art. Everyone listens to it and thinks it’s about their experience.

Here’s the opening:

Step out the front door like a ghost
Into the fog where no one notices
The contrast of white on white.
And in between the moon and you
The angels get a better view
Of the crumbling difference between wrong and right.

It opens with a beautiful simile. Sometimes pop songs have similes, but they tend to be funny or ironic. It’s hard to think of any current ones that do the hard work of writing something real. “Like a ghost into the fog” is such apt imagery for the point he’s making. Ghosts are white and ethereal. Fog is white and ethereal. A ghost that steps into fog loses all sense of self and no one else can see the person. They’re lost.

Then angels see a crumbling of the difference between wrong and right. This sort of moral ambiguity is another thing it would be hard to find in today’s lyrics. In the context of one of the interpretations I provided, this is probably in reference to how adults tell children right and wrong with clear certainty. As one grows up, one learns that it’s never that obvious.

The lyrics just keep getting better from there.

Next up is “Freshmen” by the Verve Pipe. This song hit Number 5 on the Billboard Top 100. Fifteen years ago, I thought I understood this song. Now I hear it from a totally different perspective.

Originally, I thought it was about a girl that broke up with the singer and then she killed herself over it. The singer is ridden with guilt. But the lyrics, when carefully analyzed, paint a slightly different picture.

Here’s the opening:

When I was young I knew everything
She a punk who rarely ever took advice
Now I’m guilt stricken,
Sobbing with my head on the floor
Stop a baby’s breath and a shoe full of rice

The singer is a typical Freshmen. He thinks he knows everything. This is part of what has changed for me in the song. I was pretty modest as a Freshmen, but now I can look back and it terrifies me how much I thought I knew. I’ve heard this feeling only gets worse as you age.

The key to the song is given right up front. “Stop a baby’s breath” is a reference to his girlfriend getting an abortion, and how this led to a fight and breakup. “A shoe full of rice” is about how they were even planning on getting married. Again, this is subtle imagery that blows by early on in the song. It requires careful attention if one is to understand the rest of the song.

I can’t be held responsible

This is something he tells himself, but he doesn’t believe it. This is a shift in voice, because it goes from narration of the story to internal thoughts. If one takes this line at face value without understanding this shift, one will misinterpret it. Here’s the chorus:

For the life of me I cannot remember
What made us think that we were wise and
We’d never compromise
For the life of me I cannot believe
We’d ever die for these sins
We were merely freshmen

Here’s another reference to his youthful arrogance. He thought he knew everything, and convinced his girlfriend to get the abortion. He refused to compromise and it destroyed their relationship. If you don’t know this song, it’s worth a listen to the rest. It progressively complicates as the guilt reverberates. He can’t hold other relationships out of fear of it happening again.

There’s something haunting about the reiteration of “we were merely freshmen” at the end of each phrase. When we’re young, we think we can do anything without much lasting consequence, but the singer learns the hard way that one devastating mistake can haunt you forever.

To wrap this up, I want to reiterate that it isn’t the difficulty of the subject matter that I find so amazing about these 90’s hits. Plenty of current hits have difficult subject matter. It’s the delicacy with which the lyrics handle the subject. It’s poetic and abstract so that the feeling comes through but the listener interprets it to apply to their own life.

Two Letters of Wallace Stevens

I’ve been travelling for the holidays, so I don’t have a good place to pop out a nice 1000-word blog post this week. I’ve been reading The Whole Harmonium, a biography of Wallace Stevens. He is one of the greatest American poets, yet most people outside of poetry haven’t heard of him.

Honestly, his life isn’t all that interesting to read about. He basically lived a common life as an insurance salesman and wrote poetry in his spare time. It’s not like he was a Beat roaming the country for adventure.

Since many people return home during the holiday season, I thought I’d share some of my own interpretation of Stevens’ “Two Letters,” which I think is one of his lesser known poems. Stevens was a deeply nostalgic poet, and his poems often become self-reflective of this fact. It’s almost like he understands that nostalgia can distort our memory of the past, and he’s embarrassed that he feels it so much.

The “Two Letters” are addressed “A Letter from” and “A Letter to.” We’ll look at “A Letter from.” The central theme of this poem is a longing for his carefree childhood home again. The opening is breathtaking in its imagery, and once you parse the complicated phrasing, it strikes me as a deep truth about human nature.

Even if there had been a crescent moon
On every cloud-tip over the heavens,
Drenching the evening with crystals’ light,

One would have wanted more-more-more-

Humans can never be satisfied with what they have. We could be given the most stunning piece of heaven as described, but we’d still want “more-more-more-.” I thought this was an appropriate opening sentiment for a time of year that is all about consumerism and wanting more. We rarely step back and appreciate what we have.

