On Cormac McCarthy

 

cormac-mccarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy, to put it simply, was absolutely, positively outstanding. I recently finished Cities of the Plain, after having read The Crossing and All The Pretty Horses before that, and I’m still in that state of awe when you depart from a great story, which I’m sure will carry for at least another month. If you’re looking for a new big adventure, I’d highly recommend the trilogy.

Anyone who’s familiar with McCarthy will know his style. He produces these long, epic sentences completely unaided by punctuation and instead weaves clever conjunctions throughout his lexis, and the lines often range to half a page long yet still manage to leave you with a breath. As well, he’s able to give depth and beauty to the simple day-to-day activities in short, punchy prose that flourishes more and more by the word. There was never a dull moment.

I’ve read The Road and No Country for Old Men before and whilst those both were unforgettable and very much emotional journeys, the weight of these three books hits you hard; relentless and devastating, like a speed-of-light locomotive.

Speaking of trains, here’s an extract from the final book. This isn’t an example of his long, signature sentences (‘polysyndeton’ if you want to be technical) but instead how well he is able to paint a picture and create an atmosphere –  something else he’s rather good at doing. There are far better examples of his near perfect writing but this really hit the spot for me. Don’t worry, no spoilers ahead.

I’ll add, for anyone else who has read The Crossing, the final page completely tore me to pieces.


Cities of the Plain – page 116

It was quiet in the house and it was quiet in the country about. He sat smoking. The cooling stove ticked. Far away in the hills behind the house a coyote called. When they had used to spend winters at the old house on the southeasternmost section of the ranch the last thing he would hear before he fell asleep at night was the bawl of the train eastbound out of El Paso. Sierra Blanca, Van Horn, Marfa, Alpine, Marathon. Rolling across the blue prairie through the night and on toward Langtry and Del Rio. The white bore of the headlamp lighting up the desert scrub and the eyes of trackside cattle floating in the dark like coals. The herders in the hills standing with their serapes about their shoulders watching the train pass below and the little desert foxes stepping into the darkened roadbed to sniff after it where the warm steel rails lay humming in the night.

The Razor Blade in the Peach

On the cover of Fleur Adcock’s Poems 1960 – 2000, there’s a brilliant quote from Carol Ann Duffy on Adcock:

“Adcock has a deceptively laid-back tone, through which the sharper edge of her talent is encountered like a razor blade in a peach.”

This quote has really lingered. When it comes to expressing thoughts or feelings, it’s emphasised the need for delivering a punch in writing. It doesn’t have to be an emotional punch, it doesn’t have to be a ‘twist’, but it does have to deliver some form of substance, and this quote summarises it perfectly. Of course, the roles can be reversed. There’s poetry riddled with sharp blades upon reading but underneath it all lies a soft, sweet kiwi (the fruit – not the bird!). Ultimately, poetry has to give you something new, something you’ve not read before, for it to stick. It must surprise in some way.

This might just be me – there’s this feeling you get when a poem clicks with you. I’m not sure it’s entirely describable but it makes you feel like this: ‘Woah.’ For some it might be different. It might leave you in silence, it might leave your mouth hanging, it might leave you screaming and jumping up and down. Nonetheless, if you know what I mean, it’s amazing how poetry can do that. Here are some examples of where this happened, for me anyway: Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney, On A Wedding Anniversary by Dylan Thomas and, appropriately, For Meg by Fleur Adock.

(If you’re interested in the reverse, the kiwi in the ball of blades idea, I’d recommend Vultures by Chinua Achebe, even though it’s quite morbid!).

The first Nesbit and Gibley book of poetry (the title still being kept a secret – for now!) is currently in the beta-reading stage. Quite a few people have their hands on copies and (hopefully!) enjoying them as we speak. This is very much necessary, as anyone who has written in silence for so long will know what it’s like to have ‘blinker vision’ – writing breathes with the fresh perspective. So, if you’re still interested, the book is very much on its way!

