Neil Gaiman: Part Two: Short Stories and the Poems

By Bob Williams

Neil Gaiman: Part Two
The Short Stories and the Poems
The Short Stories

The short stories and the poems are collected in three books: Angels Visitations, Smoke and Mirrors, and Fragile Things. The first, intended originally as a limited edition and later published in a trade edition, is partly duplicated in Smoke and Mirrors but half of the twenty-two items are to be found only in Angels. In Smoke and Fragile Gaiman rewards those readers who read introductions by the inclusion of a story within the introductions. Otherwise there are in addition seventy-five unique works of which twenty are poems.

The sequence of the collections does not represent new, newer, and newest. In all collections the works are both early and recent and within each book Gaiman arranges them according to effectiveness and variety.

All fiction is fantasy according to Gaiman. This statement is too airy a wave of the hand. It amounts to no more than that only writers with imagination write stories. The combination of the real and the fantastic is not peculiar to Gaiman, but some writers make the combination with notable skill. There is no question in Gaiman’s work. He manages seamless documents for the most part. The close reading of his introductions suggests that too often a work was tailored for a particular audience or publication. This resulted sometimes in faulty work and sometimes not. At his best Gaiman always writes well, but he appears to be an author best qualified to write extended works, novels rather than short stories.

In the Introductions Gaiman gives some background on each work. In the case of duplicated stories the accounts vary from one introduction to another. The story ‘Chivalry,’ for example, which appears in Angels and Smoke, has some commentary that is word for word in both volumes but there are other comments that are in the one but not the other. In general the comments explain some of the reasons the story was written and for whom. Some additional comments are especially revealing and pertinent. In the case (again) of ‘Chivalry,’ Gaiman comments (in Smoke) that at public readings he has found this story to be a good opener. As a reader of his own work, Gaiman is outstanding. His appearances are captivating performances.

Performances give him the opportunity to read his poems. He has found – and deplores with good-humored resignation – that readers of his books were skipping the poetry. His quiet smile at the end of his reading one of his poems is surely a rueful recognition of the enthusiastic applause of his audience.

Angels Visitations.

Much of the material in Angels is occasional – introductions and reviews and much of the remainder that is unique to Angels is light. In fact only one poem (to be considered later) requires comment. Because of the beauty of this book it is worth having, but for all other purposes the reader could find Smoke and Mirrors a satisfactory substitute.

Smoke and Mirrors.

Close examination of Gaiman’s stories shows that they can be classified in interesting ways. There are a few horror stories, usually very short. Other stories contain fantastic elements. Often these are subordinate to more pressing issues so that the fantastic element is subordinate. And there are stories that include neither the horrific nor the fantastic. In the course of casual reading the fact that there are such stories in the collections escapes the notice of the reader and it is a surprise to note that Gaiman has written such stories and that they are as good as they are.

Many of the stories concern the consumption of one person by another. This theme appears curious at first, but reflection suggests that this is a basic theme to many stories and that Gaiman merely presents it more nakedly than other writers. His recurrent dream as a child involved his being trapped in a house with cannibalistic witches, and much of his writing reflects the psychological aspects of being consumed. The theme can appear in many ways: sometimes as imprisonment, a frequent occurrence in The Sandman, but more often as a contractual transaction. There are examples of this in the stories as well as in the novels and even in some of the children’s books.

The following describe the major stories, chosen admittedly by bulk. The very brief stories, more correctly sketches, are resistant to analysis since they are their own best commentary.

‘Chivalry’ has a thread of the fantastic but is essentially a picture of a widow, Mrs Whitaker, a pleasant lady more distinguished by sound feelings and good manners than by anything notoriously brilliant. She buys the Holy Grail at a thrift shop. She doesn’t know what it is but she is not astonished when Sir Galaad arrives to negotiate with her for the Grail. She serves him tea, tolerates his horse, and refuses his offers. On his third visit she agrees to give him the Grail in exchange for the Philosopher’s Stone and the egg of the phoenix. In the final scene she is back at the thrift shop where she learns that Galaad has eloped with the clerk. She almost buys Aladdin’s lamp but decides – with the stone and the egg and the picture of her husband – she has enough on her mantle without it.

