Vision: Evening Prayer

The date was Sunday 6 August 2012. I had entered the chapel of the monastery in Taizé, France, late at night during the service of evening prayer. I had scarcely slept since arriving in Paris and after two days in the City of Lights, I was exhausted.

I was in the state of waking in which, if you close your eyes long enough, you experience flickers of unconsciousness and you become briefly deafened to sound—like dipping your toe into the unfathomable pool of sleep and drawing it out quickly again. While the brothers of the monastery recited the Gospel in several languages, my mind carried the brother’s words off into another kind of narration that echoed the Gospels but attained a more disturbing, Gothic tone and subject matter.

I do not presume to say that the story below is exactly the one my unconscious narrated to me at that moment, but there are some nodal points that unite the two narrations. The haunting persona was there initially, the association with Romeo and Juliet was there, and the misty forest landscape of rural France presented itself powerfully to me at that moment

In putting the disconnected images and feelings together into a linear narration, I have inevitably butchered and sawed my experience into digestible pieces—a necessity, but unfortunate. Nonetheless, you will gain a sense the general feeling that my ‘vision’ produced within me.

Now, time to quit my chattering Romantic persona and get to the prose piece:

 Gothic ruins and graveyard

Vision: Evening Prayer”

Outside the lapses of silence, there is a Kyrie and a hallelujah; outside the sung prayers, a thunderbolt crackles the air outside. Late days and early mornings have driven me to claim what I desire, rest. But I will stand vigil and not lose myself to sleep. My eyes are shut and my head sinks low, almost against my will. Then, a reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew.

I remember the words flowing through the brother’s mouth. To say I do not remember would be a lie. But the words came to me in a state hovering between light and shadows. I would tell the truth. The words changed ownership and I fell away.

***

When Sunday was over, Marie went to the tomb. It was early on the first day of the week, the sun having just risen. It is cold around her legs still, as she runs through the mist and forest. She dashes and skips, cracking twigs underfoot in her urgency.

She is running from something predatorial.

She does not know the origin of this fear. She merely senses something behind her, puffing shallow breath. Suppose she is a milkmaid from a French village a few kilometres from Paris. She has lived a green life, in the fields, approaching the forest warily, living in a stone house with roses near the porch and a beehive growing in the weathered stone wall. She had fallen in love, a deadly vulnerability.

As she flees down the unmarked path, Marie says to herself, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb?”

I shall. She has gone to give her respects to one dearly departed, who is not truly dead. She suspects him to be the gardener—there is a garden in the forest glade, near the old tomb—and so ignores him as his back is turned to her. Let the gardener handle himself. Because something is chasing her. The eye in the shadow tracking her is mine.

The gardener casts his gaze in search of her, but the only figure his eye catches, approaching through the mist, is mine.

When Marie reaches the tomb, she sees the stone has already been moved. She sees a young man sitting on it, dressed in a white robe, skin pale as death. “They have taken my Romeo and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Do not be afraid,” I say from atop the stone. “Romeo has risen from his sleep of death. He was never truly dead. He drank a special poison, and now he awaits you. He is standing over his tombstone, triumphant over the grave.”

Marie enters the tomb. She sees Romeo, his feet dangling over a crossed headstone, swaying in the draft.

Her screams fill the tomb as she jumps back and turns to run. She could say nothing else because of her terror and she was very afraid.

“I See You Too”

After years of trying, I have finally published a decent poem in one of the McGill campus literary journals! And, this is my first poem ever published, perfectly suited (by coincidence, actually) for the Valentine’s edition of Read this, Dammit!, the publication of the Paper’s Edge creative writing group. I really lucked out on this one!

The poem came to me when I conceived of a conceit that plays off Rene Descartes’ scepticism about whether or not the people around him are automatons. Through some non-linear thinking process, the thought, “What if a lover was afraid his beloved was an automaton?” announced itself. I also thought I’d try writing a poem inspired by John Donne’s conceits. Indeed, I allude to “The Ecstasy” in several of the stanzas. The Song of Solomon also provided inspiration.

Be aware of a pun in the title. Science nerds might get it.

Now, without any further ado:

 

“I See You Too”

 

Is this all our body,

             an illusion of love?

 

          In the pomegranate fields

                              of the eternal now,

                   by the banks of the swollen river,

                            our fingers intergraft,

         locking teeth.

 

          Are we two souls two gears,

closed systems

          touching hands?

Do fingers bend

          for integration of input?

Is your ankle, by my thigh,

          a rivet?

Are your legs plastic—or fiberglass—

          or your arm, a vise?

And this,

         is it just plumbing and pump,

        Tube A to Valve E?

