What People are Saying


Walking Through Brambles: a narrative of circumspection

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Excerpt from "Walking Through Brambles: a narrative of circumspection"

I stood on the balcony the following day and watched the winter birds jump between gargoyles on the parapet. Their dark forms looked like black spheres balled up into tiny fists of feathers. Their songs were low and short, but mostly they kept quiet and flew in small, tight patterns from tree to shrub to fence without making the slightest sound. The garden and adjacent meadow provided sparse cover and made no effort to hide them within its own tawny grasses. Instead, the dark birds took shelter near the ground in leafless brush resembling nests of crumpled wire.

The winter birds held the earth’s spirit. They lived and moved where nothing else would. I stood inside the doorway and watched them twitch and peck at seeds and pieces of cracker that I had dropped for them earlier. They stayed for only a moment. Their eyes moved about searching for predators that I could not imagine against the still landscape. Aside from a neighbor’s cat creeping around a light pole or a hedge of blue-blossom, the dark birds gave the earth its only motion. They told of the earth’s former personality; they declared its compassion, warmth, and color.

The birds flew off and gathered in the nearby meadow. When they were still, I could not distinguish them from the shadowy pieces of turf turned up by the neighbor’s broodmare. The wind was calm and quiet. I could hear nothing, not even the clock from inside the doorway, not even a random scraping of branches from the ash and cypress against the building. Nothing in the garden or in the meadow moved. The sheer absence of sound and motion gave the moment an eerie tension. The dark birds and the pale landscape created a loneliness that wasn’t entire-ly unpleasant. It made me want to sleep, to envision myself stuffed within a warm bed piled with downy quilts and pillows. Time never moved more slowly. Fatigue lingered in the coldness as I fell asleep uncovered in an overstuffed lounge chair in the middle of the room.

I don’t remember dreaming. I only remember waking and feeling frustrated with my own loneliness and isolation. I wanted to feel eager again. I wanted to feel renewed and invigorated. I wanted the artist to be alive, to touch my hand and pull herself into my embrace. I wanted to feel her desire instead of my own. I wanted to feel her passion instead of mine. I wanted her wants to be satisfied in me that I might forget my own wishes and rediscover them anew in her.

Non Fiction

Identification and Storytelling:

The Appeal of Franklin Burroughs’ Narrative Essays

In his collection of personal essays entitled, Billy Watson’s Croker Sack, Franklin Burroughs utilizes the genre’s most prevalent rhetorical strategy of identification through story telling. Unlike the formal essay that may appeal to an audience’s specific interests and curiosities, Burroughs’ personal essays often appeal to a general audience’s ambivalence between right and wrong and the environment in which their daily routines are perceived, rationalized and accepted. He envelopes his readers in a milieu of personal secrets, selective histories and keen perceptions of everyday life. Through his candid literary demeanor and his intimate conversational rhetoric, he positions himself as the everyman. Burroughs does not assert or praise his credibility; but instead, he reminds his readers of their universal kinship and the experiences com­mon to everyone. He attempts to communicate a reasoning that will casually blend the entire human race into one heterogenous family. Mainly through stories and anecdotes--the genre’s primary rhetorical devise--Burroughs identifies with a general mass audience through a reverent conversation of life’s minor generalities and a candid disclosure of his own failures and emotional fragility.

According to Holman and Harmon’s A Handbook to Literature, the personal or informal essay is characterized by “the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner)...unconventionality or novelty of theme...and freedom from stiffness and affectation” (Holman 193). In his forward to The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate writes that “the conversational dynamic--the desire for contact--is ingrained in the form, and serves to establish a quick emotional intimacy with the audience” (Lopate 2). These observations are evidenced throughout Burroughs’ collection as he discusses life’s personality from the perspective of the provincial New Englander. His collec­tion consists of five essays all evaluating and reacting to the complexities of life and death in modern but rural America. He describes a local dimension of life that is free of the world’s abrasive competitiveness, and he involves his readers in his world--a separate reality where he can confess his own fears and inadequacies.