Gaiman draws on stock items of myth to bring this story closer to us. The homeliness of Mrs Whittaker is, of course, a great help in this. It is a gentle and funny story that Gaiman often uses to open one of his public readings.

‘The Price’ is a horror story. A black cat – shades of Poe – defends the family against the nocturnal attacks of a demon. Like many stories in which the horrific is uppermost, the conclusion is a more or less conventional flourish. There is very little else that an author can do with something that is at the extreme end of the comfort zone.

But horror has its uses and in ‘The Troll Bridge’ Gaiman takes us across a terrain of great variety. The conclusion arises inevitably from the material of the narration and has about it a genuine feeling that sets it apart from the basic horror story.

A boy, crossing a bridge, encounters a troll and bargains with him. The troll wants to eat his life but the boy insists that he has had too little life to be worth the troll’s trouble. The boy later encounters the troll again and manages to evade the troll’s claim on him. But as a man whose life is a shambles, he gladly allows the troll to eat his life. This results in an exchange between the man and the troll with the latter taking the man’s place and the man taking the troll’s place. The emergence of Gaiman’s theme of zoophagy is very apparent in this story.

‘The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories’ is a satire on Hollywood as seen by a forlorn Englishman and the story of his relationship with an aged janitor who is obsessed with his memories of a movie actress. She had, in a freakish mood, kissed one of the fish that swam in the pool of the hotel where the Englishman is staying and the imprint of her kiss is still apparent on the fish’s back. This fantastic touch is just that, a touch, and has no vital concern in the course of the narrative – of a type that Gaiman seldom uses, one that simply carries a story on until nothing more is to be said. If this were to appear in an anthology of great short stories, it would not be out of place. It would be silly to assume that this story is superior to either ‘The Price’ or ‘The Troll Bridge,’ but without second thoughts it would be unlikely for an author to have written these two and ‘The Goldfish Pool.’

‘Changes’ is a harder story to describe. It involves a drug that cures some cancers but changes the sex of the patient. This is an obvious science fiction base but, as so often in Gaiman’s stories, that seems to be a secondary issue. Rajit is the discoverer of the drug and we see him as he is, a timid man and homosexual, in contrast to the film version of his life. Gaiman gives us his life at intervals and examines the bootleg version of the drug that becomes more popular than other recreational drugs. He also looks at the effect on the word change itself. This becomes a naughty word and is lost to the language – coins in one’s pocket, for example, are no longer ‘change’ but ‘loose coinage.’ The dying Rajit goes out onto the beach where he watches the sunbathers and perceives that many of them have adopted a sex to which they were not born. His dying word is ‘Angels.’ The importance of angels to Gaiman, as important to Gaiman as to Rilke or Klee, gives an extra dimension to this conclusion.

The importance of ‘The Daughter of Owls’ is largely that it is told in the style of John Aubrey, one of Gaiman’s favorite writers. And further testimony if one were needed to Gaiman’s omnivorous reading.

‘Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar’ is like ‘The Daughter of Owls’ in that it pays a literary debt, but unlike that that Gaiman pays to Aubrey, this one is to H.P. Lovecraft. Gaiman acknowledges that Lovecraft was a master of sorts, but it was a sort that cannot be taken altogether seriously and this is a farcical send up of the typical Lovecraft setting.

Gaiman sees ‘Looking for the Girl’ as the first of his stories that has his voice. It is a fantasy but as we have learned already, fantasy need not necessarily dominate. The protagonist fixates on a young woman pictured in Penthouse. In the course of the story he ages, but he continues to see her pictures in other magazines. She has not aged. He seeks for her to the neglect of his own interests and when he finds her, he is incapable of attempting to fathom her mystery.

