Sunday, October 31, 2010


When I was a Unitarian minister, like many others of the kind, I kept a “traveling sermon” that I used when doing pulpit supply. Since one was usually only there once as a replacement while the regular minister was elsewhere, one was free to be memorable and risky. So I told about a moment one warm afternoon standing on the Chicago El platform when suddenly, for no reason, I was flooded with fusion, joy and harmony. It only lasted a few moments. Invariably, no matter where I was preaching, a few people would approach me afterward to tell me about their own similar experiences. One man said he was at a campground, bathing his infant son in a plastic dishpan set on a picnic table, and it was still so vivid in his mind that he could remember the pattern of pine needles on the tabletop. He wept. A woman was driving, topped a hill, looked out over a valley and “blissed out.”

They wanted to know what it was. Supernatural? A serotonin surge? A brain glitch, maybe a petit mal attack? Too much coffee? Or were they breaking through the membranes of the universe into some other reality? The best descriptions I found were in terms of “liminality” in the work of Victor Turner and Van Gennep, anthropologists describing exotic tribal ceremonies. They spoke of “liminal time and place,” that is, a state of mind in which one goes over a threshhold (a limen) into a protected but risky “place” and then comes back, often profoundly changed by the experience. I wanted to figure out how this worked in better known ceremonies, like Catholic mass or even something like a dinner party or a very intense movie. I had the advantage of participating in Blackfeet Bundle-Opening ceremonies with old-timers in the Sixties. The principles I developed for myself helped me to design ceremonies that “moved” people over that limen and then back again.

One example of “liminal” time can be a psychotherapy session, so I’ve been looking in that literature. One of the difficulties with talking about something like “liminality” is knowing what to call it in different contexts. In psychology it appears that “dissociation” is what I’m after, though the concept is still a great cloud of things like hypnotism, trances, speaking in tongues, hysterical paralysis (a limb that won’t move, though there’s nothing wrong with it) or blindness, split personality, denial, Ouija boards. So I’m reading “Dissociation: Clinical and Theoretical Perspectives” edited by Steven Jay Linn and Judith W. Rhue. (Guildford Press, 1994)

Just as I reached seminary (‘78-’82) the Jonestown tragedy hit the headlines. The University of Chicago is already skewed towards logic, tradition, and rationality, identified as “science,” though they were willing to admit that the history of science shows how much it is culturally affected and how scientific paradigm shifts are often treated like heresies. The Div School and Meadville/Lombard, my primary enrollment, were VERY nervous about anything subjective, like personal experience. This was not a place for people who spoke in tongues or were visited by angels. Nor were we supposed to be using mind-altering substances. (You went to Starr King in Berzerkly for all that.) This was a context resistant to the many “experience experiments” that had subjectively liberated so many young people in the Beat/Hippie years. Jonestown was interpreted by Don Browning and others as a liminal experience that went wrong because the participants went into that “other” place and refused or were unable to come out. In short Jim Jones’ insanity was a liminality where all his people joined him.

I was pressed to stick to facts, history, reason, and the profession of my own tradition. The larger message of Unitarianism is that each person should think and act according to individual convictions. I have separated from the present iteration of this idea because it is dominated by therapeutic goals, political solidarity, and commodification responding to the need to maintain the “brand.” So I am cloistered apart from the tradition, which is sometimes highly cerebral and other times ecstatic. It is, after all, just an institutional framework for people who share affinities. It is NOT a real thing but a construct.

Let me make a little typology here, liminal dyads. First of all, those considered subjectively “good” (bliss) vs. those considered bad (trauma). The experiences created by drugs, esp. LSD vs. the experiences created by natural circumstances, like combat in Vietnam. Liminality seen from outside like an anthropologist observing a ceremony vs. the same ceremony from the point of view of a believing participant. Liminality forced onto someone (Patty Hearst) vs. liminality sought and paid for (a host of New Age clients). Liminality caused by actual brain change (perhaps damage or electromagnetic waves to the temporal lobes) vs. liminality induced by a practice (drumming, spinning, meditation).

Complex as this may be, it is matched by the complexity that research is producing in terms of how brains actually work. What looks like a blob of creased gray jello is actually a constantly changing process, growing here and withering there, sorting, suppressing, interpreting, moving content from the unconscious (which turns out to be a number of interacting unconsciousnesses) to the conscious mind which is hardly the rational and realistic logic machine that Freud imagined his was. He was right to believe that even infants are sexual, but after that the taboos on the whole aspect of humanness that came out of his Viennese context cut off a huge area of liminality rooted in bodies. And he could NOT give up the idea of being the outside observer who knew better. Yet he only knew one cultural context and so never challenged it. At least officially.

We are in a time when we are pressed hard to reconceptualize our vision of the world and human beings at a far more primal level than any one culture. We are too mixed to insist that there is one way to believe. We must invent an “ur-culture” and since reasoning, science, traditional institutional religions, and a host of other assumptions are involved, perhaps ceremonies of liminality can help. One of the characteristics of liminal space (play, art, worship, sex) seems to be that it allows us to open to new ideas and sharing with other people as equals. (I am not advocating orgies as a pathway to peace in the world -- we already tried that. It’s way too confusing.) I wonder whether liminality can be achieved on the Internet? I do agree with Professor Browning that we cannot stay in there, that vulnerable place, but must come back to THIS world whereever and whenever our bodies are. Enough with the horror movies already. It’s cheap liminality. Not unlike cheap grace.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Before beginning to seriously compose a vernacular history of the 20th century Blackfeet, I’m trying to note the “keynote” to each decade, the same as I noted the “theme” of each generation for my historical sequence of stories called “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” which start with the coming of the horse and proceed up to the present. So this post will not be an organized essay, just a list of ideas as I reflect and begin to sort through my library. I’m relying heavily on the notes I organized in “Blackfeet Paper Trails” which is available as a free download or a low-cost book from If it doesn’t work, contact me at

1900, like 2000, was a year of optimism. There was considerable feeling that things would turn around, that it was a new beginning. With number magic there’s always a bit of self-fulfilling prophesy. The “whiskey” traffic was dying down and the railroad was coming. James Willard Schultz and Joe Kipp were acting as guides into Glacier Park which was visited by the same people in the same spirit as went on safari to Africa or India or Hawaii. These people are very focused on England as a source of civilization so they were shaken when Queen Victoria died, beginning the Edwardian Era, which I think of as the Upstairs/Downstairs years.

The first decade, 1900 - 1910, was when the small towns formed both on and off the reservation. Browning developed, beginning in 1894, alongside the final location of the US Indian Agency on Willow Creek’s flood plain, about two miles from the eventual railroad depot. No one knows why. The post office was established in 1900. The Methodist mission was begun by Rev. E.S. Dutcher in 1893.

There was a lot of exploration for minerals, hoping for another Butte, and Altyn began as a mining town, eventually abandoned and covered by Sherburne Lake. What is now East Glacier was then Midvale, originally clustered around the ranger station. Teddy Roosevelt appointed a man named Herrig as the first ranger in the newly created Glacier National Park. This was the location of the flagship lodge.

Much of the infrastructure that in 2010 begins to fail, esp. water and sewage, was first built around this time. A few years earlier Walter McClintock had come for the first time to do a government survey of Glacier Park and he was returning annually with crates of gifts for his adopted family. “The Old North Trail” has many photos that will make this period real. People still lived in canvas lodges and tents as well as log cabins. The traders who worked from forts -- Power, Conrad, Kipp, Weatherwax, Wetzel -- were old men. J. H. Sherburne had built his mercantile store and Thad Scriver came to clerk in it in 1900. Broadwater and Pepin were there as partners. Willits and Scriver started the Browning Merc in 1907. James Willard Schultz, in trouble for poaching, left for California where he wrote his autobiography. He would return later. Charlie Russell was around and as soon as the railroad got to Glacier National Park, there was an influx of fine artists.

Monteath, the new agent, also has a “new policy” which is the old one. Logan, the previous agent, had left collapsing buildings, dry canals, a scandalous school and a failed hay crop. The biggest problem was the constant incursions of the surrounding ranchers who liked to graze their large herds on the reservation. Monteath issued permits and tried to drive off those without permits. When the ranchers left the rez in the fall, they took their cattle AND the rez cattle. In the big to-irrigate or not-to-irrigate vacillation, Monteath claims he wants to make farmers of the Indians so he’s for irrigation. The last recorded smallpox epidemic comes through about this time, though vaccine has been developed.

In 1902 the headline in the Great Falls Tribune reads: “Piegan Indians in Open Revolt.” Monteath threatens to arrest White Calf, whereupon the Indian Police all quit. Little Dog comes to the agency office to say that if Monteath arrests White Calf, Monteath will be bound with ropes and thrown in front of the next train. Enrolled Blackfeet number 2,084 with 50 births and 33 deaths, the first year that the births outnumber the deaths. 10,000 cows with 4,000 calves and 22,000 horses. Mike Connelly is a nearby stockman who ran his cows on the rez. (His descendants joined the tribe through marriage.) This is a flood year and 75% of the seeds wash away.

Monteath says all his troubles are due to Joe Kipp, Maggie Wetzel (who married Joe Kipp) and Horace Clarke. He wants to eject them from the rez. In 1903 White Calf dies. He is usually identified as the last of the hereditary chiefs. (Ray Djuff in Calgary is developing the first biography focused on his family. Someone is also developing a book about the Clarke family. Events are now far enough in the past to be interesting.) Now the first of the formal tribal councils is organized: Joe Kipp, Horace Clarke, and seven older full-bloods. There’s a terrible outbreak of mange among the cattle.

1904 is year the Conrad Investment Company takes hold in Valier and begin to divert water from Birth Creek. They are able to effectively irrigate, a system that persists to this day at considerable profit. This is a drought year. Bookkeeping begins to be a problem: embezzlement is now a factor. Also nepotism, as agents conventionally employed their wives and grown children.

