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David Herrle reviews Marie Lecrivain’s THE VIRTUAL TABLET OF IRMA TRE

published by Edgar & Lenore’s Publishing House
Los Angeles, 2014

order the book here or here

I can spiel about many subjects somewhat handily, but alchemy is one that ultimately escapes me, or, rather, that I haven’t chased very far.  The subject is never far away, however.  One can’t be a fan of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, or dig anything by comics-writer Alan Moore, Jacob Boehme, Eckhart (not actor Aaron), H.P. Lovecraft, Friedrich Schiller and Hermetically-seasoned Swedenborg without encountering alchemy.  Also, lovers of Nietzsche can’t deny that his call for transfiguration, transvaluation and annihilation/re-creation of the Self involves the alchemical processes of solve and coagula: disintegration and reintegration, filling in the void of deconstruction with a better synthesis lest nihilism toss us into an existential trash heap.  As Schiller wrote in On the Aesthetic Education of Man: “Like the chemist, the philosopher finds combination only through dissolution, and the work of spontaneous Nature only through the torture of Art.”

OK, maybe I can spiel on the subject with some vim, but I defer to author Marie Lecrivain as an abler enthusiast – or, rather, an in-the-know practitioner.  I, frankly, haven’t the patience nor finesse to attempt a coherent book involving alchemy and such.  (I’m much more apt to say “The philosopher’s stoned” than seek the Philosopher’s Stone.)  However, my shortcomings on the matter aren’t what make me respect The Virtual Tablet of Irma Tre.  It’s the fact that the book is smart and insightful, and it’s as simultaneously simple and deep as ABC – literally: the poem titles are in alphabetical order (which must’ve been a feat in itself).  I like when an author’s particular style is applied to abstract ideas and grand universals, so I’m pleased that the book imparts Lecrivain’s own brand of the esoteric.

As I understand it, alchemy is essentially about finding and enhancing the Self, which is truly the final frontier, a dwarfer of oceans.  The Self business requires one to go beyond where science can go.  It’s about progress – and art.  “Alchemy is evolution,” Lecrivain writes in a brief preface.  For her “[t]he Universe is an ongoing experiment in alchemy,” and “everything [she does] is alchemy, including writing poetry.”  This is benign poison against nihilism.  There is a goal, a dialectical flow, a bright future, though all is cyclical and repetitive, as symbolized by the Ouroboros, the dragon/snake swallowing its own tail.  (In typical thoroughness Lecrivain covers the letters O and U with poems entitled “Oroboros” and “Uroboros.”)  A clip from “Trituration”:

Remember: All of this has happened before,
and will again.  It won’t lessen the pain,
but it will put a smile on your face.

And in “Distillation”:

…This is the time to
focus on what, where, and who you become on
your next turn of the wheel, the centrifuge of
incarnation that separates the karmic detritus of
your past and future selves. 

This reminds me of Nietzsche’s endorsement of (probably not belief in) “eternal recurrence of the same” and finding joy in everything that happens in a lifetime as if there are endless exact reiterations of it.  However, that notion doesn’t allow for karma’s variability, prioritizes necessity over what he sometimes called mendacious idealism and rejects the possibility of a world-beyond (Hinterwelten).  Lecrivain seems to appreciate both the given and the transcendent, and she celebrates the orchestration of existents, without the Nietzschean hierarchy of rule of the best.  “We’re all grapes on the cosmic vine” goes a line in a poem called “Wine.” Just as unlikely, diminutive Hobbits determined the fate of Tolkein’s Middle-earth, even the smallest of earthly things is worthy and can enhance the universe, as shown in “Stone”:

Whether it be a boulder
on which to build our kingdom
or a pebble skipped across
the streams of time…
Even the cobblestones
have a great destiny.

Great destiny isn’t easy to accept, however.  The Self is hard-won.  As the closing caption in Marvel’s Amazing Fantasy #15 (featuring the origin of Spider-Man) says, “[w]ith great power there must also come – great responsibility.”  Speaking of comics, I’m reminded of something Alan Moore said:

[Y]ou can almost understand the desire to simply wipe out that awareness [of being a Self], because it’s too much of a responsibility to actually possess such a thing as a soul, such a precious thing. What if you break it? What if you lose it? Mightn’t it be best to anesthetize it, to deaden it, to destroy it, to not have to live with the pain of struggling towards it and trying to keep it pure?

Moore’s words, in turn, remind me of “Iron,” one of my favorite pieces in The Virtual Tablet of Irma Tre:

In the blood of the spine, there’s a soul that
never breaks, whose blade never

rusts. Fortified with intent, it’s the weapon of your
soul.  Use it carefully, with no

objections and never in anger.  If you follow these
instructions to the letter, then

no one dares cross you in times of war or peace –
unless you’re a fool.

This unbreakable soul, this rust-proof sword seems to be what Lecrivain refers to in “Liquor Hepatis”: a wound-healing “unblemished fire of truth.”  More from the poem:

You begin to see
at the soul’s atomic level,
the small and vast miracle of change
that happens without and within.

Transformation is sometimes traumatic, making the resulting pleasure that much better, the horizons that much wider, as expressed in “Cinnabar”:

You and I smash
Against the walls of our souls…

Exhausted and empty,
we carefully place
curious fingers into the cracks
of our fissured selves,
with tender appreciation
for new dimensions.

And in “Vitriol” (another of my favorites):

We never thank the ones who murder us…
We never appreciate the death of love…
until one day
we awaken, tearless
and excited, for the first time
in years.  We rush to the mirror
and find a new face there to greet us…

The quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, the Ultimate Substance or the Self (the Great Work), what Alan Watts might call It, tends to be a trial-by-crucible that reaches denouement only after an Ingmar-Bergman-caliber spiritual mangling or even a “Hulking out,” as many fellow comic-book dorks might put it.  (The cathartic, enlightened Self is likened to an erupting and annihilating Vesuvius in an Irma Tre piece called “Retort.”)  However, though we may have to endure destruction and heartbreak in order to awaken to understanding and a renewed self, sometimes re-creation requires simply reaching out and bringing the poles of the spectrum together, tapping in to the moment’s music.  In “Quintessence”:

…The connection
established, your voices ascend in song,
a sweet trio attuned to the vibration
of the Cosmos.  There’s no need to prolong
the ecstasy from above or below;
from this perfect union will new life flow.

