This is Not Happening to You

I was introduced to Tim Tomlinson’s writing through his poetry, which I recommend highly to those who love poetry, and even more highly to those who don’t. You might find your distaste for poems is relieved after reading a few of his. Tim’s poems often feel like fiction, so I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up This Is Not Happening To You. I did not.

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cover painting by Mari Otsu

These are not easy stories to read. They are raw, pungent, and brutal, but tinged with the humor and beauty that lurk in the most unlikely places. Ranging from 2 to 30 pages long, they don’t feel like stories so much as 19 glimpses through the slats of a fence viewed from a moving train – startling and better comprehended after some digestion.

Like an expert marksman, the author draws a bead on each protagonist and does not blink until after each story’s final word. The characters are drawn with such attention to detail that the reader will almost certainly recognize some of them from their own lives. Their circumstances can be so real that they transcend truth, as in this excerpt from The Motive for Metaphor:

“Six weeks later he moved to Los Angeles where the red-haired woman belonged to a repertory company that welcomed Maris. The New York edge, they told him, is what they’d been missing. Maris told them he was from Montana, which was half true, but he didn’t remember which half. You reach an age, he told them, when the lies become the truth and the truth, it never mattered anyway, at least not as much as you thought it did.”

These stories cover a wide range of narrow insights, from painfully intimate first-person confessions to third-person observations of murder and rape that are told with almost clinical detachment. Two of the stories included in this collection, including the title piece, are written in the second-person. This rarely used perspective offers a unique relationship to the reader/protagonist. These two paragraphs from the title story are a perfect illustration of the book’s charms and dangers: the first one reveals the dark underbelly that hides the even darker underbellies of addiction:

“Approaching the corner of Dauphine and Touro, you discern the sickening deposits of last night’s bacchanal percolating throatwards. Clutching the sticky trunk of a banana tree, you hurl. Violently, agonizingly, remedially. Even as you discharge, you think. You are thinking, you are a thought machine. It’s a juxtaposition this time that commands your ideation, the juxtaposition “pink-green vomit and brown-black Louisiana loam.” You are not certain if “loam” is the correct term, horticulturally speaking. You are not certain if horticulture is the correct term. You are certain that you don’t give a fuck because although your gastro-intestinal distress has been somewhat alleviated by the reverse peristalsis, your head now hurts worse. A bit of a pain in the Gulliver….And there in the pink-green, brown-black gloop of yester-eve you spy the barely dissolved, barely discolored Extra-Strength Tylenol caplets, the very thing that enabled this excursion. Two conflicting impulses obtain: disgust at the puke and the objects of relief that lie therein.”

This second excerpt captures the impossible dream of every struggling artist, and of some successful ones:

“Some persons, you reflect, many even – that vast horde of unstout souls, might, at this time, experience the first stirrings of remorse, depression, self-recrimination. Not you. This is not happening to you, it is happening to the Undiscovered Genius, the character you’ve created to play you in the tragi-comic farce you know as “your life.” The talents of this Undiscovered Genius have yet to manifest in any recognizable form that might ultimately be remunerated by an institution, a governing body, a critical faculty, a network or publishing house, or rewarded by an adoring public. Its nebulosity, you understand, is part of its genius: the suspense! What form will it finally take, you imagine the public you have yet to seduce wondering? As far as forms are concerned, you have already conceded painting; painting is a form for which you demonstrated little if any aptitude. This was evidenced early on and most acutely by the F you took, and deserved, in ninth-grade Studio Art, the year you gave painting the brush. Singing, dancing, the violin…these, too, have been purged from your schema. You are practicing the process of discovery through elimination, one step at a time.”

I have reached the conclusion, after many years of pondering, that there is no such thing as “good art” or “bad art.” A work of art either speaks to you or it doesn’t. The 19 stories in This Is Not Happening To You resonate with me to a depth that is almost uncomfortable. Their unavoidable intensity should ring true to anyone with some experience of life. This is writing that will not just grab but hold the attention of any reader interested in contemporary literature. If you’re not careful, you might even find some pieces of these stories popping up in your memory, as if they had been happening to you.

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Tim Tomlinson

The Impermanence of Human Life

We are helpless in this world.
The years and months slip past
Like a swift stream, which grasps and drags us down.
A hundred pains pursue us, one by one.

Girls, with the wrists clasped round
With Chinese jewels, join hands
And play their youth away.
But time cannot be stopped,
And when their youth is gone
Their jet-black hair – black as fish’s bowels –
Turns white, like a hard frost.
On their sun-browned, glowing faces,
Wrinkles are etched – by whom?

Boys, with their swords at their waists,
aaaClutching the hunting bow,
Mount their chestnut horses
On saddles linen-spun,
And ride on in their pride.
But is their world eternal?
He pushes back the door
Where a girl sleeps within,
Gropes to her side and lies
Arm on her jewel arm.
But how few are those nights
Before, with stick at waist,
He goes shunned and detested
The old are always so.

We grudge life moving on
But we have no redress.
I would become as those
Firm rocks that see no change.
But I am a man in time
And time must have no stop.

Yamanoue Okura
Circa 700, Japan

Candide

I thought Candide was funny at first. It is an easy mistake to make in the first chapter where we meet Candide and his beloved Cunegonde:

On her way back to the castle she met Candide. She blushed, and so did he. She greeted him in a faltering voice, and he spoke to her without knowing what he was saying. The next day, as they were leaving the table after dinner, Cunegonde and Candide found themselves behind a screen. She dropped her handkerchief, he picked it up; she innocently took his hand, and he innocently kissed hers with extraordinary animation, ardor, and grace; their lips met, their eyes flashed, their knees trembled, their hands wandered. Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh happened to pass by the screen; seeing this cause and effect, he drove Candide from the castle with vigorous kicks in the backside. Cunegonde fainted. The baroness slapped her as soon as she revived, and consternation reigned in the most beautiful and agreeable of all possible castles.