In 1908 C.A. Churchill arrived as agent. His daughter married J.L. Sherburne, the son of J.H. Sherburne. Schemes and accusations abound as the Dawes Act assigns acreage to each Indian and a system of “patenting” makes it possible for an enrolled person who is automatically defined as an “incompetent” to take his allotment out of government trust and own it himself. Many do that, partly reacting to the epithet of “incompetent,” partly because they wanted personal control, and partly because they didn’t really understand what’s going on. As soon as the land was individually owned, it could be taken for debt and since Sherburne Mercantile had extended credit in large amounts to many people, they used this legal strategy. Of course, the land and its profit that was left in trust with the US Government did not fare much better.

In 1910 150 Rocky Boy Chippewa was dumped onto the reservation because they had no place to go. Until a reservation was found for them (a decommissioned fort) the friction between Blackfeet and what were called in shorthand, “Cree,” was a constant problem.

One might call this decade “Civilization and Its Discontents.” I’m relying mostly on the Foley Report, which is the most detailed account I’ve found of these early years. If you feel I’m in error, let me know now while I’m still in a noting and outlining mode. I will appreciate it.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Thursday I left in the dark to be at the eye doctor in Great Falls at 8:30 AM. Eighty mile drive, clear dry road, rackety old pickup. Rackety old driver. I fastened my seat belt. I do not take the iPod because I think while I drive. I drive this road at least once a month. If there is a blizzard or a lot of ice, I don’t go. Along the road is a sign that tells me where to tune my radio to get weather news. There is no radio.

Dawn on the prairie in fall is like the tide going out on a long sandy beach like Seaside, Oregon, drawing back the sea of darkness with its million minnow stars to reveal the day. Do you know how the beach is not flat but has long shallow places where the water lingers and reflects shine? The east -- which is the direction I drive at first -- lightens.

Many people are on the road, going to work, headlights strung out behind me and red lights in front of me. The headlights are not like they used to be. Some are intense but purplish. When they pass, I see that their taillights are a cluster of dots: LED’s. Often one red light is high in the back window. The trucks, mostly new and very clean, are one-ton and one-and-a-half-ton, which is why the drivers need their jobs enough to drive so far. The cars have moved to hybrids, shaped like computer mice, urban, often from the Canadian cities to our north. Antennas like a single whisker on the back.

The first section is fifteen miles of two-lane, then I turn south onto I-15 and there are four lanes. Traffic thins. I trundle along at 55 mph, fast enough in the dark. Now and then is the long dark blood smear of a killed deer. Just the smear. No carcass. One can guess where the smears are likely to be: across from a wood lot by a ranch house or where a coulee leads up to the highway.

Now the vehicles are huge trucks, relentless, pushing the speed limit. Canadian. The land is tilted towards the west and south so that it’s easier to find momentum going south. The land swells so that the truck slows going up for three or four miles and then speeds for three or four miles. My little pickup has to fight to get to seventy so I can pass. If I do manage to pass, the trucker resents me being slower when he’s coming on the downhill (downlow) so he rides my tail and might have time to pass me again before the next upswing. I can see their faces, sometimes amused and sometimes full of rage. Resentment is a fuel that fights fatigue.

Pretty soon the white bands alternating with shoals of purple cloud begin to redden. Instead of getting brighter, the light grows rosier until all the grass and crops everywhere are brassy with it. More intense, redder, then it all begins to go pale again and the sun passes the horizontal shining streams of sky until it is veiled in cloud and everything has gone Payne's gray. The cursive dark script of the edge of the mountains is scribbled along the horizon, sharp-edged. Gradually one sees there is snow up there -- a little patchy, probably mostly gone by afternoon. The cinematography has gone to black and white or maybe blue and white. I ponder the Wallander series which I’m watching on DVD at night. Leaving the peach and purple, or the red and custard yellow, this designer likes bluish black-and-white with caution yellow slashed across it, hard-edged.

When I say I’m from Montana, people say, “Oh, it’s so beautiful there.” They mean the technicolor national parks with animatronic animals. This is different: a hard beauty seeded with the bones of what has been, made slick with primal volcano dust. The cows cluster, not knowing they will be killed and eaten -- not caring. Remnants of old brushy wind breaks still march in lines across the fields. Good places for crows to build nests.

Now I travel at roughly a mile a minute. Forty miles to go, forty minutes left. I kick it up a bit. One can go faster when it’s light. I pass the rest area without stopping. Fewer parked semis than usual. They like to idle there for a nap in the bunk behind the seats. I’ve never seen inside a truck cab sleeper. Some women make a living there. Others drive. The second is new.

Great Falls is not just located at the falls of the Missouri because it is a pretty place, though prettiness is the main industry there now where there are five museums, if you count the Cowboy Museum in a log cabin. Under the land that subsides to the southeast there is a great shelf of rock exposed by water. Not today’s streams, but the mammoth run-off that returned the water of the last huge North American glacier to the sea in the Gulf of Mexico. The continent creases along the Mississippi, like a folded letter responding to hidden motives, now open on the desk. That waterway allowed the Europeans access direct to the heart of the Blackfeet and took away their buffalo before the railroad got there.

Besides pretty the other industry of Great Falls is medicine. Off the freeway onto Tenth Avenue South, the commercial artery just renewed with cement, and I turn towards the campus of ugly modern buildings -- rafter ends and sheets of glass -- I turn a little too soon because I go by landmarks instead of street numbers. While I wait for the technician to test my field of vision, I hear the clerks say, “It was so hot in here yesterday it was just intolerable.” Nothing opens. One cannot roll up the edge of the tipi to let the breeze enter. If the electricity fails, these buildings will be uninhabitable. They won’t be able to use their machines anyway. I look straight ahead for seven minutes, clicking when I see a dot of light. It is just like driving in Montana.

When I return to my pickup, someone has put a small tab of caution-yellow paper under my windshield wiper. It says, “Repent. The end of the world is near.” As if I didn’t know. What THEY don’t know is that the apocalypse is continuous. Something is always dying; something is always birthing. Along the way I could see that the winter wheat has sprouted. Wind. Shield. Wipe your eyes. The tide of dark goes out to reveal the day. Then it returns with its million minnows.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"MY ABANDONMENT" by Peter Rock

“Deadpan” doesn’t seem quite the right word to describe “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, a professor of writing at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, but it’s hard to know what other word to use. It’s the fictionalization of a true story: a man was found with a pre-adolescent girl, who said she was his daughter, and they lived together in a “hooch” in Forest Park, which is a real place. I grew up in Portland and was very familiar with Macleay Park and the Audubon grounds which are continuations of the forest a little closer to town. Forest Park is huge. In fact, if you count the powerline corridor that is cut from Forest Park to the Oregon Coast, creating a long narrow ecosystem that crosses the Coast Range and sustains a small elk herd, there is no other municipal park I know of that is so large.

When I was working for Multnomah County Animal Control in the Seventies, an old Southern woman up the street from where I grew up in NE Portland ran a herd of several hundred pigs up there in Forest Park. Packs of dogs also lived there. Probably still do. But most vividly in my mind is the memory of one twilight in the Nineties when I was driving to my cousin’s house in the West Hills along the street that borders Forest Park and realized that a steady stream of walkers with backpacks and bike riders with panniers were returning to their camps in the Doug fir and heavy undergrowth of the park. This book is a little bit fiction but very much based on fact.

One of the interesting factors in this book that removes judgment, making it deadpan or at least more nonjudgmental, is that the issue of sex between the man and the girl is removed. Noted, hinted at, but removed. This man acts as a true father to the girl, though his understanding of life is totally anti-social, set-apart, unreal or maybe half-real. Certainly paranoid. Portland, like many mega-cities, is full of hidey-holes, squatter spaces, as well as people who will tolerate and even assist the dispossessed.

My brain-damaged brother was thrown off the cousin’s ranch where he had taken refuge. A cop stopped and talked to him in the middle of the night as he left walking along the highway with his backpack and staff -- then let him go. He was breaking no law. When he had a heart attack in Eugene, people took him to the hospital and even took him into their homes in the interval until the second fatal attack. He could have come here, but he didn’t want to. I didn’t even have an address for him. His choice.

When we kids were small, we were visiting that same ranch when one of the hideouts of Steve Solovich was found. Steve was an old guy, a veteran, who refused to believe that the war -- whichever one it was -- had ended. Solitary, he lived on deer meat and bean patches. Sometimes he would sneak into a barn and milk a cow. In that part of the world no one pulled blinds at night and sometimes, people reported, they would be on the couch watching television, have a funny feeling, and turn in time to see Steve standing just outside, also watching. Authorities didn’t capture him until age made him begin to feel the labor of clearing gardens, so he stole dynamite. I’ve got the clippings my aunt saved. We were fascinated.

Clearly it is possible to return to a hunter/gatherer mode of life if one is tough and resourceful and many of our apocalyptic novels explain how the author would do it. This is not an apocalyptic novel, except in terms of of person-by-person, people pushed to the edge and on over, by economics or temperament or maybe trauma. But we study the tales, maybe to pick up some tips just in case. Many women can imagine becoming a bag lady.

In a way this is a “virgin spring” story -- that is, a man who is damaged somehow is redeemed and loved by an innocent girl. Ordinarily in the mythic versions things turn out a little better for the man than they do in this story. In the comments on Facebook pages I constantly read fantasies on the part of young women (whose little symbols are often provocative photos of themselves not quite dressed) about what one described as Frankenstein wandering the moors, disconsolate because everyone is terrified of his appearance until a young blind girl can’t see him and innocently offers him a flower. It’s Beauty and the Beast. The story is meant to encourage compassion for those who are ugly or different or just scary. But it often backfires when these innocent and “blind” girls pick out a true monster and try to save him. There are dumpsters in Forest Park where half-burned bodies are found -- young women.

“My Abandonment” is mostly about cautionary measures: how to be on guard against danger, which is never quite defined except that police are bad news and one should stay out of the “men’s camp” where the really rough homeless ones keep a careless dirty place. One man has gone back to being an animal, but the young girl is not afraid of him. Her mainstay and magic talisman is a little model of a horse that is opaque on one side and transparent on the other so that one can study its organs. So is this story about the anatomy of society? Whose abandonment is it, really? Was the girl abandoned or did she and her father abandon us?

