the

woman

at

the

edge

of

the

abyss

Of all the pictures taken on that day… 

to one particular my thoughts remain:

At first glance, she is so easily missed,

Some woman at the edge of the abyss.

The mad circus of September’s horror;

The raining people and flames, heroics,

This falling cultural              apocalypse,

A woman at the          edge of the abyss.

Having survived        the un-survivable,

Coming then          to the indescribable:

Is at the gate of blackened smoky mist,

There woman at the edge of the abyss.

A haunting image of her standing there:

Known only as a woman from her hair,

Breathes the life into all my loneliness,

Poor woman at the edge of the abyss.

& the Devil’s crooked-smouldering teeth,

& with the New York City streets beneath,

How in the world did it all come to this?!

When woman at the edge of the abyss.

She is so small next to all that carnage;

Evil’s will to destroy: finely harnessed.

In the steel and burning broken wings,

Our woman at the edge of the abyss.

Yet sizes speak unto something greater:

OF HUMANITY’S CREATIVE NATURE.

Maybe she was given this final glimpse?

Doomed woman at the edge of the abyss.

But she should miss all the coming grief;

Crusader-blinded eyes of terror’s deeds,

Comes paranoid century politics…

My woman at the edge of the abyss.

For of the vortex of that darkened hole,

Will soon suck in some many million souls;

Collapsing Empire went collapsing in…

…Liberty at the edge of the abyss…

Septermber 11, North Tower impactSeptermber 11, North Tower impact close up, Edna Cintron

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Printed in the United States of Aotearoa

NZUS Flag.png

“We are entering a new world; one in which everything is alive and in motion. If we are to find our way, we must learn to map water and fire, wind and mist”, (233) says Hōne Heke at the end of Dylan Horrocks’ graphic novel, Hicksville. Heke is speaking to James Cook and a representation of Charles Heaphy, and while it is possible that Heke and Heaphy crossed paths, Cook could never have met either of them. So why does Horrocks place them together in a curious subplot to his book, a post-modern ‘comic-within-a-comic’, depicting them as lost in a landscape that keeps changing? The answer could be that these three characters can be easily read as emblematic representations of the different threads that came together to create the fabric of New Zealand society today; the indigenous, the explorer, the settler. “But how does one map when there are no fixed points of reference?” (234) asks Heaphy’s character; and indeed, how do we, as New Zealanders, map our culture when it is constantly evolving? Ought New Zealand novelists be committed to this task?

In 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that “the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium” (3). Two and half thousand years earlier, Plato also combined the work of the poet and the painter in Republic; “He is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth” (Cai 12). In Metaphysics, Aristotle seemed to reject his teacher’s implication that creative writers impart too much emotion into their works for them to ever be considered objective representations of reality, though he did concede that “The difference between the historian and the poet is … one relates actual events, the other the kinds of things that might occur” (Cai 13). In a book published this year, History Is a Contemporary Literature, Ivan Jablonka writes that “History is not a fiction, sociology is not a novel, anthropology is not exoticism” (2). He then, albeit somewhat arbitrarily, lists the kinds of literature that can “produce knowledge about the real world, past and present” as being “travel logs, memoirs, auto-biographies, correspondences, testimonies, diaries, life stories, and news reports” (2). Presumptuousness aside, novels are noticeably not present. As truly powerful and important as literary fictional forms undoubtedly are (Aldama 235), it would appear the consensus across the ages is that they are limited in their ability to be true depictions of reality. Even so, can they still tell us something of culture? And, if so, the question remains; should this be their aim?

In his book, Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture, John Storey quotes Pierre Macherrey’s A Theory of Literary Production, in a defence of literary fiction as a means to glean insight into culture; “It is in a text’s ‘unconscious’ that its relationship to the … historical conditions of its existence is revealed”. The ‘unconscious’ being referred to here is generated in the narrative discourse; the ‘truth promised’ versus the ‘truth revealed’ by the act of reading, within such experience lies the ‘unconscious’ – and the delivery of a repressed, ‘historical truth’ (Storey 46).

Evidence to support this idea, that fiction is capable of inadvertently delivering the historical context surrounding its creation, can be found by analysing New Zealand’s own novel history. To start with, New Zealand’s relationship with literature arrived at complications from the earliest possible moments. For hundreds of years, Māori tradition closely guarded knowledge, passing it down orally from carefully selected members of one generation to carefully selected members of the next (Sturm 1). In complete contrast, British tradition recorded knowledge in print, encouraged a general ability to disseminate it, and gauged societal progress by measuring rates of literacy (Sturm 3). Therefore, the story of how the earliest ‘New Zealanders’—whomsoever after Cook’s arrival in 1769 this label applied to—value literature is immediately and inescapably mixed with complex colonial history and revision. Some contend that the more literate Māori became, out of necessity to coexist alongside colonials and by missionaries converting them to Christianity, the greater the distance from their oral traditions they found themselves; a phenomenon described as ‘cultural-colonialism’ (Ballantyne 245). Apparent proof that Māori struggled to find their voice in a colonial medium that had stolen their voice from them, is that it was not until 1972 that a book was published by a Māori author. Indeed, Witi Ihimaera’s short story novel, Pounamu, pounamu, and the Māori Renaissance of the 1970s, arrived more than two centuries after Cook.

However, Ihimaera himself writes in his autobiography, Māori Boy, that despite popular belief, there were early Māori writers (247) and the “unsympathetic climate” (Sturm 23) towards Māori literature is more nuanced than simple racism. Of Pounamu, pounamu, and this nuance, Ihimaera writes that “[Māori] really had to adjust their thinking about it” (44). Some claim that Pākehā inventing the Māori alphabet and writing about Māori—in English —alongside the translation issues with the Treaty of Waitangi and the ongoing focus of print in land disputes, and, as already mentioned, the complications surrounding oral traditions and colonialism in general, all contributed to the “slow … tentative” emergence of Māori in New Zealand novel writing (Sturm 23).