“Xanthosis/Yellow Phase” (the title cleverly covering the letters X and Y) continues the theme of reconciled polarities:

Poet –

With that closing word we come back to Lecrivain’s claim about the alchemical nature of writing poetry, and, while I’m typing this, I realize that “compromise” and “conjunction” render “reconciled polarities” inaccurate.  Perhaps, as Schiller would have it, polarities can never not be polarities.  They can be made to hold hands but only stand politely side by side.  In other words, to borrow from Schiller again, and to riff off of what Lecrivain seems to be saying, it’s not a matter of blurring opposites but one of harmonizing them – or, better yet, to quote Schiller directly this time, “the absolute including of all.”  He saw one’s blindness to human dignity as the reason one is antagonistic to others, since she/he sees her/his own lowly self in others rather than seeing others, who should be treated with dignity, in himself.

If a soul takes so much to be realized, how priceless it must be.  If Lecrivain is correct in saying the alchemical process is evolutionary, then it’s not an automatic, consciousness-from-accident, impersonal evolution.  Anyone who really considers prehistoric cave paintings can see that the keenness of those early humans has been quite underestimated.  How complex and persistent are human minds!  Every individual (whether a boulder-person or pebble-person) has a chance to effect major changes in her- or himself and the world – and beyond.  As an outspoken anti-utopian I usually wince at most reformative/progressive spiels, but I dig the idea of tending our own gardens: refining ourselves and promoting healthy metaphysical harvests so that positive things can happen on at least a local scale, perhaps creating an aggregate “awakening” to cosmic glory.  The Virtual Tablet of Irma Tre has stirred and reinvigorated my thoughts on this stuff.  For that I’m grateful.

I’ve addressed some of my favorite parts, but honorable mentions are due to “Egg,” “Hermaphrodite,” and “Fixation,” which contains this brilliant, enviable line: “Soon,/you’ll be asleep,/and when you awake,/you’ll always be a sleep.”  A poem called “Geber” also caught my eye since I’m familiar some Geber and False-Geber.  The best line in the poem: “He’s the pharmacist/who regales you/with tales of what happens/to the unwary who mix/SSRIs with chardonnay.”  And “King” features an arousing pre-coupling of the King, “a man among men” with a crowned “rooster-shaped pompadour,” and an expectant Pre-Raphaelite-wet-dream Queen.  She “manifests beyond the pale:/a vision in virginal blue negligee,” and “[h]is staff is at the ready.”  (Is it getting hot in this review, or is it just me?)

The Virtual Tablet of Irma Tre may be the best of what I’ve read of Lecrivain’s work.  She has an enviable knack for being able to produce quality books in a wide subject range pretty regularly.  This latest work inspired me to take a fresh look at magic, alchemy, shamanism and other rich but very misunderstood – even maligned – stuff.  Lecrivain celebrates it all via transformative poetry, a craft she loves, a craft of love, a (forgive me)…lovecraft?

P.S.: The book’s title, The Virtual Tablet of Irma Tre, nods to The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegisatus (the Thrice Great).

IN MADERA CANYON by Jane Holt-Freese

Invite children to visit Arizona’s lovely Madera Canyon without leaving home.  In the tradition of Bringing Rain To Kapiti Plain and “The House That Jack Built,” In Madera Canyon unfolds with progressive verse in which birds, flowers and animals are revealed one by one.  Both parents and teachers are encouraged to purchase this entertaining and educational book.

published by Wheatmark
author’s site
artist’s site

BUY THE BOOK at Amazon or Wheatmark

Jane Freese, a former journalist, photographer, librarian and award-winning writer, shares the wonders of
the hummingbird, the trumpet plant, Madera Canyon Creek, the side-blotched lizard, the Arizona gray squirrel, the mountain lion, the white-tailed deer, the white-nosed coati, the elegant trogon, the western tanager, the black bear, the American kestrel and the Harris hawk.

Rick Wheeler, award-winning painter, illustrator, college mentor, art instructor and graphic artist, produced the book’s wonderful scratchboard paintings.



BUY THE BOOK at Amazon or Wheatmark


“Oblivion comes first with fruit and bread…”

published by Flutter Press
learn more and order the book here

“The Loss followed by GMO (Great Moments of Oblivion) was written during a period of doubts and uncertainties. Life’s events always inspire me. They are my fuel, my muses, my most terrible companions when I sit in front of the digital page to write…One year after two of my previous collections were published Maore (Lapwing Publishing) and Carmine Carnival (Lazarus Media), to have this chapbook published fills me with pride and joy. I know this is the best homage I could give to my father. Not only because most of the poems in this collection are about him, our relationship and the frightening gap his death has brought, but because Great Moments of Oblivion is about food, and that he was a chef and taught me how to enjoy food. ” – Walter Ruhlmann


Walter Ruhlmann works as an English teacher, edits mgversion2>datura and runs mgv2>publishing. His latest collections are Maore published by Lapwing Publications, UK, 2013 and Carmine Carnival published by Lazarus Media, USA, 2013. Coming up in 2014 The Loss through Flutter Press, Crossing Puddles through Robocup Press, and Twelve Times Thirteen through Kind of a Hurricane Press.

Visit Ruhlmann’s blog.

FRONT ROW FLIX – Tom Balistreri’s Movie Reviews


“Quick reviews for those of us who love movies and hate the pompous punks who tell us what is good and what is bad. All done by yours truly, someone who watches waaaay too many movies.” – Tom

Like the official Facebook page

Selected categories at the Facebook page

(Click on the photos to read the reviews.)

GOOD FLICKS (rentals, Netflix, HBO, etc.)
BAD MOVIES – (rentals, Netflix, HBO, etc.)
NETFLIX – Creature features
NETFLIX – Action/Thriller
NETFLIX – Horror Recommendations
Great Military Movies

Bad Movies I Freakin’ Love

(and many more!)


From Aleister Crowley to Charles Manson, Liverpool to L.A., MAN/SON explores an artistic evocation of America’s occult underbelly. 

published by Darq Matter Publishing, 2013

Order now!
Learn more here

“Van Gough takes a deep, painterly approach to the Manson saga as he explores the occult undercurrents,both historical and speculative.” – Lisa Derrick, Cartwheel

From Van Gough’s Artist’s Statement:

“In my journey, there have been threads that go beyond mere happenstance, symbols and ciphers that are window dressing for something profound and dark beneath.  In commencing then with the new series, utilizing the tragic muse and slain Madonna figure of Sharon Tate as a symbol for an endpoint, there was a need to relate and process that which is beyond understanding. Peter Levenda’s words in Sinister Forces Book III sum it up for me, ‘[F]or the occultist-there is truly “no such thing as coincidence,” or more accurately, that coincidence is a clue that deeper connections exist between observable phenomena, that another force of nature is at work that we don’t understand.’  The MAN/SON series seeks to make sense of those fatal events of 1969, and what I have come to term as sinister architecture.”