‘Only the End of the World Again’ is another Lovecraft spoof. It has more horror elements than ‘Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar.’ The protagonist, a werewolf, outwits a crowd of Lovecraftian characters, one of whom has a strong resemblance to Sydney Greenstreet.

‘We Can Get Them for You Wholesale’ is (for a story about mass murder) a light affair. The protagonist wants to find assassins to murder the lover of his girl friend. His love of a bargain gets out of hand on a global scale. It is slight but a polished example of a story written in the style of John Collier.

‘One Life Furnished in Early Moorcock’ is less a story than a tribute to an eminent writer of fantasy combined with a slice of autobiography. An author cannot always retrieve what he once was. The door of adolescence, once closed, is hard to reopen and the effort may result in nothing more than the puerile. Gaiman’s success in ‘One Life’ shows an impressive imaginative scope and another proof of his versatility.

In ‘Foreign Parts’ Simon Powers, bank employee and introvert, develops an ailment of the genitals. Since he has not had a sexual partner for three years, he knows that he does not have a sexually transmitted disease. His doctor agrees with him and treats him for a non-specific infection. During the course of his treatment Simon becomes convinced that his sexual organs no longer belong to him. Later this sensation of alienation spreads to his whose whole lower body. By the time he is healed of his infection, he is a different person, outgoing, ready to travel, and in search of women. The particular interest of this story, apart from how it expresses a major preoccupation of Gaiman, is to determine if it is a tale of possession or of dispossession.

‘Mouse’ is a powerful story on any terms. Regan lives in America with his wife Jan. His real love Gwen is in England. Jan has an abortion and Regan is brutally unsympathetic. Throughout the story he is preoccupied with the humane trapping and release of the mouse in their pantry. When he releases it, a feral cat captures and kills it. The story carefully collects all his frustrations and inconsistencies into a subtle picture of a man who neither knows himself or anything else.

‘When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, aged 11 ¼’ is told by a very levelheaded child who knows that her parents are unhappy in their marriage but allows this to enter her consciousness only as a series of events that she cannot connect. Each event is a separate occurrence that requires the reader to reconstruct. The end of the world of the title is the apocalypse. It moves with such slowness that the population has become used to it and frequents it as one would a theme park. ‘That dread day’ has become a tourist attraction.

‘Tastings,’ like the short sketch (‘Babycakes’) that follows it, is about cannibalism, the assumption, the ultimate assumption, of power of one person over another. In ‘Tastings’ a preternaturally gifted woman has sex with a man and by doing so deprives him of his telepathic power and of his memories.

‘Murder Mysteries’ is one of the longer stories in the book. It is also available as a graphic novel with the illustrations by P. Craig Russell who drew the incomparable ‘Ramadan’ issue of The Sandman. The greater and significantly more comfortable length of this story gives Gaiman the room to pursue complexities.

Much of the action takes place in Heaven and the narrator of this is an angel who has walked away rather than fallen. In combination with this is an earthly story involving an Englishman stranded in Los Angeles until the weather in London permits him to fly home. He visits an old friend but after the visit he is outside his hotel with no recollection of how he arrived there or of how his visit ended. Restless, he sits on a nearby bench where he is joined by a poorly dressed old man, the angel Raquel in his earthly appearance. He offers a story in exchange for a cigarette.

The story is about murder in Heaven – or, more precisely, in what Gaiman calls, here and elsewhere, the Silver City. Raquel is the Vengeance of the Lord and this gives him the characteristics of a divinely empowered sleuth. On these terms, it is obvious that he will solve the crime and the interest is in the novelty of the crime and its effect on Lucifer and Raquel.

In parting, Raquel gives the young Englishman the kiss of oblivion. The man will thus remain unaware that during his visit he committed an atrocious and senseless crime, the murder of two women and a child. This is like a Crime and Punishment in which Porfiry Petrovich lets Raskolnikov go free. Raquel, no longer Vengeance of the Lord, is in his abdication an instrument of mercy.