The fact remains, however, that Māori novelists were missing for a long period of time; a period that coincides with the hideous belief that Māori would become extinct and the prohibition of te reo in schools. This gives shape to Pierre Macherrey’s assertions that fiction is “the articulation of silence” and “What is important in the work is what it does not say” (Storey 45). If we view New Zealand-authored novels as a national bibliography, this long silence of the tangata whenua articulates loudly a shameful part of New Zealand’s past, giving new meaning to Allen Curnow’s statement in 1945 that “Strictly speaking, New Zealand doesn’t exist yet” (Curnow, “Dialogue”, 77).

The near-complete absence of New Zealand from Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife can be read in a similar way. Published by a British publisher in 2008, it tells the story of an Englishman recalling the months leading up to his Australian wife’s suicide. The book is mainly set in London and only two, very minor, characters are New Zealanders. Perkins’ national identity is entirely masked, as is her gender. However, by writing of an Australian woman’s troubled ‘overseas experience’ in London, now a staple adventure for many young New Zealanders, Perkins does faintly sketch a portrait of New Zealand, or ‘Australasian’, culture. Themes of isolation, distance, homesickness, national identity, ‘fresh starts’, globalisation, etc., are all indicative of the ‘overseas experience’, yet they also echo elements of our colonial history. “I hate this bloody country!” one of the New Zealanders sobs one day, to which the main character, Ann, comforts her by saying, “I know, I know … I found it hard too when I first came” (Perkins 200). In the 1960 The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Curnow described this anxiety surrounding national identity, cultural substance, belonging, and historical legitimacy that Perkins appears to be evoking: “The best of our verse is marked or moulded everywhere by peculiar pressures—pressures arising from the isolation of the country, its physical character, and its history” (17).

The unusual subplot in Hicksville of Cook (as isolation), Heaphy (as physical character), and Heke (as history) can best be understood with Curnow’s ‘peculiar pressures’ in mind. The character of Emil in Hicksville, who is from a fictitious country called Cornucopia, suggests that there are two types of maps; those which represent place and those which represent time (Horrocks 86). Hicksville itself and Novel About My Wife demonstrate that novels can function in the same fashion, mapping our culture in time and space.

Interestingly, like Cornucopia, the version of New Zealand depicted in Hicksville is also completely fantastical, evolving Curnow’s ideas from 1960: “In making a first really comprehensive anthology of my country’s verse, I have found myself piecing together the record of an adventure, or series of adventures, in search of reality” (17).

It is clear then that New Zealand novelists can and do reflect different aspects of New Zealand’s changing culture in a variety of sophisticated ways, but importantly including via omission. Therefore, suggesting they ought to actively do this is a redundant imperative. If they focus simply on writing good novels, the rest will take care of itself.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of New Zealand’s diverse modern culture is the diversity of the novelists themselves; no longer are they bound by skin or shore. Exploring areas outside map—internal and external, historical and contemporary, imaginary and fantastical—does not mean they are lost, rather they have such a firm idea of where home is that they are not scared to venture over faraway horizons in order “to map water and fire, wind and mist”.

I know this firsthand; I am a New Zealander and my first book happens to have nothing to do with New Zealand. It is being published by an American company (Unsolicited Press) and will be printed in American English. Due for release next year, the inside sleeve will read ‘Printed in the United States of America.’ However, the shadow of my national silence articulates a silhouette; I am free of nationalist thinking because I am from this free-thinking nation.

Works Cited:

  • Aldama, Frederick Luis. “Why the Humanities Matter”. University of Texas Press, 2008.
  • Ballantyne, Tony. “Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past”. University of British Colombia, 2012.
  • Cai, Zong-Qi. “Configurations of Comparative Poetics: Three Perspectives on Western and Chinese Literary Criticism”. University of Hawai’i Press, 2002.
  • Curnow, Allen. “A Dialogue with Ngaio Marsh.” Look Back Harder, 76–82.
  • Curnow, Allen, editor. “The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse”. Penguin, 1960.
  • Horrocks, Dylan. “Hicksville”. Victoria University Press, 2010.
  • Ihimaera, Witi. “Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood”. Vintage, 2014.
  • Jablonka, Ivan, and Nathan J. Bracher. “History Is a Contemporary Literature: Manifesto for the Social Sciences”. Cornell University Press, 2018.
  • Perkins, Emily. “Novel About My Wife”. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008.
  • Strum, Terry, editor. “The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English.” Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Wilde, Oscar. “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Penguin Books, 1985.

Angelheaded Baxters burning for the ancient heavenly connection…

James K Baxter, Hiruhārama, or Jerusalem, by the Whanganui River, 1971.

“It’s not On the Road. It’s just for me” (19), Jack says in Eli Kent’s The Intricate Art of Actually Caring. But it is On the Road; Kent’s play works hard to emulate this iconic Beat Generation novel, through dialogue and narrative form. Curiously, however, alongside Jack Kerouac and later American countercultural figures like Bob Dylan (38) and The Velvet Underground (40), Kent also implicates his relative, James K Baxter. In doing so, Kent appears to claim Baxter’s work as a New Zealand expression of the Western countercultural movement of the 1960s. Kent’s statement that “Baxter changed this country” (16) can, therefore, best be made sense of by also considering this wider frame of the Beat Generation, who themselves helped change the United States (Morgan 247).

