So today, to start a new chapter in the novel, I was once more faced with the challenge of writing something — a poem or an excerpt — to head the chapter. In general, I really look forward to these challenges, and after some mulling I come up with a first line, and things then proceed more easily from there, as I find my way through the poem. Often, I don’t know what it’s about for a number of lines, but then things narrow down, crystallize, and I set to with specific intent.
But today I fluffed around for a bit, waiting for something to come to mind. My creative machine wasn’t quite engaged. So I decided on an excerpt instead, and wrote this:
“It is said the stars are without number, and are in eternal motion,
and that the heavens forbid all comprehension. It is said that
the universe breathes as would a bellows, and that we are now
riding an exhalation of a god immeasurably vast. And when all
these things are said, I am invited to surrender to the immensity
of the unknowable.
“To this I do rail. If I am to be a mote lost in the abyss, then
that mote is my world. My universe. And all the great forces
beyond my reach invite neither despair nor ennui. In what I
am able to measure — this is the realm of my virtues, and here is
where I must find my reward.
But if you would mock my struggle, crowd not close. The
universe is without measure and the stars are without number.
And if I invite you to explore, take no offence. Be sure that I
will spare you a parting wave as you vanish into the distance,
never to be seen again.”
(If I was to edit that passage now, I’d invert ‘despair’ and ‘ennui.’ See why?)
But, looking over it, I decided I wasn’t happy with the tone, hinting as it did of belligerence. As I wasn’t in a belligerent mood, I decided against it. I include it here to give you some idea of the process I tend to follow. Each chapter epigraph is invented on the spot, whether poem or excerpt, and when it works, it’s because it has captured my mood at that moment.
Oddly enough, I often start a chapter with a sense of mental exhaustion, as if I’ve run out of places to hide and besides, I’m too tired to run anymore. This is when I find my best writing — all the conceits and intellectual crapology have withered away, and I feel emptied from the inside out.
An old friend into such things has suggested that I am then ready to channel someone else’s voice and vision — that I simply become a conduit without static interference. I’ll grant that occasionally I stumble out of the zone, look back on what I’ve done and have no idea where it all came from. But mostly, I suspect what I’m tapping is raw creativity, unfettered, uncluttered. I don’t care whose it is, so long as I can get to it.
The poem I then wrote to start the chapter, after discarding the excerpt, was a perfect example of this. It follows here in its entirety:
But we take chisel in hand
But the sands have run out
But we hold our ground
But roots bind us down
But we must be gone
But death is the dream
But the sands have run out
— Chant of the Living, Gallan of Kharkanas
Upon completing it, I saw that it was a round, and so titled it as a chant. And then, in my head, I read it ‘out loud,’ at first at a slow, measured pace, and then slightly sped up, more flowing; and then I imagined an audience out there voicing all the italicized lines, call-response, church-style.
At this point, the lines that didn’t work got some tweaking. Line 9 and Line 12. I didn’t make note of my original versions of those two lines, alas, but the new ones I found seemed to be right. The rest stayed intact (barring Line 18, which I’ll get to later). At this point, I still wasn’t quite sure what was going on with this strange, modest thing, but I felt I was close to something … unusual, a little frightening.
Then I repeated the silent ‘reading aloud,’ imagining an audience responding with the italicized lines. Ran through it for three cycles and then stopped. My heart thumping. And I thought: Fuck.
It’s very rare (for me) that a poem I’ve written takes multiple run-throughs for even me to work out what it’s all about.
So … what’s buried in this chant (if you will excuse that choice of words)? I started with the first two lines. ‘Stone whispers/patience” Had a moment of panic, thinking: those are short lines. Shorter the lines, the harder the whole thing is. Nah, not the one word stuff you see in modern poems — ninety percent of that is rubbish, trying too hard, etc. But short lines … decent lines … getting to a place where one word can actually have an impact, that’s hard. But I’d started and besides, I hate abandoning good stuff even when I don’t know yet what it’s getting at. Initially, I recall I was looking over my notes on the chapters ahead, and had an inkling to maybe indirectly advise readers to stay patient.
But then the third line landed, blowing all that out of the water (a good thing, I suspect. Hell, if my readers aren’t patient with me by this point, they’ll never be). It’s the anchor line to the first two, and just as stylistically I return to normal font, saving the italics for the ‘voices,’ so too I reinforce the back-and-forth nature of this poem. But I could have written something like: ‘But we shape it as we will.’ Instead, we took a chisel in hand — it’s less abstract, of course, which is always better, but it also evokes something else — although by this point I wasn’t sure what, precisely. Sculptors use chisels; so do masons.
Now, with the first three lines set down, I had my hidden stanza to guide the poem’s structure. Hidden because I didn’t want any breaks; I wanted one to flow into the next (not yet aware that this was indeed going to be a chant, mind you).
