Alan Catlin: What If....
What if, when we died, our bodies are subjected to a process after death and placed, whole and functional, alongside an endless river along with everyone else who ever lived? This is the premise of Philip Jose Farmer’s ingenious series of novels that begins with To Where All Your Scattered Bodies Go. Farmer combines after life theories of ancient cultures, gives them a mechanized twentieth century twist and creates a world beyond this world. There is a purpose to this design and a carefully selected people in the book and the ones that follow, attempt to find out what the point of all this is. This epic is in the same league as Asimov’s reimaging of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in his Foundation trilogy.
Farmer writes multiple volumes that extend the series, on and on and on, to the point where this reader asks, “What if he had only written one book using this premise?” I’m not a multi-volume kind of guy unless, maybe it is a family saga like The Patrick Melrose series (said the reader who eagerly awaits each new edition of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series or who is awaiting, the late Philip Kerr’s last volume of the Bernie Gunther series.
Forms, that is the genre we choose to write in, are what constrain us in our creative thinking much as laws contain our societies. But forms can be expanded, manipulated, bent in new ways, to encompass a different way of seeing much as laws are examined for loopholes or are perverted by partisan interpretations.
In my creative projects of late, I have been asking the “What If...” more and more. What if you wrote a series of Self-Portraits that were not self-portraits at all? What if you used artwork, most real, other imagined, as a starting point to develop a third person self-portrait that has nothing, overtly at any rate, to do with the artists ( the original art work and the poet). What if, these new poems have elements of replication of the original artworks and autobiography buried in the new context but are essentially neither? That would be Self-Portrait as the Artist Afraid of His Self-Portrait.
In one sense it is new form, in another, it is a synthesis of the two. What is the result, really? A poem that reflects upon itself, its’ creator, but mostly, and on the form. What is a Self-Portrait? Who is the person being portrayed? What does the comment (poem) mean, if anything?.
And in a completely different mode, what if you took the cinematic elements of mood, structure, image, and tone, specifically, but not limited to Noir films, and applied them to what are generally considered “bar poems?” Having used bar poems for social commentary, as in why are these people here? what drove them to the bar? why are they drinking the way they do ? why are their lives so empty and confused that their only refuge is in a alcohol and places that serve it? The answers are political, sociological and psychological. A bar, to my way of thinking to the bartender (or poet) is basically a film/reality show, script in progress, where all the elements of the plot are random, but exist within a specific form/place with its own set of rules, regulations, and norms.
As an advocate of lowering drinking age to further foster the education of younger drinkers to the codes of social drinking in a controlled (mostly) environment, this concept is not exactly as outlandish as it might seem on the surface. Discouraging certain anti-social behaviors, and encouraging more socialized rules of conduct, is an implied function of as good bar. Of course, like the bent laws, not everyone sees this distinction. In fact, most ignore this duty in a power grab for quick profit..... but I digress.
The combination of the noir and the dank world of bars, is not news, but when you apply it, in a specific sense, to a wide range of films, subjects, topics etc. and use images associated with an environment inspired by a movie you are creating an overlay. That is, a new context, which can be further enhanced when a movie is a re-make or, better yet, a made from a book or story. Then the layers of meaning, of possibilities expand almost exponentially. What you end up with is “Hollyweird”.
After the triple x rated punch bowl
incident at one of those So. Cal.
parties where some fried, left-over-
from-the-60’s, hippie chick, part
Manson girl, part Goldie Hawn,
thought it would be really cool to drop
this experimental mushroom based
homemade drug into the communal swill,
stuff that made blotter acid seem like
kid’s aspirin by comparison. After that,
everyday life had become something
that came directly out of underground LA,
Hollyweird Central, sort of like feeling
as is he had been starring in a movie
of his life he hadn’t seen yet with
an off-the-wall insane title life Wolfen 2,
with Klaus Kinski as the lead actor
in his place on the big screen, and
directed by Werner Herzog. Scene
after meticulously set scene, of Kinski
ripping the throats out of the standard
hot bodies bushwhacking in some woods,
or looking for a clearing for a mosquito
feeding frenzy shag or the horror movie
cliché of clichés, necking in a car parked
in the Brain Damaged Victims Only marked
space, totally oblivious to the impending menace,
as the eerie score by that Psycho dude,
Bernard Hermann, gets louder and more
ominous and you know, in your heart,
Bernard was one of those guys who definitely
would not flinch when a horse fly walked
across his face, even as the close up reveals
carnage among the gear shifts. Every full
moon like this, when the body hair grows
longer and the need to kill is a blood red
cloud blacking out the last remaining light.