Peter Rock, who is a professor at Reed College, explains his book on YouTube at: Handsome even with his collar half-turned-under so any woman would want to pull it straight, he says his imagination was simply captured by the incompleteness of the real story, which he recreated and finished in the novel. But if you know about Reed College, a place where brilliance and intellectual inquiry are highly valued, there has to be more going on. In the first place, why are people more willing to live under a tarp in the forest than in subsidized housing? In the second place, why are men kidnapping young girls? The cases keep popping up -- sometimes relatively benign and other times true sexual slavery. Beyond that, I keep seeing YA novels about iconoclastic girls written by young educated men. What the heck does that mean?

In Portland when I was doing Animal Control, going door-to-door to solve complaints, Patty Hearst was being held prisoner somewhere in town. We were afraid we’d stumble onto her. I keep saying the Seventies are coming back, but what is it that triggers this idea of holding a young woman captive? And why are the young women convinced that a dangerous man is someone they should approach and redeem? Haven’t they read how Patty’s story went? She wrote it out for them, a cautionary tale. Wealth was no protection.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


In Papua New Guinea the Umeda village that Alfred Gell studied was a complexly patterned community, really a complex of hamlets in a larger area, that had evolved culture to fit the circumstances. The people themselves were physically evolved to survive, sturdy sun-darkened folks who probably had a lot of inner physiological molecular mutations that allowed them to live on a diet largely composed of sago palm mush, a carbohydrate, with very little protein or vegetables except for yams. I suspect that they would do very well on a teenager’s diet of Twinkies and Korn Kurls so long as they stayed away from carbonated sugar drinks! But they craved protein enough that under proper circumstances they were cannibals.

Arrangements for their life cycle were not elaborate on the surface, but extremely complex -- full of checks and balances -- under the surface. Much had to do with a preoccupation with food. The most common form of marriage was simply trading sisters. All women were considered desirable and were sometimes traded or promised as youngsters. Widows, full grown and fully skilled, could just about take their pick of men. Birth as an event and as a topic was not discussed, taboo, and anyway not always successful because of poor nutrition.

Everyone carried a net over their shoulder at all times, so that if they came to something edible, they could bring it back to the village. The mothers carried their infants as well in that handy net. All the women wore grass skirts. When they wore out, a new skirt was made and put over the top without removing the old one. Men of a certain age wore a gourd over their penises -- highly decorated -- as both an adornment and -- hopefully -- an attraction and to catch any dripping semen. In this culture breast milk and semen were considered to be equivalent, related to egg whites. All valuable sources of food, it was thought, and a man was believed to be feeding his baby in the womb when he had intercourse with the mother during pregnancy. (The other side of that idea was the notion of vagina dentata, the “toothed” vagina that could bite off and “eat” the whole penis.)

Once the baby was born, it went everywhere with the mother in her net. The fathers sat in the middle of the village hut, talking and smoking and so on. The mothers did their cooking and making things out on the surrounding veranda. When the baby was old enough to escape from the net and totter around, it migrated to the father. For a while the toddler was besotted with its father, crawling over him, chewing on him, even twisting his semen-collecting gourd -- which made the observing anthropologist flinch but not the father. Normally there is a gap of three or four years between babies and the toddler may continue to return to nurse that long while learning to eat solid food, maybe sago from the mother which is everyone’s staple and always available -- or maybe some bit of protein from the father, a treat. An angry father denied protein to his child and as the children grew up, fathers tended to become more impatient.

Until the next baby comes toddling over, the child stays with the father all the time and rides around on his shoulders. When a boy is too big for this, he joins a pack of little boys who run off together through the jungle, doing their version of grownup stuff like hunting lizards with small arrows. The girls at this age go back to their mothers but as helpers, sitting alongside and learning how to do things.

A boy who is adolescent -- which might last until nearly thirty -- goes with the bachelors, who might sit with the men a little bit. But mostly they work at getting to be serious hunters. A girl by this time -- and they do not reach puberty until late teens -- is married.

Married men settle into helping their wives produce sago for food. It’s hard work: preparing the field, cutting the trees open, scraping out the insides and washing the pith thoroughly -- then pounding it into flour to be boiled. The work is loosely gender-assigned, with the wives doing the washing and scraping after weaving containers out of palm fronds. At one point the material has to be pounded hard a long time in a sort of mortar-and-pestle way that certainly suggests coition. Married couples share this task. The harder men work, the more the young men stop tending their hair, maybe even discard their penis-gourds. But they are nevertheless growing wiser and more clever in the talk among the men while the bachelors who haven’t mastered hunting yet are dependent on the married couples for the basic sago. No one denies anyone sago. Just protein.

Women are scarce and die early. Men who live a long time tend to wander away from the village and set themselves up in solitary huts, maybe maintaining a friendship with another man. All of this becomes significant in the ceremony that is the centerpiece of Alfred Gell’s book and one of my chapters on the Poetics of Liturgy.

At one point Clifford Geertz is trying to get to the basic human universals, what Paul Tillich calls the “Ultimate” and defines as the philosophical basis of existence. Geertz remarks that the true basics: eating, sex, excreting, social relationships, are too basic to be seen as anything religious except in parody. He forgets to think about Communion -- but then again, it IS easy to parody people who “eat” their God. On the other hand eating is the most basic ecological/economic factor. Starving is certainly evil. One inquiring anthropologist realized his informant was confiding information about how to cut up and cook a person. How evil is that?

The Umeda connect eating, sex, and death rather directly, with a constant undertow of craving, rage, jealousy, sorcery and cannibalism. They have a word that is very much like “take” in English: to “take” a woman, to “take” supper, to “take it out” on something, but our culture is too well-fed to have much thought about cannibalism except for exceptional circumstances and deranged individuals when it suddenly dawns on them that human beings are made of meat. (One of my other chapters is about the airplane load of soccer players who survived in the Andes by eating each other. Well, SOME survived.)

ExxonMobil is beginning to export huge amounts of Papua New Guinea natural gas to the Asian mainland. The people will have lots of money. No more standing together pounding sago into flour all day. No more learning to hunt. All the Twinkies and Fritos they can eat. (No people, please.) How will they know what to do? I predict they will buy pigs who will eat the forest. But ExxonMobil -- and through them ourselves -- will have eaten a whole culture.

"Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries: Umeda Society, Language and Ritual," by Alfred Gell. 1975. London School of Economics, Monographs on Social Anthropology.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


It’s cold and overcast today. The summer crops are cut or dug, the winter wheat has mostly sprouted, as it is supposed to. It will die back during winter and then be up early in the spring. Everyone says the signs point to an exceptionally cold and snowy winter, but we’re supposed to get a little more slack in a few days. I’m thinking about putting some straw bales around my foundation. It is hunting season and so far two teenagers have been shot by accident. One out with a group of kids and found dead in a field. The other shot by his sister back at the car at the end of the day -- she was unloading her gun and by accident got him in the face from five feet away.

We know about these hazards in Montana and teach classes that effectively diminish the numbers. Also, on the reservations there are classes to reduce the number of suicides. Classes never totally succeed, but they help. I’m not part of that scene now.

Nor do I go hunting anymore, so I turn to my friend Paul for seasonal stories. The reality of hunting is that a lot of it is just plain hard work.


I have another horse tale that ties in with saws. When in college one of my professors heard I had a little packing experience and had a friend up at his cabin near . . . Trego? Anyway the friend had downed a big elk way the heck out there in the mountains, and the prof had a horse, but couldn't get out of his obligations and the horse had no packing experience, nor did he have a pack saddle. The deal was, if we packed it out, I'd not only get paid, but get half the meat! Tell that to a hungry kid who'd been boiling up cheap tongue for lunch meat.

Grabbed a willing friend and we made it up to the cabin the next morning, introduced ourselves to the horse and the hunter, put a western saddle and a bunch of rope and a saw on the horse and headed in. The hunter was careful to mark his way out but had a heck of a time retracing his trail and we had to do a lot of backtracking.

When we got to the elk we had to re-gut it because the inexperienced hunter had done such a poor job. Then I looked for the saw to cut it in half. When I couldn't find it, I remembered an odd sound somewhere in our travels that sounded just like the twang a saw might make hitting the ground, but I chalked up to the sound of a saw brushing up against a tree.

Didn't think we'd ever find it again, so the only thing left was to use the little chainsaw I'd brought along to clear trail. What a MESS! I'm sure I looked like Freddie Kruger by the time I was done.

Went back to the horse to bring him up and he wasn't about to let me get near him, much less follow me into what he must have thought was oblivion. I ended up having to put my jacket over his head to get him close enough to snub up to a tree while we tried to load and truss a half elk to that saddle and the horse.

All the way back down the mountain that elk half would slide to one side or the other or to the belly of that poor horse. The solution to the problem escaped me until we were close to the cabin and I cut a hole in the hide and ribs for the pommel to fit in. The second half was much easier since we knew where it was and how to pack it.

When we got back and hung the meat, all we could do was drool until we cut what was left of the mangled back straps out and headed back to town for a real feast. Came back on the weekend and cut the whole thing up and split it up. Ate good for a long time and the prof even loaned us freezer space for the winter.

How long have folks been bugling elk? Never been much of an elk hunter but I did take a brief interest in bugling. I must have bought mine at the pawn/gun shop next to the tavern because I took it into the tavern to try and figure out. It had two pieces, the "flapper" that you were supposed to put in the roof of your mouth and the bugling tube. The flapper gagged me for some reason, so it took a few beers to relax my gag reflexes enough to give it a proper try. My first attempt must have been pretty good, because within minutes the place cleared out. Just for a few minutes though, because everyone went out to their trucks to get their own bugles and we had an impromptu bugling jam session.

Bugling was hot in those days, which is why I was thinking it was a relatively new tool. I'd be out cruising timber and hear "elk" bugling all around me. Which of course was probably the real motivator for my purchase. I like messing with folks!