In the café, two tables away, a harried mother was trying to manage her younger son, who was probably mainlining speed when she wasn’t looking. And despite wearing headphones, it wasn’t easy to ignore the battle of wills going on between them. Thus, trying hard to ignore it resulted in seeing the next lines spill out onto the screen:
But it wasn’t just the nasty little runt (and he was nasty) that triggered those lines. It was my recollection of raising my own son, and in hearing him say “Not yet,” so many times it became his mantra. “Get off the computer!” “Not yet.” “No more gaming — do your homework.” “Not yet.” “Do the dishes.” “Not yet.”
The runt in the café never said “Not yet,” but then, he didn’t have to. A memory in my head was saying it, and with that memory a sense of nostalgia, and, perhaps, regret. Childhood is all about not yet, after all, and that is its wonder. More than that, it’s the thing we all lose as we grow up, as we get tied up in the clock and time’s swift speeding past. A child makes time and then fills it, and lo, it is ever expanding. Us adults make time and it looks like a box and then we crawl inside and down snaps the lid. From all of this, then … regret.
Leading to the anchor line: “But the sands have run out”
I paused then, wondered where to take it next. Then I did what I often do: I mined my own stuff, in this case a poem written in an earlier chapter. And that bit came from a dream I had once, one of those flying ones, where the sky was actually calling down to me, inviting me to join it (them? Plenty of voices up there, I recall).
So I wrote “Sky cries/fly” and well remembered that dream, that voice so inviting, so filled with joy. But just as in the dream, “We hold to the ground.” I edited that line, first to work the rhyme (though I knew I wasn’t going to stick too tightly to that rule), and second to get in the dual notion that comes with the word ‘hold.’ Holding our ground, staying put, fixed in place (and time), and all for some stubborn, probably pointless cause; along with holding to the ground because, well, we ain’t got wings. Both ways, this knocks us back into the ‘adult’ sensibility, too, making distinct the ‘child’ (as ‘other’): I am advancing the years with the narrative.
Suddenly I had firmed up the point of view for this poem. It’s an older voice. It’s probably mine.
The next two lines came quickly. Wind/free. That one was fairly straightforward, but it also echoed my memory of those voices in the sky from my dream. Now, that’s strictly an internal linkage, but since there’s a simplicity to the lines over which no-one would be confused, I didn’t fear the hidden obscurity (besides which, if any fool does a manic analysis of my poetry en masse, they might find that linkage, and more).
The next anchor line I rewrote a number of times. The one version I remember is: “But (the) roots hold us fast,” but I wasn’t happy with it. Wrong rhythm (which in itself isn’t bad, if, say, I wanted to give the reader a jarring at this point, but that’s not what I wanted), and it was definitely not scanning right. But, by the point of that version, I knew what was going on in the poem. I reworked it, gave it some thought, reworked it again, found the rhyme, found the allusion I wanted. Set up a nice linkage between ‘hold’ three lines up and ‘bind,’ reinforcing the real meaning of the poem.
The next six lines came quickly, then. Lover and Life and what they had to say. The Lover speaks with longing (but by this point, even in that first draft, I was riffing with real purpose, real intent), and Life speaks in the only language it has: itself. The alliteration goes wild and perfect in this bunch, too.
The anchor line to close the cycle is ‘But death is the dream.’ I may have written ‘But we dream of death’ at first but as soon as I did I saw that it wasn’t right; while it is more personal, that becomes the problem: death is universal, and the line needs to knock the reader into that scope. At this point the poem should unfurl, fill out, fill up the whole fucking universe.
After that line hit home, it followed simply to renew the cycle, only this time, everything has changed (at least, in my head it did, and does). It is not the child who begs: it is ‘we’ and that we is an adult ‘we.’
At the end line, I considered adding the anchor line “but we take chisel in hand” but if I had, I’d be doing the reader’s work when I don’t have to. Because it is precisely in silently adding that line that the reader should comprehend the meaning of the poem, but at the same time it invites the reader to take up the chant, and by the third or fourth time this poem ceases being a chant and becomes something else. I won’t say what: suffice it to say that I changed the poem’s title, though you won’t see to what until the novel comes out.
Not a sculptor. Not a mason. The stone being chiseled is a gravestone. This poem is about an entire life: childhood (be patient, child, one day you’ll grow up); lover (don’t leave), and finally one for whom life is failing. Round and round. The child sees. Lover and life, wind and sky all beckon, and then we beg, desperately, for more.
Death is the dream.
This poem broke my heart, folks.
Read more of Steven Erikson’s Notes on a Crisis. Visit his Life As A Human author page for more links…
“The Thinker in the Dark” h.koppdelay @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“moon time” alicepopkorn @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Magic Landscape 105” h.koppdelay @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
Recent Steven Erikson Articles:
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (8)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (7)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (6)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (5)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (4)