Order now!
Learn more here

Dustin Brookshire

for Denise

You’re a bad apple, says my aunt.
She’s thankful I fell from a different tree.

I won’t disagree. Three of her four never
graduated high school. All had shotgun weddings,

and I write letters to one in a Florida prison.
He was on the news—seems like every channel.

I admit: I’m glad we have different last names.
But I’m the apple whose seeds won’t bear fruit,

which makes me bad as gay can be.
How does she speak of her son? The hold up.

His pulling the trigger. A bullet to the back of the head.
How does she explain the fruit she bore?

I say it is rotten to the core.

*This piece was originally published in the sixth issue of Assaracus.




My mother dreams of dark running water.
She calls. It was the death dream.

I follow the speed limit.

I walk faster than normal through crosswalks.

I am even more careful when showering,

a fall now seems more probable.

When I was a child she told me

the secret of this dream—

someone would die

but she didn’t know who.

The dream came when my grandmother

was admitted to the hospital,

when a family friend

was supposed to be winning

her battle with cancer.

And, the time it came

when she couldn’t think

of anyone sick, my father’s favorite

employee was hit by a car.

I told you
, she whispered.

I prayed to God—begged Him

not to pass this curse to me.

I had no desire to ache in my soul

with limited knowledge.

As a teenager I thought it all

a world of coincidence—

that there aren’t signs placed

to tell us what will come.

But, yesterday, I was in a bar

with Julie, trying to let go

and when I looked up

I saw we were sitting under

a poster of Dolly Parton.

I knew this was a sign.

The night was going to be good.

Everything on our trip would be okay.

This sign was meant just for me.

Honestly. How much different am I from my mother?

*This piece is forthcoming in the
Queer South anthology (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014).


for Dr. G

I’m fascinated with the way
we can purposely betray someone,

how we know we’re doing wrong
then feel guilty with a chance

of it repeating. We can take
someone’s heart and destroy it—

a piece of ice placed
in the sun’s light.

We can hold someone’s hand
so softly, yet twist it suddenly.

I’m fascinated with the way
we can become the betrayed

when once we were the betrayers.
It’s like we’re given medicine

for an illness we once transmitted.
How we miss the warning signs

even though we once created them
and held them high in the air.

I’m fascinated with betrayal.
I’m fascinated with sin itself—

the way it captures us
like a fish on a hook.

© Dustin Brookshire


Read the SubtleTea interview with Dustin here.
Get information about his chapbook,
To the One Who Raped Me, here

Review of Kerry Dunn’s JOE PEACE

published by Shelfstealers, Inc.
more info here

I read contemporary fiction very rarely these days, so I’d better be damned impressed when I do.  As a sucker for titles, I was curious about Kerry Dunn’s Joe Peace right off the bat.  Wary after seeing that the book was a crime story told in first-person narrative, I started reading, hoping not to have to endure half-baked (half-boiled?) Nicholas Pileggi or Chandler/Hammett fare.  My fears faded after only the first couple pages.  First of all, I’m much more partial to Mickey Spillane than Raymond and Dashiell, so Dunn’s quick-witted but rough-edged style for the narrating protagonist felt like home – without being annoyingly derivative.  Instead, the lingo (clever similes and street-/pop-culture-wise metaphorizing) is respectfully emulous of the hardboiled tradition, showing off Dunn’s good ear for inner and outer speech.

The author also has balls, because Kingpin in Decline is about as threadbare as Cop Gets Into Deep Investigation or A Deadly Mess Right Before Retirement.  The cloth holds together, however.  Plots are secondary to me.  It’s the presentation that impresses, and Dunn does that with skill. But don’t fret, plot people.  You’ll enjoy a tragic love story that’s revealed gradually in tastefully paced flashbacks and made relevant by a certain special someone who shows up in the first third of the novel.  (Attention: no spoilers!)  How Peace and this certain special someone interact, and who she is, rocks his already well-rocked world, reminding me of vintage Spillane: “This girl was twenty and threw daggers.  I felt sorry for the poor bastard, somewhere down the road, who fell in love with her.  He’d have to learn to love the cuts, along with the woman who provided them.”  Also, just the right helping of sentimentalism satisfied this old softie’s heartstring-pulling quota.  Publishers Weekly is right on by describing the book as “an exciting gang story and heartbreaking tale of relationships.”

Joe Peace used to be a cop.  A lousy cop.  A drug-addicted cop trying to maintain a relationship with an upstanding woman who sometimes worked Narcotics Division.  Who makes a better criminal than a former man of the law?  Whether one is a police officer or an attorney, the fall from grace can be that much more intense and deep, thanks to close proximity to the dark side.  Isn’t it obvious that lawmakers are a hair’s breadth away from being lawbreakers – and more primed than laymen to make the easy but drastic transition?  When do-gooders realize that reward comes more quickly and abundantly to do-badders (at least at first), temptation pulls ferociously.  As the narration goes in Joe Peace: “It’s easy to turn to a life of crime.  You just roll over.”

I can’t help but think of the Kleinfeld character in Brian de Palma’s underrated film, Carlito’s Way: a lawyer who has defended and cavorted with high-level criminals so much that he becomes like them.  The film is De Palma’s “answer” to his earlier Scarface, whose lead character, Tony Montana, is a brazen, hasty, vain, coked-out creep.  Carlito is the older, wiser, penitent possible future of the roughshod Montana.  I mention these films because Dunn’s protagonist seems to be on the same trajectory (from Montana’s recklessness to Carlito’s remorse): doing his desperate best to atone for and clear the future path of his degradation, drug abuse and brutal sins – the greatest of which was sacrificing the love of his life to a lucrative and debauched death-culture: “To get what I wanted, I had to give up what I loved.”

Though Peace can be a real scumbag, and not every aspect of the character impresses me, there’s enough introspection, eclectic knowledge, sense of humor and irony to make him charming without risking incredulity (though his mindrobatics could be considered too slick by some readers).  His desire to balance out the stupid and ruthless decisions he’s made in his hollow life, his intense reverence for his lost love, and his pursuit of atonement and redemption are the stuff of heroes.

Not that his redemptive methods are those of a Joe Friday or a white-hatted Ranger.  “To get away clean, you have to play dirty” goes the cheesy-but-true tagline for the action flick Parker (yet another movie in which Jason Statham plays Jason Statham).  Sometimes rules need to be bent to get things straight.  For you sticklers of just deserts, Dunn provides his conflicted character with an indirect, rather banal comeuppance (which underscores Peace’s progressive shedding of blinding, selfish pride), but I won’t reveal what that is.