A definition of the Beat Generation is difficult in any way except provisionally:
• mostly born between 1920 and 1940
• mostly published from the 1950s to the 1970s
• influenced by jazz
• marginal to mainstream life
• in the language of ordinary/street people
• valuing the unmediated experience
• intensely spiritual (Zauhar)

Baxter is also hard to accommodate in theoretical terms (Sturm 247) but he immediately shares the first of these traits, coming of age and publishing in the post-WWII era. Born in 1926, the same year as Allen Ginsberg, without whom the Beat Generation would never have existed (Morgan xv), it is through comparing Baxter’s life and work to Ginsberg’s that the other striking traits emerge.

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Michael McClure, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, San Francisco, 1965.

Ginsberg thought any writer who shared his values was eligible for inclusion within the Beat Generation (Morgan 146) and believed a writer should commit to improving society (Morgan 221). Baxter shared this social and moral sense of responsibility (Sturm 391). Ginsberg went to India from 1961 to 1963, connecting with Eastern spirituality. He helped introduce this into the countercultural movement in the United States as more people looked for meaning in non-Western forms (Morgan 203). Baxter also had a spiritual journey involving India. In 1958, the year he was re-baptized a Catholic, he travelled to India and was deeply moved by the condition of the poor, becoming critical of the effects of Western culture (Weir xxii). His journey continued upon his return to New Zealand, becoming intrinsically woven with Māori community and spiritual life (Sturm 416). It is partly these spiritual connections that allowed both poets to sharply focus their sense of justice upon the dominant mainstream forces surrounding them, leading them both to actively participate in anti-establishment protests and lifestyles.

Their poetry, however, reveals this even further and establishes a close artistic bond between them. This bond validates Kent’s implication that Baxter was a ‘New Zealand Beat poet’. Though Baxter’s Romantic poetry during the 1950s was lavishly praised (Sturm 391), Weir describes it as “inconsistent”, “gravely rhetorical”, and “derivative” (xxi). However, Weir claims Baxter then wrote “prolifically” and with “considerable power” (xxii) in the 1960s. Ginsberg’s landmark Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956, and after the ensuing obscenity trial ruled in his favour in 1957, the floodgates of American publishing were opened and by the 1960s the Beats were a global phenomenon (Zauhar). This is relevant given Baxter’s capacity to absorb the work of other poets and turn it into his own (Sturm 391).

In the 1960s, Baxter noticeably wrote more in free verse. This is not to say that anything in free verse is automatically Beat, nor that the Beats owned free verse, but it is a style which lends itself to less structured poetry. This rejection of traditional poetics for jazz-inspired rhythms, for non-conformity, helped Ginsberg and Baxter express themselves in a number of ways. It aided their considerations of alternative viewpoints, enabling them to more critically peer at the mainstream. This allowed them to more fairly represent the outcasts. Moreover, Baxter’s drift away from traditional poetics allowed him to use ordinary ‘street’ language. In his “At the Grave of a War Hero”, he uses language in jarring contrast to the reverence usually reserved for such places; “Nobody to fuck … Swallowed up in Caesar’s black mad eye … you rot” (Baxter 363-364). This would be seen as highly disrespectful at an Anzac Day service. However, Baxter calls the soldier “mate”, like a fellow soldier might, making it an altogether more human poem than one espousing war cliches. Thus, Baxter treats the soldier with greater respect.

Form aside, the content of Baxter’s 1960s poetry and the bravery he displays it makes this decade of work so powerful, so Beat. In “Pig Island Letters”, he writes of a night-long argument about the “Mythical, theological, political” (Baxter 285). Both he and Ginsberg often blurred the lines between these subjects, blending them into one human experience reflective of the different racial, social, and political changes which defined the 1960s.

Incidentally, they both lent the names of their countries to the titles of poems. “America”, from Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, is a powerful critique of his country, and with the impact the Cold War was having on American society in 1956, lines like “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” (39) led to the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, being tried for obscenity (Morgan 127). While Baxter’s “New Zealand” offers no real comparison to this, “The Maori Jesus” does, both in form and content. “His hands were scrubbed red to get the shit out of the pores” (347) is equally confronting for Pākehā society, not just because of the profanity but the implication that Māori skin has “shit” in it which needs to be “scrubbed” out. Baxter’s critique of Pākehā society continues in “Ballad of Calvary Street”, turning on a seemingly model home, picking it apart, and suggesting something darker is hidden beneath the surface; “Where two old souls go slowly mad” (213).

On madness, Ginsberg paints confronting imagery of a mental institution in “Howl”:

where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void … where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha … where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb (25).

In “The Maori Jesus”, Baxter writes in similar, equally confronting language:

While he worked in the Asylum laundry … he told the head doctor, ‘I am the Light in the Void; I am who I am.’ … he was lobotomised; the brain of God was cut in half … God was neither alive nor dead … Mountainous, mile-deep, civilized darkness (347).

Here, Baxter is writing of Māori detachment from their land at the hands of Pākehā. In “America”, Ginsberg similarly writes of the plight of Native Americans; “America why are your libraries full of tears?” (39). These are the “Mythical, theological, political” expressions delivered within the same breaths.

“The Maori Jesus” also invokes Ginsberg and the counterculture’s liberal attitudes towards sex (Morgan 201), speaking of “a call-girl who turned it up for nothing” and “a housewife who had forgotten the Pill” (Baxter 347). Baxter also wrote sexually explicit poems such as “The Hymen”, “A Question of Rape”, and “Daughter”, the latter raising questions of incest (354). Baxter’s unfiltered, hard edge social critique reach a Beat-like peak in 1969 with “Ballad of the Junkies and the Fuzz”, describing various confrontations between Auckland outcasts and the law. His writing is almost unrecognisable as the same Baxter of the 1950s.