Recollections of boyhood and descriptions of the land­scape are inherent in Burroughs’ essays. The innocence of childhood and nature “undefiled” is discussed in a homey, unpretentious rhetoric that appeals to the simple, unrefined, child-like qualities of his audience. He elaborates on the hillside’s weeds and grasses and in a neighborly editorial on the weather, he discusses nature’s routines and his own droll attitudes of home. “Crackers limp as old lettuce,” an expres­sion bordering cliché is placidly expressed by a narrative voice which at times can be equally cliché or banal--simple, unashamed but heroically sincere (Burroughs 5). It is easy for one to imagine the author as a quiet, non-threatening figure draped in loose fitting overalls, standing upon the seat of his tractor, gazing at the valley before him as he describes “our fields,” in the following detail:

The stitchwort, vetch, buttercup, bedstraw and blue-eyed grass...thriving amid the adversities of soil and climate, their inconspicuous beauty seems reflective of rural New England, and it is pleasing to learn that people here once found more than aesthetic solace in them (Burroughs 9).

He further appeals to his and his audience’s commonness in describing his “Southern boyhood” that was filled with “that strange Wordsworthian hunger for landscape” (Burroughs 10). Certainly by the end of the tenth page, readers can identify with Burroughs’ natural, uncomplicated self-portrait.

Throughout most of his book, Burroughs presents himself (as Edmund Waller may have noted 350 years ago) as the self-sequestered man. He is alone and removed from the rest of the world where he can observe man and nature unnoticed. And it is during this seclusion when Burroughs receives these random and quixotic perceptions and insights into everyday life. Lopate again in his forward to The Art of the Personal Essay informs us of the essayist as one who “claims unique access to the small, humble things in life” (Lopate 5). Bur­roughs certainly attempts to portray this affection early in his collection and it is evidenced throughout the entire book. Lopate also notes that “this taste for the miniature becomes a strong suit of the form: the ability to turn anything close at hand...into a grand meditation adventure” (Lopate 9).

Burroughs is very much attuned to the quiet, ambient side of life, and although he doesn’t embellish as much as other narrative writers may, he more closely scrutinizes the minia­ture and discusses what most of us would consider unneces­sary. This is particularly clear as he describes his activities on the opening day of duck hunting season. 

The day faded on into ordinariness; it would regain a little of its special quality only after supper, when I would go out into the barn, pluck the teal and dress them, watched by Mink and Mrs. Pino, our two semi-domestic cats. Then would clean the gun, swabbing out the barrels until they shone like mirrors when I held them to the light and looked through them. Would carefully save a few of the flank feathers and a wing for trout flies; would reward the cats with a visceral morsel; would wrap and label the ducks and put them in the freezer. That would be it, an annual observance completed (Burroughs 103).

By omitting the subject of the final four phrases, Burroughs omits himself to suggest that even he is perhaps too obvious to mention and too ordinary to even care. This is a clear rhetori­cal strategy that reiterates the event’s repetitive calculation. It also appears from this final sentence that even the author, caught up in the rush of tradition and local patriotism, honors an observance of which he is morally uncertain. He therefore confronts, with some reservation, the moral challenges and social obligations that most people will at some time encoun­ter. But his stories, more than anything, present the author as a regular-kind-of-guy. He is simple, honest and kind. The natural intimacy of his narrative is powerfully inviting to the individual who also perceives himself as a regular-kind-of-guy.

Burroughs is fascinated with milieu and the pace at which he moves his thoughts within it. His rambling stream of consciousness is not specifically a rhetorical treatment but is certainly a rhetorical style that allows him to ponder his own perceptions and color them according to his current mood or voice. Each essay within the collection relates significantly to this milieu and to the author’s place within the natural world. This is particularly evident in the following passage from Burroughs’ third essay.

It always seemed to be somewhere in the middle of a summer afternoon. Floors being cooler than rugs or beds. I would lie on the floor in front of an oscillating fan, its breeze passing over me, going away, hesitating at the end of its arc, returning (Burroughs 47). 

Again, Burroughs’ story appeals to our sense of calm-ness--a stagnation in time where he pauses to study the rhythm of an arcing fan to a degree that permits him to reflect on the transience and immediate purpose of his own life. His description of the plain implies that the author is never beyond the common and ordinary, that he is merely a random creation of nature and a victim of its indifference. But his narrative also suggests a balance and proportion for a life that is consumed with business and worldly responsibilities. Consider how his audience might relate or identify with the following passage.