I think Dunn’s novel essentially illustrates the doom referred to in the New Testament spiel about gaining the whole world at the expense of one’s soul.  After one of the flashbacks about the love of his life, Peace admits: “I’d give everything up, my house, my cars, my money, if I could rewrite history.  But I guess the only reason people want things to be different is because they aren’t.”  The truth is that he never really bought his kingpin role:

I was always aware of the tectonic plates in my head, shifting around…[S]ometimes huge fissures would erupt, and echoes like buildings collapsing to rubble shook my foundation.

Every good rags-to-riches-to-roaches story illustrates the futility of grasping the Real object of Joy and the inevitable failure to obtain utopia, even a criminal one.  Not so deep down we know that we’re on a dead-end road when all we desire is desire itself.  There’s always a sense of loss and unrest.  Even Joe Peace’s surname hints at this (with all the subtlety of a grand piano), evoking the Jewish-bible line about saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.

The ultimate lesson after a life of crime and self-destructiveness?  Hell is not necessarily other people.  It’s often yourself. And home may be where the hurt is, but it’s also where the heart is.  As the final line in the book goes: “It’s where the people you love reside.”  To continue my lousy punning, I say give Joe Peace a chance.

review by David Herrle, December 2013

Some of my favorite lines in the book follow.

“We were dining at Mogini’s, an Italian place known for its veal and six-month waiting list, even though the place has been only been open two months.”

“And if motherhood is a fact, fatherhood, when you get right down to it, is a hypothesis.  Now, I ask you, who the fuck wants to be a fucking hypothesis?”

“His dark coat…swallowed him like a great sin.”

“He was one of those dudes who, if you were in a good mood, brought out compassion.  In a bad mood, you could kill the bastard.”

“Nothing put me in a dim frame of mind faster than effluvia all over me.”

On the band R.E.M.: “I liked those guys better when I couldn’t understand a goddamn word they said.”

“Her strawberry-blond hair framed a serene face in a way that suggested she worked on it…But nothing about her was soft.”

“I glanced at my watch, thinking, I just had sex with my watch on.”

“He patted my knee like a psychotic grandmother.”

Nick Zegarac Blu-ray and DVD Reviews January – May 2014

Other Nick reviews: here and here

Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee and Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible

I recall so well the braggadocious accolades that accompanied the 2005 “restoration” of Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965), the much-maligned Western drama unceremoniously dumped on the market where it instantly became something of a colossal flop. Peckinpah had run into opposition from Columbia (the studio footing the bills) and non-compliance from his producer Jerry Bresler (a yes man for the front office). But in 2005, some seventeen years after Peckingpah’s death, critics like Boston’s Chris Fujwara and The Washington Post’s Steven Hunter were falling all over themselves with superlatives extolling the restored version as “magnificent…a unique piece of threatening…alcoholic cinema” with “high-end adult” themes and “a better grade of savagery,” carrying with it the ballast of “actual ideas…back in all the fractured glory and confidence.”

I would just like to go on record as saying that the only thing “fractured” herein is the movie, either in its theatrical or restored cut, the latter an approximation of what Peckinpah might have hoped for had his own steady hand been on the Moviola.  Yet I cannot even lay as much claim or faith in Peckinpah’s personal aspirations for Major Dundee, having begun it, as he did, without a finished script and basically shooting with only a very fragmented vision of the end result bouncing around in his head.  In hindsight, Peckinpah’s  unwillingness to revisit the film years later seems to attest to his own painful divorce from this artistic implosion of ‘high-end savagery’: a film that, doubtless, Peckinpah found nearly impossible to reappraise honestly without nursing a very large bottle of scotch.

Peckinpah had initially assigned the script writing duties to Harry Julian Fink, a middling writer (at best) who had been more prolific in television than movies. Dissatisfied with Fink’s prose (at 163 pages, it tended to ramble on – and on), Peckinpah undertook to edit down the material himself with assistance from Oscar Saul, who was by no means a heavy hitter but had more movie credits to his name. Yet, the results of all this perpetual tinkering seem to have given way to the old adage about “too many cooks spoiling the broth.” While Peckinpah had ambitions to create a sweeping epic masterpiece in the Western genre, comparable to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (Peckinpah’s favorite movie) from 1962, what he ultimately succeeded in resurrecting was the modest Monogram B-programmer with an A-list roster and production values that nearly sank the studio. 

Major Dundee is an intimate Western drama. Yet, in casting Charlton Heston as his title character, Peckinpah all but diffuses the ill-fated chimerical saga into one where its larger-than-life protagonist is unable to part the wilderness and lead his people onward without sacrificing his own powers as a major star. Heston championed Peckinpah’s vision for the movie when no one else seemed even mildly interested in making it. But he was to regret this decision when the director embarked upon his own irascible odyssey for perfection. Heston’s towering performance – however subtly nuanced – is nevertheless working against type. Not that Heston ever played a steely-eyed bastard before. In fact, he’d convincingly done so for William Wyler in another Western, The Big Country (1958).

But Charlton Heston and Major Amos Charles Dundee just don’t seem to go together. Heston gives a very credible performance, only the starch in those army britches is just too stiff, and the character never evolves beyond a very cold-hearted martinet who briefly loses himself in the arms of a Hispanic prostitute (Aurora Clavell).  This after having already seduced the top-heavy Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger) during an afternoon swim. The inability of the screenplay to give us even an ounce of sympathy for this cruel taskmaster, and Heston’s unapologetic adherence to the character as written, yields a characterization dangerously close to becoming the villain of the piece. Indeed, by the last act the audience is more apt to root for the doomed southern Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris), who meets with a vicious if heroic fate, than the unrepentant Dundee, who is still willing to sacrifice every last man in his detail to save his own face by apprehending the blood-thirsty Apache marauder, Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate).

Harris’ performance is the standout in the film, full of contempt for Dundee’s methods but not without more than a modicum of self-loathing that challenges the audience to dig a bit deeper into his motivations and ultimately come to respect Tyreen’s sacrifice. The others in the cast, Jim Hutton as the regimented Lieutenant Graham, Michael Anderson Jr. as bugler Tim Ryan (on whose surviving diaries the film’s narrative is supposedly based), and particularly James Coburn’s masterful rendering of the one-armed native guide, Samuel Potts, offer the briefest of reprieves and escape from Dundee’s oppressions. But in the end they’re not enough to make us forget what a terrific monument to the damned Dundee is: a polarizing force who maintains the flimsiest tyrannical control over his men using nothing greater than the art of intimidation to keep them resentful, but also, regrettably, in line.

