Backward Reading


With a blog you read backward, through the archives, so there’s a backward narrative.
I try to be truthful but the farther back I read the more the writing seems fictive, self serving, the more my ignorance of time described embarrasses me; There isn’t much more wisdom in hindsight than in hope I think sometimes. I read back to see what reoccurs, reassuringly or accusingly. I read back as through fever charts for clues in the patterns. I’m holidaying, privileged and absurd, self diagnostic with my blackberry pad synchronized to my phone as a night train north snakes me out of my own province.

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There’s still snow in the now and then gullies below my window where lavish spring streams and rivers cut visual breaks in the grand monotony of spruce forest. Ice thins on the lakes, mere skin over the water of the small ones, or piled, shoved, cataclysmic on the shores of large lakes which show in moonlight no distant shore for the eye’s rest. I glance back through old posts to the beginning.
When I started writing here I was that bleary eyed widower, bored and boring, surprised that my social life was untenable without my spouse. Most of my friends were glad he was gone. He’d been critical of them. His criticism, intelligent and watchful like an old servant’s, had made them interesting to me. I had loved them, as he had done, but they could not see love in his satire, his rages, those anything but servile rages one has about the absurdities of one’s own generation. My friends heaved great sighs of relief and closed around me in my loss, helpful, nurturing. They saw more love in my rueful quiet than they had in his pointed observations. I had been a mediator, never a complete ally on either side. I had my own narrative and my own pair of eyes.
He was a novelist. He saved his compassion for his friends for his written portrayals of them, which, oddly met with their puzzlement and disdain. I could no longer abide the fare without his wink across the dinner table. I wrote or postured here in an obscure blog then about what seemed crucial to me alone and didn’t bear talking about in daily discourse and I wrote about only some of that.
Paintings are just so many skins of paint on cloth and maybe the words give them a little weight, though they shouldn’t need text. Light should suffice. I thought.

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Maybe I write here to circumvent stories others might care to write or tell.
I was just a painter who wrote on the side, to process my personal life. I found my most valid experience was in the intimate physical affair. This felt human, this admission. I didn’t lack identity, or the justification for existence a cultivated talent sometimes accrues. People admired my work. It was collected a bit. I could just about keep up with demand, move things out the door at an affordable price. a gallery would double the price and cost me more in the long run in paying for wine and advertising. I had a yuppy clientele. I was embarrassed by my own poverty. Still I am.
I moved to live in my rural hometown where I at least knew the various narratives made rich among the known, in time and gossip and confession, in deep talk and obfuscation. I took on the local dialect again in no time. I would be alone.
But I I saw a face in a crowd, that old refrain, across a room. love is harder work and greater pleasure than is painting for me. Painting grows out of it, instructed in contemplation by my lover’s elegant haunches, by this face or that. Painting gets its bullheadedness, its slavishness, by its eyesight renewed or for some painters, by the familiar domestic thigh.
Its hope (visionary, or mechanical, genetic imperative) is fuelled by a dare one think something. secured against passion’s fading. foolishness.

Patterns repeat. He had a keen eye for the absurdities and the beauty of the place. I found it easier to love the town shared. He was loving in his narratives, his stories, but snide sometimes, mocking. Then I again felt I was not an ally. I was an uncertain observer.
I was lucky though currently lonely, The studio had a sort of feral loneliness in it. it was a bore, grimy with strain like an old mattress. My love was on holiday. Internet radio dramas and news, anything might distract my mind from the analysis and calculation in my head while I was painting. I completed commissions. My loneliness was all time and distance, constant jailers. I did not doubt his affection. we knew commitment and sacrifice, footloose greed. pride, embarrassment. poverty and access. I had the wolf too, loping the underground in the city, lithe in black leather in low pin lit back rooms. We are not unfaithful. we contract no a physical fidelity. We recognize perhaps a better one.
We stayed in touch, in excess, tapping into hand-helds at crosswalks, tapping under familiar and foreign bedding, worrying and blessing one another at wireless cafes with chain menus. You would have the oatmeal cookie. I’d break an apple fritter apart and think briefly of a better one years ago in San Francisco. You would have the butter tart. You like a bit of scruff. Meanwhile the other one could do without the muttonchops.