Stevens opens this way, not for the consumerism aspect, but the nostalgia aspect. He’s saying he has trouble appreciating what he has now because he longs for the past too much.

Some true interior to which to return
A home against one’s self, a darkness

An ease in which to live a moment’s life,
The moment of life’s love and fortune,
Free from everything else, free above all from thought.

The poem then turns inward and clarifies that it is about his home. There’s comfort in reliving your life, but there’s darkness to it if you do it too much. I’ll try not to focus on interesting wordplay, but this is the type of stuff Stevens is most known for. He has “moment’s life” then “moment of life’s love.”

The first instance still only means a “moment.” You can ease whatever is going on for a moment by returning to those earlier comforts, but he chose this wording to prepare for a transition to contemplating the whole of life. These nostalgic memories let us stop thinking about our current life, if only for a moment.

It would have been like lighting a candle,
Like leaning on the table, shading one’s eyes,
And hearing a tale one wanted intensely to hear,

As if we were all seated together again
And one of us spoke and all of us believed
What we heard and the light, though little, was enough.

Stevens really delivers in the conclusion to the poem. He drops that nostalgic imagery again. This is like those scenes in movies where the music surges, the two main characters are standing in the rain, one declares their love, …

While reading these stanzas, he paints that image of being with family around a table. Everyone is telling stories and laughing. The light from the candle brings warmth to the scene. It’s brilliant how he puts that in to heighten the emotional content of the image.

He then concludes by returning to the opening idea. This is enough. Being with the family, telling stories, a gentle candle light. We can be grateful for that moment. We don’t need more-more-more-.

Using Poetry to Improve Prose

This is going to be a short one. I recently broke my ankle, so I’ve been kind of busy with other things.

I often talk about what makes good prose style. Most of these posts follow and give convention writing advice. I’ve done a few posts on poetry but not much. One of the most important pieces of advice for improving prose style that I never see given is to write some poetry.

You have to take the right attitude for this exercise, though. The point of doing this is to work intensely at exact and evocative word choices; brief sensory detail; creative metaphor; flow and rhythm of the phrases; and so on.

To compose a good six line poem could take weeks or months, but you’ll come out of the other side of the experience with a very different concept of how words can be used to create meaning in a better way.

I’d advise not using a standard form. If you’re trying to fit the words into a preset rhythm or rhyme scheme, then you’ll be thinking about the wrong things. The focus should be on the right words and flow to achieve the purpose—not on finding a word that’s close enough and completes a preset scheme (though that is a good different exercise).

I have a set of 20-30 poems I’ve been tinkering with for about 3 years now. They’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t think they’re embarrassing anymore, but it’s taken a long, long time. I started releasing them to the public at a rate of about one a week through Poets Unlimited on Medium.

I’ve learned a lot from it, and I’ll continue to do it. If you’re curious you can check them out here.

Thoughts on Joanna Newsom’s Divers

I’ve made it no secret that I think Joanna Newsom is one of the most important living musicians. After five years, she has finally released her newest album Divers. I must begin this post with a ton of caveats. Writing about Newsom is difficult, because her albums are so complex. The melody, rhythm, and harmony could be analyzed for all their intricacies or for how they interact with the lyrics. The lyrics could be analyzed on their own. I can’t even get to a fraction of it, so I won’t try.

To me, this album is the pinnacle of what she has been working towards. It contains some long-form highly metaphorical harp/voice pieces like she did on Ys. It has some more modern pieces like on Have One on Me. And it has some very traditional folk style pieces like The Milk-Eyed Mender.

The album is unlike most in that all the songs must be taken together to get the whole experience. They are inextricably tied together. This post will mostly be about things I hear that relate to the main themes explored.

The main ideas have to do with the elusiveness of time (it moves both forward and backward? more on this later) and the impermanence and cyclic nature of life. One thing that jumps out after several listens is that the album itself is a cycle. The last word of the album cuts off without finishing, and the word gets finished as the first word of the album. The first song starts with birth and the last song ends with what could be considered death.

Now I’ll go through the places where time comes up. In “Anecdotes” there are two references. “Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do” and “temporal infidelity” (a bizarre phrase that I love). In “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” we get “Time is smaller than Space is wide.” At the end of “The Things I Say” is a strange sound that I can only interpret as the sound of playing the song backwards. This is the first foreshadowing of the last song.

In “Divers” we get the theme of the backward motion of time again with “infinite regress” and “infinite backslide.” In “A Pin-Light Bent” the idea of “inversion” comes up several times, again giving a dual meaning to inverting the direction of time.

