Memoir,  Traveling

On Muses

IMG_0167Be patient with your muse, I was recently told. Maybe my mentor sensed my feeling of being time crunched and frustrated. Since working on my second creative portfolio I have bumped into too many false starts. And since I am the author of two forthcoming novels, Year of the Wood Horse and The Chimerican, due out 2016 and 2017 respectively, she may have detected my sense of urgency. While I do know patience is a virtue, I feel that I am running out of patience as I have been patient all my life it seems. So I work hard, studying the body of Alice Munro, hoping the nuts and bolts of her prose somehow rubs off on me. Maybe if I read and write about her, something will eventually happen. Still, I have little patience for muses these days.

It was around this time seventeen years ago when I was off the coast somewhere between Lima, Peru and the Chilean Straits. I was in the Marines then, and according to some, I still am. But here I am seventeen years later, approaching the middle ages this Year of the Wood Horse. I had been an infantry rifleman three years when I had finally come of age to drink alcohol legally, and I had thought that someday I would become a writer because I had muse. This is what I wrote about her then:

A paladin whose religion is the idolatry of an earthly goddess has unwittingly composed a Tower of Babel in the rambling language of a love riven fool. If God in his infinite grace should topple this many tiered temple of love, then let it be my tomb; and I will die content from having as my last memory Julia’s beautiful face (Sep. 14, 1997).

It was a serious crush, like a sickness that compelled me to write ornate, hormone-charged, masturbatory prose. I have no idea what The Tower of Babel is, but it’s probably an allusion to the journal I had been keeping at the time, as well as hundreds of letters I must have sent her. This was back in the day before I got a cell phone or learned how to use email. Apparently God toppled that tower.

If that woman called Julia was Aphrodite, then another muse of mine at that time was Athena. Her name was Catherine, an English major who encouraged me to move forward with my literary ambitions. Even while deployed to South America and later Africa, Catherine answered my letters. When we were at sea, we were men without women, and my platoon thought I was the luckiest man in the world. For me mail call was the happiest time of day. A sailor would come to squad bay, heaving a white canvas sack of envelopes and packages. Most of us got bills, bank statements, and mail order catalogs. Some would get a CARE package from their family or wife. I got letters from a muse.

Sometimes Catherine would send her old marked up books from class. This was when I began reading as gospel The Great Gatsby and Frankenstein. Before that only JRR Tolkien and Frank Herbert were accepted into my pantheon. She would send me her old crumbling paperbacks, and I would peruse their marked up pages of which certain passages or words had been circled in blue ink. Such cryptic annotations sculpted within me a sense of mystery and wonder and curiosity.

And it was around this time that I happened upon a strange book in the ship’s library. We were on the USS Whidbey Island, an amphibious war ship, part of a US flotilla cruising the west coast of South America, across the southern Atlantic to South Africa and Namibia. Because most of our cruise was beneath the Southern Cross and we departed two days before Independence Day, it would become the longest summer of our lives. We had our Northern Hemisphere summer and the southern one too.

In late August of that year we made it to Salinas, Ecuador, and I wrote this:

I am now below the equator. These past few days I have seen many whales and their escorts, the dolphins. The whales make their presence known by their waterspouts, but the dolphins are friendlier. The dolphins seems to thrive on the attention and joy [we] mariners shower upon them while the whales remain aloof (Aug. 21, 1997).

But I digress. It would be just a few days later after seeing the whales and dolphins that I would come across a strange and mostly unknown novel by Mary Shelley. Lately, I have heard people say they have John Donne on their mind, though they know not why. I think I know why he is on everybody’s mind, but for me, Mary Shelley is on mine. While everybody who is anybody has read and reread her Frankenstein, almost nobody has heard of, much less read, The Last Man. What it was doing there in the library of the USS Whidbey Island was a mystery to me at the time.