In “To a Print of Queen Victoria”, Baxter writes, “I advise rest; the farmhouse we dug you up in has been modernized” (316), advising an exhumed British monarch to rest while using the American spelling of ‘modernise’. In “Obsequy for Dylan Thomas”, from whom Bob Dylan took his name, Baxter writes of American English, “The English Language mourns her spouse … The bedlam jailors have her now” (216). Baxter is aware New Zealand is now under the political and cultural hegemony of a new ‘empire’, helping pave the way for later New Zealand poets, like Bill Manhire and Ian Wedde, to embrace the vitality of the Beats (Sturm 418).

However, perhaps the deepest measure of Baxter as a ‘New Zealand Beat poet’ is in the wake of his legacy. The Beat Generation helped transform America (Morgan xxi) and Baxter, by embracing Māori in his vision of just society (Sturm 417), gave New Zealand a blueprint for social reconstruction between Pākehā and Māori (Weir xxv). This helped prepare the national psyche, at least from the Pākehā perspective, for the Māori Renaissance of the 1970s and beyond. Without this, New Zealand wouldn’t be a country today of which any of us could be proud.

This is perhaps why Kent focusses so much on his connection to Baxter, and through Baxter, his connection to the Beats and the values of the countercultural movement. It represents a national spiritual quest for something larger than New Zealand. Kent attempts to disguise this, “People hold so much fucking reverence for the past, I don’t” (47), but his play is a memorial to the past, to friendship, to culture. His friend’s character, Jack, is more honest; “I am that kid in the Baxter poem … I’ve seen the angel with the sword and I’m ready to overturn the cities” (36-37). He pleads––or howls––for someone to “Give me something to fight for” (37).

New Zealand is still on the road.

Works Cited:

– Baxter, James K. Collected Poems, edited by John Weir. Oxford University Press, 1995.
– Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. City Lights Books, 1956.
– Kent, Eli. The Intricate Art of Actually Caring. The Playground Collective, 2009. PDF file.
– Morgan, Bill. The Typewriter Is Holy. Free Press, 2010.
– Strum, Terry. The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature. Oxford University Press, 1991.
– Zauhar, David R. “Beat Poetry.” Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, edited by Eric L. Haralson, Routledge, 1st edition, 2001. credoreference.com. Accessed 03 Sep. 2018.

Tsar-Spangled Banner

I recently had a read of the ultra-conservative, autocratic nineteenth-century Russian scholar, Konstantin Pobedonostsev. Allegedly, he was the inspiration for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor. As a continuation of Pobedonostsev’s long career supporting the Tsardom, he wrote a work entitled Reflections of a Russian Statesman. Titled somewhat more provocatively is a chapter within this work, The Falsehood of Democracy.

Now, while I’m not a supporter of ultra-conservative autocracy, it has to be admitted that Pobedonostsev’s assessments of democracy’s shortcomings are pretty damn… well, accurate. To illustrate this, let’s compare some of his critiques with the most famous democracy of them all, the United States of America…

“In theory, the election favours the intelligent and capable; in reality, it favours the pushing and impudent. It might be thought that education, experience, conscientiousness in work, and wisdom in affairs, would be essential requirements in the candidate; in reality, whether these qualities exist or not, they are in no way needed in the struggle of the election, where the essential qualities are audacity, a combination of impudence and oratory, and even some vulgarity, which invariably acts on the masses; modesty, in union with delicacy of feeling and thought, is worth nothing.”

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“Experience shows that in great assemblies the decision does not belong to reason, but to daring and brilliancy; that the arguments most effective on the mass are not the most symmetrical – the most truly taken from the nature of things, but those expressed in sounding words and phrases, artfully selected, constantly reiterated, and calculated on the instinct of baseness always dominant in the people. The masses are easily drawn by out-bursts of empty declamation, and under such influences often form sudden decisions, which they regret on cold-blooded consideration of the affair.”

Image result for fox news talking points

“What is a Parliamentary party? In theory, it is an alliance of men with common convictions, joining forces for the realisation of their views in legislation and administration. But this description applies only to small parties; the large party, which alone is an effective force in Parliament, is formed under the influence only of personal ambition, and centres itself around one commanding personality.”

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“Any vagabond babbler or unacknowledged genius, any enterprising tradesman, with his own money or with the money of others, may found a newspaper, even a great newspaper. He may attract a host of writers and feuilletonists, ready to deliver judgment on any subject at a moment’s notice; he may hire illiterate reporters to keep him supplied with rumours and scandals. His staff is then complete. From that day he sits in judgment on all the world, on ministers and administrators, on literature and art, on finance and industry. It is true that the new journal becomes a power only when it is sold in the market – that is, when it circulates among the public. For this talent is needed, and the matter published must be attractive and congenial for the readers. Here, we might think, was some guarantee of the moral value of the undertaking – men of talent will not serve a feeble or contemptible editor or publisher; the public will not support a newspaper which is not a faithful echo of public opinion. This guarantee is fictitious. Experience proves that money will attract talent under any conditions, and that talent is ready to write as its paymaster requires … The healthy taste of the public is not to be relied upon. The great mass of readers, idlers for the most part, is ruled less by a few healthy instincts than by a base and despicable hankering for idle amusement; and the support of the people may be secured by any editor who provides for the satisfaction of these hankerings, for the love of scandal, and for intellectual pruriency of the basest kind.”

Image result for trump porn star cnn

“In our age the judgment of others has assumed an organised form, and calls itself Public Opinion. Its organ and representative is the Press. In truth, the importance of the Press is immense, and may be regarded as the most characteristic fact of our time – more characteristic even than our remarkable discoveries and inventions in the realm of technical science. No government, no law, no custom can withstand its destructive activity when, from day to day, through the course of years, the Press repeats and disseminates among the people its condemnations of institutions or of men.”