 

Cords of synthetic sinew

          crisscross your face:

          do they pull together to please me,

or does a mind pull them, pleased?

 

CO2 is on your breath.

          Your body burning against mine:

a furnace grafting my carbon matter

           onto dancing atoms of       purity.

 

          O, O the illusion is truer!

Was he who created you clockmaker

          or lover?

 

Your eyes are two spheres:

          orbital intelligences

around the simulacrum

                  contained in your skin.

 

           I hear the symphonic magic.

          Focusing beyond you,

Both eyes form one,

become a clear window.

Image

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay: Blending Fantasy and History

On the cover of my Penguin edition of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel Under Heaven is a little circular stamp that reveals that it made the Globe and Mail’s top 100 books. It must be understood that these books do NOT just include fantasy literature! This book has proven a better read in the eyes of the Globe and Mail than many thousands of other books published that are more mainstream in subject matter. Kay has scored big time by achieving this. He is an author who blends genres. The historical fantasy hybrid novel that emerges proves to be superior to other works of fantasy literature. With good reason. The story is very powerful.

Under Heaven tells the story of the consequences of a gift. A Sardian horse in the empire of Ninth Dynasty Kitai, a land based on Tang Dynasty China, is a gift that can greatly honour an individual. Superior to other Kitan horses, these Heavenly Horses must be imported from beyond a merciless desert across the Silk Road. When Shen Tai, the Second Son of the general Shen Gao, buries the bones of the dead slain during a terrible battle, he is gifted with no fewer than 250 of these supremely valued horses, an extravagant gift from the Princess of Tagur, Chen-Wang.

The world could bring you poison in a jeweled cup, or surprising gifts. Sometimes you didn’t know which of them it was. This quote from the book becomes the mantra defining Tai’s perilous situation. The horses are his, and he must choose what to do with them. He is going to get sucked away from his solitude in Kuala Nor into the ‘gold and jade’ of the court of Kitai.

By now the motif of ‘the decadent court’ is a staple of Kay novels, and he has honed it to perfection. The tension invoked in such court scenes keep you at the edge of your seat even though there may be no physical action. People use words as weapons, and the game is all about reading faces to discern motivations. Tai is an upstart at court and is being placed in a position of considerable danger, so he will have to use his observational skills to their best advantage. Honestly, if we had time travel, a reader of Guy Gavriel Kay could train in the ways of court life by reading his novels and then go to the sixteenth century and rise to a high station in Elizabethan England. Just about. Take time to read these scenes. So much tension is invoked that it is a model about how to write dialogue effectively.

Moderate spoiler alert for next three paragraphs.

Without giving too much away, there is a divisive feud between two high-ranking officials in the world of the court. The 250 horses complicates that. But one day, rebellion breaks–the Rebellion, as it turns out–and Guy Gavriel Kay writes the following line: “historians, without exception, appeared to join in accepting the number of forty million lives as a reasonable figure for the consequences of the An Li Rebellion” (529).

You read that and then you think, “Oh, $!%@.” And you read on. You have to. Because civilization is going downhill and you can enjoy the ride.

Aside from depicting court life tension and intrigue, the thing that Kay does particularly well is depicting the collapse and changing of civilizations. This puts Kay’s novel on an epic scope. He adds dignity to the genre of epic fantasy by bringing in the historical. Many failures of epic fantasy miss the dignity behind Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which comes from the tragic scope of the Elves leaving Middle Earth, the fall of the race of Men from the glory of Numenor, and Frodo’s symbolic death. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, finds a closer kin in Guy Gavriel Kay, who keeps the tragic elements. Truth be told, reading the last chapters of Under Heaven is like watching a train-wreck in slow motion (anyone ever see Meet the Fockers? Another kind of train-wreck…). But it was a good train-wreck, and who knew just watching civilization collapse into chaos could be so entertaining! Not to mention strongly disturbing, seeing as the rebellion’s creation of a wide famine results in the appearance of cannibalism. I might add, however, that the ending is optimistic. I am not lying: I actually almost cried in one of the final scenes, and I do not cry at movies, let alone books.

No more spoilers!

As an English student, I will be analyzing all of Kay’s novels in my Honours thesis. I find provocative the fact that Kay includes some sections of his book devoted to telling how future Kitai will make sense of the events that occur in his book. No other Kay book, to my knowledge, really has that explicit a dealing with history, though all of his books deal with history in some capacity.

Keep alert of a possible (but only in the discussion-phase) movie deal for Under Heaven. It will be a wicked Chinese movie like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or at least it could be. I can seriously see that coming about. Whatever movie they make of this book, if any at all, will be awesome.