“Hollyweird,” the poem, and the working title of the series of Noir film poems, which I now think of simply as “Noir,” is the only poem not superficially based on a movie or a drama of some sort. There are exceptions, and a couple of cheats, where I made up the movie, or borrowed a made up movie title from somewhere else, Which ones are they? Well, as they say in The Prisoner, “That would be telling.....”
The biggest what if....though, to my way of thinking is, What if you took a personality test of images, meant to be responded to by subjects, and treated them as ekphrastic subjects? That is, what if, you created a voice to respond to these pictures that is not you, specifically not you, and then write a series of prose poems treating psychology as ekphrastic poetry? And what if you found out, while undertaking this, what turned out to be a grueling enterprise, that there were variations on the test pictures for men and women? What if you created a female voice to take the test as well? what if you decided that , in this time of gender bending, you threw all the numbered pictures labeled M1 or F1 into a hat, and pulled out 20 at random number pictures and responded to those as well?
What if you discovered, except for a couple of images, the actual drawings used in the test were not readily available, as the test is still used by some psychologists as an evaluation tool? So what if you only had verbal descriptions of these pictures to work from? Brief descriptions only, not the actual pictures. Impossible, right?
Well, no. Not exactly.
What if you took that test yourself? way back in the dark ages of high school, and the descriptions brought back memories of the pictures so that you had a kind of memory to work with along with the description. Not having an eidetic memory, would be a problem, but not a total obstacle, given your highly visual imagination and memory, one that constructs complete, specific images to work poems to or from. What then?
Then you have a manuscript called TAT after the test, the Thematic Apperception Test.
No one I have shown parts of this manuscript to have so much as a general comment about it. Which is part of the motivation behind this brief essay on What if.
Consider this: A pen and ink of , a predominately dark imaging of a room, lightly shaded through a window, of a boy sitting inside a room, presumably there to practice his violin. He has a dreamy expression on his face and can see a group of boys playing baseball. Respond to this.
Okay consider these:
Boy with a violin Three Times
The first time I see the picture, I think, “These people, what they want to do to me is
inhuman. Locking me up inside. I could be playing outside with the other kids, hitting the ball, kicking some serious ass.”
What I say, instead, in the voice of the boy in the picture, is, “I want to be a musician. If it means sacrificing everything I like to do in order to succeed, I will do it.”
“I will practice hard. Work long hours, There will be plenty of time later for playing,
when I have accomplished what I have set out to do.”
And, I’m thinking, “Motherfucker, that kid wants to get out in the worst way. I mean, far
out, and away, from this shit hole, and these people messing with his life, his personal space, his brain. He wants to open up a hurt locker and put some people in it where they belong. Big time. If they’d only get off my case.”
Instead I say, “When I’m done playing, I put my instrument in my case and close it up tight. It’s dark outside by then. There is no one playing ball anymore. But I have my music. Locked away inside.”
“Ball one.” The conductor says. Outside the music room where the sun happens. The
low pitch, barely audible, unseen in half-light. The wavering strings of the tautly tuned
instrument. Fretted in his hands. Fettered by mitts. Rawhide straps that restrict the bloody flow.
Outside. A balance of light on budding tree limbs. A game of pickup sticks. Pikestaffs
and javelins. Batted balls arcing like the sun on a spray of water.
Inside. The tethered bow. Fully extended to propel the feathered shaft rigid into a nest of
thorns. The Zen of it. The hands and the flight and the circular eye.
Watching it all from afar. Music in sheeted reams, muted and still. The distant cry of
pied piper tunes. Ice cream and sweet treats. The unseen faces of the play things. Of children and their toys. Never seen again.