Adding to Peckinpah’s woes, Columbia chose to slash the film’s budget by a million and cut his shooting schedule down by fifteen days, just two days before principal photography was about to begin.  Peckinpah’s ability to work under such conditions bears out his commitment not simply to the actors or the film, but to will a finished product more finely wrought than the average fair of its day, yet painfully out of step with what the paying public wanted to see. The other great sin foisted upon the production, after Columbia executives decided to oust Peckinpah from the director’s chair and recut the movie themselves, is its jaunty Daniele Amfiteatrof score, full of rousing marches and other rambunctious orchestrations better suited for a Mexican fiesta on Olivera Street than the somber depiction of one man’s spiral into a kind of self-imposed purgatory.  For the 2005 “restoration” a new score was commissioned from Christopher Caliendo, more in keeping with Peckinpah’s vision for the film.

Yet that vision remains myopic at best. The story hardly improved by the added 14 minutes of “lost” footage placed into the film. There’s simply more to consider and – unfortunately – less to admire.  Howard Kunin, William A. Lyon and Donald W. Starling’s editing retreats into a series of visually overlapping montages. We are exposed to Sam Leavitt’s breathtaking cinematography: the sprawling Mexican landscapes imperfectly cut down into snippets awkwardly running into each other like jigsaw puzzle pieces that don’t fit but are being forcibly made to give the appearance of a perfect interlock.    

The story, such as it is, involves Union cavalry officer Major Amos Charles Dundee, mildly disgraced at the Battle of Gettysburg and relegated to the wilds of New Mexico where he micro-manages a prisoner of war camp. Prior to the main title sequence we witness the blood-thirsty Apache leader, Sierra Charriba, and his men massacre a small village of ranchers (men, women and female children, as well as Union cavalry sent there to protect them). Hence, when Dundee arrives with guide Samuel Potts he is committed to digging a mass grave. Upon returning to the camp Dundee decides to enlist as many of his prisoners for a special detail to hunt down Charriba. But Dundee’s motives are hardly altruistic or even in service of achieving justice for the fallen. Instead, his is an enterprising plan to rebuild his own tarnished reputation as a great military man and hopefully to elevate the army’s opinion of him from these currently abysmal circumstances.

Captain Benjamin Tyreen is hardly fooled by Dundee. Yet he remains chivalrous to a fault. Tyreen’s innate hatred of Dundee stems from an incident before the war when the Major cast his deciding vote in Tyreen’s court-martial from the U.S. Army for participating in a duel. In the theatrical cut our first encounter with Tyreen occurs after Dundee has already returned to base camp. He admonishes Tyreen’s refusal, and that of his fellow Confederates, to enlist in the cause of murdering Charriba. In the extended cut we meet Tyreen and these men as they strike a guard in their feeble escape attempt. Apprehended by Dundee and brought back in chains Tyreen and his men are informed that the guard they meant to merely wound has died of his injuries. Having been told by Tyreen that he would rather hang than serve, Dundee accepts Tyreen’s terms and begins to build his gallows. This stalemate is eventually broken by Tyreen, who physically assaults Dundee while still in chains and confers on him the terms for his complicity in the plot. Tyreen and his men will hunt until the last Apache is dead, but with the understanding of a full pardon awaiting them at the other end.

Although Dundee never actually agrees to these conditions he does not outwardly reject them either. Tyreen also promises that when the war against the Apache has ended his own private war against Dundee will result in the Major’s execution. Begrudgingly valued for his soldiering, as well as his gumption, a weird détente occurs between Dundee and Tyreen – tenuous at best, and infrequently threatening to break under pressure. Still, when push comes to shove, both men represent a united front that adheres to the mark of valor ascribed true military men. This is one of the oddities of the screenplay, for Tyreen repeatedly tells Dundee that he has no country after the civil war and seemingly zero loyalties to the newly formed United States of America.   

The strained alliance between the men is divided along lines of class (cavalry vs. prisoners), further splintered by North vs. South and colored vs. white. When these factions are not busy warring with each other they infrequently engage the Apache in several disastrous battles that brutalize the men and inflict many casualties. Charriba and his posse retreat to Mexico, garrisoned by French troops loyal to Emperor Maximilian. Knowing that to cross the border means a direct confrontation, Dundee nevertheless orders his men across the Rio Grande, into a small impoverished town overseen by Teresa Santiago, whose husband was executed for supporting Benito Juárez’s rebels.  

In a previous altercation with Charriba, Dundee lost most of his garrisons’ supplies, badly needed foodstuffs he was hoping to recoup in the village. Instead, Dundee shares what little remains with the impoverished villagers, allowing French forces to escape for backup. When these do indeed return to the village Dundee ambushes them by night, taking his lion’s share of badly needed supplies. Although Tyreen is cordial to Teresa, it is Dundee who conquers her heart – albeit very briefly. In an unguarded moment Dundee is wounded in the leg by Charriba’s arrow and forced to hold up in the French-occupied village of Durango – presumably for weeks – while Tyreen moves the men onward in search of this Apache viper. Losing himself in drink and self-pity, Dundee is discovered in the arms of a Spanish prostitute Melinche by Teresa who abruptly ends their vacuous affair, telling Dundee that for some men “the war will never be over.”

Tyreen returns with boastful swagger, challenging and humiliating Dundee in order to shake him loose of his inner regrets. A reformed Dundee returns to his men, feigning a sudden loss of desire to apprehend Charriba. The Apache leader falls for the rouse and plans his final attack, determined to murder Dundee and his men. Affectingly, Charriba’s arrival is met with a clever ambush instead. Bugler Tim Ryan, who has “become a man”  by losing his virginity to a Spanish girl, fires the fatal shot that puts a period to Charriba’s reign of terror. Their mission completed, Dundee and his men are outflanked by the French at the Rio Grande, making repeated valiant charges to cross it but incurring massive casualties, including Tyreen, who, wounded but still bitter, defies death to delay a second detachment of French cavalry singlehandedly. Dundee and his fragmented forces cross the river and head for home.

In either its extended or truncated form, Major Dundee remains a curious flop. Its ascribed epic quality useful perhaps only to describe the way the film persistently misfires at every conceivable turn and on practically every artistic level – and this, despite Peckinpah’s rather obvious attempts to will a silk purse from its sow’s ear. The strangeness of this artistic implosion is that Major Dundee never catches even the tail fire from some weighty performers giving it their all, coupled with its vistas and straggly landscapes meticulously lensed by Sam Leavitt but rendered muddy and dull in Pathe’s flawed Eastman color process. These invoke world-weariness all too readily apparent in Heston’s mellifluous performance as the dower Dundee, but regrettably do not equate to, foreshadow or even infer a looming sense of foreboding and grand tragedy that Peckinpah hoped for.  The…uh…romance between Teresa and Dundee is more dulcet than juicy and all but eclipsed by another: the fiery “bromance” between Tyreen and Dundee, two men who clearly share more than a mutual admiration beneath their outward derision of one another. 