Today reviewers scold it as being “One of the most boring novels I ever read” or, “The book just went on too long to really enjoy.” I find these reviews out of whack with my own experience in that Year of the Fire Ox. For me it was revelation, something that I had finished reading on Oct. 5, 1997. In those days I always kept a paperback in my right trouser camouflage cargo pocket, along with note taking material, map, radio codes. And so whenever we had hurry-up-wait time, which seemed all the time to me, I would pull out whatever book I had on hand. While we were in Tierra del Fuego, it just so happened to be The Last Man, the first lines of Chapter 1, must have enthralled me when I was merely an E-4, a corporal in the Marine rifle company:

I AM the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole; and yet, when balanced in the scale of mental power, far outweighed countries of larger extent and more numerous population.

While Mary Shelly is referring to the England of her time, I certainly must have related to her protagonist when I served on the Whidbey Island in our time. There was Lionel Verney, whose Wikipedia entry describes him as: “The orphan son of an impoverished nobleman,” tending towards behavior that is “lawless, self-willed, and resentful of the nobility.” Interestingly, Shelley claims to be merely translating the crumbled leaves found in the cave of the Sibyl near Naples, Italy. But that is probably part of her fiction. As for me, I was the last man, I was him and maybe she was me, as Mary Shelley famously identified with her subject, Lionel Verney, writing in a journal of her own: “The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct from me…” (MSWJ, p. 467-7).

So it was in my journal that I wrote vaguely about Tierra del Fuego and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, as opposed to what must have been my daily routine of platoon politics, weapon maintenance, and the sheer boredom of being on naval vessel:

Our ship has passed through the fjords that make up the Straits of Magellan. I feel like a Viking explorer in the mist shrouded waterways of Southern Chile. The Andes, earthen white crowned palatial manors of the Mountain gods, emerge from the pine carpeted banks. These pines, gargantuan green pikes that rise like wooden skyscrapers, pay homage to the overcast sky.

Here the journal entry is interrupted by a Chilean “Ecotourismo” stamp, featuring six helmeted and life-vested men whitewater rafting downriver from some Mount Fuji-looking peak, rushing forward to the Pacific Ocean.

Now that I think about it, having a muse or two does seem to facilitate the writing process. But back then I was patient. We spent weeks at sea, having nothing to do but recite USMC lore, rehearse urban tactics, and polish our rifles, grenade launchers, M249 SAWs, and when that was all done we had our uniforms, squad bays, mess halls, heads (i.e. latrines) to sparkle and shine. And yet, here I am Smethport, Pennsylvania, just another island in the stream, seventeen years later remembering it all fondly, as I continue reading this entry with a strange mix of shame and pride for lines composed in early spring a few miles below the end of the New World:

I am in Tierra del Fuego—the Land of Fire! Hundreds of years ago when Spanish sailors monopolized the sea lanes [between East and West], bridged at that time by the Straits of Magellan, great bon fires by the shore panicked the superstitious Mariners. Such pyrotechnics startled they who work the gunwales and sails and even the helm, but those mysterious Indians who lit them were never really seen, much less caught.

At this I balked. I wrote that in 1997? How I wrote this back then—within a wanna-be writer’s journal—could be anybody’s guess. Now I think I should reveal just a bit more about myself. Somehow I had been meritoriously promoted. This would enable me to become an E-5, sergeant, less than one year later, just months before my end of active service, and at a time when upward mobility, especially in the infantry, was bureaucratically impossible. I was not a good leader. After all, I preferred reading fiction to combat training, characters to people, and high school had been a problem.

Before enlisting, I was an overweight teenager incapable of passing the USMC’s initial strength test. There were two teachers I had to beg in order to get passed, just so I can sign my contract and graduate. Since I was a football player in an Alabama high school, their consent was not so costly. Otherwise, I would have had to do a GED or re-do my senior year. By the metrics of state supplied education, I have a low IQ and probably meet numerous criteria listed within the DSM-V. But I digress.