Mixed (gender neutral)
The boy’s hands are wrapped in swaddling. Burned from too much time playing in the
sun. With the fire that burns those who do not obey their mother’s admonitions. Children are born perfect, immaculate, and in possession of all that is needed to know in this life, or, in any other. All instructions that deny this fact are false, and, must, therefore, be ignored or discouraged by force, if necessary. Innocence and purity of vision must be maintained at all costs.
The boy knows this but he ignores. The idea that he might not have known what has
been granted him at birth is absurd, and therefore, false . Not an excuse as all excuses are the devil’s doing. The devil being impure and therefore not of the immaculate conception that all children are derived from.
He is a willful child, apparently. Claiming that he is not musical denies the knowledge
granted to him. He must be made to see the truth of this. The truth is on the table before him in the open case, along with the sheets with the instructions clearly inscribed upon them in notes. The notes anyone can see, and read, the way all people must from birth, know. Even a child who denies this, therefore, must be lying. Further discipline may be needed to encourage him to look inside where all the answers already lie. The other children, outside, the closed room, are clearly an illusion.
I believe that the exact image can be found either on line or in a text discussing the test though I did not use it for these free associations. In keeping with the “spirit” of the test (mine and the TAT) I decided that I would write whatever came to my mind with no predetermined end: that is just do it and see what happens. As this is my primary method anyway, this is not a real challenge. Where it gets challenging, is after some thirty of forty of these, not written all at once, but over an extended period of time, the method becomes, for the lack of a better word, intense. By the third, random group, the poet is beginning to feel not only out of body, but out of mind. A decidedly uncomfortable feeling, even when projecting a presumably, fictive male/ female/ variations, switching gender as the cards are chosen, with the subject on them. Let’s say by part three there is a great deal of confusion of voices.
Are the voices consistent?
Do they have to be?
Are they fictional or is there a “real” element to them?
Is autobiography one of the unintended consequences?
You know what they say about politics and international relations: blowback is a bitch.
Consider this: a rural scene. Of a shack, a shotgun shack? falling into disrepair. A father figure in fields. A mother figure on the porch looking like something out of a Walker Evans Appalachian Household and a young girl, in a ratty dress cradling books in her arms sitting on the porch.
Country Scene Three Times
The man is plowing something under in the fields. The girl, with the books cradled in her
arms, cannot see what he is doing, but she can guess. The one who could be her mother, is
standing nearby, whispering what will happen once the night comes. She is invoking the
spirits of the blackbirds who often come with the clouds that are surely moving closer in her
mind. Once the rain begins, the women will be forced to move inside, where they will sip from coffee cups that have no handles. The mother communicates in a non-verbal language the child can understand, having been schooled, since birth, in the art of receiving transmitted thoughts.
The father is forced to continue working outside. Whatever work he is doing cannot be
interrupted. Changes in the weather do not slow the process; only the seasons affect him. Once the plowing is done, a new layer is added to the soil, though no one can see that it has been applied. What that layer consists of, no one knows, but everyone knows it is necessary that it be there.
The young girl uses the books she has been carrying, to divine the future that the leaves in the coffee cups do not foretell. The birds are crucial to this process, but even the girl doesn’t know what they might mean.
Plowing the field by hand. Even after dark, he plows. In the night when no one can see.
The earth turning beneath him. Like the weeds he scythes with the wet, sharpened scythe. Hours of cutting, the back and forth motion of his arms, like the furrows of the fields parting behind him as he works without stopping. Until he can no longer work.
The woman watching. Always watching, but, no one knows what she sees. In the dark
and in the light. Sometimes she watches from the edge of the field, acting as a scarecrow acts; her hands and arms outstretched; her legs spread, her tattered clothes, and matted hair stiff as straw in the sun. In the wind, filled with the dust of all that plowing, all the dust scything yields dropping like seeds that fall on fallow ground. Her unblinking eyes, hard as the rock the plow uncovers. The stinging spark of blade and stone. The only spark of life. The names of the dead sewn like patches onto the thin torn fabric she wears to cover what no one must see. Patches like raw skin. Raw skin like fabric that has no binding thread. That the birds reject as strands for nesting in trees devoid of the leaves they need for hiding. Hiding the sun from the night and all the light that goes with it.