I’ve set aside my own admiration for Peckinpah herein; a film maker elsewhere revered. But in all honesty, Peckinpah has made it all too easy for me to disregard and dislike Major Dundee. The flaw is not entirely his to bear. But in the final analysis, the film is little more than a major blunder, resurrected to prominence by its renewed resurgence on home video, though not to any greater level of artistic poignancy that one would have anticipated. I dislike being overly critical of movies in general. Even the bad one’s take time and ingenuity to make. But Major Dundee is a film that had a lot going for it at the start. That all its attributes combined come to more gumbo than glory left me feeling cheated from my viewing experience. 

And I watched it twice, first in its newly restored director’s cut, then again in its original theatrical cut. I will say this: for me, at least, the extended version just seemed like too much of a bad thing, the prolonged scenes never enhancing my understanding of the story. The pacing of the theatrical cut played much more “clean” in its narrative approach and to the point, at least, in my opinion. Regrettably, the essential tension is all but ruined in the theatrical cut by Daniele Amfitheatrof’s brutally buoyant underscore, laughingly making some of the visuals play like a badly blunted operetta rather than a Western epic. Christopher Caliendo’s 2005 score parallels and punctuates the action far more astutely.

Major Dundee has been released by Sony exclusively through Twilight Time/Screen Archives. We’ve been given the rare opportunity to watch both cuts, each on a separate disc with varying extra features. The 1080p image has been consistently rendered, illustrating the shortcomings of Pathe Eastman color film stocks. The image is very thick. Blue skies flicker purplish brown. I also have to say that the sequences shot at night are much too dark, particularly in the extended cut. Our introduction to Tyreen, being captured in his attempted escape from the camp, is a sea of blackness from which only Richard Harris’ wan face occasionally emerges from the murkiness as a disembodied head.

Flesh tones are more ruddy orange, though infrequently they look fairly accurate. Grain has been accurately reproduced. Again, the Eastman stock translates most of the outdoor landscapes into an indistinguishable brownish earthy tone. Trees are muddy grayish green rather than vibrant. Blue skies tend to appear washed out. These are not – I repeat – areb not a flaw in the mastering process. Sony has done their utmost to preserve the original look of the film. The audio on both cuts is 5.1 DTS but sounds infinitely more refined on the 2005 extended cut, perhaps because effects and dialogue had to be remixed with the newly recorded Caliendo underscore.  Extras are somewhat satisfying. We get both scores on an isolated track. On the extended cut we also get an audio commentary by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. There’s also a litany of extended outtakes and deleted scenes, the original trailer and its 2005 reissue, plus an exhibitor’s reel.  Overall, I like what Sony and Twilight Time have done on this title. I just wish the material they had to work with – namely, the film – was more deserving of their hard efforts. Bottom line: not recommended.

Few natural disasters are as ingrained in my mind as the 2004 tsunami that decimated the coastal retreat of Khao Lak, Thailand, an event of such mind-boggling devastation its total comprehension is virtually impossible to fathom for those of us who were not there. The shaky images captured by terrified tourists on their iPhones and other home video recording devices flashing across our television screens were significant only in presenting the paralytic moment of impact and its immediate aftermath. But the overhead shots of earthy-colored rising tides consuming the coastline were strangely surreal, or perhaps even artificial, like a spectacular CGI effect created by Hollywood artisans instead of a raw and eviscerating act of Mother Nature.

I must confess to a naiveté. Until 2004 I don’t think I ever even heard the word “tsunami” before, or perhaps had but chose not to register it consciously as anything more than a big wave knocking over a few trees. Certainly, I had never seen one broadcast in real time and, God willing, hope to never experience such a cataclysm in my own life. But in the days and weeks that followed, survivor testimonies began to filter through the media outlets. These were not merely heart-wrenching but crystalized the experience as terrific and as awe-inspiring as any apocalyptic “end of the world” scenario Hollywood could concoct. Most definitely it must have seemed this way for Maria Belon and her family, come to the newly inaugurated Golden Palace Hotel for a little R&R over the Christmas holidays and looking forward to nothing more substantial than a week of lazy lounging on Khao Lak’s ivory sands.

This vacation, however, was to turn deadly for 230,000 people, a loss of human life so staggering that to discover even one survivor from this perilous afternoon seems more a miracle now than it perhaps did then. To learn of five – all in one family – is a phenomenon, as well as the subject of Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible (2012). Bayona tells the tale from Maria’s perspective, albeit with one minor artistic flub: the Spanish Belon family has been morphed into a decidedly Caucasian/British brood headlined by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. Otherwise, The Impossible quickly acquires artistic integrity as an unrelenting portrait of heroism despite overwhelming tragedy. Its triumph of the human spirit genuine and satisfying.  

Bayona and his screenwriter, Sergio G. Sánchez have managed an extraordinary feat: to tell a true story in a compelling narrative without embellishing or twisting the facts. By Maria’s own harrowing account, we experience the epic wrath of the huge black wall of sea water smashing into bungalows, counterbalanced by excruciating moments of gut-wrenching fear racing through our protagonists’ minds. The drowning sensation Maria herself has described as “like being in a spin dryer” is realized for the audience in all its heart-palpating, nerve-jangling dread. The Impossible is not an easy film to watch – and not chiefly because we know the event being depicted actually happened, but rather because the performances given by Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland seem so “of the moment” and “in the zone” of the close-knit Belons suddenly torn asunder by this swirling maelstrom.

Most disaster movies brutalize the audience, placating our morbid desire for catharsis. We are able to survive fires, floods and the proverbial gnashing of teeth all from the comfort of our plush theater seats or cozily snuggled up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and favorite soft drink in hand. But The Impossible is different somehow,  almost documentarian in its approach, and it forces us to live through the nightmare moment by moment. The drama yields to an even more unquantifiable appreciation. By the end of the first reel we have completely set aside the premise that these are actors assuming just another role in their ever-expanding repertoires. Watts, McGregor and Holland manage no minor coup when they all but disappear from our collective consciousness, replaced by a haunted verisimilitude that gets under our skin and rattles a deepening trepidation with the even more daunting realization of finding loved ones still alive – if, in fact, at all – after the repercussion from those subsiding tides.

Our story begins predictably enough with the Bennett family’s arrival to the Golden Palace, a picturesque Thai resort newly opened to the public. Physician Maria Bennett (Watts), husband Henry (McGregor) and their three sons Lucas (Holland), Tomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) have been looking forward to this getaway – particularly Henry, who fears that his job at a Japanese firm is about to be terminated. Director Bayona resists the urge to simply jump right into the thick of things. Instead, he conscientious sets up the story with a few choice scenes that establish the special loving nature of this close-knit family: Henry and Maria’s devotedness to one another and Lucas’ selfishness in his inability to understand Tomas’ fear of flying.

