Marquez and “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship”

June 18, 2007

First, I know that I promised a Komunyakaa piece for an upcoming post and apologize for the bait-and-switch. I am more upset than you about this. The book that I was to take the piece from is missing, and I suspect a great book heist sometime in the past week or so. How the thieves would miss my other awesome books, not to mention the television, the computer, the printer, and the PS2, is curious to me. But the word lives on. And I have switched out the Komunyakaa piece for a brief passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship.” Here’s the bibliographic info for those of you who might be inclined to check it out from the library or buy it here for a few bucks (plus postage and handling):

Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Leaf Storm and other Stories. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1979.

The short stories in this collection are some of the finest I’ve read. The title piece, “Leaf Storm” is like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying only set in the small Latin American town of Macondo and, at times, more lucidly told by the multiple narrators Marquez employs to offer the perspectives, motives, and interactions through various lenses. Like most of Marquez’s short fiction, the sense of religious mystery pervades the tales. And these mysteries are thematically woven through the stories by characters who, confronted with the surreal, provide the human drama so important to strong short fiction.

The following quote opens the story. Told in the third person in driving, frenetic prose, we are in the perspective of a misathropic young man who intentionally grounds a ghost liner into the coast of his small town. This eight or so page story is one long paragraph. It’s one long sentence, for that matter, but it reads fluidly enough, and the reader auto-locates the natural pauses in the speaker’s cadence. It’s an amazing feat, truly, to constuct language without relying on the standard conventions of grammar and mechanics. Instead, we seem to slide into the speaker’s mind with enough ease that we accept Marquez’s technical and stylistic choice without even realizing it. Without further blather:

“Now they’re going to see who I am, he said to himself in his strong new man’s voice, many years after had seen the huge ocean liner without lights and withou any sound which passed by the village one night like a great uninhabitated palace, longer than the whole village and much taller than the steeple of the church, and it sailed by in the darkness toward the colonial city on the the other side of the bay that had been fortified against buccaneers, with its old slave port and the rotating light, whose gloomy beams transfigured the village into a lunar encampment of glowing houses and streets of volcanic deserts every fifteen seconds…”

As I mentioned earlier, a sense of religiosity is one of the trademarks of Marquez’s brand of magical realism. And it’s important to note that the ghost ship is taller than the village’s steeple. We have to believe this is not accidental on Marquez’s point; instead, we should realize that the ghost ship’s looming silence casts a sort of shadow over the town, looming over the “encampments” we glimpse in the circling motion of the “rotating light.” It’s an interesting juxtaposition between faith (represented in the steeple) and the regular intervals of light and dark over the town.  

 I suggest finding a copy of the collection in a library or used book store near you, if only to read “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship.” Judge this cover:


Pretty cool, eh?




William Who?

June 12, 2007

I recently came across this editorial from the Toledo Blade detailing the wane of Shakespeare’s influence in English departments across the country. Here are two amazing paragraphs:

Just 15 of 70 institutions surveyed require their English majors to take a course on the 16th-century author. And since a similar study was done in 1996, at least six of those schools either dropped or weakened those requirements.

It’s hard to believe that Shakespeare is not essentially “a dish fit for the gods” for students studying English at the top 25-ranked universities and liberal arts colleges in the nation, plus schools in the Big 10 and a selection of California and New York colleges. 

It boggles my mind how anyone can have an English degree without at least devoting one semester to Shakespeare. He’s essentially the basis of all modern English literature. In some way, any author writing in English has, if not directly at least indirectly, been influenced by his work. This includes Carribean writers such as V.S. Naipaul who, it could be argued, writes, at least partially, against the patriarchy and imperialist sympathies some critics read in Shakespeare’s work. However, even if a writer is smashing his or her views against the views of the previous norm, it is still being influenced by that earlier work. Shakespeare helped shape centuries of minds, and while some of the ideas propagated are now seen to support imperialism, sexism, or racism, we can revise how we read Shakespeare in light of our changing awarenesses. This is the more acceptable and scholarly responsible way to approach English departments’ move toward a greater awareness of world literature.   

I fully support a given university’s autonomy and respect an English department’s decision to, say, scrap Hemingway or Steinbeck, or limit the amount of time students spend on 18th century English Literature or whatever, but I cannot believe that Shakespeare could somehow be dropped from the canon of Western Literature. 

Ugh. Put his mug on a milk carton.


Have you read me?

I *Heart* Literary Journals

June 7, 2007

One of my favorite things about being a writer is the sense of tradition I feel whenever I fire up a new Word Document or take pen to paper, jotting in my illegible scrawl some thought, some image, I will one day try to craft into a piece. The act of writing is the act of joining a community that spans time and space, and cannot be limited by age, race, or era. When you write, you join a conversation. A “California Supermarket” that shows up in one of your poems cannot be seperated from Ginsberg’s. We write from, or in response to, the views of those who came before us. For me, I write from Cormac McCarthy’s driving prose, from Yusef Komunyakaa’s lyrical visions, and from Wallace Steven’s technical precision. And, if you write in English, you cannot escape the Great Bard’s impossible shadow. Nor, for that matter, can you escape Emily Dickinson or Uncle Walt, or T.S. Eliot or whomever. The point is is that those tried-and-true English-speaking writers (not to mention the many great non-English writers) have left some vast footprints, and it’s important to know where we come from. That’s what our anthologies and favorite college texts help us with. And I love revisiting certain authors whose work continues to mean so much to me.

Equally as important, though, is to know where our contemporaries are. This point is why I think it is so important that we nourish what literary journals we can. I don’t only mean with our submissions but mean as well with our monetary support through subscriptions. Too many dedicated editors and their quality publications fold for lack of funds. Often times, these journals rely solely on subscription fees to keep afloat. There are only so many grants to go around, and many editors find themselves unable to keep their journals afloat for lack of subscribers. Yet, there never seems to be any shortage of submissions.

But, it’s not charity that drives me to subscribe to journals when I can; it’s greed. I love reading what my contemporaries are doing, love finding some gem of a poem that sends me spilling beyond my boundaries. I love when, a year later, I see a first book published by someone whose poem moved me when I read it in a journal. I am not advocating any particular journal, mind you. But I do advocate buying a back issue of a journal or magazine you might submit to. For me, it’s a good way to get an idea if my work would fit, but I am also exposed to more work, more writers I might not have read if it weren’t for their appearance in said journal. And, if I like the mag overall and have the funds, I’ll drop the 15 or so dollars for a year subscription.

The other side of writing well is reading well. Many of my books and magazines are annotated to the point of sin. There are cross-reference marks, question marks, lines I love underlined softly in pencil. That way, I’m actively involved . I’m a participant in making meaning of what I read. Not only is this fun, it helps me as a writer. If I am careless as I read, I will be careless when I write. That does no one any kindness.

For my part, I read as I’d like to be read. Sure it’s a remake of childhood’s golden rule, but I tell you what, whatever you read has cost someone a lot of time, effort, and energy. Plus, it might be damn good and, if you’re rushing, you’ll miss the greatness. And there’s a lot of greatness in journals and magazines and other small presses.

If you like, I’d be happy to comment on a few of my favorites, but I am not advocating any particular press or magazine. Rather, I believe writers should read nearly as much as they write. And just about every University has a magazine filled with worthwhile prose and poetry.

Anyway! I’m off to watch the rest of the NBA game. And then off to read and to bed and in the morning…Friday, which is Billiards day for me. Nine ball run, come on! Whoot!