Wednesday, July 20, 2016

This Human Trait: Thom Brucie's Story

In my youth, I enjoyed sports and girls. I did not read, and I did not anticipate a life of careful thought. In an effort to lure me toward wisdom, in the second year of my high school education, my English teacher gave me a copy of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! Perhaps he thought I might be attracted to the excitement suggested by the myth of pioneering. I did open the book from time to time; a page here or there; I even tried starting in the middle; but it remained unread. Nevertheless, the attribute of finishing what one starts tugged at me, and about two weeks before the end of the school year, guilt drove me to spend a number of skipped classes sitting in the boy’s locker room reading O Pioneers! and, on the final day of classes, I finished it.

Beginning my junior year, I became a reader. That change in behavior enlivened the love of adventure which I discovered whenever a good story quickened my imagination. As a final assignment in English that year, we wrote a short story. I enjoyed that project, and at its conclusion, I thought I might one day become a writer.

That process took many years. In the meantime, I went to war in Vietnam, got married, fathered four children, and became a carpenter. I learned some lessons as a carpenter, and I made several decisions as an apprentice which later influenced my efforts at literature. First, I decided that when I retired I would have all my fingers, for I met many journeymen with shortened or missing digits. Thus, I accepted the responsibility of attending to meaningful rules, in this case of safety, later, obviously, to rules of rhetoric and story-form. I also developed an awareness of the importance of preparation. One must prepare to be safe, checking tools, equipment, and so on, just as one must prepare for any successful achievement. Additionally, my father’s admonition, that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well, began to express itself in an understanding that learning occurs with a commitment to willful intent and focused action.

One year after the birth of our fourth child, my wife developed adult-onset schizophrenia, a protracted, debilitating illness. Because of my wife’s disease and the consequent hospitalizations, I became a single father. The depression and isolation that I felt drove me to moments of quiet desperation, for I mistakenly believed I could save her and in doing so, I would bring her back to us, bring her home. The loss of a loved one as a consequence of emotional or psychological distance differs from the more existential loss as a result of the body’s demise. With the loved one alive but without emotional connection, the rules for meaningful closure become complex and often feel illogical.

Eventually, I had to acknowledge that the illness was stronger than both of us, and my children needed my attention. I accepted a job superintending a project in Monterey, California, and this decision fostered the infancy of my serious writing. I began to keep a journal of daily events, of thoughts about life; I suspect many of you know this phase, attempting to find words for life-lessons. However, sprinkled within the pages, I placed a number of entries that expressed a growing desire that I wanted to begin writing stories; I had, by this time, accumulated some stories to tell.

During this period, a serendipitous event played out. I was sitting in a bar in San Francisco after a meeting, and a stranger and I began to talk. While discussing motivation, he said he had a tape of Mr. Ray Bradbury giving a motivational speech. He said he would mail a copy to me. When I listened to the speech, I felt drawn to Mr. Bradbury’s contagious energy, and I read his books. I took a chance and wrote him a letter. I explained a little about my circumstances, including my journal, and I asked if he had any advice for someone who might be thinking about becoming a writer. He did.

I received a personal letter, typed on his manual typewriter. He noted that he received hundreds of letters a month and it was impossible to answer each one, but he took the time to answer mine. In the letter, he gave me two pieces of advice. First, buy a copy of an out of print book entitled Becoming A Writer by Dorthea Brande. I bought the book. The book is back in print. I recommend it. Second, he suggested I take some college-level writing classes. Some years later, I entered a junior college as a freshman to begin my formal education, including an elective creative writing class. I enjoyed school, and over the next decade or so, I earned an AS, a BA, an MA, and a PhD.

I accomplished all this before Mr. Bradbury died, and when I earned the PhD, he sent me a congratulatory card. I could not add anything of value to Mr. Bradbury’s extraordinary life. He did not owe me anything; he did not know me. Yet, he took time and energy to share encouragement to a stranger. This human trait, sharing one’s self with no expectation of anything in return, exemplifies the potential of healing and kindness in each of us. It suggests, for me, a principle of art: that artistic creation should reveal and embolden that which is noble and altruistic in human nature.