I guess anything can be funny if human suffering doesn’t bother you, or if you have a good enough sense of humor, or if you can’t tell the difference between the two.

There is a lot of casual rape in Candide, and equally casual disembowelment, hanging, flogging, and castration. Voltaire must have been a pisser at parties. Not so much for the disembowelments as for being a physician who takes the pulse of a sick world and doesn’t sugar-coat his diagnosis for the sake of the patient.

As Will Durant put it:

Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire; he was for his country both Renaissance and Reformation, and half the Revolution. He was first and best in his time in his conception and writing of history, in the grace of his poetry, in the charm and wit of his prose, in the range of his thought and his influence. His spirit moved like a flame over the continent and the century, and stirs a million souls in every generation.

No matter how interesting analysis is, there is no substitute for letting the authors words speak for themselves. In this passage, Voltaire betrays the beast that lurks behind such a well-developed sense of humor, hiding his insight within the character of Pope Urban X’s bastard daughter:

I’ve wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but I still love life. That ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most pernicious inclinations. What could be more stupid than to persist in carrying a burden that we constantly want to cast off, to hold our existence in horror, yet cling to it nonetheless, to fondle the serpent that devours us, until it has eaten our hearts.

There is a story, probably a lie, definitely a joke, that on his deathbed Voltaire was asked by a priest if he would renounce Satan.

He answered, “This is no time to be making new enemies.”

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Francois-Marie Arouet (a/k/a Voltaire) by Jean-Antoine Houdon

 

 

 

 

Ducks

dux

I came across this beautiful creature, a Mandarin duck, in Central Park yesterday.

The accompanying poem, by F.W. Harvey, was written while the poet was a prisoner during the first World War. The inspiration for it came from a drawing of ducks on water that another prisoner had scratched out in chalk on the wall over his bed.
I

From troubles of the world I turn to ducks,
Beautiful comical things
Sleeping or curled
Their heads beneath white wings
By water cool,
Or finding curious things
To eat in various mucks
Beneath the pool,
Tails uppermost, or waddling
Sailor-like on the shores
Of ponds, or paddling
– Left! Right! – with fanlike feet
Which are for steady oars
When they (white galleys) float
Each bird a boat
Rippling at will the sweet
Wide waterway …
When night is fallen you creep
Upstairs, but drakes and dillies
Nest with pale water-stars.
Moonbeams and shadow bars,
And water-lilies:
Fearful too much to sleep
Since they’ve no locks
To click against the teeth
Of weasel and fox.
And warm beneath
Are eggs of cloudy green
Whence hungry rats and lean
Would stealthily suck
New life, but for the mien
The hold ferocious mien
Of the mother-duck.

II

Yes, ducks are valiant things
On nests of twigs and straws,
And ducks are soothy things
And lovely on the lake
When that the sunlight draws
Thereon their pictures dim
In colours cool.
And when beneath the pool
They dabble, and when they swim
And make their rippling rings,
0 ducks are beautiful things!
But ducks are comical things:-
As comical as you.
Quack!
They waddle round, they do.
They eat all sorts of things,
And then they quack.
By barn and stable and stack
They wander at their will,
But if you go too near
They look at you through black
Small topaz-tinted eyes
And wish you ill.
Triangular and clear
They leave their curious track
In mud at the water’s edge,
And there amid the sedge
And slime they gobble and peer
Saying ‘Quack! quack!’

III

When God had finished the stars and whirl of coloured suns
He turned His mind from big things to fashion little ones;
Beautiful tiny things (like daisies) He made, and then
He made the comical ones in case the minds of men
Should stiffen and become
Dull, humourless and glum,
And so forgetful of their Maker be
As to take even themselves – quite seriously.
Caterpillars and cats are lively and excellent puns:
All God’s jokes are good – even the practical ones!
And as for the duck, 1 think God must have smiled a bit
Seeing those bright eyes blink on the day He fashioned it.
And he’s probably laughing still at the sound that came out of its bill!

…2019

Like all new years, 2019 dawns with limitless  promise and if the past is any guide 2019, like 2018, will end with most of those promises unfulfilled. It is the few that will be filled that provide hope for our dreams.

Fear of the unknown causes so many problems, but their solutions also lie in the unknown. My one resolution for 2019 is to embrace the unknown, to hold it close, and to learn as many of its secrets as I can before it is whisked into the past, into the comfortable realm of experience.

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Embrace the unknown, and the unknowable

Bloggiversary and break

Five years ago today I started this blog as a new artistic project after I quit my band of 30 years. In the days since I started Words & Music I wrote a novel, became a poet, and composed most of my favorite original songs.

I have posted about 650 poems, stories, songs, reviews, and drawings, and have clocked about 150,000 views. I am grateful for every eyeball and every eardrum that looked and listened to something I posted here.

Blogging is a social media like any other, feeding on views, likes, and comments. There is a place for that kind of thing in art – a focus on having people look at or listen to your work – but it’s not a place I want to be right now. So I’m going to take a break from the blog to devote more attention to projects that feed on time and solitude.

The only thing I’m going to miss might be you.

There is a thing called the “ideal reader” who is the individual a writer keeps in mind while he writes, to turn our monologue into dialogue. I have a picture in my head of mine. She is so sweet. And she might be you. I hope she is.

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