So I would relapse into the Upper Peninsula, making it my refuge for another empty summer afternoon, while the fan hummed and the cicadas outside buzzed their parched, whetstone song, lapping and overlap­ping itself in slow waves, until at last dusk fell, a faint coolness seeped out from the grass, and the toads and crickets took over (Burroughs 48).

Even if his reader never makes it to the mountains in Wyo­ming or the backwoods of Kentucky, he has no trouble envisioning the comfort and peace of the places Burroughs describes. 

Aside from these hum-drum normalities of life, Burroughs admits his failures and accepts his inadequacies as another facet of life and another dimension of nature. His life and reputation is circumspect. He is bound to provincial exclu­sion. His rhetoric is plaintive and describes a man bullied by ambition and made common by circumstance and history. This attitude develops as his past is remembered while fishing one morning in a small New England pond.

I was bookish and introverted as a boy, lived more in theory than among facts, and always waited on a time when my circumstances would at last conform to what was prescribed by authors, and deliver me from an identity which, whether measured against my own standards, or against the modest and sensible expecta­tions of my parents, was ignominious. I read all about fishing:...the throwline, the cork, and a cricket or caterpillar on the hook came to seem too much like what I feared my life would be--something local, undistinguished, and limited, beneath the notice of literature and without shape or certification (Burroughs 54-55).

While we are meant to understand Burroughs’ disillusion­ment with life, we are also intended to relate to his queerish boyhood in order to find a perspective for our queerish natures. Lopate explains it this way. “The trick is to realize that one is not important, except insofar as one’s example can serve to elucidate a more widespread human trait and make readers feel a little less lonely and freakish” (Lopate 6). 

Further insight into Burroughs’ audience can be seen in how the author represents himself and in his subtextual description of the reader with whom he attempts to identify. In the previous citation, Burroughs confesses a fear in becom­ing or remaining “local, undistinguished and limited.” But a more attentive reading suggests that Burroughs, in his effort to identify, may actually alienate or distance himself from his general audience by suggesting that they too are “local, undistinguished and limited.” If we initially accept Burroughs’ appeal to an unsophisticated and general mass audience, we must also accept his reader’s general and unsophisticated identitiy within his respective community. Consider for a moment how the local school principal may perceive himself within his own community and also consider how the local minister, sales clerk or secretary may identify with Burroughs’ “uncertified” classification. Is it unfair for us to assume that his readers have similar perspectives of their own provincial limitations and inadequacies that Burroughs infers?

Perhaps the most accurate analysis of Burroughs’ audience lies in the nature of his confessions itself. Perhaps these personal confessions are intended not exclusively for a general readership but for Burroughs himself. For most personal essayists, writing is therapy--purging, through confession and self-confrontation, the loneliness and despair that they often see in themselves. In this respect, it is reason­able to believe that Burroughs is still reaching within himself for a deeper understanding of the local and undistinguished persona that his essays display. It is equally reasonable to suspect that, Billy Watson’s Croker Sack is a testament of the author’s attempt to identify with himself and not solely with an unsophisticated, unassuming and undistinguished regional audience. Burroughs himself may indeed be the collection’s primary audience.

Burroughs’ rhetoric is free of fancy terms, specialized jargon and gothic analogies and metaphors. Rather his anecdotes and stories become his predominant rhetorical pulse. Within these stories he appeals to his audience’s romantic moods and is able to use their sensitivities to justify their telling. In some instances, his milieu of melancholy and nostalgia is so morose that one reads his confessions with a measure of pity and responsibility for the author’s bad luck and failure to succeed. Perhaps Burroughs is only interested in communicating what Gore Vidal has said about narrative literature. “The true confessors have been aware that not only is life mostly failure, but that in one’s failure or pettiness or wrongness exists the living drama of the self” (Lopate 9).