Nope, never did find that handsaw, even though we looked for it on subsequent trips. I knew right where it fell off, too, because it was in one of the few rocky areas. It's probably still lying there or part of someone else's "what the heck is this doing here" collection.

The bugling craze has died down pretty much here. I think the F&G changed the season to a later opening specifically to get away from rutting season, because bull elk are plumb stupid then and too easy to bring in. Now you can only effectively bugle during archery season.

Yeah, I never did much like my in-the-mouth bugle, but damn, it sounded like the real thing. I could probably pull off a feeble attempt with a piece of grass and some inventive grunting, but the bugle did all that for you and was much more believable. Those inserts were the worst though. There were several tones as I recall and you could buy different colored inserts. I think I was always afraid of sucking the dang thing down my lungs.

My gramps used to make me willow whistles too. I've tried a time or two, but they never work. I have better luck with Elderberry stems, hollow, kinda like Cow Parsnip, but less poisonous and won't make your lips fall off.

Thanks, Paul!

Monday, October 25, 2010

LIE TO ME v. IN TREATMENT: Review and Reflection

I don’t have an antenna or digital translator or cable feed on my television, so I watch DVD’s from Netflix. This allows me to mix old TV series with Indies with maybe Chinese or Swedish film and so on. Great opportunities for mix and match. I like “long form” TV, meaning three hours of a series at a time instead of an hour at a time. I watch most things twice, once for plot and one for -- well -- technique, I guess.

I thought I was ordering “In Treatment” but by accident re-watched “Lie to Me”, reminding myself of what it was about. So now I’m three weeks into year one of “In Treatment,” about Gabriel Byrne being a shrink. A remake of an Israeli series. Today’s NYTimes reviews the beginning of the third year, the first that is not Israeli-based. The review suggests the difference is perceptible. And that it’s good.

In the first year a little bunny-faced (overbite), cherry-mouthed, dimpled sex pot is supposed to be an anesthesiologist but I’d never let her near me in a horizontal position! Blair Underwood gives a stunning performance as a bomber pilot. (This series is a real showcase for actors.) He says more by freezing and staring than any long speech could convey. A girl gymnast who badly needs parents ends up sleeping with her coach instead. Happens a lot. A love/hate couple pits a guy with an attitude against a gal with money. Then the shrink goes to HIS shrink (Dianne Wiest) whom he describes as an “old sleepy spider waiting for him.” She’s the only woman who isn’t skinny and they have a mixed personal and professional past. (More shrinks have mixed pasts with patients than is theoretically supposed to happen.) The shrink’s shrink has issues, which she works through in a novel. It seems to be a success, both as a novel and maybe as self-analysis. The Byrne character has a new supervising shrink this year.

Everyone in “In Treatment” is totally confused, including the shrink’s shrink and the shrink’s wife. (Funny how I like that word. Is it the “sh” sound with the “k” at the end?) These shrinks work in home offices. (I’m always interested in how set decorators interpret the environments of intellectuals. Paul is obsessed with sailing ships. Gina is sort of stripped-down elegant with anthro overtones.) Somewhere in the two nabe’s a dog is always barking. It rains. Everything seems very ordinary but it’s not one bit. This is a screenwriter creating plot.

These “patients” fight, argue, deny, play games, call the therapist by his first name and say they want to fuck him, etc. They gang up on him to say he’s missing out on life, that he’s incompetent, old, not helpful, getting them into trouble. Not that it doesn’t happen that way, but not all the time, not carefully arranged around themes. It would be almost unwatchable except for Gabriel Byrne, taking all the blows from them plus his wife, and then turning around to act just like them with his own therapist who flinches and reels. He has said that acting is often a matter of being oneself.

“Lie to Me” has Tim Roth for the protagonist. The assumption of this show is almost opposite, based on the idea that an objective observer, often using video, can interpret deeply masked people by looking for microexpressions of gesture and facial expression, all the tiny evidence that you couldn’t possibly detect on the radio or in print. (Alas!) It’s a good reminder of how much gets stripped away when we’re reduced to word communication.

Tim Roth’s character is not charming or ineffective like Byrne. He has a weaselly controlling manner and his appeal is that he knows everything. We assume it will work for good. The “conceit” is that he is motivated because his mother committed suicide after a too-early pass from a mental ward that she got by imitating good cheer and good health. The foils are yet another very skinny brilliant woman with an overbite, a Latino young woman who is assumed to be a “natural” because she is ethnic and was abused as a child which makes her hypersensitive, and a bumbling idiot of a conceited young man. Also the Roth character's guileless but no-bullshit teenaged daughter. The Roth character plays games and fools his own people all the time. Not his daughter.

It’s interesting to consider what kind of play one might write about Roth’s character versus Byrne’s character. Roth has played swine in seductive ways. (“Rob Roy”) He’s a London boy who went to school in a lower economic class where he learned to protect himself by using the local lingo and swagger. He works with Tarentino.

Gabriel Byrne is quite different, Irish from Dublin, spending five years as a youngster preparing for the priesthood with the Christian Brothers. He’s quoted on thus:

[on dealing with depression] - “A single negative thought begins in your head. That single negative thought interacts with another negative thought and becomes a reality. And the world seems like the darkest, bleakest, blackest place that you can possibly be. And it has nothing to do with logic, it has nothing to do with reality. It's a chemical, and I suppose ultimately becomes a spiritual, imbalance in the body and in the mind. But it feels like the truth. That's what's so insidious about it.”

[on being beaten in school, specifically in math class] - “I feared being beaten, and I was beaten very regularly. It did affect my sense of myself. ... I didn't feel that I suffered at the time. I just felt it was the way of the world. It took many years to come to terms with and to forgive those incidents that I felt had deeply hurt me.”

“Unfortunately, I experienced some sexual abuse. It was a known and admitted fact of life amongst us that there was this particular man, and you didn't want to be left in the dressing room with him. There were certain boundaries, sexual boundaries, that were crossed.”

So the play with both of them would be a study in contrast between the man who takes hold to protect himself and the man who is open and therefore compassionate. He is vulnerable to a punishing world. If you put Roth in front of “In Treatment” and asked for interpretation, what would you get? The most revealing moments, I think, are when the “patient” freezes like a deer in headlights, rather than the movement and expressions. The meaning is not in the words but in the pauses.

“Lie to Me” assumes lying and often points out public figures with the same expressions, one of the real fascinations of the show. Even Elizabeth II makes faces. Cheney, of course, is sneering to the point of seeming a stroke victim. (Maybe he is.) Both shows feed into our need to sort a world where we are flooded with information. What is our method? (That old U of Chicago Div School question.) Does it really work? Or are we just revealing ourselves?

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Cassowaries are close to being the oldest living descendants of dinosaurs -- not the big ones like diplodocus, but the fast ones like the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park.” They are rattites, which means they have no keelbone in their breasts -- the anchor-point for the broad wings that allow eagles and geese to fly. Cassowaries like emus and ostriches, are without wings fit for flight. They look a little bit like guinea fowl on steroids, which is natural since they are found in New Guinea these days. The rattites evolved in Gonwandaland, the continent that pre-existed what today is South America, Africa, Madagascar, Antarctica, India, other parts of South Asia, and Australia. At one time it even included Florida and most of Southern Europe. “Science tells us that the Continents of Australia, India, South America, Africa, and Antarctica, existed together as a separate landmass as long as 650 million years ago. And as these continents only began to break up some 130 million years ago, this great supercontinent had a life of around 520 million years; making it perhaps the most important geological structure of the last billion years.”

Dinosaurs crashed about 65 million years ago. By that time Gonwandaland had reconfigured very slowly but quite a lot, changing ocean currents -- which changed weather -- and slowly separating in some places while staying attached in others, so that the evolution of those animals stayed connected as well. But the evolutionary paths were QUITE different, as platypuses, kangaroos and koalas demonstrate.

The inhabitants of the little complex of villages studied by a man named Andrew Gell in the 1960’s didn’t know anything about this plate tectonic geological history, but they knew a lot about today’s cassowary. The bird lives in jungle, has a five-inch blade of a claw, and can disembowel an adult human. They are the second biggest bird on the planet (after ostriches) and the third tallest. (After ostriches and emus.) So elusive that they can stand within a few feet without a person realizing it and then slip away without ever being sensed, they sometimes go on reckless crashing flights through the thick tropical growth, even smashing headlong into tree trunks, achieving speeds of over thirty mph and jumping five feet in the air. They are good swimmers.

A cassowary might be five and a half feet tall and weigh a hundred and fifty pounds, roughly the size of a sow grizzly. Like grizzlies, they are frugiverous (they love to eat fruits) and are interwoven with the forest in part because their droppings distribute the seeds of the plants (well-fertilized) over a wide area. Unlike grizzlies, cassowaries lay three to eight pale aqua eggs at a time, each one three and a half by five and a half inches. “The female does not care for the eggs or the chicks; the male incubates the eggs for two months, then cares for the brown-striped chicks for nine months, defending them fiercely against all potential predators, including humans.” And that scourge of wilderness, pigs.

On the tops of their heads is a kind of callus structure that is evidently a sort of crash helmet. But they are also very aggressive, ferocious fighters, which might make a protection like that an attractively potent silhouette for the ladies. Birds seem to admire headgear (which is ironic since so many were almost stamped out when they became popular decorations for human ladies). One experimenter “helped out” a certain kind of songbird with a plume on its head by gluing on additions and then showing the augmented suitors to females. They became ever more attractive as, like Bartholomew Cubbins, their heads became more elaborate -- until they could hardly hold their heads up. Google reports no athletic teams called “The Cassowaries” though one could easily imagine someone in a mascot suit disguised as a big aggressive bird with a helmet. (I note that there is no school mascot called the “The Pigs” either. “The Boars”? The Bores?)