The spiritual healing which is the true baptism that makes us fully human occurs only after enduring the difficulties of vicissitude that St. John of the Cross calls the “dark night of the soul” and that Joseph Campbell calls the “belly of the whale.” Carl Jung considered this a lifelong, on-going process; he termed it “individuation.” Whatever its name, its universality unites us to one another as human family. The outcome of this passage emerges as an intense striving to discover truth and to know love – truth, as in the wisdom that derives from a life which combines the fullness of the body, the mind, and the spirit; and love in the passionate, emotional, physical sense, as well as love in a philosophical-spiritual connection to the Divine. As such, I choose both to honor and to explore truth and love through the creative expression of story-telling, for story remains the most fundamental trigger of human solace and bonding.

I have found delight and guidance in such works as The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer and in The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. These two volumes suggest in formidable detail the abiding attitudes of spirit, family, and community that exist across time, geography, race, and language. They highlight the similarities among us, not the differences. They do not ignore nor minimize differences; they explain them, recognizing such variants as size of community, adaptation to nature, trust of science, linguistic complexity, and so on. Nevertheless, the startling reality of human history reveals that we are all connected in our intellectual search for meaning, or truth, and we are all connected in our psychological make-up, especially in our desires to give love and to receive love. Carl Jung’s theories, specifically his identification of archetypes and of the collective unconscious, further highlight the significance of our ties to one another.

Four American writers have influenced me more than others, Ray Bradbury, as already mentioned, for his great spirit, and for the intensity and the diversity of his story-telling; T.S. Eliot, for language and theory; Nathaniel Hawthorne, for tales that bring spiritual complexity to the world of fiction; and William Faulkner, for style.

Eliot’s poetry, as with all great literature, offers fresh discovery with each additional reading. His finesse with language, his intermingling of the old and the new, and the clarity and usefulness of his theories, elevate Eliot to a position of master that will linger as long as masterful literature lingers.

Hawthorne’s tales combine the physical world and the spiritual unknown. He is neither a literary author as we consider today’s literary genre, nor is he a horror author as we sometimes consider horror as an exploration of the unknown, spiritual kingdom. Hawthorne’s characters struggle with the same problems that all individuals share who live within a complex, organized social structure: how does one advance a culture in which the individual possesses enough freedom to express his or her uniqueness, while simultaneously protecting the integrity of the tribe, and somehow still maintaining space for a meaningful submission to the goodness of a Divine will?

Faulkner’s greatest attribute remains his biggest difficulty, his style. A colleague once told me, “People either love Faulkner or they hate him.” I suspect this might hold validity. Nevertheless, no writer in English displays such dexterity in the joy of free-flowing language, except Shakespeare and Pope. Within the complexity of Faulkner’s style, one can lose himself or herself in the resonance of sound, full of disparate images and multitudinous clauses that allow the work to control real time. His best efforts, especially when read aloud, like fine poetry, mesmerize with discrete clarity and poetic majesty.

Being human in a physical world, acting within a time-space continuum of experience, provides a fertile thematic landscape for story-making, for therein one can explore the physical universe, including earth’s natural phenomena, that is to say, nature, and the human body, with every complex dialectic these suggest; one can explore the mind, including the turmoil of both sanity and insanity; and one can explore the spirit, that unseen world of knowledge that enmeshes reason, intuition, and imagination. Within this broad essence I include the concept of life-death-and-resurrection as it is played out in the universe; in each life lived and ended; and in the psychological growth pattern of each person as he or she struggles through the adventure of an on-going development of self-discovery and adaptation as Campbell implied in his examination of the hero cycle.