It must be noted that the ship’s library, in addition to many great paperback thrillers and some mainstream literature, and despite the sparseness of its shelves, there were contained several hardbound volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. While many volumes were missing, there were enough to pike my interest. Obviously, we must have had a volume containing entries beginning with the letter T, which I must have perused in order to write my October 5th entry. In fact, I remember browsing those volumes in the same way I do the Internet today. So it was here off the coast of the Land of Fire that I finished reading a very strange and interesting science fiction novel published in 1826:

I have finished reading Mary Shelly’s The Last Man. She is a phenomenal writer and [yet I know that] if it weren’t for my friendship with Catherine, I probably would not have read it. Now she just sent her copy of Frankenstein and I am now completely absorbed in its story.

Mary Shelley is an awesome writer. I wish she could have written a story like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. I read her works not only for pure pleasure but I also have a secondary motive. By reading her works, I hope to become a better writer. And if by studying her works I am influenced by the language of her soul then my own writing will be enhanced in a way I could never in a thousand summers have [attained on my own].

I recognize her stories as pure reflections of her soul. By reading her work, I feel as if I had gotten to know her. Her characters are literary reflections of herself, friends, and family. In The Last Man, I think Mary Shelley is in fact commemorating her lost friends and family, especially her husband, Percy B. Shelley and her friend Lord Byron. The end of The Last Man leaves me with such a sense of utter desolation that I believe it in fact mimics the way Mary Shelley must have felt in her loneliness.

And Catherine reminds me of Mary Shelley. Indeed, Catherine says that if she could choose her mentor in life it would be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley any day, just as I would choose Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Indiana Jones, or Merlin.

When I read Mary Shelley, I see myself in her characters. Whether she is truly such an awesome writer that she can make a reader relate and sympathize with her characters, or I have found a true kindred spirit in the Elysian realm of literature, I don’t know, I don’t know.

Apparently, The Last Man, spoke to me. Unfortunately I only remember its title and that it had made an impression on me. We went onwards to Argentina and Brazil. My platoon would go on a special little mission up the Rio Uruguay, its flat grassy banks uncannily similar to my own vision of the Kansas portrayed in The Wizard of Oz , and in which I was prompted to write on October 25 to my other muse:

I am sailing the Stygian Rio Uruguay within a Purgatorial vessel of Lost Souls. Everywhere I look I see the abyssal dark regions of the Underworld. There is no relief and I am so frustrated, like a woodpecker in a petrified forest, my dreams are my only respite, freedom from the slave barge of Charon. The Elysian fields of my past life bring forth a face:

Of Golden Hair
And skin bronze
Beyond compare.

Just a mere thought of Aphrodite has brought solace to my heart: visions of heavens, a ray of hope, a morsel of manna to feel my soul:

My soul is enraptured by this
What man—nay, what God can
Her lips? Which if I’m lucky, a

Despite the horny bleak prose that journey upriver unleashed from within, there were some highlight, the kinds of which that do not rest upon the objectification of idealized women, or the nullification of myself. Having detached from the mother ship, our platoon sped northward upon an old WWII era minesweeper, the USS Chickadee, since sold off to the Uruguay Navy. And the river had something enough in it to spirit me away from unrequited love:

We are sailing up the Rio Uruguay (or should I say the Rio Purgatorio?). The river is muddy from spring flooding. Remnants of forest islands float downriver. Islands lay submerged in the river’s middle. The island’s forest canopy sticks out above the waterline. Nonexistent are the banks. Once bulwarks of heaven and earth, it is as if the river and the forest have merged them, the banks having never even entering the ecological equation. And clumps of leaves and branches drift downriver, island havens, floating forests, perches for white birds, gulls, maybe albatrosses beneath violet striated clouds slashing the twilit heavens. All of which seems to be reflected upon a silver mirror, the horizon to the north.

Nothing much seems to have happened on that trip upriver. We took leave in Montevideo and partied in Rio de Janiero. But it was somewhere on that river that Corporal Castillo told me, “My mom says I’m a poet—you don’t belong in the Marines. When I met you I said to myself, ‘Si mama, y aqui es ostra alma perdida.’”