At times, Burroughs’ dependence upon his readers’ sympathy is excessive. After all, as Donald Harwood puts it, “we all have our little sorrows” and certainly Burroughs, like the rest of us, must deal with his personal traumas alone (Harwood 33). But as Lopate further explains, the personal essayist “is not necessarily out to win the audience’s unquali­fied love but to present the complex portrait of a human being” (Lopate 8). And so Burroughs’ stories reflect the complexity of the human character, and the rhetorical treat­ment he uses to identify with his audience, mainly gentle first-person story telling, reflects the complexities of the poetical character--something that even the most common among us hopes to possess.

Burroughs’ text is rich with simple and plain observations made extraordinary only by the care of their telling. The author elevates his subject through his personal rhetoric and his intuitive vision of the common man. And the common man who becomes acquainted with Billy Watson’s Croker Sack doesn’t necessarily escape in a rhetoric of elevated propor­tions but is shown how his ordinariness is made grand in the perspective that Burroughs gives it. Irish essayist Hubert Butler explains it this way: “I am more inclined to apologize for writing about great events, which touched me not at all, than for tracing again the tiny snail track which I made myself” (Lopate 10). Great or insignificant events in them­selves cannot dictate the types of rhetorical treatments that a writer may employ in achieving his or her purposes. But in the genre of the personal narrative, the primary rhetorical emphasis is placed on the writer’s ability to identify with his audience. And according to Burroughs’ style and subject matter, one cannot overlook his perspective of the little, ubiquitous happenings that many of us no longer notice. For this reason, Burroughs identifies easily with his readers, and his story-telling style assures him of a certain reader loyalty and trust that other writers may not enjoy.


A Meditation

The bay breezes through my room,
and a pen rolls across the bureau
so, so slowly
while a note glides lightly, gently
to the foot of my bed.
Green springs trickle through the bamboo
knocking against the porch
as though it were wrapped
in a pillow.

The bright night illuminates;
and just beyond the tide’s reaching touch
the dunes bow softly into the hillside.
jasmine and willow sway above the pond
where a turtle—
high priest of this garden,
rests like me on a ripple
of introspection:
a meditation, a prayer
a thought not born into speech.

A toad bellows low in the reed beds,
fireflies linger in the air;
and a dandelion ascends
as some do in September
rising into the dark light.
The fat yellow moon pulls his eyelids down,
the warm silver ghost cups me in her hands,
bliss dripping like dew from her fingers
and I succumb to her relentless serenity—
the unsparing comfort of sedation.

Like footsteps on the bare floor,
the clock taps out a beat—
the pulse of nature,
of some divinity
nesting somewhere near;
a mass for the living
blessed in its subjectivity,
mercy and compassion.

And almost like a memory
from a terrace down the hill,
a spanish guitar floats its voices here
unplugged from the dissonance of age
coming humbly, joyfully home—
all of life's perfections
distilled to its finest hour
is now.

The wind loosens the drapes
unfolding like wings in the doorway
as the restful turtle hums
and a leaf drifts by
so, so slowly...


I wake up
in the dark house
and without a bump
I find the chair by the window.
Warm rain on the glass
distant train whistle
seedcorn due--
fields of it.
Nature not asleep;
a tiny spider dashes from beneath the sink
as if he were pulled by a string
in the natural light from which I see no source
and I look away to the farm.
My oak chair creaks
and my feet on the bare tile
can feel the cool crumbs of dust
so undisturbed
this quiet night.
Unlit but warm
cooler floor than bone
old oak chair but earnest
sleeping neighbors unaware of evening?s other shadow.
And the warmer air of harvest
begins to taste
or sound like willow or silk
on summer's rainy window.
Ambience like old pajamas
just light enough for sleeping;
a breeze lifts the window veils
and I look away to the farm.


I remember the way I came
walkingstick in hand
booted loosely, lazely
dewdamp grass touching my knees
tasseltops shining
smelling like jam.
The whole valley was green
preening birds preparing
quick and subtle movements
like wind through a pipe
unseen whistle singing
from baby thrush and wren.
Cold river rocks
vanishing steam from slower currents
cloudy like tea or musk
dicentra at my fingers
sun behind and moist air
like blackberry on my mouth.
all of dawn remembering
the way I came;
I smell the path fresh every morning
always remembering the way.