New Guinea as it exists today is the product of a plate tectonic crash that left it with a miserable combination of swampy bug-ridden lowlands, tilted rocky foothills and highlands so tall that they cast their rain shadow over Australia, making it the fire-swept droughty continent that it is. The humans who live in New Guinea have a precarious existence, always on the verge of starvation. The people are among the last to be introduced to the contemporary world. One should not deduce from this that are not smart and resourceful -- indeed the environment is so harsh that the weak and stupid don’t last long and Gell reports that no man was able to point to a grandson -- only sons. Life was only two generations long.

When “law and order” arrived and dealt with a violent incident by removing the most aggressive men, some to prison and some to work on plantations, the seized men took note of the terrain through the airplane window as they were flown out -- over two mountain ranges. In the new place they immediately escaped and headed home. Only a few achieved the goal but none were stupid nor weak -- veritable cassowaries of men, single-minded. There are no athletic programs (instead of “modeling war,” they proceed straight to battle) or even schools to have mascots in remote New Guinea, but the men consciously identify with the monster birds. They feature largely in ceremonies.

My hypothesis is that meaningful ceremonies are as ecological as life itself is -- that is, what people believe is true is very much shaped by the world around them. The efficacy of their symbols is directly drawn from their familiarity with the phenomena. “The Lamb of God” can hardly mean much to an Inuit, but it means a great deal to a sheep rancher who has delivered a real lamb, held it in his arms, and taken it to maturity. Still, raising a lamb in Mexico is different from raising a lamb in Montana or Australia. So knowing that a cassowary is a vital symbol to the Umeda tells us what they think the world and the sacred is “about.” As always, survival. But how? At what cost?

Today most people in the world are no longer “emplaced” as were the New Guinea tribesmen of the Sixties who had never left their valleys. Now we look at ecology on a cosmic scale and see relationships over incredible spans of time. In spite of Planet Earth images, we no longer have as rich tactile and concrete nourishing connections with the local ecology since we don’t know where our food was grown, what it looked like before it was picked or killed, what its habits were, its style, its charisma. But the Umeda knew cassowaries very well, especially how they tasted.

More about this later.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


In 1990 when I was teaching high school English in Heart Butte, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation, I had a problem. Some of the students had flunked sophomore, junior, and senior years of English and were enrolled in all three years at once. I was the only English teacher except for a remedial teacher working on basics. Most of these multiple enrollees were making one more valiant try for a diploma. They were older, very hip, and masked. They felt “maudit,” cursed. Outcasts. Both because they were Indians in a tiny foothills community where the old ways still cling and because even within that community they were criticized. The women in their families tried to control them. The men were mostly missing.

So I thought that for all our sanities, I would assign a different Native American book from the then-recent NA literary renaissance to each grade. What I assigned to the seniors was “The Death of Jim Loney” by James Welch, Jr. They did not approve. They had ten thousand reasons to resist James Welch, Jr. As it happens, I had been married to Jim Welch SENIOR’s best friend (white) when the two of them were in grade school. No one was impressed by that. They pointed out, accurately, that Jim Welch SENIOR. was only half Blackfeet and Jim JUNIOR’s mother was Fort Belknap and Jim was raised on the Fort Belknap rez. They were only partly right. Jim Welch Sr. moved a lot and much of young Jim’s education was in Minneapolis. Jim Welch Jr. was a mild-mannered guy. I’ve met his dad and sibs and they are responsible, respectable people who could pass anywhere for, well, Italian or something. Jim’s parents were well-respected and so were his grandparents. The original Jim Welch (there were three) was from Carolina. He met his Blackfeet wife at Haskell.

But Jim III knew about rez life and told it straight. It was one of the first novels about Indians that was “maudit” rather than anthropological or romantic or just historical. I’m interpreting the “maudit,” “noir,” sub-genre of Native American literature in a Thomas Kuhnian way, the ragged edge of coming change. Kuhn proposed that we think of something, whether science or society, as though we have it named and nailed down and taken for granted until there is a pile-up of things that don’t fit, that hurt, that were senseless. For Jim’s age group, which is the same as mine, a lot of damage was coming down on intelligent, aspiring, young Indian men who couldn’t quite fit into the world of the white female teachers who took them on. I could quickly (more, given twenty minutes) name six of the type, most of them approaching seventy now, some of them no longer living, including Jim. (This is about the age of Van Sickle and Ivan Doig as well.)

These Indian men were victims of what I call “splitting,” which is that on the one hand they were considered drunks, no good, losers -- sometimes abandoned by their own fathers. On the other hand they were told they were noble, special, chosen, and should be brilliant. They were “labeled,” people thought they knew all about it, but the actuality was full of contradictions and double-binds. The reservation that was imagined as a refuge could be a trap. Jim was one of the first to find a way to express both. Some of these guys became college professors, others became bureaucrats, and many were plagued by booze and so on. If they really busted loose in a bar, it was quietly and someplace else. (Like Valier.)

With relentless unromantic clarity, Jim maps out in his individual characters the various factions of a reservation, even among the cops. The important divisions are not white/red, but rather levels of prosperity and authority (jurisdiction), genetically tangled relationship webs, and the ghosts of athletic victories. Clinging to what seems like fellowship in the one place where whites and Indians mix as adults -- namely the bar -- they cannot step away from suspicion and rivalry.

Meanwhile, the women got to work and the next generation is the one that has made reservations into a going concern: casinos, wind-farms, oil, high tech materials, fine cattle. The mothers, aunties and sisters -- even the lovers and social workers -- went back to college in middle-age. Relocation, NA hiring preference, IHS jobs, worked better for the women than for the men. Eloise Cobell is from the same generation as Jim Welch III. They and their children run the rez schools now. No more of those cruising white English teachers with wealthy parents back east. Denise Juneau, Blackfeet of the next genertion, is the state superintendent of schools. It’s a new paradigm.

I took four of my best writers from Heart Butte to a feschshrift honoring A. B. Guthrie Jr. in Choteau and -- finding Jim Welch -- towed him over to meet them. They were paralyzed, though Jim was generous and charming. Afterward they lectured me, “You must not expose us like that! He shouldn’t know about us!” They were exactly like Tim’s boys. “Do not draw attention to us!” The “cursed” like the dark -- they fear celebrity which makes them a target. (Ask Tim.) As self-fulfilling prophesy, they scoffed at Jim behind his back, accusing him of being a phony, of taking advantage of the other tribal members. They felt that they were safe at home, where they even swaggered and dominated. But in a slightly different place (Choteau is only a few miles down the Rocky Mountain cordillera and only a little bit bigger) with unknown rules, they collapsed.

My senior boys hated “The Death of Jim Loney.” They stonewalled me. Events in the book didn’t happen on this rez but all the people had Blackfeet names, which is a trespass. On the one hand they wanted to be seen and recognized, but on the other hand they didn’t want to be revealed. Every character in this book had an equivalent on the rez in those days. Now, not so much. And now “death by cop” is sort of a city phenomenon, though people are still mysteriously found dead. Open the Great Falls Tribune any morning and you’ll read about violent deaths of low-income men, often among drinking buddies, maybe white and maybe not. The Native American female dead are never noted, their bones found years later. Their families miss them.

The lowest point for Native Americans was not the massacres where a man could at least be a warrior. Rather it was the existential despair of a trapped small-town life or urban ghetto idleness. For some it triggered revolution. The second Wounded Knee was 1973. It didn’t turn out well, but it triggered more than gunfire. At great cost it made the huge gimbals and gyroscopes of society begin to turn. Just as they are now.

Friday, October 22, 2010


The next logical step in this literary discussion I’m having with myself was supposed to be about Jim Welch, but it’s going to take me a while to reread “The Death of Jim Loney” enough to be coherent. Instead, consider this list:

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; or Huck Finn and Jim, the slave.
Two Little Savages
Penrod and Sam (Tarkington -- anyone remember Tarkington?)
Lone Ranger and Tonto
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Cisco Kid and Pancho
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson
Vladimir and Estragon,
Gilbert and Sullivan
Mason and Dixon
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Achilles and Patroclus
Gilgamesh and Enkidu
David and Jonathan (Book of Samuel, Old Testament).
Natty Bumpoo and Chingachgook
Ishmael and Queequeg
Mr. Favor and Rowdy Yates (Rawhide)
Lewis and Clark
Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock
And finally, Deleuze and Guattari, who have been called the “Laurel and Hardy” of French philosophers.

This trail started out with Tim Barrus and the poetes maudit, went to Dirck Van Sickle, then his professor Leslie Fiedler, back to Fielder’s infamous essay entitled “Come Back to the Raft, Huck Honey,” and then a “raft” of downloads that I’m busy marking up in three colors.

Part of the task is to separate out the pairs above into types of male/male relationships: those that are simply erotic; those that are deep friendships including the production of symbiotic and synergistic work; those that are defined by familial relationships like twins or brothers or even cousins. What is new to me is the idea that the “family romance” of father and son is specifically capitalist, but it’s easy to see it’s because of inheritance: the father amasses an empire and leaves it to the son; or the father is helplessly impoverished and therefore the son is over-motivated to redeem him. Plus a lot of variations, like whether the son is capable of maintaining an empire he didn’t create or the father hates the son for showing him up. It’s a three-part series internal to “Montana Gothic.”

I’m drawing on an essay in the “Australian Humanities Review” called “Odd Couples and Double Acts, or Strange but not Always Queer: Some male pairs and the modern/postmodern subject” by Jennifer Livett. I can see that a woman has an advantage in writing about male/male pairs since presumably she need not be defensive. And yet I find myself constantly defending my wish to be in a male/male pair while remaining female. That is, to have a relationship of equals, which causes me to quarrel with top/bottom or adult/child relationships. Curiously, I find it pretty tough to find another thinking woman who doesn’t try to force those configurations: maybe mother/daughter or professor/student, even when it’s not to their advantage. There are two sub-genres of lesbian love writing (they tell me -- I do not look for it), one in which the two women are take-offs on Kirk and Spock and one in which they are Sherlock and Watson. I take them as efforts to escape anatomy into equality, both personally and socially.

