Saturday, December 9, 2017

David Rutschman on Moving Between Distance and Intimacy

In the 40th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, David Rutschman, author of Into Terrible LIght (Forklifte Books), discusses how the haiku form has influenced his work.

Name something by another author you wish you had written.
This is Basho, translated by Robert Hass:
Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.
For many years, I tried to force myself to write traditional length realistic short stories. That was fine. More than fine, actually; it was great—I learned a lot. But those weren’t the stories I really wanted to create, and gradually, over time, I began to give myself permission to write stranger stuff—pieces that engaged forms of knowing other than psychological realism. I allowed myself to go back to the works I most loved as a reader—parables and koans, fables, haiku. Small, oddly shaped things.

It’s strange in a way for a fiction writer to confess to loving haiku. There’s no fleshed-out characters there. Definitely no plot. But there is motion, at least in the haiku I most return to, a sort of swooping in or swooping out through levels of intimacy.
Basho: haiku, cuckoo

Like in that Basho one above. Can you feel the way it moves in this translation? Even in Kyoto. That line is scene-setting, grounding us in a place, a city. But already— with that word “Even”—there’s a little seed, a little hint, of a personal sensibility, right? The sense of an experiencing consciousness? Not just: In Kyoto. But: Even in Kyoto. We can feel the human being there, although we’re still pretty far away.

But then we get closer, into sense experience: hearing the cuckoo’s cry. From the city to the ear; from outside the body to the body’s experience itself.

And then, wonderfully, shockingly: I long for Kyoto. From the city to the ear to the longing heart. From far away to closer to so-close-I-can’t-bear-it.

Does this poem richen if we know that the hototogisu, the Japanese cuckoo, is also called the “bird of time?” Here’s the (different) motion of a different translation of this same poem:

Bird of time—
in Kyoto, pining
for Kyoto. 
(tr. Lucien Stryk)

See how this swoop feels different? Without the word “hearing,” we lose the emphasis on the speaker’s sense experience. Instead, in this version, the “bird of time” is part of the city—objective, outside—and we come inside—into the subjective experience—with that word “pining.” With the explicit naming of the element of time, too, the feeling of the poem changes for me—is the speaker longing for the Kyoto of the past, the Kyoto that is gone? For the self that is gone?

How can this much wisdom—about the relationship between present and past, between longing and having—fit into a piece this small?

In my own stories—whether traditional length or very short, whether realistic or fabulist—I pay a lot of attention to intimacy and distance, to those moments in a work where we swoop in closer or pull way back. As a reader, I first began to notice these swoops in haiku, but once I tuned in to them, I started to see them everywhere: in short stories and novels, in all sorts of poems. Even in song lyrics.

The band The Mountain Goats has a pretty famous song, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” Do you know that one? As the song begins, we’re situated at a nice safe distance:

The best ever death metal band out of Denton
Was a couple of guys who’d been friends since grade school
Once was named Cyrus, the other was Jeff
And they practiced twice a week in Jeff’s bedroom

The song continues, hovering up in the air above the two characters, telling their story—the kids stencil pentagrams on their instruments and Cyrus gets sent away to “the school/ where they told him he’d never be famous.” Then:

If you punish a person for dreaming his dream
Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you
The best ever death metal band out of Denton
Will in time both outpace and outlive you.

I think that so many songwriters might have ended there, or somewhere near there, out at that level of emotional distance. It would still be a pretty good song. But—unforgettably, perfectly—this one doesn’t stop. It goes on:

Hail Satan!
Hail Satan!
Hail, Satan!
Hail, Hail!

Can you feel that move all the way in? That swoop? From outside of the situation to inside it? From far away to the heart’s very center?

Basho would like that, I think.