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Author Essay on This Way Slaughter

by Bruce Olds


Author's Note on This Way Slaughter


A number of works served as Ur-inspirations for This Way Slaughter:

William Carlos Williams's collection of essayistic prose poems, In The American Grain, was published in 1925 to widespread critical scorn, thumping reader indifference and precipitous remaindering by its publisher. Now considered a Modernist masterpiece, its 21 pieces—described by their interlocutor Bryce Conrad in his book, Refiguring America, as a "blur of historical fact and verbal creation...anarchically disruptive of systematic thought"—struck me when I first stumbled upon them some 30 years ago as they strike me still: as a better, more edifying, certainly more honest—because more intuitive, personal and poetic—way of writing history and historicized, hybridized fiction. The resonant note of the book for me is sounded at the conclusion of "Descent," the author's brief meditation on Sam Houston: "However hopeless it may seem, we have no other choice: we must go back to the beginning; it must all be done over; everything that is must be destroyed." For Mr. Conrad this is, "one of the most despairing statements in the book." For me it easily is its most exhilarating.

John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy, published at intervals throughout the 1930s, marked a technical breakthrough in the history of American fiction. Comprising the novels The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, its kaleidoscopic approach—a form the author himself called, "the montage of contemporary chronicle"—wove fiction, non-fiction, biography, autobiography, stream-of-consciousness fragment and full-bodied narration in a way that at the time was revolutionary and remains unprecedented. Indeed it is in its formal innovations, devices such as the "Newsreel" and "Camera's Eye," rather than its characters, ideas, politics or social themes, that its inclining reputation reposes. Dos Passos—who preferred the label, "architect of history" to either "novelist" or "storyteller"—once remarked that he was, "completely unable to understand the fiction/non-fiction dichotomy." Insofar as that dichotomy typically precludes the synergistic friction and energy arisen of the co-mingling and cross-fertilization of the two, it is a lack of understanding I am content to share.

Evan Connell's philosophical musings and historical meditations, Notes From A Bottle Found On The Beach At Carmel, published in 1962, and its companion volume, Points for a Compass Rose, published roughly a decade later (and, reportedly, the author's favorite), bear mention, despite their often being classed as "minor" Connell. Works of altogether remarkable erudition and even greater passion, the pair comprise by turns a jeremiad against and lament for what might be called, "the waste of history."

Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip, is what routinely was referred to at the time of its 1973 publication as a "countercultural icon." Four decades later it has become, simply, iconic. A groundbreaking work in book-as-mixed-media-montage, it topographically and typographically juxtaposes narrative, newspaper account, photograph, line drawing, time capsule, and historical calendar to produce what William Gass correctly has called "the poetry of history," in this case, the history of a northern Wisconsin town from 1885 to 1900. If there exists between covers a non-fiction work by an American author that more arrestingly exploits the synergy generated of written text, visual image and historical fact and artifact, I am unaware of it.

Eduardo Galeano's trilogy, Memory of Fire, was published at intervals between 1982 and 1986 to international acclaim and subsequent serial publication in a veritable Babel of languages. A hit-and-run historical chronicling of the Americas commencing with "Creation" and concluding with the year 1984, its author, at a loss to pigeonhole its form, could do no better than to describe it as a non-objective, non-neutral, undistanced, highly fragmented, "literary creation based on solid documentation moving with complete freedom," in the name of contributing to, "the rescue of the kidnapped memory of all America." In fact, the trilogy is a tapestry of highly selective, purposefully subjectivized, even impressionistic, chronologically-arranged entries or analects—1,277, by my rough count—most of them comprising half a page or less. While the Uruguayan author's politics strike me as problematic, his voice, passion and slash-and-burn approach to his subject matter, are, in my judgment, irreproachable.