Image result for fake news twitter

Never been a time like this? I would suggest Donald read a book… but just our luck the one book he’d read would be that of a Russian autocrat!

So… what comes next?

1200 – The Mongolian Empire is founded

1210 – The Magna Carta is written

1220 – ‘Trial by ordeal’ is abolished in England!

1230 – The Treaty of York is signed

1240 – The Aztec Empire is founded

1250 – Fibonacci dies. 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 233 377 610 987 1597 2584

1260 – The Opus Majus is written

1270 – …the Ninth (and last) Crusade…

1280 – The Thai alphabet is composed

1290 – The Ottoman Empire is founded

1300 – William Wallace dies.

1310 – …the Great Famine of 1315 – 1317…

1320 – Tenochtitlan is founded

1330 – …the Hundred Years’ War begins…

1340 – …BLACK DEATH…

1350 – The Hanseatic League is founded

1360 – Nagarakretagama is written

1370 – Earliest reference to playing cards! A2345678910JQKJOKER

1380 – The Peasants’ Revolt

1390 – The Medici Bank i$ founded

1400 – …T h e R e n a i s s a n c e

1410 – Perspective is discovered!

1420 – …the Siege of Orleans…

1430 – The printing press is invented!

1440 – The Vatican Library is founded

1450 – The Byzantine Empire collapses.

1460 – The works of Plato are translated into Latin

1470 – Oldest recorded game of chess is played!

1480 – The Vitruvian Man is drawn!

1490 – The Americas are contacted!

1500 – The Statue of David is sculpted!

1510 – …T h e R e f o r m a † i o n

1520 – First circumnavigation of the globe!

1530 – The Church of England is founded

1540 – …T h e S c i e π t i f i c R e v o l u t i o π

1550 – First recorded use of the = sign!

1560 – The pencil is invented!

1570 – Imaginary numbers are defined!

1580 – The Spanish Armada

1590 – “Knowledge Is Power”

1600 – …the Gunpowder Plot… (remember?)

1610 – Heliocentricity is proven!

1620 – ♪ The modern violin is invented ♪

1630 – …the trial of Galileo Galilee…

1640 – “Cogito Ergo Sum”

1650 – …T h e E n l i g h t e n m e n t

1660 – …the Great Fire of London…

1670 – Bacteria are discovered!

1680 – Gravity is discovered!

1690 – …the Salem witch trials…

1700 – The United Kingdom is founded

1710 – The steam engine is invented!

1720 – ♪ The Four Seasons is composed ♪

1730 – The automaton is invented!

1740 – …the War of Austrian Succession…

1750 – Electricity of lightning is discovered!

1760 – …T h e I n d u s t r i a l R e v o l u t i o n

1770 – The American Revolution

1780 – The hot air balloon is invented!

1790 – The French Revolution

1800 – …the Napoleonic Wars…

1810 – The locomotive is invented!

1820 – The camera is invented!

1830 – The electric motor is invented!

1840 – Communism is developed

1850 – Evolution is discovered!

1860 – …the United States Civil War…

1870 – The telephone is invented!

1880 – The automobile is invented!

1890 – The combustion engine is invented!

1900 – The aeroplane is invented!

1910 – …World War I…

1920 – The television is invented!

1930 – …the Great Depre$$ion…

1940 – …World War II…

1950 – …the Cold War begins…

1960 – The Moon landing!

1970 – The personal computer is invented!

1980 – The Internet is invented!

1990 – The Cold War ends!

2000 – …September 11…

So… what comes next?

Operation 8

“Yet the poor fellows think they are safe! They think that the war is over! Only the dead have seen the end of war.” – Plato

Forgive me if the rest of this account isn’t as eloquent as Plato. I’m not a philosopher. I’m certainly not a hero. Shit, I ain’t even a soldier. Technically, I’m a veteran, but in reality, all I am is a survivor – and a witness. A witness to the weirdest conflict this godforsaken world has ever seen. Historians with better ideas of how to write might refer to this conflict as ‘The Insect War’, or ‘The Infestation’. But to me, and the men I knew who fought in it, it was and always will be known by another name – Operation 8.

SONY DSCOfficially, I’m not a witness. Officially, the events I’m about to write about never even occurred and I never even saw them. Officially, my name is Private Finn Thomas, a photographer in ‘Redback Company’, 29th Infantry Battalion, United States Army.

Unofficially, Redback was just an otherwise nameless detachment of degenerates and no-hopers who saw only one way out of the corporate urban slums of America: joining, fighting, and dying in a cleanup operation in the Mojave Desert in the summer of 2021. This operation that “never happened” was known as Operation 8.

It was, militarily speaking, a successful mission. On a personal level, however, it was a crisis of epic proportions, one in which I don’t suspect I’ll ever overcome. Even so, this account is my first step towards doing just that, and while I suspect I will never come to terms with what happened, perhaps I may succeed somewhat in telling people just what took place out in that desert in that summer. The world deserves to know the truth.

I took many pictures during that summer. I can only show you the ones of which I’ve managed to steal the prints. If they ever catch me, the US Government will likely charge me with treason for making these photos public. I will be tried, found guilty, and if not executed, I’ll be imprisoned for the remainder of my life. This is a risk I’m willing to take. It’s the least I can do for my dead friends.

SONY DSCThis is the only photo I took of my four buddies. I never thought to take a photo of all five of us together. I guess it simply never crossed my mind. In this picture, from left to right, is Miles Monk, Douglas Iverson, Fred ‘Po-boy’ Green (called Po-boy on account of him coming from New Orleans), and Jack Irish. Jack wasn’t really Irish and that wasn’t really his surname, but he was found outside an Irish pub in Boston when he was two years old so the name kind of just stuck to him. He never did find out what happened to his parents.