‘Snow, Glass, Apples’ retells the story of Snow White from the view of the Queen. Why is Snow White so white? It is because she is a vampire. Gaiman turns the story expertly on its ear and gives us an opportunity to openly cheer for the Queen.

Fragile Things

‘A Study in Emerald.’ Since this is a story with a trick ending, any meaningful discussion would spoil it for the reader. It is devious and sly, another tongue-in-cheek tribute to H.P. Lovecraft as well as a brilliant parody of the Sherlock Holmes Stories. The interjected advertisements are thoughtfully considered and very funny.

‘October in the Chair’ uses the tales within a tale device. In this case, it is a meeting in the woods of the months of the year. In the course of their not always cordial relations the following sly T.S. Eliot reference occurs:

“April said. ‘That’s because you’re crazy.’

‘Mm,’ said September to everybody. ‘That’s our April. She’s sensitive, but she’s still the cruelest.’”

October tells the principal story. An unhappy boy, Runt, runs away from the family that neither knows what he is nor cares. As he encounters his first night from home, a stranger boy greets him and they spend the night in play. Runt accepts calmly that his playmate is a ghost. All Runt has to do to become the boy’s companion forever is to enter the mysterious farmhouse of the abandoned community. October concludes his story with Runt walking up the slope to the farmhouse.

This is a story that Gaiman reads at book signings. It’s a good choice and his reading brings out vividly its tenderness and compassion.

Gaiman in his introduction assures the reader that ‘Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of Dread Desire’ is a shortened version of the original title. When he first wrote it, he showed it to two ‘authorities’ who discouraged him from publishing it. He followed their advice until, years later, he reread and liked the story. It won the Locus Award and has appeared in several anthologies.

The story is simple, so simple that it is more an extended device than a story. The protagonist is a writer with very high principles. As a serious writer, he is determined to write realistic novels. Unfortunately he lives in a world fashioned by Poe and Lovecraft where crypts with ghouls, a sinister butler, and a vengeful brother are commonplaces. He has an irresistible sense of humor and all his efforts collapse in hilarious send-ups. As he despairs of ever becoming the writer he aspires to be, a more loquacious raven that Poe’s gives him sound advice: Forsake realism and write fantasy. The fantasy that he writes involves a breakfast scene between an indifferent husband and a wife seething with repressed fury at his neglect. This is a consistently funny virtuoso performance with each detail exquisitely polished.

‘Closing Time’ depends on the framing device of a story within a story. The narrator tells the members of his club of a boyhood experience. He witnessed a sinister house that took in and consumed three boys, casual acquaintances. The story, as the man tells it, has no satisfactory close, but a stranger at the club – a coincidence that challenges the reader’s credulity – can supply an ending, one of cruelty and perversion with hints of the occult.

‘Bitter Grounds’ is a longer story than ‘Closing Time’ and is better able to deal with questions of innate plausibility and conclusions, which, unnatural in the sense of being eerie and surprising, are entirely natural in the inevitability of their genesis.

The narrator begins his story with a denial of self, a self so invested in a relationship that its failure constitutes a kind of death. He impulsively abandons his old life and gradually his own identity. When in the course of unusual but plausible events he finds himself in the possession of another’s identity, it is no problem for him to slip into the other’s life and take his place at a convention of anthropologists at New Orleans. His encounter with Macumba, the endemic occultism of the city, is simple and decisive. The man so inimical to his own identity, so half in love with death, becomes a being neither dead or alive and unburdened of self.

A properly scary story, ‘Bitter Grounds’ explores the fragile ties that secure us to our own individuality. The narrator takes another’s identity and drifts away from himself into a state more frightening than death.

‘Keepsakes and Treasures’ has two merits: it is a good story and it introduces Mr Alice. The latter is important because he will appear again in ‘The Monarch of the Glen,’ the last story in the book. The narrator is a ruthless killer and he works for the equally ruthless Mr Alice, one of the richest men in the world and one who operates from the shadows. Mr Alice buys a beautiful boy from an obscure tribe that supports itself by the sale of their beautiful young men. The boy dies and his lieutenant tries to recover contact with the elusive tribe but fails. Elements from The Sandman surface in this story. Mr Alice is like Mr Smiley and the conception of the narrator recalls the rape of Unity Kincaid.