The final work, the three volume Collected Works of the documentary poet Paul Metcalf, Herman Melville's great-grandson, was published by the Coffee House Press in 1996 and 1997. I have elsewhere cited Metcalf's work, sui generis as it is, as sharing a certain formal affinity with my own, an affinity that, despite the many disparities in our aesthetic sensibilities, it pleased him to acknowledge—"our similar method," he called it, "our mode." Paul, whose editor at Coffee House, Allen Kornblum, once described him to me as, "the most important American writer no one has ever heard of," took for his calling the mapping of what William Gass, an early enthusiast, once called, "the geography of time," a remark with which, insofar as that geography was distinctly American and Meso-American, Paul was content to agree. When I invited him to contrive his own label for the enterprise with which he had been so deeply engaged over 40 years, he settled on, "the personal poetry of pure document," a description impossible to better.

Paul and I shared more than technique. There also was history, American history, its currency, our conviction that we are what we were and will be what we have been, the study of which Paul likened to, "the plunge of sex, accomplished with sexual energy, the focus of all one's vitalities." "My involvement with history," he once wrote, "is what all my books are about," and that involvement, much as my own, unfailingly entailed the excavation, identification and expression of "intuited connections" and exposure of "questionable boundaries," chief among them those typically drawn between poetry and prose, and fiction and history, lines he considered, "strange, and more than a little ridiculous."

"Repetition of pattern and design in history fascinates the hell out of me," he once confided, and it was a fascination we not only shared, but appreciated less as a matter of wishing to preserve or revivify the past than of dismantling it in order to reassemble, re-contour-and-configure it. To, in effect, rewire it in order to create new circuitry and glidepaths to seeing and cognition. Quite simply we liked to reckon new angles and attitudes for coming at old things, an impulse, one I typically think of as Cubist and which he called "prismatic," that often led to our purposefully "mixing things up"—mongrelizing genres, embracing anachronism, juxtaposing incongruities (old/new, arcane/popular, private/public, abstract/concrete, fact/fiction), playing with typography and mise en page, cannibalizing source materials—though he clearly privileged, even valorized the pure document in a way that I do not. All this in the name of arriving at a fresh synthesis, a newborn, autonomous creature—what Paul sometimes called, "narrative hieroglyph"—that while constructed of old, borrowed spare parts, might breathe unassisted, on its own, upon the page.

Whether the nature of the work that resulted from pursuing this impulse to its radical culmination was, as Paul insisted, "our most natural mode of expression," the one best suited to, "our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, severely disjointed world," I always have shied from asserting. Nor, frankly, do I particularly care, preferring simply to get on with it, to seek what may surface from the historical waters as one artfully massages them.

Something Paul wrote:

     It is those of us who cannot untangle ourselves
     from the past who are really dangerous in the
     present because...we hurl ourselves across
     the present with...a language they cannot

A matter of stirring up old ghosts, disinterring spooks, chanting them up out of their tombs on musical words, summoning their shades to dance new dances upon their old graves: different dances, different days, more lyrical tunes.


American History, as its students always have understood, while embarrassingly rich, is commensurately vast. The stuff of its stuffing spills everywhere around, and, in its spillage, spreads, drifts swift away beyond right reach, "the things seen," as Dr. Williams once characterized it, "now lost in chaos." The implication being that to grip even tentatively hold of its...It-ness, requires of its gripper that his grasp be equally vast, or that he resign himself, rather, to the plucking of such piecements as he might manage to cherry-pick in their passing.

My own grip being admittedly less vast than I might prefer, my judgments regarding inclusions and exclusions of material for This Way Slaughter—that which "made the cut," so to say, and that which did not—are, then, typically subjective, personal and idiosyncratic, if never mindlessly random or rash, foaled as they are of Dr. Williams's conviction that the best way to write History, a history or historicized fiction, is to delve after the "true character" hidden beneath its broader scrims and numberless mis-namings by dredging up and sounding, "the odd note there is in it," in order, "to draw from every source one thing, the strange phosphorus of the life, nameless under an old misappellation."

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