Bayona does an exceptional job recreating the relaxed cadence preceding the deluge. We observe the resorts’ guests partaking in a moonlight candlelit balloon launch, the sun-filled beaches a resplendent tropical paradise beckoning Henry and his sons to go snorkeling, the entire family submitting to a retirement from their worldly cares. Regrettably, this respite will be short-lived. For on the next day, as Maria prepares to curl up in her deck chair with a good book and Henry and the boys frolic in the pool, an unexpected shift in the breeze and the scattering gulls overhead mark fateful seconds of quiet repose before the disaster unfurls. 

Triggered by a cataclysmic earthquake in the Indian Ocean miles away, the initial tidal wave unleashes its fury: uprooting trees, tearing apart bungalows and flooding the resort with a mountain of murky salt water that consumes everything and everyone in its path. Maria and Lucas are swept away. Henry is unable to get out of the pool with either Tomas or Simon, presumed to have fallen under the crushing weight of the ocean. Director Bayona does a fairly brave thing with these scenes, silencing the soundtrack repeatedly as Maria’s head periodically slips beneath the raging waters – in effect, realizing the sensation of being drowned for the audience.

Against all odds Maria and Lucas manage to reunite, perilously clinging to floating debris until at last they are propelled far enough inland where the waters have receded, leaving behind their path of unbridled destruction. Compositing CGI with full-scale dump tanks and miniatures of the resort, Bayona manages to effectively recreate this incalculable annihilation while never once allowing it to anesthetize the audience in their complacency for more special effects. Maria’s leg is badly injured. Without proper medical attention she will surely die of infection.

Lucas and Maria discover a small child, Daniel (Johan Sundberg), who is separated from his family and trapped beneath debris. These three climb into a tree to relative safety to await rescue.  A local Thai father and son (La-Orng Thongruang and Tor Klathaley) find Maria, Lucas and Daniel and drag Maria – literally – to a nearby makeshift hospital where, due to a mix-up, Maria is labeled with another survivor’s name. Thus, after being encouraged to go and assist the others, Lucas returns to find Maria’s bed empty and told by the Red Cross Nurse (Jomjaoi Sae-Limh) that his mother has died.

We shift focus back to the waterlogged remnants of the Golden Palace where Henry, Tomas and Simon have survived. Henry entrusts seven-year-old Tomas to Simon’s care and sends his boys on ahead in a truck bound for the hospital while he sets out on foot to learn what has become of Maria and Lucas.  Injured by falling debris, Henry is taken to an evacuation center where various survivors share their stories. At first Henry is understandably numb. But when another man, Karl (Sönke Möhring), desperate for news of what has become of his own family, willingly offers Henry a chance to call home using his cell phone to explain what has happened, Henry is overwrought with crippling anxiety and hopelessness. Enough cannot be said of Ewan McGregor’s performance in this scene.  It’s so lyrically heart-breaking, so utterly true to the moment in its unraveling of his composure.

Bayona counterbalances this absolutely tremendous moment of realization with another – more understated, but nonetheless graceful. We see Tomas, having arrived at a rest stop for the night, quietly observing the twinkling stars in the night sky as Simon sleeps by his side. A kindly old woman (Geraldine Chaplin) approaches, asking if she may sit with him for a while. To this inquiry Tomas responds as any child might: “How old are you?” To which the woman replies: “Seventy-four. How old are you?” “Seven,” Tomas admits. In this single scene Bayona has captured the essence of the tragedy, impactful to both young and old, sparing no one, yet bringing everyone together.  

Now, Bayona telescopes his narrative into its ultimate reunion for the Bennett family. Lucas learns that Maria is alive, having survived surgery on her chest but still very weak and facing an even more arduous operation on her leg. Through a whim of fate the rescue truck with Tomas and Simon has stopped for a moment on the outskirts of the hospital, and Henry – his own search for Maria thus far come to naught – has also found his way into the wards.  Maria sees Henry through the heavy gauze of her curtain but is unable to call to him. Meanwhile, Simon, needing to use the bathroom, jumps from the back of the truck to relieve himself on the side of the road. Lucas, who has glimpsed Henry leaving the ward but has now lost sight of him, instead finds Tomas and Simon. Their tearful reunion is heard by Henry who cannot believe his great good fortune. Karl instructs the driver of their truck to move on. Lucas takes Henry to Maria’s bedside and after another successful surgery on her leg the family is ushered by their insurance provider aboard an airplane bound for Singapore – their ordeal at last at an end.     

The Impossible is perfect storytelling, not because it seeks to transform its narrative catastrophe into high art, but rather because it uses the visualized narrative fiction to humanize a story we only thought we knew from newsworthy accounts.  Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor give career-defining performances. The word “performance” usually defines the artifice in acting. But herein I use the term merely as a reminder of how seamless both Watts and McGregor are in resurrecting that raw emotional center of the piece, undeniably the movie’s greatest strength. Tom Holland is an old soul in a boy’s body, absorbing the character of Lucas as part of his DNA and taking on more ballast than one might expect, but never in a way that seems beyond the character’s years. 

Fernando Velázquez score is appropriately subdued and reverent. We get none of the deafening groundswells generally associated with this type of underscoring but rather a quiet, understated and all together effective bit or musical foreshadowing. Dídac Bono, Lek Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat and Marina Pozanco’s production design works its own minor miracle on a budget. The film’s singular flaw is Óscar Faura’s cinematography. I’ve stated before my zero tolerance threshold for shaky handheld camerawork. Faura’s is among the most equilibrium upsetting in recent years. There are other – better – ways to create visual tension. Masking your actors by constantly moving the imagery around doesn’t equate to creating visual art. It never does. It never will. Otherwise, at 114 minutes The Impossible is a succinct drama. It takes us on a terrible journey, but one that is ultimately life-affirming.

Eone and Summit Films have assumed the distribution for The Impossible in North America. Their Blu-ray delivers the hi-def goods, revealing the finer details in Óscar Faura’s copper-toned cinematography. The 1080p image is sharp without appearing to suffer from digital manipulations. The stylized contrast, boosted to bleach out whites, is well represented. The 5.1 DTS audio will give your speakers a workout, but dialogue early on seems thin and lacking in spatiality.  Extras are abysmally bad: two featurettes (each under ten minutes long) in which impressions made by principal cast and crew are distilled into mere snippets inserted between truncated scenes from the film. The audio commentary by Bayona, Sanchez and Maria Belon is far more astute and comprehensive at putting the pieces together for us. We also get a few scant deleted scenes and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!