The Quantum Cycle of Life

I am a bubble
I am in a bubble--
a particle
a consciousness (aquiring qualia)
rising to the top
of the sea of humanity;
A lifetime of ages pass
atmosphere at last
and I am released into the light
I am a wave
I am in the wave--
a consciousness (qualia aquired)
a soul.
I am everywhere
at peace with the gods and angels.

After the Rain

After the rain
and under the yellow clouds
I rose to the words
of birdsong
whistling between the leaves of the
summer storm
with daisies
and aging blossoms of apples
and buttercups
I came to my home against
the Hills
where sun lit waterfalls filled
the streams below;
I heard still
as a little boy in his father's hat
and I climbed again
the Hills
and strode the neighbor's ground
with a lonely pride that only
children know.
The summer sounds were brimming
with Color:
the purpling blooms were
waving to the sea,
and cartooned pastels
robed the grasses
bending in the tide of twilight,
and I rose once more to
the whispering words
of Birdsong:
a watery font
with the summer scent
of Home.


Waiting for the late sounds
to blow the leaves and
porch bells slow
I listen to the play of
a far away hound
and my feet crunching stones
as I move;
Yet then will I sit
and feel the evening speak
what the angels sing to God.

The Warm Brook

Often the drip
falls with the canon--
Largo for the evening
plays the melody away
to the new-made night;
and the sticks that bow
from the hard trunk
make me dance and drift
on the warm brook,
hoping you'll find me
as your voice
and your wish
wakes the music in
my soul
to never sink alone,
and I can dance
to the canon's pace
like falling sticks on
a sterile stream.

Low Tide

The early morning waves
lit by the moon a blue-grey hue
glows the gentle sea
as it rolls upon the sand
I stand on.
The air that sounds small
upon the waving grass
moves through my clothes,
and on my face it stills
till my breath returns again
to the sea
the blowing scent of wasted youth
to dive at the foam in the waves
that pound the quiet eve's crabs
as they soak in the wash and loam,
and I breathe in the night moon
that lights me with its white;
too soft to touch
and too brief to kiss
it sends the wind through my hair
like the fingers of a patient girl
and whisps to me the scent of salt and musk
to savor the sand I still on
as the waterwind
and the sweet shoregrass
walks my wish to the deep again.

Summer Bragging

Popping beached jellyfish
was the favorite summertime game
longer sticks served best
and quicker strides before and the sting
were useful in bragging,
too eager to work or worry
we rode the waves
till our bellies scraped the sand,
and we raced the crabs
back into the sea,
saltwater always filled my mouth
and I'd quit playing
for a while
until another jellyfish
beached himself beside me.

October Dews

Its texture is compelling
like gathered frost along
the brush bottoms at dawn,
it makes me cool
and I breathe like a dragon
coal-sweat spray,
I wake with its alarm so early
and touch the tent top
that its beads may run
down my finger
wanting me to drink,
everything looks new and growing
in the haze and mist
as I walk upon green needles
and mossy smells
and compel with its feeling
my hands and mouth to touch.

First Light

And then the pond will warm
and morning's dust will float
beneath the still cold mist
and the smells like summer's dawn
will raise its breath to the
trees that shade you from
the sky
to sleep or run
until you wake or rest
and summer's first light
is gone to older kin;
and then the pool will boil
and nature's love for nature
will feed herself on her
as the grasses dry in
summer's dusk;
and the now noon steam
will make clouds high
to fly with the birds and dust
for a new place to wake
and another you
to shade.


Strong music plays little for me
in my snoring chair
thick will pillow
heavy with boring stuff:
sentimental fool
writing of treason that stains the soul
and warns the wet heart
I stick with my pen;
watery songs encourage the discontent
to cheer at the sky
like a freshly spoiled bride,
"Long live the king!
Kill the umpire!
Hail Mary full of it!"
Offend to be offended
slap the child's hand
and wash his dirty tongue;
and I'll burn the bones in the bedroom
while the nigger next door
trims his desperate snuff
and my memory sings from the alley,
"Don't spill the blood of Gethsemane,
the carpet's still too white."


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