My choices in plot, character, theme, and so on, draw on my own life experiences and the meditative correspondence which reconciles them to my self-image. My stories tend to reflect ordinary people who confront extraordinary circumstances, and by doing so, they reinforce the elegance and grace of our human nature. Thus, the imperatives of free-will, courage, and independent thought form the foundation upon which my characters struggle to interpret each adventure and how they discover a way to endure.

At this juncture, one might expect that I identify some rules for writing. I will share some lessons I accepted from Mr. Ernest Gaines when I studied with him in Louisiana.

Mr. Gaines promoted six rules for writing.
1.      Read.
2.     Read.
3.     Read.
4.     Write.
5.     Write.
6.     Write.

            Mr. Gaines fostered two rules for writing well.
1.      Write with fire.
2.     Re-write with water.

Finally, in its search for truth and love, my work makes every effort to discern the myriad possibilities of human drama and of hope secreted within the two great commandments of Christ: love God with all your strength, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with your entire mind; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Peace and blessings.

Copyright 2016©by Thom Brucie, All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 8, 2016

Working with Words and Wood: Poems of Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie, Apprentice Lessons. Daniel's Vision Press, 2015. Paperback, 26 pages. $7US. ISBN: 978-0-9887094-2-3
“Apprentice Lessons,’ a chapbook written by Thom Brucie (Daniel's Vision Press, 2015), is an interesting and unusual work of poetry. The poems are very much of a piece, dedicated and in homage to Brucie’s mentor, Virgil McLynn, a carpenter and house-builder. Brucie makes clear in these laudatory, lyrical poems that McLynn was not only his mentor in his professional life, but also with regard to his understanding of deeper levels of meaning – moral, philosophical, and spiritual. 

Most of the poems in this collection begin with a concrete image, a description either of a tool of the trade or a technique required in carpentry, and move to a higher plane, a relationship between tool or technique and a significant life lesson. These are presented as Brucie learned them, but also for the edification of the reader. For example, “Bent Nails” begins with a brief instruction:

            The trick to pulling nails
            lies in the angle of the claw.
            Hook the claw onto the nail
            and bend it sideways,
            one way, then the other

The first stanza ends with “Virgil made me straighten them.” Clearly, there is more to pulling nails than just yanking them out of the wood. The poem completes itself with an implication about how one ought to address vicissitudes in life as a whole:

            I learned, eventually, to keep my fingers
            out of my own way,
            and I learned to strike the nail square on,
            like any other matter of concern.

In another case, “A Hickory Hammer Handle,” Brucie moves again from the specific – “Hickory makes the best hammer handle” – through a comparison to a human body – “a hickory shows its age with scars/ and brags of youthful energy/ in supple boughs” – to end with a plaintive “secret prayer that/ my daughter and my sons might endure/ as I will not/ that wisdom pass to them/ as sap to leaf.”

The poems in “Apprentice Lessons” convey in simple diction Brucie’s commitment not only to his profession as a carpenter and his gratitude to his mentor, but also to his desire to elevate the simplest tools and events in life to a loftier and more penetrating metaphysical and existential perspective. His tone is reminiscent of some of the deceptively plain works of Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison. There is wisdom here, and the reader gets a sense of the depth of Brucie’s thinking, the love and admiration for the perspicacity of his mentor, and his desire to bring the noumenal aspects of existence into the contemplation of simple phenomena. At times this effort appears a little forced – in some poems, the shift from the specific to the general and philosophical doesn’t quite hang together – but overall, this compilation is quite satisfying, and sometimes deeply moving as well. In “An Honest Day’s Work,” Brucie expresses it thus:

            If a man produces beauty
            with his handiwork,
            that is reason enough
            to get out of bed
            every morning,
            and sleep serves recuperation
            not escape.

The world might well be a better place if we could all live that way.

- James K. Zimmerman is a widely-published, award-winning poet. His publications include Little Miracles (Passager, 2015) and Family Cookout (Comstock, 2016), winner of the Jessie Bryce Niles Chapbook Award.