Nick Zegarac is a freelance writer/editor and graphics artist. He holds a Masters in Communications and an Honors B.A in Creative Lit from the University of Windsor. He is currently a freelance writer and has been a contributing editor for Black Moss Press and is a featured contributor to online’s Subtle Tea. He’s also had two screenplays under consideration in Hollywood.  Contact him via movieman@sympatico.ca.

Rena Lee

Almost Drowned

I am the girl, whom the sea engulfed,
then spewed on shore.

For a moment I was the center of attention,
a sudden sensation on the beach.

People pressed all around to see –

Lying limp and still, my ears filled with
muffled whispering:

“She almost drowned.”  “She’s almost back.”

In the balance of almost, for a fleeting second,
I had the choice.

“The show was disappointingly short,
at least it had a happy ending,”

the dispersing crowds must’ve thought.

I am the girl, whom the sea took in,
made me, for an instant, his,

then, cast me out on shore,
thus I became an outcast. 

Unable to shake off the salt, I carry on
as a forsaken shell in which emptiness blows.

The sea wants me no more, but the sand does.
From deep below the world’s noise,

I hear its summoning voice, raspy with grains,
choked with tears unshed.

Everyone keeps mistaking me for the girl
who was saved.

Rena Lee, pen name of Rena Kofman, was a poet and writer, a retired Professor of Hebrew from the City University of New York,and the author of twelve books in Hebrew and many magazine publications in both Hebrew and English.


“Sleep Deprived” by Mathias B. Freese

In the past 90 days or so I have had difficulties getting a good night’s sleep. For me that means at least about five to six hours uninterrupted by bathroom visits. As time went on the amount of sleep was gradually reduced to about one or two hours, and then 45 minutes of restlessness: watching TV, reading, feeling anxious and unsettled emotionally. Eventually I was feeling sleep deprived during the day. I greeted too many dawns fully awake.

One particular night was an insomniac’s fare: sleeplessness punctuated by tossing
and turning, walking about the house as if a nomad, worrying about what this experience was and what it meant. I surveyed what had happened or what was happening to me, and the following factors loomed large. Of course, I was the last to know.

I had been sitting in on a course on grief which I felt was creeping into my mind in a way that, apparently, was not healthy for me. When the instructor’s child had died at the age of six, she chose to wash down her daughter’s body before the coroner got to her. Unnerving, odd, peculiar, if not creepy in this day and age – or is there such a thing as this day and age when it comes to human beings and their behaviors? I was also struggling with a second reading of Becker’s The Denial of Death, whose implications were unnerving intellectually and psychologically, essentially that we are all caught between a fear of living and a fear of dying, often more obsessed by the latter than the former. I don’t deny death, for each day is adieu to who I am. I know that and more so at 73 as I near my end. All death and dying is imminent if we give it a moment’s consideration.

I had recently returned to psychotherapy after four decades with the express self-purpose of attaining support for all kinds of issues, one of which was to find solace or “comfort” as I stumbled into oblivion. Consciously I was seeking a friend, a companion, to keep me company as I teeter on the fathomless abyss. Apparently I was obsessing over the years left to me and how was I to use them without resorting to a panicked-filled bucket list, Americana at its most strident. In this Duck Dynasty nation we don’t relate to one another. What we do is sell off parts of ourselves like so many dry goods each moment of the day. I was living in fear, drenched in it.

All of these concerns combined, I believe, served to keep me up through the night at subliminal levels, barely conscious to myself until I began to ask questions. One day I expressed all this to my wife, Jane, and I felt some relief later on as if something had lifted or eased, but not too much so. Nevertheless, after checking with a pharmacist I settled upon an over-the-counter supplement, Melatonin, as something that might ease my nightly sleeplessness. It didn’t work. Thinking about all this, I called my physician’s assistant, made it clear to her that my sleeplessness had an undercurrent to it of anxiety and asked if she could ask the doctor for a non-addictive medication. I am glad I fully expressed the anxiety part of it and did not hold back.

He prescribed Trazodone, “an antidepressant used to treat depression [that] may also be used for relief of an anxiety disorder (e.g. sleeplessness, tension), chronic pain  and other conditions…” (It is the first time in my life I have ever had to take such a drug for such a condition.) So the medication seemed on target. I’ve been on it for fewer than three days, and some relief has been given – but not a full night’s sleep. The prescription information says “it may take 1 to 4 weeks to work.” Well, it hasn’t kicked in as yet, but I hope it does. I must wait.

As I think over and reconsider the cumulative weight of worry all these past weeks, wreaked upon me by myself, I observe how fog creeping into me like Sandburg’s cat  paws gnawed at my inner self, shrouding me, making me unclear to my own self. I was self-depressing myself. I was making myself anxious. Somewhere, unconsciously, I chose to somatize these mental tensions through sleeplessness. And latent stresses were telling my unknowledgeable self that I was not awake, not aware of what was occurring in me. So sleeplessness was a telegram to myself, a symptom. What is keeping me awake? If you stay awake, you might defer and delay dying, at least for this one night. Perhaps. I am morbidly amused.

About a year ago in a different medical situation, a nurse practitioner asked me if I was generally an anxious person. I quickly said no defensively, as if it implied an imperfection in myself. I lied to her. I am an anxious person, and a worrier. The fear is that the personal idiosyncracies of my very own special death and dying will not be controlled in any way — that high anxiety will win out and flood me, as I lie dying, serving doubly to compound the process itself making it even harder on myself, a constituent of my personality, in any case.

To die is the final loss of control, as if we have ever controlled anything in life. I imagine my fear is that I will be blown apart, disparate selves, atomically unglued and unhinged when I “allow” death to have its way with me. That is the great fear in me, the loss of control. And that, I think, creates whirlpools of anxiety in me. I don’t want to lose my grip on things. I have been that way all my life. Something had happened to me so very young that control was the lifeboat, the charade I clung on to for all of my life.

For me it is a great fear to die explosively, to become particulates, to burst asunder and to be no more. I suffer from dread.

I cannot say more. I experience dread, the all-consuming, all-devouring primal anxiety. I don’t want to hear an observation, be asked a question, be given an answer or proffered a therapeutically astute interpretation. Primally, I want to be held by my mother, in her arms, like a young child, as I pass through. Motherly attachment might ease my cowardice. 
There, there, child, just hold me.

© Mathias B. Freese

Matt is a writer who lives in Nevada.  He’s the author of The i Tetralogy, Down to a Sunless Sea and This Mobius Strip of Ifs.  Visit his blog. His major works are now available in Kindle format.