Deleuze-Guattari call a relationship that is not Oedipal/capitalist/big/little “schizoid” after the root meaning of schism, to split away. (This is a broader concept that schizophrenia which is a junk category anyway.) If we are to get past this octopus of global economic entwining that capitalism has become, we’ll have to think of some other system configuration. I was raised to believe in cooperatives, as in prairie grain marketing. But as one of the village philosophers here says, “We’re not looking at socialism anymore -- this is fascism now.” (Cue Pasolini) Things are moving so quickly that communication across the generations is problematic. Economic scale is lost. How does a son explain to a rancher or miner that he has made billions by sitting in a dark room listening to loud music and “engineering” something no one can see? How do terrorist sons explain to their compromising (thus surviving) fathers? (Jim Welch)

Here’s a highly political version of horizontal (equal) relationships, probably assuming male-to-male. (I apologize for not recording where I got it.)
• The widespread notion of a "clash of civilizations" along traditional historical "fault lines" is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents a crash of traditional territorial cultures, not their resurgence. Individuals now mostly radicalize horizontally with their peers, rather than vertically through institutional leaders or organizational hierarchies. They do so mostly in small groups of friends — from the same neighborhood or social network — or even as loners who find common cause with a virtual internet community.
• Therefore, a coherent program to counter extremist violence should focus on peer-to-peer efforts, not elders trying to teach youth about moderation or the Koran. It will take mobilizing the purpose-seeking, risk-taking, adventurous spirit of youth for heroic action. Today, "Happiness is martyrdom" can be as emotionally contagious to kids in a forlorn urban African neighborhood or to a lost youth on the Internet as "Yes, we can." That is a stunning and far-reaching development that we must learn to steer in the right direction.

I was really with this until the last sentence. “We must learn to steer in the right direction?” Who are “we?” And who decides what is the right direction?

I’m not quite willing to go to the political dimension. It presses me mostly through economics (cost of living), but I still don’t have much of a vision of what the future should be like. Instead, in retirement, I’m reflecting on personal relationships, many of which I’ve left behind. You can sort out for yourself which pairs on the list above are erotic, which are unequal, which are equal, and which are productive. (Are Tonto or Pancho really the “lesser” ones of their pairs?? Are “ethnic” men just stand-ins for women? Or the other way around?)

I can only start from what I know: being in uniform, being in the pulpit, being the “boy” in a relationship with a much older powerful man. And being friends with Tim Barrus who has struggled with generational and factional issues all his life. His struggle has been physical, body to body. But what he and I share is entirely in print -- not even on the phone. Theories, stories, images. Books, emails, blogs, the occasional photo, and -- from Tim -- videos. That’s it. Thins down the traffic enough to see what’s going on. One can go back and reread, print out a photo and tape it up to study, like a cop show detective. But it’s paradoxically just a fast version of writing letters, a form that precedes the Bible.

The puzzle Tim is confronting is how to get abused boys to treat each other as equals, friends who support but don’t dominate. In the past someone strong prevailed and kept order. Some boys would just as soon remain children and others want to take over but are impatient with persuasion. I’m sure everyone is relieved that none of the boys are named Mephibosheth, the name of Jonathan’s son, and also grateful that David didn’t kill him (he was crippled) but rather seated him at the table. This is the very early roots of what is called “Deuteronomistic history,” the roots of Judaism.

It’s a Prince Valiant story: David comes into the court to see King Saul -- still clenching the blood-dripping head of Goliath he has just sawed off. Saul’s son Jonathan is impressed. “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself. Saul took him that day and did not let him return to his father's house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.” Since then various cultures have been pushing and pulling and interpreting these bare bones. Something parallel shows up even in Blackfeet mythology where the Jonathan role is sometimes the Morning Star and sometimes a beaver. Two men, equals, collaborate, meshing their different skills to achieve a common goal.

Writing through conversation (not editing each other) means being equals. Co-writers. It is a philia without eros. Livett suggests, “While ‘hero and pal’ narratives are centrally concerned with social action [Lone Ranger and Tonto], particularly epic or dramatic [Lord of the Rings], the odd couples largely abandon physical activity for mental gymnastics and dialectical engagement.” “The essence of the odd couples’ unity is difference-within-similarity, especially of outlook, ideology, Weltanschauung.” If this writing odd couple is heterosexual, one of the best things about it, imho, is that it’s unique to the point of being outrageous. Tim’s used to that.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

MONTANA GOTHIC by Dirck Van Sickle

This book review is going to start in a strange place: a basement bedroom in a house in Higgins Avenue in Missoula, Montana. There’s a lot of mystique about Missoula, even within Montana where it’s seen as sort of the Paris of the range. Intellectual, you know. Over on the east side of the Rockies, we find intellectuals a little -- um -- depressed. Where I am, I can see A.B. Guthrie’s beloved Ear Mountain. I love “The Big Sky,” both the book and the real thing. The sky on the Missoula side is quite a lot like that in Portland where I grew up. In fact, I’ve known people in Portland who would dash over to Missoula on a three day weekend, thinking they were visiting Montana. But they’re just going from the gray Willamette Valley to the gray Flathead Valley. Everywhere they go, there they are.

Once I was asked to stoodge for a little documentary film about A.B. Guthrie, Jr. They wanted certain questions answered, so my job was to sit off-camera and ask their questions. We got to having a pretty good time and pretty soon Guthrie was telling me how Leslie Fiedler ran Walter van Tilburg Clark out of Missoula. (There was no shoot-out. Walter just saw that it was time to get out of Dodge.) At that point Guthrie’s wife told him to put on his hat because they were leaving. She thought literary gossip was bad taste. Fiedler, though he lived in Missoula for twenty years, never quit mocking Montana for its own good. That house on Higgins was Fiedler’s house and Dirck Van Sickle lived in the basement bedroom for a while. (1960-61) Fiedler sold the house to the Missoula Unitarian congregation which is still there. 1982-85 when I was the circuit-riding Montana minister, I slept in that bedroom. Very strange vibes. Possibly a curse. But I had come to east side Montana in 1962 and though I felt it, I was protected, possibly by the spirit of Jim Welch, half-Blackfeet and a poet maudit himself, but an east sloper.

This book review is about “Montana Gothic” by Dirk Van Sickle -- not gossip -- and here’s how it all ties together. The first point to grasp is that literary fashions change and college towns are swept by them more than other towns. Walter Von Tilburg Clark is one of the truly major figures in Old Western lit and one of my favorites. He’s not thought of as a Montana writer so much, maybe because his magnum opus was about Salt Lake City, “The City of the Trembling Leaves,” where he, like Wallace Stegner, got a taste of civilized life while coming of age.

Dirck Van Sickle was a student of Fiedler’s. The year after he left, 1961-62, was my first year of teaching in Browning. I’m guessing a little now, though Patia Stephens recently interviewed Van Sickle in New York and will know for sure, both Fiedler and Van Sickle were Easterners who confronted Montana head on. Provocateurs. That was just their modus operandi. Opposition to conformity. Social criticism. Poets maudit.

“Montana Gothic” is a series of short stories linked by characters and stretching over many years. The first is about a med student with a broken heart who bought -- sight unseen -- an undertaking business and discovered all kinds of surprises. But he coped until he fell in love and his sweetheart . . . well, this is a horror story so I won’t give it away.

The book begins: “For most of the long winter the universal mud was frozen like rippled rock, but now, in the middle of this chinook, the graining gumbo lay over the land like the primal muck, almost trapping the horse’s hoof at every step. If you’re a newcomer, the suck of the hoof pulling free of the thick ooze can turn your stomach; best to concentrate on the saddle creaking or the horse snorting -- but don’t look at the sky: winter sky in northeastern Montana is just another kind of mud; thinner and grayer, but so deep that if you ever fell into it, you’d never get out.” Take THAT, Bud Guthrie!

The stories really amount to the same thing as James Willard Schultz and Charles Marion Russell asking, “Why Gone Those Times?” Unless you’re a believer, the elusive mythic West falls apart in your hands because it is a construct. What’s left is horror. Suffering, death. Ugliness. You can tell Van Sickle is writing from the west side: there’s no wind. Missoula in its valley is vulnerable to temperature inversions that seal in the woodsmoke and the latrine-stink of the paper mill.

There are four sections to this book, beginning with the pre-med student; then a range double-tale about two mismatched men wintering in a line shack with a few cattle; then a three-part melodramatic Jim-Harrison-style attack on the grand generational tale of success (lots of THEM in Montana) with bits of Jane Eyre thrown in; and last a homily of doomed anachronism pushed to ridiculousness. All of them are outsider stories: this is a novelist maudit who will never find a home in Montana, never be invited to the celebrations. NOT commodified.

One of the compensations for living in a mythic place, if you can accept the givens, is participation, feeling chosen and proud. People will say, “Oh, I live in God’s country.” For this author, God is a vengeful woman, a Death who meets one at every turn. I read it long ago and recognized the bloody truth of it, not quite in the way expressed in the action tropes of Westerns nor in the way the old cowboy puts it, for he feels he has married Death. “It’s like I was tryin’ to tell ya last night, she ain’t just dead spiritless land, no sir, she’s something ta take her life and share it with ya, like a wife mebbe. An mebbe better, too. ‘Cause a woman can die . . . but the land, she can’t die. . . ya don’t have to think about it. Ye just come to know it.” That’s the old man’s philosophy and of course he dies. Consummated.

The young man says, “. . . to think of Montana in these terms was not just pathetic fallacy but a dangerous, possibly fatal anthropomorphism, like imagining a rattlesnake could return love. The land has no persona, the land is nothing more than a floor beneath the weather. . . the sandstone rimrock and buttes are numbed, calloused, and worn as the nipples of an old-time Miles City whore, and as incapable of feeling. The forests are as badly beaten every winter as the kids of an alcoholic Indian, and, as inevitably as the Indian’s shanty discovered on a rancher’s land, they burn down every summer.” He’s not on the east slope. No grass.