On June 8th, 2021, a chemical factory right on the state line between California and Nevada, some miles southwest of Las Vegas, had an explosion in their wastage silos. It was later discovered that they were dabbling with certain materials that they really shouldn’t have been. Now – and this is the crazy part, the part nobody would believe if I didn’t have the pictures to prove it – the upshot of these chemicals exploding was that every insect in a two hundred foot radius was suddenly enlarged by a factor of one to eight hundred, depending on their distance to the fallout epicentre.

You don’t believe me? Sounds ridiculous? That’s what we all thought, too. Until, of course, we came face to face with them.

SONY DSCAnts were a constant threat. They could appear out of the ground basically without warning. The only way to know one was coming was to listen carefully to the rumbling sound they made in the dirt. Often, though, they would burst out of nowhere, their pincers gnashing wildly. Their exoskeletons would eventually give way to machine gun fire, and their heads were big enough targets, but if you failed to put them down in time, their razor-shape pincers could cut you in half. That was the fate for poor old Miles Monk. There was nothing we could do to save him.

SONY DSCBees and wasps weren’t too common, but they offered the cleanest, noblest, and most favourable of the deaths. They would simply stab you with their stinger, just like being stabbed by a sword or bayonet. The area around the wound would burn, but it would eventually go numb, and if it was seen to by a medic soon enough, you’d live.

Scorpions were bad. There must have been a few on the outskirts of the factory blast zone because they weren’t enlarged to nearly the same extent as the ants. Even so, their stingers and pincers were sharp and they could move fast. I almost fell into this pit. The identities of these soldiers are unknown.

SONY DSCQuick as they were, though, at least the scorpions couldn’t fly. Flies were the worst of the ‘airbornes’. Unlike the bees and wasps, flies would regurgitate the most foul smelling, vilest, most disgusting, shitty, vomit-like acid all over you. It would burn your skin and then they’d eat it. There was nothing glorious about any of this, but flies presented us with the most degrading death of them all.

Poor Douglas Iverson met his end at the filthy handiwork of a fly. It all happened so fast, I had no way to save him. All I could do was take pictures as his outpost was attacked…

SONY DSC…and his body dissolved into the desert sands.

SONY DSCAll of these ‘critters’ were our enemies and we killed any damn critter that moved. The laws of nature would suggest we were the predators, entering their environment to commit genocide. But if there was anything we learnt out there in that desert, it was that the laws of nature no longer applied.

At least, that’s what we thought for a long time, that the rules of nature had been broken, but as we began to fight our way towards the chemical factory, towards the epicentre of this nightmare, where an outpost had been established, we soon discovered that the rules of nature were very much still at play. We discovered that we weren’t the only ones out in the desert hunting. There was something else hunting the flies, the bees, the wasps, the scorpions, the ants – and the humans.

Something which made our blood run cold.

SONY DSCThe spiders were different to the other critters – they could think. The explosion appeared not to have just made them bigger, it made them smarter. They could form complicated ideas and communicate them to each other. In the ruins of the factory, they’d built a fortress. They used ants to bore tunnels. They could lay traps for us to walk into. They could ambush us.

Remember that photo I showed you of the ant attacking those two men? Well, here is the same incident from another angle a few seconds later.

SONY DSCAs well as being intelligent, they were also fast on the ground and much harder to put down. They could keep low and run with agility at terrifying speed and were able to jump as much as one hundred and fifty feet. On top of this, some were poisonous. Others just pulled you apart. I found this soldier en route to the factory, his head had been pulled clean off.

SONY DSCAnd this fleeing factory worker had survived the explosion, only to have his legs ripped off, from which he bled to death in the desert.

SONY DSCThe route to the factory was also lined with more nameless, melted victims of the flies.

SONY DSCA fly had vomited over these two troops, melting them into each other.

SONY DSCAnd this poor bastard was still standing upright, all his skin melted off.

SONY DSCBut not even the flies would dare enter the factory area. They were afraid of the spiders. If it was up to any of us, we wouldn’t have entered the factory zone either. But this was the Operation 8 objective: “Enter the factory blast zone, destroy all hostiles with extreme prejudice.” The only way I was gonna get out of this mess alive was by entering the ruins of the factory. The same was true for Po-boy and Jack Irish.

It was raining the day we arrived at Operation 8 Headquarters (O8HQ), just a mile out from the factory. June 20th, nearly two weeks after the explosion, and the three of us finally made it through the desert full of critters to the nerve centre of Operation 8. That was when we met a man known only as the Colonel. He was the most senior officer on the ground, the only top brass who had any idea what we were really dealing with. He was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met.

SONY DSCIt was also the first time we saw the kinds of ‘defences’ the spiders had built; we called them “poles”, they were mediaeval-like, pieces of wood they’d whittled down with their teeth into sharp points and stuck in the ground. We lost a lot of good men clearing them.

SONY DSCBut even from the relative security of O8HQ, we weren’t safe from the spiders. They were stealthy and seemingly fearless.

SONY DSCWe stationed lookouts, building watchtowers, or “targets”, out of scrap metal and the poles.

SONY DSCBut the spiders could almost make themselves invisible. By the time you see the spider in this photograph…

SONY DSC…you’re already dead…

SONY DSCHolding this position was futile; we needed to advance. So, it was from these outskirts of the factory that the Colonel decided we would make our main assault on the ruins. You might ask why we didn’t just get the almighty power of the US Air Force to bomb the place back into the stone age. We did. But the spiders had dug in. No matter how much or what kind of bomb was dropped on these bastards, they were going to have to be flushed out one by one.

Our great fear was that we wouldn’t exterminate them all before their eggs hatched. If that happened, if this war spread outside of the desert, all I can say is I wouldn’t have to share these photos with you. You’d have seen it yourself, eventually.