The last song, “Time, As a Symptom,” ties it all together. The entire song is about time. “Time passed hard,” “The river of time,” “Time moves both ways,” “Time is just a symptom of love,” and so on.

This last song is probably one of the best things she has ever written. For one, it must be listened to as the last track on the album. Part of its greatness is that all the songs leading up to it keep alluding to what is to come (as I think I demonstrated above). These ideas get in your subconscious and are ready to bear the impact of this piece.

It is also the only song on the album to have a big climax. It builds and builds until it explodes in a brilliant, exalted moment with the perfect words to summarize what the album is about: “Joy of life.”

I could go on and on about how I think certain songs relate to other ones, but as I’ve said before, I think her music is best not over-analyzed. It is so abstract and metaphorical that the best way to experience it is to let the image/sound combinations evoke feelings on their own. After repeated listens, you’ll start to notice how they fit together which will enhance the experience. This is what makes her so important. I don’t know of anyone else doing this type of thing (maybe The Dear Hunter).

I can’t recommend this album enough to anyone with a serious interest in music.

Extrapolating Meaning from Ashbery’s “The System” Part 3

The previous section ended by pulling ourselves out of the futility of knowledge and the search for happiness. The next section begins by throwing us back into real life. This reminds me of the movie I Heart Huckabees in the separation of the philosophical and the real. We can achieve peace by solitary meditation, but as soon as we go back to living we lose that:

“…back to the business of day-to-day living with all the tiresome mechanical problems that this implies. And it was just here that philosophy broke down completely and was of no use.”

Real world problems seem so different than the abstract problems we worry about in academic settings. He proposes a labyrinth image for the path of our lives, but returns with some optimism. It only seems the labyrinth directs our steps “but in reality it is you who are creating its pattern.”

The next segment returns to the Frost symbolism of a fork in the road and can be read as almost a meditation on the meaning and application of the idea in real life. Ashbery points out that we take the straightforward path first and only after understanding its destination do we return to the convoluted and less traveled path.

In a previous part, I commented on the cyclical nature of using “track” instead of “path” and this returns as well. After going down the less traveled path you find out the two options actually join up at the end, and the end is actually the beginning where the fork was.

He goes on to condemn wallowing in the difficulties all this presents. Go out and live. “Do you really think that if you succeed in looking pathetic enough some kindly stranger will stop to ask your name and address and then steer you safely to your very door?” He then proposes many explanations for why you would stand there looking like that and references Robert Browning’s poem saying Childe Roland probably had that look as well.

As you change, words that have stayed the same take on new meanings. You hope for a moment in the future where you can participate in the play being performed in front of you; for a time where artist, viewer, actor, director are all one and the same, but there is no “indication this moment is approaching.”

The poem switches back to the big universal questions. “Who am I after all, you say despairingly once again, to have merited so much attention on the part of the universe?” It moves to grandiose language of dying and rising. I think this is a return to the knowledge issue: realizing everything you knew is wrong and revising your worldview based on this.

But “clouds of unhappiness still persist in the unseen mesh that draws around everything,” so this new life hasn’t changed anything. The language here is what I consider quintessential Ashbery. He takes the small and personal and expands it into the gigantic. The personal is you waiting for a reply. Look how he makes the transition so naturally:

“There is not much for you to do except wait in the anticipation of your inevitable reply. Inevitable, but so often postponed. Whole eras of history have sprung up in the gaps left by these pauses, dynasties, barbarian invasions and so on until the grass and shards stage, and still the answer is temporarily delayed.”

The reply comes, and it is God giving comfort. Yet you should not expect any more comfort in your actual existence from this. Ashbery switches from a long period of “you” pronouns to “we” which softens the harshness of the section. We all have childish wants and get angry at delayed satisfaction. We give in to impulses.

After coming full circle on the path, you end up rejecting “oneness” in favor of a plurality of experiences and diversity. Paradoxically, once embraced, you realize everyone is basically the same. He begins an extended movie metaphor. It starts out by claiming that the movie doesn’t lie. It will show us things about ourselves we didn’t realize. It then moves on to classic Ashbery paradox. “That is why we, snatched from sudden freedom, are able to communicate only through this celluloid vehicle that has immortalized and given a definitive shape to our formless gestures.”

In the last part, Ashbery comes back to the “new year” language. It is a strange summary of what you experienced. “These ample digressions of yours have carried you ahead to a distant and seemingly remote place, and it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence.” It turns sort of David Lynch-esque. The film is maybe a mirror, and all the characters are played by the narrator. It is a return to the solipsism of the beginning and the poem itself comes full circle.