I asked Castillo how he had concluded this, and he told me that he could see it in my eyes. Now I would tell that old campaigner that eyes alone do not a poet make. Pretty prose, I would add after peeking through my old journals these seventeen years later, doesn’t do it either. Story does not emerge from the ashes of dead. But I did not know that then when I quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s reference to NYC to describe the “majesty of Rio de Janiero at night” holds all the “wild promise of all the mystery and beauty of the world.”

We eventually made it across the Atlantic to Cape Town and then Walvis Bay, Namibia and the Skeleton Coast, so named for the whale carcasses that once littered its shores. There some buddies and me a guide named Johan who took us in in his 1964 Land Rover, past giant dunes, deep in country where the mountains shimmer like ghost cairns beyond the horizon. Our guide’s speech was peppered here and there with “Hell and Damnation.” He could have been telling us about his favorite bar in Swakopmund, and he’d say, “Hell and Damnation, that’s not how to properly pour a beer!”

Johan took us to a pile of rocks in the middle of the Namibian desert. While the next day promised my friends a peak experience in rock climbing, it was this evening that I remember most. Inside a cave, we sat on our cots, bullshitting about everything. A blackened pot of beef stew bubbled and hissed upon a smoldering red fire pit. We drank ice cold German beer. And earlier, before sundown, Johan showed us something he called “the Bat Cave” where ancient Bushmen had painted depictions of rhinos, elephants and themselves throwing spears. Then he became giddy, showing us something strange. Johan took us deeper into the cave. He said that the modern Bushmen who live in these parts have forgotten how to paint these things. And after these two thousand years, we may be the last people to ever see them. There was another image too, something he described as “very eerie.” There was on the rock wall a humanoid figure, arms outstretched towards the image of a sun, or some kind of orb. Johan called it the “flying lizard woman.”

Later, as our stew simmered, we talked. Somebody told me, “Okay, Muller, we’ll just make new constellations, how about that?” And I got the impression that Johan was the family outcast, as he bitterly described his brother, “Some hot shit writer, a bum fly fisherman who does nothing but drink wine all day.” And before that, he had been a mercenary in Cameroon and the Congo. After all that I went outside, which was apparently majestic enough to warrant space in my journal:

After the feast I walk outside. I see every shade of darkness that’s possible to be seen. Black silhouettes mark where trees and mountains once stood beneath the sun. Our cave is aglow with a festive atmosphere. Earth’s mistress, dressed in an ivory sun gown, floats in a sea of stars. So far from civilization, so clear the night, all the mysteries and beauties of the galaxy like an onyx chest before my grateful eyes, opens, and I witness the radiant majesty of Heaven’s treasure hoard, the Southern Cross, the goddesses and heroes of my own story (Nov., 19, 1997).

The next day we climbed some mountain. From its peak we saw how the desert was not what it had seemed, barren and lifeless. Stunted foliage snaked and forked throughout the basin, revealing the patterns of subterranean waterways. Then we raced back to the USS Whidbey Island where is was docked in Walvis Bay.

Upon my rack was piled a stack of mail. But there was something awfully wrong with these letters. They all had my hand writing on them, and were red stamped: Return to Sender.

So much for Julia, somebody I had once described as “The Tenth Muse.” Later, I would learn that her boyfriend during this particular time had cheated on her six times, once for each month I had written her. As for Catherine, we became good friends, eventually losing touch, seemingly to have disappeared into the starry night, the name of a phantom lingering on in outdated Google pages. But Catherine was the first muse who got me started writing seriously, the one I told to find my book somewhere between Morrison and Munro someday. But that was the braggadocio of a twenty one year old rifleman.

Nobody will ever read the words of the Last Man. And maybe it is time to rediscover patience for muses, wherever they may be. But it is the last lines of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man that comfort now like balm for that pretentious boast I had made so long ago:

Neither hope nor joy are my pilots—restless despair and fierce desire of change lead me on. I long to grapple with danger, to be excited by fear, to have some task, however slight or voluntary, for each day’s fulfillment. I shall witness all the variety of appearance, that the elements can assume—I shall read fair augury in the rainbow— menace in the cloud—some lesson or record dear to my heart in everything. Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney—the LAST MAN.

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