I think Duffy describes how exciting poetry can be in such a simple manner, and that aspect of writing has really stuck with me when putting the book together. There’s a lot of great advice out there but this has definitely stuck with me the longest – like a razor-blade, it’s left my gums still sore and scarred months after eating.

Wild Flower

She’s got this wild flower heart: one half in bloom,
one part beating, she says, it feeds on sex, rebel
and sin, adventure plus adrenaline, she says,
to sway in sun, to dance and thrive, in solar
wind, in crescent moonlight, she says, but
the canopy here is frosted thick, the air
is dense in diesel and pitch,
and she’s taut in ties and
terracotta, and she
keeps that heavy,
heavy thought,
very,
quiet.

Alley Air Appetiser

The chefs are outside again, wrapped in their whites,
Bottomed in baggy chessboard trousers,
Sharing smokes and dirty jokes.
Their black shoes, powdered in flour and ash,
Pass an aluminium can back and forth,
Rattling with the ring pull.
After a full chuckle, they claim one last breath
Of alley air appetiser, douse their cigarettes in
The shallow puddles
Before filing back inside, to cook
For dentists and doctors and the almighty food critic,
Armed with a notepad and ballpoint pen.
“Here we go again,” one chants,
Through the closing door of a kitchen Heaven.

Proving Human

The way home is long and narrow and the forest runs along either side of the road. It’s hard to keep both eyes on the road. I can never help but stare to the sides of passing trees, backdropped by the blanket pitch that collects them in gloom and secrecy. It reminds me of a zoetrope my father gave me for a birthday. When I was younger, I imagined a character, normally something I had seen from television, running between the trunks, fast and fleeting, as if they were printed on projector slides.

I approached the infamous corner before the bridge. It has quite the reputation for catching drivers off guard. The one-way road without dips or bumps, lit by moonlight, provokes one to be generous with their speed. A few times a month someone would find themselves at the end in the mud. It’s never claimed a life. Most of the time it’s a few bruises, a few cuts, a wrecked car and a lesson learnt.

The ground was icy so I stopped the car before the road took me further. I got out to see how much of the tarmac was covered, to save me drifting into the barrier. I always carry a torch on me, ever since the wife worried herself sick about me coming down this route in the later hours. What if you get stuck, she would say, what if you get stuck in the forest at night? What if you get lost or the car breaks down and you crash? So I take a torch to keep her happy.

The ice continued, thick and black, glistening in the torchlight, right up to the corner barrier ahead. Of course, it looked as if it had been knocked down and rebuilt a dozen times. The bridge, which spans across the lake, was quiet. An old thing, people call it, and only named by locals as The Bridge in their casual conversations.

There’s peace out in the forest; far from civilisation; no homes, no buildings, no factories or farms. There’s nothing, for miles. I savoured the silence and took a second to relish the absence of the city life.

Where the new metal of the barrier meets the old stone of the bridge, that part had gone. A huge chunk of the wall was knocked through and the metal was sharp and jagged as if it had been struck by lightning. A pair of tire tracks ran between them and when my mind clicked, I jogged forward and looked over the edge. The air was still and the night was calm and the water glowed with a set of hazard lights, warm and red beneath the skin, and my heart felt shot. I sprinted back to the car for my phone, sliding the way on the ice, and then raced back towards the bridge, dialling as I went.

“Hello – police, I need the police. And an ambulance.”

“What’s your emergency?”

“A car – a car has gone off the road. Into the water. The car’s in the water.”

“Where are-”

“I’m on the Adley Bridge. Just from Compton Village. It’s gone through the railings. The car’s in the water.”

“They’re already on their way, sir. Where’s the driver? Is the driver in the car?”

“I don’t know. I don’t – The car’s in the water.

“Sir -”

“I’ve got to save them.”