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if I wasn’t on this train i’d be having one of those custard tarts at the Jamaican’s in the city though, far from my home town. I’d have a phone in my pocket like evolution gone wrong though I suppose it just does as it does with no explanation or apology.
I can’t spend all my time chained up in that dog patch of a hometown. I imagine even old Atticus Finch had him something. A high yaller girl a couple hours drive and a conference on race relations north. They’d hole up in a little bar with a stand up bass waiting. i have a little multicultural neighbourhood in a nearby city. i shunt in on the train at all hours with some cash in my wallet and my keys to a long underground hallway, silent and cool little windows low at the ceiling. ,Each room is simply appointed off that pale tile hall with its interval pot lights set just to the edge of total darkness. I find cool and private like in a  fish aquarium, machinery gently pumping. Sleigh bed. couple of armchairs. bachelor cookery. Lights frame the mirror in the bath for scrutiny of presentation before one hits the streets above which I anticipate with pleasure.
In the closet a little grey tweed suit and a set of leathers, basic black and white underwear and sox in a drawer. Gadgetry whirring music and images and text in the bedroom like where the light is like an under lit home movie gloom, redolent with nostalgia and yearning for a clearer outline. I have a minimal paint kit and a stack of primed stretched canvasses. It is a chilly cave in the big smoke, courtesy of a friend and patron.
We’re a happily badmouthed pair, cynical in a neighbourhood that’s self consciously wholesome with internet and pastry cafes. i hear her move around upstairs in the morning and evening and that gives the day a normal rhythm or i would disappear into the low artificial light of the underground, no sense of the moon or sun traversing overhead, no rural dawn chorus or dusk of finches or lawnmowers, no dusk of crackheads on my small town street at home yelling into backstreet weak signal phones, no night of lumber trucks keening in cartoons of themselves in my dreams at night because of the highway on the other side of the river.
One of the nicest days I ever had was there with the lad, in the underground apartment. You think you won’t love again but you do. You feel like you’ve profaned a past monogamy by reaching for the buckles to undo them but you do not. You sanctify something greater than the past. It hurts the worst of one sometimes. You wish it’d just die. The lad’s young and I don’t want him to be alone as I was alone. None of that.

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Iroll in at all hours from walking. I only drink with one friend anymore and i don’t pine for company so I walk long and a lot. I’ll dandy up a bit in the morning and not set key to lock again until midnight. Sometimes Í’ll visit a friend i call the wolf in my head and here in this blog. but usually I walk around alone . I’ll dress carefully for the day and the  Jamaican place up the street where I’ll have my first coffee and medicate a little.
Oh the vanity of men.
Place ran out of coffee in the fancy new machinethe last time I was in. The owner made me my first daily cup in a sauce pan by hand while he ground more in his big machine for the urns. It had been an unexpectedly busy morning in that little yellow room that always feels ripe for the Dutchman’s irises. There’s an upright piano, stand up bass and an accordion poised for play on stage in the back. The new high tables and stools are still spaced for privacy. There’s a back door out to a garden through quavery old panes of french door glass. It feels private wherever you sit but there’s a lot of sizing and presentation, polite and appreciative. mostly men. Musicians, but there’s one good specimen of everything in the neighbourhood on a good morning. The place is my little oasis of kewl with fraying rattan seats out on the patio under the Christmas lights against a blind of bamboo stalks between me and the street and the elegant, irritating coming and going of streetcars. At the foot of the bamboo hardy dwarf tulips bloomed just a few days ago like punk lipsticks in the spring and look there’s the little runt irises I wanted to see, just the complement for that yellow on the walls inside.

Up the street a bit and around a corner there’s a little art gallery I like.
Back home I’m told I don’t pursue notice and should seek marketing advice. But I have no backlog of pictures mouldering in stock. things seem to go out the door. my persistence is my artist’s political or spiritual statement, never enough for the curators. I need the sanction of a big time vendor. I need a brand more than these love bites on my throat and side. I need to paint more nudes. I need to paint fewer nudes and more nostalgic streetscapes. I need to get my Indian card and get on the grant chuck-wagon. I need to make posters for worthy causes and edges. I need to charge more and paint less or paint more and charge less.

I dunno. I get all hot under the collar and just go about it my same old way, making decorative wall pictures as love and the occasional commission move me and I write about the life those pictures come from, to dispel romancing or at least to supply my own and to complicate pigeonholing if it comes on its tireless clucking round.

