I started writing in my last year of high school, nearly 50 years ago. I’m not sure my fellow students liked my work as much as they related to the desperate passion embedded in it. Most of it was pretentious and angsty, but it had a few clever turns of phrase and some evocative imagery, and it captured I think some of the anger and dread and hopefulness and anomie of the late 1960s, so I’ve kept some fragments of it. Here is a bit of what I wrote way back then:
FIVE UNFINISHED CANVASSES (1969-74)
on the riverbank
the cold autumn chill coming in
from over the water
splashing endlessly, wet and thunderous
over the jagged rocks.
time stops: as if waiting for moments long gone or never coming.
in the shadowed haze of overcast daylight
(with soft fine spray blowing in the icy wind
of the dull, shivering, timeless day),
the moment shocks the frozen soul with its unquestionable truth,
its unbearable silence, echoes
the infinite darkness of midday,
the infinite silence of wind
screaming through trees, leaves wet with tiny droplets
blown from the tumultuous river
turned to ice crystals by the winter gusts,
asking startling questions of frozen, weary hearts,
demanding no answers,
giving only the cold realization of utter solitude,
of unbearable loneliness,
of touching an infinite, unanswerable mystery.
study in green and grey:
the warm, wet, silent air whispers
death; the cat
running up towards me
in the dead silence
the dry grass rustling beneath its feet like hay,
purrs madly, fluffy and soft persian
and is gone, incongruous, like the
in a world of lost, sad eyes.
cries of lonely owls
faded dark green trees
against the motionless grey sky
silent and dark and dry,
a world of no energy,
so little wind that distant cries and barks
are heard in the vacuum,
so little motion that the children playing,
the dark, small birds against the hazy sky
exist only as landscapes of unreality…
but always there are the dark green, rough grey
sharp-contoured trees against
the wandering, unfocussable clouds:
form against the formless
frozen in time.
have you ever seen fresh snowfall sparkling under the streetlights
in the middle of a
windless night with no sounds and nothing moving except
the endless snow and
occasionally a car spinning its tires as it moves anonymously by
and the snow lands on your eyelashes
and you look up and try to catch the snowflakes on your tongue
and the snow above you seems to go
there is a sparrow flying from branch to branch of a bare elm
in the park beside the frozen duckpond
on a sunday afternoon and
there is an old man sitting on the park bench throwing crumbs
to the birds and the pavilion in the background is silhouetted
against the stark winter sky
and in front of it are patterns of footprints in the snow
and by the side of the road are two imprints of
At night the forest is not what it seems,
The wolf, in the shadows of half-sleep, evolves into a dragonfly,
the fire into a clown, the owl into a junkie, the lady into a child in rags.
The forest becomes a desert, then a city. The clown offers a balloon to the child,
watches it rise into the crimson sky,
pulsing with ventricular booms.
The junkie becomes a priest.
Child becomes a surgeon.
Clown becomes a voodoo magician, laughs the laugh of birth and death.
Dragonfly into hypodermic, into the arm of the Patient Lover.
In the heart of the night come the mating calls.
The rapturous moans of the opium den.
On the beach of no footprints,
by the night lit by lightning,
is a scorpion with wolf’s tattered claws.
Becomes a sea-snake
rising to the song of a flute
played by a woman clothed in strips of ragged fur.
Tben the shadow of a vulture,
wearing the cloth of last rites,
and the snake’s devoured.
elegy for the sixties:
we are the flowers that bore no fruit,
cactic children, scions of extraordinary promise
never realized. on a distant embankment
we sit, wide-eyed execrable hybrids
of the years entre deux doctrines,
broken twigs still standing in infertile ground,
staring at the lush vineyards and orchards
that grew, as they were supposed to,
beyond the road that leads to the greenhouse, and the laboratory,
and the conservatory, where the best strains are kept,
and other places we will never know,
while here we wait, without anticipation, forgotten
in the rain.