The day of the assault was June 22nd. It wasn’t until the Colonel ordered us to storm the ruins of the factory that I saw he was missing a hand. It had been pulled off by a spider. He was the only man I’d ever heard of coming that close to a spider and living to tell the tale.

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THE BATTLE OF THE FACTORY

The objective was clear: kill everything, burn the place to the ground. In the chaos of the ensuing battle, however, I lost track of Po-boy, Jack Irish, and the Colonel. My efforts on this day remain a frantic, horrified, and confused blur. I didn’t know what was happening, who was winning, or what to do. I simply tried to survive and take the pictures I’d been sent into this mess to take.

SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCBy nightfall, once it was clear we’d won, we started the painful process of counting our casualties and retrieving the bodies of the fallen, our friends.

When I think about the most harrowing photos I took during Operation 8, a few final come to mind. The first is the Colonel lying dead in the desert.

SONY DSCThe second is the one of Jack Irish, or rather what was left of him, embedded into a wall of rock, still holding his gun.

SONY DSCThen there’s the one of Po-boy, hung up in a web, dangling over the battlefield. He was still alive when the spider that did this to him began to eat him.

SONY DSCBut the photograph that haunts my sleep more than any other is the last one I’ll show you. Before I lost Po-boy, only to later see him after the battle hanging up in “spider silk” and half-eaten, I took a picture of him moments before we were separated. I didn’t see it at the time, I only saw the look of terror in his eyes, but I later realised that the spider that would string him up and slowly eat him is in this picture too.

If only I had seen then what I’m risking everything to show you now…

SONY DSCYou might ask how the US Government ever hoped to keep this all a secret, but a better question might be: how could they ever hope for me to keep it a secret?

The Implication

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Thompson, Howe, and Brewer’s last day of the war would be this one – October 19th, 1914. They sat in a muddy gun pit; a thin roof of sheetmetal ensnarled in barbed wire. They huddled around their terrifying device. It was a machine that spat metal, cutting men in half. Guarding their endless muddy field, they held intense stares.

“Fog’s getting thicker”, Thompson said. He was the one who pushed the button on their insane machine.

Howe held binoculars to his face, peering deeper into the white mist as it sank upon the mud in all directions. Brewer nervously held the cold metal belt of bullets in his hands, feeding them into the insatiable hunger of the gun.

“You heard the barrage, they’ll be close”, Howe finally said in reply, scanning, peering.

They listened for the rumbling of men’s footsteps coming towards them, the echo that followed the hellfire of artillery. The breath leaving their lungs joined the thick fog. It was a cold place to die. Their hearts beat quickly, as if knowing they would soon stop. Knee deep in sludge, they shivered in the coldness of fear. An icy breeze blew in their faces, rustling a lone piece of paper behind them. A grenade acted as a paperweight to a brief, heartfelt letter scrawled by Thompson’s mother.

To my dearest Christopher,

I hope this letter finds you well. There has yet been an hour go by that I haven’t thought of you. I keep strong in the hope that you will return and the Lord will watch over you until such a time. Do not worry about us here. Your father and sisters are taking excellent care of me, and I of them. Our prayers are always with you. The only thing missing from our lives is your comforting smile and generosity.

Come home my son, we need more memories with you,

Your ever-loving mother

Then, as the letter stopped flapping in the fading breeze, men began to thunder. Grey outlines of the Enemy appeared from within the mist. The three men braced themselves, waiting as the bayonets ran closer.

Thompson then pressed down on the button and the mad machine gun began consuming bullets and lives. Howe swapped his binoculars for his rifle, adding to the slaughter. He kept shooting when the machine gun ran out of ammo. Brewer reloaded another belt as fast as he could, Enemy lead hailing down around them. Thompson reopened fire, resuming blood into the air.

Finally, the Enemy wave broke. The brown earth washed red in their blood. The machine gun clinked as it cooled. Smoke billowed out its barrel. The three men breathed heavily. Ten seconds passed before any of them relaxed, worried the Enemy might still be out there.

“Shit”, Howe said, “I’m out of clips.”

Concern joined them in the gun pit. Thompson then looked out across the battlefield at the Enemy lying dead.

“Go get theirs”, he suggested, “I promise I won’t shoot you.”

“Thank God for the mist”, Howe said, preparing to scamper out of the gun pit and into no-man’s, before adding, “To Hell with him for the war, though.”

Howe dashed into the foggy wasteland in search of ammunition. Thompson and Brewer began to lose sight of him as he greedily, desperately, collected as many rounds as he could find.

Brewer picked up the binoculars and tried to keep an eye on Howe.

Thompson took his eyes off the wasteland for the first time since he began firing at it. He sat back as Brewer kept lookout. Moving the grenade off his letter, he reached for a small pencil in his pocket. For a second, he simply appreciated his mother’s handwriting. It always curled in a way he found satisfying. Turning the letter over, he began writing.

Dear Ma,

Thank-you for your letter. No words can express how warm it felt to hear of you, Pa, Abbey, and Lucy. Unfortunately, I’m not permitted to say much about my circumstances, other than I am well. Don’t worry about me. I will return; a proud veteran of the…

Thompson stopped writing; a question had entered his head, one he couldn’t believe he hadn’t asked before, one he couldn’t answer, one which stopped him writing.

“What is the name of this war?” he quizzed himself.

Brewer noticed Thompson staring blankly at the letter, holding the pencil just a few millimeters from the paper, so he joked, “If war be the food of man, fight on.”

Thompson looked out across the wasteland, the Enemy sinking into the mud.

“What is this war called?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” Brewer scoffed.

“Well, what will it be known as? How will people write about it?”

Brewer thought about this a moment, “The… ah… I don’t know.”

Thompson raised his hand, “Don’t worry, it’s a stupid question.”