And the books the words have left empty. Fleeing from the arms of the young woman
who knows there is no escape, no refuge to be found here. Where these people are, have been, and have no plan of leaving. Everything they know, own, and understand, is represented here and the wind is wearing it away. The birds are stealing what is left behind. She feels the wearing away inside her, and, some mornings, wonders when there will be nothing left to wake up to.
Female Gender Specific POV
She is seeing the man working with all twenty of her senses activated. In all five
dimensions. The books she is carrying do not contain the secrets she is looking for, but, her brain soon will. Length, width, height, infinity and time, are the five dimensions she knows of but, apparently the man has discovered another one that he is trying to hide by plowing it under. The seeds he has been planting will grow the kind of covering that will obscure the important sixth sense that hold the answer to all the has previously been withheld. The sixth sense being intuition and, the seventh, heightened intuition, which she has used to know that the old woman is an obstacle like a rock to be split apart among the lilies of the field. Splitting the old woman means a fractured self, which is a false intuition, a misunderstanding that, like truth and justice, that must be reinterpreted. Reinterpreted because none of the facts are presently known even the facts spread among the seeds, the last remaining lilies. The fields.
What she is seeing now fills her with desolation. Like the desert where she reclaims the
lost knowledge of her elders, the parental ones, who contain her, have withheld. The blackbirds that came with seeds, who have landed on the false man set up to repel the counting crows, have told her that. Told her that, and a whole lot more, that must never be revealed. Now that she resides in the fifth dimension, listening to radio transmission for the messages that will direct her onto the right path to rediscover the flowering Judas, the seeds of the plants that grow the other way. Whose flowers are as bright as shining silver, stars, in the otherwise total darkness of night.
These first two responses in each of the examples are number one and two in the test while the third responses could and do appear in a different order in the third, defining section.
What exactly is being defined, then?
More precisely, why does the third section feel defining, while the previous two feel as if they are premises in a logical progression that need the last statement to prove the previous points?
I don’t know.
And what if there is no third choice chosen in the random distribution? Given that there are choices that are left out because of the varietal nature introduced by the second gender specific variation that make for more than twenty pictures in each section of the test.
Does it matter that that some are “unresolved?
Maybe the questions should be, none of this can be resolved until someone, a separate intelligence, evaluates.
Let us examine a much later in the sequence, number 18.
Consider this: Hands
Gender Variations Hands
A man is clutched from behind by three hands.
The hands are from a mural by Diego Rivera and indicate the struggle of the workers
against the oppressive bosses in their towers . The bosses who cast out ropes for men to hang by, instead of paying them a decent living wage. Years of working have done nothing to alleviate his suffering, nor, of improving his lot, though he continues to labor, so that the rope he must cling to will not be a frayed one .
Sometimes, these hands belong to other people, and, the man is a woman, like the one in
“Repulsion”, who sees and feels things that aren’t there. Like hands that come from walls, and, caress her naked body in ways that make her feel pleasures she was previously unaware of.
The hands are not the vehicles that cause her to act out aggressively, with household
implements like scissors and straight razors. That is what the church bells are for. Each tolling changes her state of mind like the decaying carcass of the rabbit she has flayed for a meal, but, has left to the flies, and other household pests, to make their temporary homes in. The hands remain vital, while other objects express the morbidity that is her brain at the end of a metaphorical rope.
Other hands clutch at him while he is on the rope. They feel as if they should be in a
woodcut impression by Rockwell Kent, some kind of End of the World Series, expressive of
man’s fate, in a smaller context, than the grand one the series envisions. Aggressive hands are one thing, but, the end of the world is something else entirely.
Three hands seem insignificant when placed in the larger context so they will be spoken
of no more.
A woman has her hands squeezed around the throat of another woman.