I dropped the phone and rushed myself down the bank, footing my way in the small shelves of dirt and mud. I didn’t hear the crash, nor did I recognise the back of the car from the journey. God knows how long it had been in there, submerged and silent.

I lost the ground beneath my feet and tumbled forward, somersaulting into the water. It was quick to seep through my clothes, to catch my skin, and the cold caught my breath, but I got myself up and waded through to the car. The lake wasn’t deep, only then did I realise, as the nose of the car was balanced a few metres below me, with its tail end on top of it near the surface. I held my breath, took my head under and swam toward the front door, aided by the weight of my jeans and boots.

I could only just make out the shadowy figure of an old woman inside. Her arms hung above her head. Her face calm, her eyes closed.

The door wouldn’t open. I tugged as hard as I could, and hit the window with my fist, only to sound a dull thud of weakness. My lungs depleted in flurries of bubbles and I resurfaced. I shouted for help. The odds of someone else being nearby were low, the nearest home was over ten miles away, but I shouted, and sent my voice as far as I could.

It couldn’t have been more than a second after when a splash erupted in front of me. The water threw itself up and showered quickly. A head emerged in the middle of it. Stern and strong eyes looked at me, the eyes of a man with a shaggy beard and long hair clamped to his head. He took a deep breath and went under.

I followed him down. In two broad strokes he was already at the car, his silhouette cast by the taillights. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small, hard object and pierced the window in a muted crack. It shattered peacefully. He bore his arms through, his elbow forcing out the corner panes that stuck together. The shards sailed and spun in every direction as he wrangled his arms inside and pulled the woman out, pushing his feet against the door and rising upwards.

I surfaced and crawled to the bank. The man hauled the woman up by her shoulders and when she was close, I pulled on her jacket and dragged her back onto land. I was sure she was dead, her body was limp and cold and pale. The man pressed his ear to her mouth and then pumped down on her chest with his hands, his fingers locked at the end of his pillar arms. Her body shuddered with each press, her head rocking as the man continued. Minutes passed, the man rhythmic. I watched, helpless and afraid. The woman rattled and coughed, water spewed from her mouth and ran down her chin and she let out an old, long groan.

Call it a miracle. A woman survives underwater for a ridiculous amount of time. Call it another miracle, that a man jumped from the bridge and brought her back from the grips of a watery grave. To this day, I still don’t believe how she made it.

The man collapsed backwards and the air filled with deep breaths from all of us. The woman with her head on my coat, the man sitting in the dirt.

I knew the woman. I recognised her when I shone the torch on her face for signs of life. Her name was Martha Andrews. She used to be a gardener for the rugby grounds. Rumours told she turned to alcohol after she was sacked, and I didn’t refute them after her rich, whiskey breath travelled upwards and hit my nostrils.

The man’s breathing slowed and became silent. He cleared his hair and looked me straight in the eyes, holding a blank stare that spoke fatigue and tiredness. His face, worn and leathered. And then, he quietly got himself up, and made his way into the forest, his coat dripping as he went. His footsteps softened and soon dissolved with the crunch of sticks and leaves as the sirens began to fill the night.

“Thank you,” Martha said, staring up at me with a trembling lip. “Thank you.”

And I said nothing.

In Mass

And there we grouped up in the masses,
All our friends from all the classes
They prodded us into wooden pews,
The dopey bulls and little ewes,
And there we stood quiet and still,
The oaky smell and winter chill,
And there we cupped the orange fruit,
The candle in the middle chute,
Toothpicks skewered in every way
We crafted in the early day
And there we belted every hymn,
Keeping rigid our tiny limbs,
Singing as loud as we can
From the bottom of the diaphragm,
Not understanding words we spewed
Or what they told us to exclude.
We never questioned the almighty man
Or what the fuck was in our hands.


This is of course about Christingles. Looking back, they’re the strangest thing anyone has come up with. I never asked why we had to have them. Perhaps the norm to a lot of people, but nevertheless they look so alien!