Ignorance has won: our meagre forces collapsed before the war could begin, when we confirmed our suspicion that most of our people were fighting for the other side. The leaders to whom we looked for inspiration turned out to be wrong; not evil men, merely fools, so we were not even stirred to outrage, simply reduced to despair. We have become numbed and lethargic as many of our people have tired of the endless waiting and, in anger or indifference, gone over to the other side. Our arguments have lost their meaning and their definition, and the ensuing silence has lulled us into routine, a routine which we share with the other side, and which further blurs the line between us. Now only a handful of us remain, with nothing left to say, believing in nothing. We would have disbanded and returned to the world of the other side, but to declare our intention to do so would suggest that we are ready to make a decision, and we are not. So we wait; our last traces of pride and stubbornness prevail. At any rate, we now have nothing left to lose. Nothing, except the comfort of the routine, which amounts to nothing.
there is a girl in the garden:
she has eyes that are not of this time.
they shine in the sunlight, reflect
the deep green of the forest,
the magic of learning without fear.
she is the child in all of us.
there is a ghost that walks beside her: its image
grows stronger with the twilight.
its pace is heavier, and in place of eyes
it bears two gaping holes, wooden and vacant
sightless and unreflecting.
within them, the knowledge of what must be done
and cannot be done.
it carries a bottle
and speaks with the calcium in its bones.
For the thirty years after that I wrote almost no poetry or stories, and what I did write was execrable. The recurring depression that began in my early school years would continue to come and go for five decades before slowly dissipating. My preoccupation with work, family, and trying to keep myself together was complete, and it was only in 2000, recovering from the fog of anti-depressives, that I realized just how disconnected and mentally ill I was, and began to write again, and to heal. Here are a couple of short pieces I wrote that year:
THE BOX (2000)
This story is dedicated to those who have spent much of their lives fighting the noonday demon, its dessicating grief. Their hope for, and dread of, a ‘normal’ future and a ‘normal’ life depends on the continuing ingenuity of the medieval alchemists of pharmacology.
It was the Alien who first showed me The Box. I’d been walking in the forest, just outside of town, when I first saw her. Initially I thought she was a mirage: she looked amorphous, translucent. She looked toward me, through me. When she opened her mouth, what came out was not sound, but colour. An amazing profusion of purples and greens and a new hue I couldn’t even have imagined, couldn’t describe with the constricts of human language. It was colour squared, taken to another dimension. It was full of meaning and piercing clarity. The ripples and waves of tumultuous blues and blacks and iridescent reds swirled and lapped around me, tucking themselves against and through me like liquid scarves, their message perfect and unambiguous.None of the awkwardness and imprecision of speech and text.
She told me about her world and what she thought was wrong with ours. She read my numbing anxiety, the furrowed ridges and black chasms of my depression, the mute desperation of helplessness and hopelessness that defined me. Her understanding leapt like yellow fire, gave birth to another new soft colour that looked like peace, a colour so gentle that it ached. A colour totally foreign to the palette of man. She was telling me about The Box.
So I went with her and at the edge of the forest I saw The Box. Monolithic, solid, shiny, nondescript, about fifteen feet square and nine feet high, like a small, windowless room oddly nestled into a grove of spruce trees, moonlit, wet with dew. The Alien explained that The Box was uniquely for me, attuned to my consciousness. As I neared, The Box opened, extruded a tunnel, beckoning, inviting, suffused in a soothing beam of smoky blue-grey light.
I walked in and The Box closed. There was a platform, just big enough for one to lie on, and beside it an opening with a transparent chamber that took me down to a lower, similar, even more secreted room. Safety. Warmth. Rest. Darkness. Eternity.
I lay on the platform and felt suspended, weightless, just above it, cushioned by a soft, insistent updraft. Bathed in moving air. My head was encased in a diaphanous, eggshell-like cocoon. The cocoon was filled with textures, and set in motion a sensory journey of sights and sounds as breathtaking as the Alien’s spoken colours. Surreal, more here and now and present and rich and true than my sad reality outside The Box. These sensations, in concert with the weightlessness, the unconsciousness of the rest of my body, was at once transporting and disconcerting. I was at once inside and outside The Box, inside and outside my self. Hyper-real.