There is no ambiguity here, only madness. The fury of one who knows her world is one
full of hostile creatures who have resolved to destroy all the things she holds sacred, even if
those things, never existed, could never exist, and, would never exist, except in her mind. In her mind, the hostile creatures who have tried to prevent her from altering the course of other lives by imposing restrictions on a world view that included fairies, dragons, and sacred horses and all things that exists. All the things that exist, real and imaginary, outside of this sacred childhood garden of Eden she has used to construct her world view. All these things that are false, not to be trusted, and destroyed if they threaten to infringe upon the fantasies she has created. Hands across the throat of the restrictors.
The choking woman has the strength of several, the presence of demons inside, giving her extra strength, as well as, the other personalities who inhabit her fractured self. Each self, or, person of the self, has the strength of one, and, when multiplied by prime numbers, that strength reaches the force of legions. Legions of demons in a garden of Eden.
The one being choked has no recourse but to submit or die. Perhaps, even submitting
will no longer be an option, considering how close to death she already is. There are snakes in the garden now, and, once they have been released, nothing will ever be the same. Choking won’t change what has already begun, but, knowing this, will not stop her. Nothing inside her will. A silver bullet might, but there are none available at the moment.
A woman has her hands squeezed around the neck of another woman. Female
I am sitting at the dining room table, getting organized, scratching the open sore at the
back of my head. I am peeling the layers of clotted scab away as I scratch, feeling the blood and the dead skin between my fingers, grinding my teeth together as I organize, always organizing, always thinking, always rearranging the world as it must be. The one I am scratching with is the right hand, the correct one, the righteous one, the one that having writ moves on. Sometimes I am compelled scratch with the other, the left one, the alien one……
The old woman awakens in her easy chair with a start. The TV set still on, though the
screen shows nothing but a blur of color, unfocused, without definition. 82 years old, she thinks, and without the sense to go to bed and sleep. She sees the end table lamps still on, thinks perhaps a glass of water before the long climb upstairs to the bed, but, that would mean disturbing the peace, interrupting the daughter who sits at the table for hours, scratching her head, switching from one hand to the other, never saying a word, her eyes vacant somewhere else…….
I see the old woman moving in the near-dark, evil personified; all that has gone wrong in
my life can be laid at her feet: burying daddy when she knew no one ever dies, not daddy, not anyone, not then, not now, not ever. I should scratch her eyes out, scratch her until she bleeds, the way I bleed for all these sins, in this world and the other…..
The old woman sees the figure sitting in darkness. Sees the lace table cloth, the crystal
chandelier over the old mahogany dining room table, the china cabinet, the linen chest, the
antique chest and mirrors her own face is reflected in, staring back over the head of the woman, sitting in darkness, who appears to see nothing in this room, or, in any other……
I see her there, watching, looking at me as if I were some outer space creature, as if I
were the deformed bird of no-woman born, here and not here, as I am, where I sit and organize. I should take her by the neck and squeeze, throttle her until dead, the next step in the procedure, the final solution……
No water tonight, the old woman thinks. Climbs the stairs slowly, her arthritic knees and
ankles cracking as she climbs. The carpeted stairs creaking as she goes, stopping at the first
landing by the picture window the dark yard, and, the garden, and, the barn beyond the glass, shadows in the darkness, and, the sound of her daughter rising from her chair. Slowly walking, walking after her…..
Out there, in the night, the black birds and the bats. Remember the bats? We saw them
on the islands flying from the wrecks on the shore, flying in flocks, each one carrying a message for the natives of the lands beyond this one. I remember, even if you do not. I want to go back, back where the sun is shining, and, there is no night like this one….
The old woman in her room, on the bed, still dressed, catching her breath, eyes closed,
hearing the slow steps ascending after her, feeling the hands around her neck, lifting her,
squeezing the life from her, and she says, “If you think this is what you want, if it will really
solve anything, go ahead, kill me……..”
As the test proceeds the prompts become more suggestive of violence. What are they looking for then?
Hidden clues inside a person that reveal the nature of suspected neuroses?
A conformation of a diagnosis?
That there is some actual, suppressed or sublimated, trauma in the afflicted personality now taking the test?
Can responses be faked?