Brewer refocused his attention on no-man’s land as Thompson refocused on his letter.

the…

He stared at the blank space but couldn’t think of what to write.

the…

Until now, he’d only thought of it in terms of ‘the war’.

The European War? – what about the colonies?

The Continental War? – misleading; it made it sound like continent verses continent.

The Great War? – used already to describe Napoleon.

The Imperial War? – ‘Imperial’ sounded like an adjective, not a proper-noun.

The War To End All Wars? – propaganda, absurd, academically puerile.

His train of thought was halted in its tracks when Brewer invited more concern to join them, “I can’t see Howe.”

“He shouldn’t have gone far”, Thompson said. Seconds passed before a minute came and went. A faint sound could be heard way off in the mist and confusion.

“Is that him?”

However, like rain gently beginning to fall, a pitter-patter at first gradually climaxing in a deluge, came the rushing footsteps of the Enemy.

“Holy shit!”

Thompson tossed his writing aside and leapt to the clutches of death the machine. Brewer scrambled to fed it bullets. The Enemy soon appeared within the fog, running towards the gun, unaware it was there. The sound of Thompson’s gun was like a thousand men slamming hammers onto stone. The result was likewise; the Enemy ripped in half, collapsing in pain and fear. The many hundred hammers flew through Brewer’s hands, nailing the Enemy to the mud.

This second Enemy wave was smaller but it was fighting better; their returning bullets began splattering around the gun pit, flicking mud into Thompson’s face. He daren’t wipe his eyes nor look away. Brewer grew horrified at the shortening belt of ammunition. He closed his eyes, praying it would be enough. It was – just. All the Enemy were dead. Eight bullets were left.

Both men breathed heavily in their familiar state of shock; how unnatural it was for man for more murder than seconds to pass him.

“Howe must be dead”, Brewer finally said, “But I didn’t hear any gunshots.”

“He probably got spiked”, Thompson said, admitting the morbid truth.

“We need more ammunition”, Brewer confessed.

“You run back to the support trench and get it”, Thompson said.

“What about you?”

“We can’t abandon the pit, I’ll hold it.”

“What if the Enemy attacks?”

“Well, you better hurry.”

Both men gave each other telling looks.

“I’d play dead if I were you”, Brewer said, readying himself to leave the pit.

“We’re already playing dead”, Thompson replied.

Brewer hauled himself out of the pit and began running through the mud and mist towards the support trench. Thompson watched him vanish before turning to face no-man’s and the worst wait of his life.

Seconds passed, then minutes.

It’s curious where the mind wanders sometimes. For Thompson, it was to his letter. He picked it up out of the mud and reached for his pencil. He wondered once more, “What will they call this war?”

Scanning the muddy graveyard before him, his thoughts drifted to the future. He imagined a world of flying cars transporting people from skyscraper to skyscraper, an industrious world where chic and class were brightly lit, a world where–

“World!” he suddenly thought.

The World War.

He was just about to write this when his thoughts began to extrapolate; a bleak and uninspiring truth was then revealed to him.

…the First World War.

All my love,

Your ever-loving son

He finished writing his letter as the shadowy Enemy began to pierce the fog of war.

The Magic Hour

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Aegean tides gently bathe white shores

A purple sky, day’s end approaches

Bluish colours darken deep before

So stars, convinced, reveal their motions

and sands, still warm, are cooling

With his walking stick in one old hand

His sandals dangling in the other

In the evening beach there walks a man

Who, as he slowly walks, he wonders

just who the gods are fooling

Breathing the aroma of the sea

Watching the setting sun of twilight

His aging eyes peer the mystery

And admire the silk of nighttime;

how darkness starts to shimmer

Carefully, he collects seven stones

And placing the largest at his feet

He twirls around in the sand and combs

With his stick – he traces circle streaks

and maps the solar system

He places a stone in each new groove

Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, Mars

Saturn, the Sun, and not last the Moon

Earth; to witness them and to the stars;

soon to wash away in waves

Little did he know of his drawings

Were all part of the long ancient spell

Of knowledge, wisdom’s magic scrawling

Enchanted science which would propel

he’d conjured up the space age

The Saxophonist

I entered a 300 word short story competition a few years ago, and although my entry didn’t get a place amongst the finalists, I always thought it was kind of cool…

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The SAXOPHONIST by DAVID COYLE

The saxophonist is dishevelled. His clothes are unloved by someone else before he un-loves them further. His shoes are old. He doesn’t tousle his hair deliberately, his erratic lifestyle does it for him. The frantic way in which he cuts through the streets, as if pupated by jazz itself, makes everyone think him a little mad. Nevertheless, he makes it to the bar on the east side of town just in time.

Unclipping the silver clasps of his saxophone’s black case, he takes out his golden horn. The other musicians start; the snap of the drum, the rain of the piano, the roll of the bass. The audience watches on, drinking in silent admiration. Then, with the chunky valves at his fingertips and the moan of a dead generation on his lips, in his breath, the saxophonist unleashes the raunchy howl into the night.

Everything in his life is otherwise meaningless and off, but for this sole purpose; the breathing of summer’s heat into winter’s evening. For this, he is exact; a sly master, perfectly formed, no longer out of place. Seemingly without effort, like an insect that lives only for a day, he is precise and brief.

With light on him, and all else dim, he takes his listeners to New Orleans, a Chicago noir, back alleys, drunken sophistication, that apartment with that girl, one woman listening even finds herself thinking – “What is life but the enjoyment of sweet delusion?” – and then they’re back to the bar.

To see anyone as good at any one thing is to know that people can be fine.

The saxophonist then backs out of the light on the stage, out of the only environment he suits. He dusts off his jacket and his soul and fades away, never to be seen again.