The train rolls forward across north Ontario. When I got on the midnight train I settled against a scratch on my back. I tasted the wolf on my moustache. I longed for the lad. I pictured him, I pictured them, sitting across from me one after another, as I travelled backward. The conductor roared at all the smokers for us to raise our hands and she tagged our luggage racks with blue ribbon. She said she was gonna wake us up before dawn for a brief stop and we then we could step out for a smoke. We weren’t to punch at her when she shook us awake at night and we were not to go out of her eyesight by day while we were off the train. I await the next stop. a surreal little gaggle of the addicted standing by the tracks in some side track or ghost town platform.

Sometimes the wireless kicks in in those places, in my pocket on my tablet it vibrates a message alert. Sometimes the dogs are let out of the baggage car on taut leashes. There’s a tall french girl about twenty, never smokes but disembarks. just to run to the edge of the forest clearing we’re stopped in and she’ll peer into the dark under canopy all still herself like precipitately revelated. or shell find the last of the snow in a pile or a hard expanse and reach down to take a handful. This is a mythological landscape after a life in Paris. She dresses in pyjamas at night, white flowered flannels. She is tallest of us and the most childlike in her wonder. Like the lad. She doesn’t seem to feel the cold. The rest of us watch her against the landscape in her flowered print, a couple of rasta boys, men bound for oil sands work, a Lebanese man I’ve befriended. As a joke he told me I slept through the last smoke stop, joked that he’d tried to wake me and failed to do so, he said I was swearing loud and something awful. We are both travelling to lovers. He is svelte with technology strung like I like.

There’s an Indian woman and her baby. I keep her in smokes and she poses for a portrait shot. She is very beautiful and stone cold seroius, as am I, about the pictures with that old worry of soul stealing. We never smile in our contract or even exchange banter. No names. No narratives. There’ll be shy discrete smokers I won’t notice to describe, plain folk, scenery in the narrative. those who roll a little dope in the end of a smoke and become friendly and animated, become storytellers or bemusedly, intimate in pose, who cock their ears in the exchange of brief tales told to indicate strength and character. They become central in the train side scenario briefly. They may become friends inside the train itself. that snaking journeyer, silver metal in moonlight against a fir forest. It can feel like a second world war movie when you stand in the snow by the train and the tracks. You look for straining German shepherd dogs on interrogative leads. You imagine you sense something sinister. You’ve seen a lot of movies and you picture box cars.

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The French girl in her bedroom slippers stands on her toes moonlit, out a ways from us. She is central too. We are all aware of her out there, just in view of the smoking conductor, elated a little away from us. You’d think we’d mock her for her strangeness, that there’d be a eye roll or a joke at her expense, but there never is, we never do.
I am scruffy in the glass. The shaver blade is a danger in the rocking cold water cubicle of this class.
The train rolls forward and I read backward.

second station

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Sore Paw

Sore Paw

Sore Paw

The spring came early that year. In open places the snow  melted before the equinox. Spring came slow too. There were no flood warnings on the local radio. The frost heaved the sidewalks and tarmac and they subsided, were dusty and dry before the ditches ran off the meltwater and debris.

After a few warm days of painting with his workroom window open a crack, he found that the winter’s claustration, his sense of recent isolation, seemed moot, forgettable as winter’s banal Freudian dreams and he admitted that the narrative about his isolaton seemed contrived; he had romanticised. His loneliness of snow was not acute.

His past monthly datebook recorded more traffic through than he had recognized in the overriding echo chamber, the vault, of his partner’s day to day absence. There had been music on talkative nights, droppers by coming up the stairs from the chocolate air of the cafe. There had been secrets, intimacy, laughter and fretting in warm lamplight under ground diamond stars. It occurred to him that he had not been so much lonely as he’d been forgetful, even ungrateful.  He said so to a friend at a dinner party.

He’d been absurdly desiring he thought to himself later, sad, alone in bed. He’d stayed in touch, electronically mostly with farflung contacts. A young student friend from long ago was in touch, had cut his hand badly. There was a photo of that boy with a hand bandaged, pawlike, sleeping after taking stitches. There was that artist’s fear of hurting the drawing hand bringing them together after distancing years and professional unpleasantness, laziness in affection and clumsiness in frustrated affection. That boy had the best drawing hand he’d ever known, drew like a dream.