I learned that my instinct, my imagination, my thoughts, could move me, or at least the cocooned reality of me, through space and time and some other wondrous dimensions I didn’t understand. Dimensions in which the visual images of ‘my’ world flowed, morphed whimsically into flavours of images, not visual, but not conceptual either. As if I’d sprouted new senses and the ‘flavours’ were what these senses translated. And utterly authentic, incontestably valid, infinitely more than mere representations projected inside the kinetoscope of the head cocoon.
I learned that The Box and the head cocoon moved through these dimensions in concert, and that I could, with practice, control them. If I felt threatened or anxious when I came into The Box, by events or possibilities real or imagined in my grim external world, once inside I could move The Box a light-year through space or time in an instant. Or I could make time stop inside The Box so it would be invisible outside, as everything flowed through it, progressed through my stopped time. Or I could move ahead in time just an instant and then coast just ahead of the time of whatever I feared outside.
At first, when I went inside The Box, I simply slept, the sleep of the dead, sometimes for days at a time. Incredibly at peace, knowing that when I awoke I could return refreshed to the moment when I’d entered The Box, and re-enter the world, as if I’d never left it.
Then I began to use The Box to watch people in other countries, worlds, times. I saw creatures of spectacular, exquisite beauty, and scenes of unimaginable horror. While I lay inside The Box, I would ‘walk’ towards those I saw, althoughI knew I was prone on the platform in The Box. But they would respond as if I was really there, so perhaps I was.
At times I travelled to places to see people I knew, and my visit was never a surprise, never disconcerting or counterfeit. It was as if space and time had bent, adapted, evolved, reinvented itself to make the strange encounter natural. Conversations with those I knew, and discourse with creatures whose every presence staggered my imagination, were always astoundingly lucid, peaceful, full of recognition and import and understanding. So much that I wondered if the Alien was distorting reality to make it, finally, bearable for me.
I was especially suspicious of encounters that engaged my cut-off sense of touch, the only sense the head cocoon could not, I thought, manufacture stimuli for. Feeling and tasting a fruit with the flesh of a peach and the flavour of raspberry wine. Or standing in strange black rain touching the fronds of a purring creature covered in redolent cedar fur. Or making love non-stop for three days with someone known but somehow new, an ever-stranger. In all these experiences I suspected, but couldn’t confirm, that the amorphous body of the Alien was perfecting the reality of the event by supplying the missing, tactile sensory inputs, lying beside me in The Box.
But finally it didn’t matter if it was real or not. My senses, my instincts, my brain all agreed on the total plausibility of what was happening. If it was illusory it still had more immediacy than the reality in the increasingly pale and unsatisfactory world outside The Box.
So now I am free of the torments that plagued and paralysed me most of my life: the anxiety, dissatisfaction, dread, disappointment, apathy, exhaustion, terror, disengagement, grief, incompleteness, the absence of meaning and the lack of peace and the helplessness and emptiness that reduced me to a shadow, a pebble, a hollow man. Please don’t tell your, or my, government, or church, or boss about The Box. There is something about it that would horrify them. They couldn’t understand.
There is something you should know.
There is an Alien waiting for you, now, in the forest at the edge of your town, and s/he has a Box for you, too, with the promise of endless peace, ecstasy, understanding. Surrender to it and you will finally be free.
THE LIGHT CREATURES (2000)
I wrote this story to try to convey a sense of what it must be like to live in the shadow of a dominant culture that is indifferent, or possibly hostile, to your culture’s very existence.
No one has ever seen the Light Creatures. They just arrived one day, and made quite an entrance. The night of their first visit they stayed for less than a second, but destroyed twenty trillion dollars worth of houses, buildings, roads and other human artefacts, and killed two hundred million people.
We think they’re probably very large, and move at the speed of light, though the scientists say this is impossible. Although their devastation was a shock at first, we now think they didn’t mean it, it was probably just clumsiness or carelessness, them being so big and fast and all.