But there’s an eagle: the second chapter is a Jacob-and-the-Angel struggle with an eagle, part-real, part-obsessional. The Winged One wins. “He’d always sought for the savior to be a woman, the feminine apotheosis whose face he never saw, the haunting succubus -- but it was to be the eagle all the time; it could only be Grandfather . . .the blank authority of his power. Grandfather would end Deke’s life and take it with him, and this was, in the needle-sharp clarity of his final deluson, the end of questing, the terminal answer to his question.” This book is dedicated to Van Sickle’s mother. “Mother” is also the name of the horse of the anachronistic cowboy at the end.

I see his problem. His eagle was a bald eagle, the awkward symbol of the nation, which feeds on fish (west side spawners coming in the from the coast) and carrion. On the east side we have golden eagles. (In actual fact Bob and I did raise one and held her in our arms.) They eat meat. It’s their tail-feathers that are in Blackfeet war bonnets. Such a small difference, but a crucial one.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Two stories. One is about some stretch of whitewater that people really like to float for the risky adventure, relief from their ordinary dull well-cushioned jobs. It seems this year the water is low and so attention has focused on one big old boulder that because of its shape and placement has caused boatloads to capsize and people to drown. There is a move afoot to take out the boulder so the whitewater will be safer.

The other one comes via Davidson Loehr and is really about two incidents involving ravens. In the first one a small woman was being stalked by a cougar until a raven’s call overhead signaled her and she saw the big cat. Her husband came in time to run it off. The other was a hunter who had killed a deer: a raven alerted him just in time to save him from a bear that was sneaking up. The two people each felt that the raven was a marvelous guardian bird that had saved them. But then a naturalist gave them the reverse take: in fact, he said, the raven is on the side of the carnivore and was calling out the location of the prey!

David used these stories as a warning about the coming election. Since I’m already thinking about horror, madness (“maudit”), gothic images and so on, this drops right into my keyboard. The real horror of human life is our awareness of suffering and death. The other animals just do it, but we must confront, anticipate, regret. Or we ought to. In our times we’ve accepted such denial and sentimentality that we can’t recognize anything but our own convenience. When something actually breaks through to us, our reaction is often bizarre. Here comes Halloween and we send the kids out into the streets to accept food from strangers while at the same time handing out safety advice. Then when the news comes on about Haiti where the children are dying in mud or about our predator drones in Afghanistan that sweep down from nowhere to kill whole families, we turn it off. “Too depressing.”

The “poets maudits,” the mad poets, could be accused of narcissism, obsession and grandiosity. But somehow even de Sade had a sense of justice, a protest against oppression, even as he watched from his prison window while the heads were cut off the aristocrats, the thinkers, the politicians, the resented. We are evidently resigned to headless bodies in Juarez -- little people. We didn’t know them. Technicians cut the heads off lab mice with scissors. Poor little mousies.

I began watching the films of Pasolini at the deep end, “Salo,” or “Sodom,” which is really pre-Christian, an anti-pornography film re-enacting the ancient Minotaur story in which the best of the young people are sacrificed to a monster at the center of a labyrinth. A few days after finishing the film, Pasolini was beaten to death, possibly because he had translated it into Nazi Italy at the very end of WWII. (They can’t stand criticism.) Earlier he had made three films celebrating the jot, innocence and redemption of young pleasure, only to see them copied and diminished into trivial money-making porn. Commodification, he concluded, was the great evil that threatens us now. I agree. We aren’t interested in the minotaur myth. We’ve turned to “Beauty and the Beast,” and vampires, the idea being that guys are all beasts but they can be redeemed by pretty girls. Besides, bulls don’t have credit cards, but pretty girls have them and are not afraid to use them.

The newspaper yesterday morning carried a story about a Canadian airline pilot, very respected, straight-arrow family man, so trustworthy that he had even flown Elizabeth II on her visit. He has just been revealed as a serial-killer, a kidnapper, a panty-sniffer. Oh, he likes pretty girls, all right. He looks nothing like a beast. You can’t protect yourself by buying some equipment (stake, garlic) and a costume from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I read the comments responding to Tim’s vids about boys dying of AIDS and all the things that afflict someone who has no immune system, and the reactions of people are unreal. A lot of them are so offensive that they are immediately blocked, but most of them are meaningless, inappropriate, effusive and fawning even when Tim is talking about digging graves in Kenya. It’s as though by admiring him they have excused themselves from having to do anything or even to care.

Commodification. Sometimes I think everything comes down to economics in the end. Of course, it does because it is an aspect of ecology. I’m reading Peter Gay’s “Education of the Senses” and thinking a lot about the middle class, specifically the middle class that is supposed to be the motor and anchor of our good life. We are so cushioned (some of us) and so convinced we’re protected that we may have sold our souls to the devil. We treat suffering and death -- deep and ultimate mysteries -- like medical disorders. We try to pass laws to “manage” nature, regulations that will implant consciences in criminals, and now DNA modification to eliminate carnivores. All for a price.

Where does the money go, people are asking? Why can’t we find funding to maintain the national infrastructure? Or cure AIDS? Our deficits are bigger than ever and yet there isn’t enough to save our schools. In the Sixties we feared a bang that would blast us as we hunkered on the floor along the hall lockers. (Now the lockers sometimes contain bombs.)

Today we know that the catastrophic event is likely to be whimpered in financial spreadsheets and may already have arrived irreversibly. We don’t belong to ourselves anymore. When I was young and traveling shotgun with Bob Scriver, we used to sit around the woodstoves with cynical old guys and talk about arming for the revolution. But those John Birchers weren’t even close. They could never have imagined the wind farm I can see from this village: red skies at night, soaked by the warning lights on the turbines. They never could have guessed it would be owned by an ostensibly Irish company that brazenly uses American land condemnation means for the common good (the notorious “takings”) to create a profitable high-tension tie-line into Canada so it can hook up to the continental grid, exporting energy and money.

But I think Dirck van Sickle DID see the beginnings of this, so tomorrow I’ll review “Montana Gothic,” a book as influential in its own underground way as “The Big Sky.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


What “maudit” means in French is “cursed.” Perhaps in anticipation of Halloween, this is becoming a series about the poetes maudit and Montana Gothic. I asked Tim, who identifies with the poetes maudit, if he would like to respond to yesterday’s post, but he doesn’t write definitions. He writes himself. This piece is Gothic in a lot warmer climate -- maybe Florida.

Until It’s Written
timothée barrus/

I’ve always known that I was cursed.

The people that I am closest to will tell you that it’s true. They would really like for me to make some kind of attempt to make sure the curse does not rub off on them.

Truman Streckfus Persons thought a voodoo spell had been put on me by the Haitian witch who lived upstairs on Petronia and Duval in Bahama Village. In those days, Key West was a fragile ground of tongues that came rising from the dead.

Truman Streckfus Persons was the only friend I had who never balked at my living in a treehouse. Everyone else just stared way up into the upper reaches of the banyan tree, and most people were inclined to say: you want me to what.

And in the dark, too.

No electric. I had a couple of candles. Streckfus and I would do it dead drunk.

People always said he was a sissy. What do people know.

The two of us would climb the tree and push open the trap door to the treehouse and we were home. Home was where I kept the Bombay gin.

From the top of the banyan tree (I had no glass in the windows and the rain came in) you could see the entire island. We even looked down on Lighthouse Court and the lighthouse. Streckfus liked to spy on people with my binoculars. He would laugh and wave. No one could see us in the treehouse.

“I’m spying on Hemingway,” Streckfus cackled.

We had just had a long and crazy dinner at the Pier House.

The Hemingway house was dark and Hemingway had been dead for a while. Streckfus dropped the binoculars to the floor and stepped back three feet. Having turned white as a flutter moth. “Oh, I see him all the time,” I said handing Streckfus his drink and a joint I just rolled for the two of us or the ten of us or how many we were that night.

“I’m cursed.”

“I know you are. I wonder what that makes Gore Vidal?”

I shot him my best evil eye look. Streckfus had been forbidden by the Monroe County Circuit Court (corner of Whitehead and Southard over by the Green Parrot bar) to ever say those two words: Gore. Vidal.

“Don’t tell on me.” I would never rat on Streckfus.

He looked very thirsty. I was very thirsty. Smoking dope with opium in it makes people thirsty. We could work up a powerful thirst in Key West. It was the heat.

I owned one pair of cut-off jeans. That was it.

The Pier House Bar did not care. The Monster Bar did not care. The coke dealers at the Casa Marina did not care.

“Have I seen your tits,” Streckfus wondered.

I had to find them. “Yes, I think you have.”

We fell down laughing.

“Okay, where is it.”

He did not mean the gin. He did not mean the weed. He meant my latest manuscript.
I kept it in an old steamer trunk in the treehouse so the lizards wouldn’t eat it.

Streckfus had been writing a book he was calling Answered Prayers. No one had seen the thing fully assembled. Most of us had seen bits and pieces, vignettes.

From the floor of the treehouse (I had no furniture) we could stare up at the tropical moon and talk to each other without looking away from that whisper of an almost lightly tinted summer-green apparition floating in a sea of black and tangled stars.

OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS" is my favorite book,” I lied.

Streckfus could become quite contemplative.

“Other voices, other rooms, I was trying to exorcise my own devils, the subterranean anxieties that dominated my feelings and imagination. And still do. But we have to get you published.”

“You don’t have to read my book,” I lied.

“Oooohhh, I think I do.”

A novel I called YEAR OF THE HYENA. I have called about a dozen novels I have written that. But the one Streckfus wanted to look at was the first.

“You are very kind,” I told him.

“Honey, I don’t have a kind bone in my body.”

This was true. We tastefully passed out, and the next afternoon when we regained consciousness, Streckfus took the manuscript with him back to his room at the Pier House.

Climbing down sober was far more difficult than going up in the dark.

Reading manuscripts has made many, many editors very thirsty especially in the heat.

A couple of nights later, Streckfus was treating me to dinner (I had absolutely no money and Streckfus was rich as fancy pants) outside on the patio of the Pigeon House on Whitehead (today: Kelly’s Caribbean Cafe).