His partner who he jokingly called the young lad, as men called their sons in these parts, went to California. Painting, life, continued as if there had not been a companion. he lived and slept in his coveralls. He became less sociably amusing and more hirsute, he saw less of family and more of his painting quarters.  This occasioned the usual bloodline recriminations which disgusted him this year as they had never done before entirely. He was selfish. The boys who fixed computers downstairs in back of the cafe were bulldogs for his privacy, even with family when he requested protection. He had experienced limited success and his presence upstairs, his advertized hermitage up the back stairs lent something to the place. It was cold but cheap.

He wrote no personal, public account of himself for here. He could scarcely do so for the people he loved and saw daily in meat time.

This had been the story he’d told himself: He had lived and worked alone all winter. In fact there had been Facebook and the cafe. He would celebrate his spring with a friend in the city on the night before he caught a train . He would recall as a slight cabin fever, as a brief aberration, his antsy solitude,  and watch his muttonchops caressed in a tavern mirror… the stories he told himself got him into trouble. He was his own worst enemy. He always missed something he couldn’t imagine. His stories tended to feed the wrong part of himself but he was a compulsive narrator. His lovers had  been not cowboys always but fiction writers. His stories were wrong and self aggrandizing but some stories require not only telling, they ask to be made true. They inspire good and evil or merely action. They brand. He wanted to live without them though, to unidentify.

It is easier to represent a model from life, or a chair, or a flower, anything, if you don’ t identify it in your head.

He told himself while waiting for a night train “I had commissions to do. I had a small, boat roofed room above an Internet cafe in a rural town.  That’s a life that suits me. Working in rough little flats above cafes. A window looking a story or two down to the street night and day. A few rooflines left over out of Edward hopper paintings and childhood, from before everything looked like a suburban strip mall.

The methadone clinic next door to the cafe was the only new constructon on the street. The street people fascinate me, their intensely told stories distracted me from my own intensities without tempering mine.  They live one moment to the next, staying clean and on track. They are informed by difficult pasts and have defined their mistakes more clearly than I have my own. They are self absorbed in their recovery and their analysis, they know their triggers. They were my intense company. Some days I’d go down and the cafe was short staffed and I’d serve coffee. The regulars would tell me their addiction stories.

A painting for me has go be the only thing in the world in the works to acquire any gravity. So I aim for one intense mood all the time for the duraton of the image making. I drank a lot of coffee. Spring seemed sudden. You could crack the winow open for a smoke and forget about it,  later find the window open in the chill when dark fell and smile ruefully.  The town was without charm, offering no distraction. An abandoned supermarket, condemned, and too expensive to tear down in hard times, the parking lot potholed. I painted commissions, paintings of the town as it was before its desecration, its envious updating.”

Some of the stories we tell ourselves are hopes and plans, wise or no. He researched tickets out and argued about his passport with impatient public servants. He’d been declared dead years before when his father died and that checkmark against his validity persisted, locked into machinery, a ghost for which the partially spurious and partially crucial clerks wouldn’t apologize; rather they seemed to lay blame on him, and despite his decent suit and his best manner each office encounter left him feeling criminal and invalid.

This went on for more than a month until one minor clerk, willing to admit to some colleague’s error in the past rectified the error, unlocked his file and the ghost was exorcised. Papers needed to be filed again but he felt free, tentatively.

He’d pondered notions of validity, his own in particular and had seen in his own mind his father’s lanky stride, an indian on a trapline, often he’d seen his fathers disdain of papers during the course of this long wrangle over beurocratic validation. He also pondered the sense of self worth he gained from his lovers affections, the social and personal validation in the public or the private caress. He reserved a seat on a westbound train. The lad would meet him just this side of the border.

He closed up shop wistfully, sleeping there over the course of a weekend , rather sitting awake all night staring at the work he’d done during the lad’s holiday, conscious after one particular phonecall that the lad had truly, not only politely wanted his  company in adventure. Still he felt time alone on the road would harm no one, was a chance not to be missed, to be imposed even. He’d done it himself in his youth and he wasn’t sure he was up to it .He was no swimsuit advertisement. he was no oil painting. he was no playroom hunk attractive from any angle.