What they left behind were these gigantic strands of electrical energy, kind of like that ‘crazy string’ that comes in a spray can, or like enormous pieces of spaghetti dropped from the sky, but a mile around and hundreds of miles long. Thousands of swirling, dazzling, high-voltage strings of hypnotic, shimmering white, red and purple, brighter than the sun.
At first we were full of fury, but after awhile we realized we couldn’t fight back, we couldn’t kill them. Hell, we couldn’t even find them, didn’t even know who or what they were. The politicians called the visit an ‘attack’ back then, and there was talk of a ‘counter-offensive’. People blamed terrorists or communists or global warming. There was lots of praying for god’s forgiveness. Global conferences were held, by military leaders at first, and then scientists, to decide how to respond. The security freaks in government wanted trillions of dollars to build special rubber shelters that could withstand a direct hit from the strands.
When the scientists started saying it probably wasn’t an attack at all, and that our millions of dead were just incidental damage from the Light Creatures’ visit, the politicos and generals fumed. The scientists said that the strands were probably sign-posts, markers, graffiti of a colony of huge fast-moving creatures made of pure energy. They even suggested that maybe it was ‘leavings’, just plain shit that the Light Creatures dumped off and we just kind of got in the way. The politicians went ballistic when they heard that. They had this fantasy that we could stop comets and change the spin of the Earth’s core if we set our minds to it. They couldn’t handle not being able to do anything to avenge two hundred million dead.
The second visit came a few weeks after the first, and was much less severe, killing eighty million people. From then on, we started to expect that this would be a regular occurrence. The people who wanted to defend against the Light Creatures gave up, as there was clearly no defence. The people who saw the visits as a divine message also gave up, since the message was impossible to decipher. There was more evidence that the Light Creatures didn’t even know we existed.
We started to study the strands. If you lived between about three and thirty miles from a strand, it was like basking in the midnight sun. You never needed any lights and the temperature gradient at that distance was always comfortable, and safe. The strands and their electromagnetic field destroyed most of the electric power grid and communications systems, and with them much of the world’s political and corporate power structures. But we had water, and energy.
The third, and latest visit from the Light Creatures came almost a year later, just a few months ago. It was the worst yet, nearly a third of the planet criss-crossed in high-voltage ribbon this time, destruction in the quintillions of dollars and deaths in the billions. Surprisingly we handled this one well. Families had moved closer together in the interim, and local communities had replaced virtual ones, so during the third visit, which lasted maybe ten seconds, most communities were either annihilated, with nothing left to grieve, or left unscathed.
Some people say it’s been humbling. We feel like ants at the mercy of some big kid who might stomp on us, on purpose or by accident, or who might walk by, oblivious, and leave us untouched. There’s no point in worrying about it, the next visit, whether there will be one. There’s nothing we can do to prevent it, lessen its impact. We can only go on with our lives.
Our new society is much more local, more egalitarian. In some ways, strangely, we have more control over our lives than we did before. We’re part of the decision of what crops get grown, what clothes get made, what medicines get ordered. We have more of a hand in our own lives. The strands divided us into autonomous communities but united us within these communities. Now that our world is so much smaller, we have a stronger sense of place, of where we belong.
Odd how such a destructive force could have liberated us from the prison of our culture. Life, and its satisfactions, are infinitely simpler, and more visceral, than before. We no longer look to the gods or the stars for answers. We understand that life is precious, and fragile, and serendipitous. We’ve lost everything we’d built for thirty thousand years, and found ourselves, our meaning, our answer, here, now, home.
Two years after that (early 2003) I started blogging, and my creative works have made their way into its 8000-plus pages alongside all the other things I’ve been disposed to write about. In the early years of the blog, I played with different forms of verse, and with two series of stories about several recurring characters and a dog, but I had been away from writing for so long that they were stale and clumsy. It took a half dozen years, and the promise of retirement, before I found my stride again. My right sidebar highlights what I think is my best creative work over the past decade, with the earliest (2009) at the bottom.
I couldn’t say what, of all these writings, is my best, and my favourites among my creative writing change over time and with my mood and with each new learning. My most popular creative piece is, most likely, The Horses’ Bodies.