“Have you seen my tits.”

“About this manuscript…”


“You scared the hell out of me.”

A novel featuring Key West, voodoo, witches, bodies, murders, spells, Santería, and life at Bahama Mama’s in Bahama Village — should — scare someone.

“Streckfus, it’s supposed to scare you.”

“No. No. No. No. No. From what I can tell in the short time I have been able to research this novel you have written, every single one of your characters is real as are the (he started counting on his fingers) voodoo spells, Haitian witches, Bahama Villagers, bodies, murders, spells and dead chicken heads.”

Streckfus was then temporarily struck dumb. This was rare. His lips moved but no sound came out.


“Oh, lawsuits those sons of bitches over at that courthouse…”


Streckfus Persons knew all about them sons of bitches over at that courthouse.

“Gore Vidal will sue you.”

“Gore Vidal is not in my book.”

“It won’t matter, Gore Vidal will sue you, anyway, and you know it.”

My eyes to the sky.

“The toothless witch, the one on Duval and Petronia, put a curse on you that will never come off. Never. You will never publish this novel because not only is it disturbing, it’s accursed.”

And I never did.

There it was. Winter. Paris. Why Paris. It’s the curse.

Streckfus was dead. Everyone was dead. I walked among the living like I could pull the dark behind me.

I did not know WHY I had not died like everyone else. I just hadn’t.

The curse is that I have to live this life.

I spent the night with a bunch of adolescent boys in a very small tent. It was very cold in Paris that winter. We all had our coats on and were pushed down into our sleeping bags.

You don’t believe it. You don’t believe any of it.

You do not believe anyone would live in a treehouse in a banyan tree. You do not believe that there would be a place that the rain came in. You do not believe that a voodoo witch ever lived at Petronia and Duval. You do not believe Truman Capote was, in fact, Streckfus Persons. You do not believe there is such a thing as exile. You do not believe in Paris.

Our tent town was a demonstration to protest homelessness in France. You do not believe there is group in Paris called Les Enfants de Don Quichotte.

But there is.

And it doesn’t really matter what you believe or don’t believe. I’m not writing for you. You are not my audience. You are not my theory. You are not my idea. You are not my culture (I do not really have one). You are not my religion. You are not my concern. In fact, YOU are not real to ME.

We just don’t share the same values. And I live my life accordingly.

Those boys in that tent at that demonstration to protest homelessness was Paris at its best.

All of us in that tent are cursed. We have been cursed with a spell that has allowed us to stretch our voices out in an unsealed steamer trunk of poetry unfurled further than a rowboat sleeps toward Christmas.

Some of those boys are dead now. I have had to let them go. It is accursed.

I have a stained glass dementia in my bedcothes like the essence of swimming in yourself. I am demented. Consciousness broods at moons gone lightly green. I am sustained by the eyes of serpents and the sounds of chandeliers. I have been cursed to man the barricades in Paris with the lunatics. To be against the state of being homeless must be mad, mad, mad.

Give me the mad ones. The ones from the stars of the milky way who have no hope like me.

Give me what the accursed poets have. I want discovery, farewells, sorrow, towers, churches, domes, secrets, lips, the Seine, darkness, scars, leaps of faith, the North Sea, quiet afternoons, long endless cheesy novels, sunlight, wine, music, dance, wind, islands, skateboards, blonds and blondes, erotic daydreams, family dogs, hot, hot coffee, beaches, wholly lifted with some other manic lover and his sword, the clinging of her to me until we drop, green moons, paper bags, humming, cold beer, pictures on the fridge drawn by children, the stars rimmed with red, weeds, tomato plants, vivid photography, and to be touched.

All the way to the bitter end. My weapons are my words and I am here to tell you they are covered in blood. The blood of accursed poets who have stood on this ground and walked with me through more broken doorways than bones can crumble.

I have loved them all. I have loved them in the quick, dead, and middle of the precious night delirious with survival. I have loved them where the sun has struck treehouses and boats and lofts and reservations and deserts and down rivers and on tall sailing ships and I have sailed those as well.

Answered prayers. Until it’s written. The thing will haunt you minute after minute and just like Streckfus, you will have to run until you write it down.
For this life is a such a curse midair and backwards spin and blind and suffering in silence and roll out the clenching pain — they say Hemingway has been dead a while but I do not believe it — and even drunk the designs of time have been singing voodoo in my ear.

Monday, October 18, 2010


This vid is only one of many on YouTube that refer to the “poete maudite” as a category. They range from the classic French decadents to Jim Morrison. I’m working at making a case for a certain kind of Native American writing, for instance, Jim Welch’s two early novels (“Winter in the Blood” and “The Death of Jim Loney”), as belonging to this category, now thrown to the side. I’m going to claim that, partly because of that despairing darkness, rez Indians form a doorway between Barrus and Scriver. How do I dare do that? Especially since Barrus got into such trouble for pulling what he knew about the rez into his own story? Now I pull Barrus into my story? (We’re both white.)

This is a “conceit.”

1. A favorable and especially unduly high opinion of one's own abilities or worth.

2. An ingenious or witty turn of phrase or thought.

3. a. A fanciful poetic image, especially an elaborate or exaggerated comparison.
3. b. A poem or passage consisting of such an image.

4. a. The result of intellectual activity; a thought or an opinion.
4. b. A fanciful thought or idea.

5. a. A fancy article; a knickknack.
5. b. An extravagant, fanciful, and elaborate construction or structure.

Tim Barrus is a poete maudit Americaine. His aesthetic is the Doors: edges, riots, and beach decadence alternating with luxury hotels. He is a cultural dissonant, using outrage and transgression to criticize in ways that demand attention He endures constant torture from shattering bones. Some people are not displeased by that.

Mary Scriver is an impressioniste du prairie. She doesn’t care about conventional people or national boundaries, but relates to the land, living humbly and thinking grandiosely. It suits her (me) to be friends with Tim, to match his stories with my own tales. I like analysis and theory, connections not seen before. I despise sentimentality.

poète maudit,  (French: “accursed poet”), in literary criticism, the poet as an outcast of modern society, despised by its rulers who fear his penetrating insights into their spiritual emptiness. The phrase was first applied by Paul Verlaine in Les Poètes maudits (1884), a collection of critical and biographical studies that focused on the tragedy of the lives of the then little-known Symbolist poets Tristan Corbière, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Arthur Rimbaud. Verlaine may have taken les poètes maudits from Baudelaire’s “Bénédiction".

There is no pre-existing category of “impressioniste du prairie.” I’m making it up right now. But I am not like the French Impressionists who are so floral and pretty. This is a place of dung, dust and grass, the chiaroscuro of frozen winter darkness and then unbearably hot summer dazzle laced with ultraviolet that will mutate DNA as though it were radioactivity.

Where is the point of intersection between the urban counter-sophisticate Barrus and this stubborn tubby old female village philosopher? I had a student in Heart Butte who looked so much like Jim Morrison that people did double takes. He’d lived with a relative in Denver and gotten into the rock ‘n roll life enough to have handcuff scars on his wrists. I admit that Jim Welch was never Jim Morrison. But I will assert that Welch was (at least in part) a poete maudit Amerindien, captured by the Missoula crowd of white bourgeois academics.

In his earliest books, Welch writes of horror, fantasy, and guilt with as much energy as Edgar Allan Poe. From one angle he is Montana Gothic, a tiny genre also from Missoula. (Peter Koch, who was at the foundation of Montana Gothic before his career with his fine letter press in Berkeley) suggests “Montana Maudit.”) By Welch’s latest books (after Richard Hugo had gone; Hugo being also interpretable as a poete maudit but, as Koch might agree, actually more “Seattle gris,” my phrase.) Welch was captured by the consumerist Native American romance, the Rousseauian nobleman with white bourgeois ethics. (Annick Smith’s sons are filming “Winter in the Blood.” I am waiting to see what two white boys will made of Jim’s dark and frozen early rez books. Russian genes should help.)

I found Peter Koch when I began to trace back to find the origins of “Montana Gothic,” once a poetry triquarterly in Missoula as well as the little paperback of the same name that I’ve packed around for years. The following url will take you to a discussion of the letters of Peter’s great-grandfather, also Peter Koch, who came up the Mississippi and then the Missouri to Fort Benton where he confronted along the bank a row of stakes topped with grinning rotted Indian heads, guarded by the massive, red-bearded Liver-Eatin’ Johnson wearing only a red flannel undershirt too short to cover his genitals. Koch was a highly educated (meaning tough-minded) man who took loss after loss until finally he was established in Bozeman, Montana, among the cowhands, a founder of Montana State University and owner of one of the finest book collections in the nation.

When Barrus and I began to correspond via email, we were mostly matching stories about boys destroyed. His had AIDS and were stalked by pimps and drug traffickers. Mine were Blackfeet trying to survive alcohol and violence. We matched each other, dark story by dark story, and at first that was the idea of the shared book we call “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs.” Also, I had the notion that I could back down the smartass overeducated bi-coastals who were always on Barrus’ case. (Maybe Koch among them.) But then other ideas became bigger. I still have an enormous amount of reading about the poetes maudites to do -- and the films. (I just began watching Pasolini.) Oh, the films! What exactly is the relationship between Gothic and maudit?

If the story of the high prairie is about how sophistication meets raw frontier, then there might be another story something like the raw frontier of war smashing into the sophistication of post-WWII Europe, creating a broken beauty full of hidden horror that continues to play out in terrorism and genocide. Always everywhere there is a constant effort on the part of those who came out more or less on top (here on the prairie and there in Paris) to hide their origins and deny the forces that still pull them into the same patterns in spite of all the efforts of the deconstructionists.

The common theory is that Unitarians (to some degree I remain one) have no theory of Evil. But Presbyterians (which I was raised) certainly do, plus an iron commandment to do good works. As always, the marginal barely survive, but in the process we form knots of new culture, new ideas, resistance to the same old terror. It’s worth doing.