Can one kind of test be manipulated and transformed into another kind of test?
An imaginative experiment in terror?
I will say this: one of the responses, perhaps two, to the above stimulus are based on something that actually happened, and could be construed as not part of the ekphrastic testing process at all.
Yet, here they are.
Consider this: the most dangerous suggestion/prompt of all, the blank card
The blank card three times
No gender necessary
There is no such thing as a blank card. If you look closely at the surface, you can see
where the edges have been lifted, and to where the layers peel back to reveal the places that exist inside.
The first layer is reached through a downward sloping staircase, made from concrete,
with iron railings, and has signs pointing out which direction to take, and, which trains will be arriving, but never any indication when anything will actually be there. This place is very much like a subway, though on closer inspection, a careful viewer will recognize certain subtle distinctions, and, be able to choose the way, further down, without assistance.
The way down is partially lit by overhead bulbs that are filthy with years of grime and
dead insects who have collected there until only a hint of its former brilliance remains. The
further down you proceed, the worse the light is, and the fouler the air. The rooms become smaller and less populated, but, clearly the way forward, is the way down. It is like one of those stories you are given to read in literature course, only in your version of the trip, there is no guide to assist your travels. No clear destination, no place that can clearly be defined as your own.
Resting is not an option, not as you traveling downward. All the benches
have been removed, no niches left in the wall, not even the ones for the familiar objects of
veneration, or, for advertising; all the objects you might need in life that have been left behind.
There is no question of returning the way you came. It is unthinkable, as you instinctively know, when you arrive at the place you are meant to be, there is no question this will be your new home. You may not embrace it as your own, but it will embrace you. You will not attempt to leave. What would be the point?
The card is not blank as it seems, as might be expected in this undertaking, where all things are not as they seem. The white space is an over painting of a work of Art that shows a scene everyone is familiar with. A house in the woods like one from a fairy tale lost children are seeking, but, not one of those houses made of candy, or, one harboring a witch inside, but, quite another house altogether.
It is a chalet and the occupants have been forced to flee without any of their possessions
as some sort of catastrophe, not of their own doing, has made the house uninhabitable. There is no smoke, though a fire is not out of the question. There is no sign of flood, or, of a strange invasion by the kinds of occupying forces that make all places of this sort, inhabitable by those who were once in possession. Something unseen has forced the inhabitants outside in the cold where the traces of snow are tinged with something that could be blood, or, soot, or, something else.
Noises in the night make the scene more terrifying, as the unseen is more threatening that
the seen, no matter how awful the thing perceived may be. The imagination is a terrible gift,
and it brings with it the most terrifying aspects of our existence and what might lie beyond.
Writing scribbled in the corner of the painting suggests the artist wished to call the
piece, “Christmas in a Time of Wolves”. The artist, responsible for the work, however, is
unknown though there is a painting and an artist who once created something quite like what was described.
The page presented as blank is covered by invisible inks that are revealed when the page
is held up to a flame. Ancient texts are copied in long hand, while others messages are inscribed in blood, thinned into the essence of ghost, forming symbols only the initiated can decipher. The runes they describe are of a civilization, on a planet like this one, occupying the same kind of time and place as we do, only the people and places there, are invisible to all with a naked eye. If we knew what these hieroglyphics described ,we would no longer be misled by false prophets who claim we a need to be self-directed into places of exclusion where the ties that bind cannot be worn around the neck. Instead these ties, are unfurled like ribbons that may be affixed to the chests of soldiers specifically designed for this purpose. A hanging judge will be assigned to each soldier whose rulings must be unequivocally followed, or else, the punishment will be beyond something mere mortals could ever endure. A lifetime of this is beyond imagining, so two lifetimes may be necessary to complete all the sentences. Maybe more. These lives, people, places, soldiers and judges are unaware of each other, even though they may exist side by side. It is difficult to say which dimension we are in: this one or the other. Or yet another.
What does all of this say about process?
About the author?
About the reader?
And the absence of an independent interpreter of the data?
Is it an exercise is ekphrastic poetry or a psychological study?
Art or Madness?
Madness or Art?
It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?