Gary performing his work.
Puritan contributor Gary Barwin shares personal experiences, the burning questions they ignited, and “House,” the poem that emerged from it all. You can read his poem in Issue XI.
Many days, before I can help myself, I’m at the breakfast table reading stories of violence in the newspaper. And in the evening, my criminal lawyer-wife comes home and recounts stories from her work. Stories usually centred around violence. Sometimes strangely funny or macabre: “I used to have a problem with violence, but now I only hit people when I’m angry with them.” This from one of her clients, charged with walking down a main street in Hamilton and punching a person at random. Or the story of the man who accidentally shot himself in the testicles while driving past City Hall. Sometimes her stories are of heartbreaking violence. Stories from a milieu of unimaginable danger and contingence. Where women commonly conceal knives between their buttocks. Where dentists have caches of guns hidden in their bedrooms. Where boyfriends dismember their girlfriends and bury them in hockey bags beneath sod farms. Boyfriends who deeply love these girlfriends but have entered a world of addiction and madness that has broken their whole world so that all that remains is a distorted energy, a physics of desperation, despair, and pain that I can’t possibly begin to comprehend.
And these stories are family stories. Stories of relationships. Not the larger stories of wars and genocides where entire societies become mad, though, of course, they relate to these larger systemic issues of poverty, power and culture.
One day in the newspaper, I read a story of a family. A man had stabbed his wife, his children, even the dog. The grim details of stab wounds in the dog somehow spoke to me of a brokenness, of a madness, horror and desperation that shook me. Somehow this element of the story moved the tale into an area of psychopathological myth. One can parse the darkness of a tale by the Brothers Grimm. The dark wood. The evil wolf. The victimized little girl. There is some recognizable pattern in these tales which encapsulate a knowledge of a way of being in the world, an understanding of basic principles. I’d read Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative myth. I can recognize the vestigial structure of early belief structures. I could deconstruct the stories according to Jungian or Freudian principles. But slits in the body of a dog?
These terrible anecdotes of modern life come to us casually through the newspaper, the internet, or TV. A particular detail may inspire our particular fascination or horror. Then what?
On the day I read about this particular story, I wanted to heal the wounds. I wanted to give them the world, give them nature, as a salve. I wanted to enact a kind of mythic return. To let them be connected to the larger world, to let the energy of the earth flow through their pain and their story. To see this damaged man and his murdered family–the horror of children being stabbed by their father, the frightened eyes of brother and sister looking desperately at each other, the pleading, the blood on the pillows, the screams, the incomprehension, the mother unable to protect them, the baleful baying of the dog, the lamplight in the basement, the wall-to-wall carpet littered with Star Wars toys—as part of a larger process. A deeply consoling ritual like the growing of trees, the flowing of a river.
But then the black bird. I didn’t plan for it to be there. What does its presence mean? Certainly it seems a kind of trickster figure. And yes, we can speak in healing archetypes, but reality often resists becoming myth. Modernity, or postmodernity takes away this kind of connectedness. Perhaps we can forge a more complex connectedness, aware of the duplicitous misrepresentations of essentializing paradigms and of language itself. A paradoxical and complex relation to the natural world and to ourselves. A post-trickster trickster tale. Make all stories like this? Like what? The broken family. The healing myth. The postmodern self-reflexive fable.