He stared critically at the last two months work and at his often packed luggage, promising everything a little more elbow grease and polish.  He glared at everything but the finished commissions which were gone and paid for midst the usual winces and eagerly taken impressions the pondering over suitable payment which the achievement of balanced sentimental and painterly vision in a commission implies, requires, or ignores entirely. He stared at a few portraits and at his luggage

One painting remained unfinished in perhaps overworked underdrawing.  a young man in bed nursing a bandaged hand, careful of it in sleep. in a tangle of jewel like patchwork blankets and cushions. You never know, you rectfiy your worst mistakes in the underdrawing, you improve your perceptions and explore the tawny body as with a tongue, like the tip of a brush.

He pondered the parallel universes somehow interdependent of past and concurrent romantic affairs.  Had he had a mirror hung in his painting quarters he’d have scowled at that with its vintage porn muttonchops, scruffy, grown for a friend who admired scruff, a gentleman to be visited before a midnight train’s all aboard.

Of course there are cafes everywhere, even on trains. An obsequious waitress is never far away… A lonely woman with a book, a baby taking a solitary amiable tour among tables. An ugly boor from first class wondering aloud to friends about first class concerns. a tall thin and deathly pale russian orthodox priest with a horsey mouth that smiled without self conciousness in quiet amazement, as if he’d never been out of a monastry, as if seeing for the first the things the scriptures urged and cautioned him to love,people. He sat with his ling straggle of unkempt beard, an icon face above his plate across from a short sqat elder with more luxury in his ankle length black garment, more food gone to his belly, more aquaintance with the barber in his clerical elegance. The old priest seemed to love, but oversee the taller asthete with the shy and snd bashful wonder across the table linen. The younger priest avoided my glances… he was the only greater oddity than myself in the breakfast car, I thought.

I wore the denim of an old porn magazine. I had on those slim french motorcycle boots, soft brown leather like pulling on a bedroom slipper. a saddlebag full of smoke and blackberry technology. I wore a piratical black bandanna with the standard pattern. I wore a ring in my ear. I bore the mark of the old belt I wore. My whiskers were shaggy. but I was not in a long black ankle length skirt. I noticed the tall priests boots, black military style but lighter, feminized, elegant, though he seemed unaware of their smart cobbling below his skirt. they were a little fey those boots, as were my own. slender feet.

I coveted the boots. I coveted the priests’clearly defined roles and authority, foreign, dismissable, shaky though it was for the likes of the girl across from me who did not see the prists seemingly. everyone was a cypher for her but those kooky guys and gals at work, their meems and things they said, full of shooters or no just hilarious . I watched the priests closely, longing for their lives and stories as I sat smiling manfully across from a young women who found the antics of her office mates hilarious in montreal. I thought their antics  sad. There is the shelter of the message vibrating on one’s blackberry. The comfort of the phones. I tapped my jacket pocket. I felt my partners ring, a quick double vibration repeated on my left nipple. I drew forth the phone.

I peered into it, apologizing to those dear companions back in montreal. It was just a text. He was watching sea lions fucking in big sur. They weren’t that hugely hung. The medical terminology for surfing was vomitting sea water. love. I raised my head unseeingly to smile lascivously into the distance, just this side of muskeg, and caught the young priest’s eye and saw a sharp intellect rapidly processing my own reasons for pallor and eagerness in a man my age. There was a long instant , attenuated by being unexpectedly percieved by a stranger. There was not commonality, necessarily, but understanding, casual, even urbane, but gentle. He had those crowsfeet, crepey. that the fine and fair get under it all, for a moment too was a gangly string bean boy with buck teeth and a good heart under that frail accordian he had of ribs.  I remember nodding and his nodding back like a mirror with our eyes for a second sternly locked in a mutual admonishment for me to behave myself. Then back to the poached eggs on toast. Truth is one falls in love with one’s self, as one is wth the beloved.

I put my phone away. things were still a laugh riot back in montreal.

A man with rough, ugly muttonchop whiskers peers into text on his illuminated tablet in the coffee bar on the smoke free night train. He sees his own ragged beard in the glass of his tablet and considers the men who caress his whiskers and he sees his own cavernous gaze against the prairies when he turns to the window. He sees himself in relation to outstretched fingers, to  jerking thighs, to this back, that hopeful gaze of inquiry, this or that rebuttal. The prairie slides by, the lack of inflection becalming him as it always does.  He writes a half chapter of fiction.  In his saddlebag rest his identity papers.