‘The facts in the Case of Miss Finch’ has similarities to ‘Queen of Knives,’ a long narrative poem in Smoke and Mirrors in that both concern the disappearance of a person in theatrical circumstances and at the hands of a stage magician. Gaiman works out the circumstances realistically in the case of Miss Finch. She is, Gaiman establish firmly, an unpleasant person whose disappearance would not necessarily make the world an unhappier place. The witnesses to her disappearance find the circumstances so fantastic that they despair of being believed should they attempt to initiate inquiries. She vanishes in the course of a bizarre series of entertainments, some the result of illusion but some are displays of an unacceptable reality. Disappearance – like that of the grandmother of ‘Queen of Knives’ or of the three boys in ‘Closing Time’ – becomes a metaphor for the kind of loss of identity that Gaiman examined in ‘Bitter Grounds.’

For one whose best works are those with ample dimensions – the epic Sandman, the novels, the longer short stories – Gaiman proves himself very effective at the razor cut of short vignettes. These appear in the Despair section of Endless Night and in the twelve abrupt eruptions of ‘Strange Little Girls’ in Fragile Things. These little girls, inspired by a performance of Gaiman’s friend, the singer Tori Amos, are indeed strange. Some of them are broken and some of them are dangerous. One of the little girls looks forward to another story written for Tori Amos and is also in Fragile Things. This is a search for a mysterious woman named Scarlett (‘Pages from a Journal Found in a Shoebox Left in a Greyhound Bus Somewhere between Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Louisville, Kentucky’) The needs of Amos dictated the shape of both stories, but in the case of Scarlett, one remembers with interest the references in The Sandman to a character named Scarlett, often referred to but always invisible.

‘Harlequin Valentine’ – like ‘Sweeper of Dreams’ in Smoke and Mirrors – was inspired by a work of sculptor Lisa Snelling-Clark. Harlequin gives Missy his heart for a valentine. She eats it. This destroys Harlequin and transforms him into Pierrot.

‘The Problem of Susan’ is a meditation on the child left behind at the end of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. Susan is now an old woman, a professor of folklore. We learn much about her through an interview of her by a student reporter. The reporter asks a tactless question and Susan ends the interview.

‘Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot’ is another collaborative venture of Gaiman with an artist, the painter Rick Berry. One must guess at the combined effect of words and image since here there is only the text. Berry has wide-ranging gifts, a capable realist who uses his extraordinary technical skills to send aloft an imagination that is wonderfully expressive and memorable. Gaiman as a collaborator has already been noticed casually. More comments on this will appear more precisely later.

For all that a dominant theme in Gaiman is the fragility of the individual life and the ease with which it can be taken or given to another, the lore of the vampire does not appear as much as the reader would expect. He shows a preference for the more powerful, more idiosyncratic material of myth with its stronger resonance and greater flexibility.

‘Goliath’ has a special, although slightly adventitious, interest in that it is an unused treatment for Matrix. The movie was slickly entertaining but obvious on most levels. The Gaiman version is psychologically subtler.

‘How to talk to Girls at Parties’ is an irresistible story of two adolescent boys who are entirely out of their depth and too callow to realize it immediately. The girls of this party are aliens. The boys, glands humming, are too taken with their situation to heed or interpret the strange conversations. These are not earth-girl talk and the willingness of the boys to accept it as if it were gives the story buoyancy and comic élan.

The narrator – and more naïve boy – says “I merely had two sisters” when he reflects that his companion was lucky enough to have brothers. Given Gaiman’s own situation as the older and only brother of two sisters, it is hard not to see this regret as autobiographical. It is interesting that Gaiman’s only son has also two younger sisters.

And for the older of these sisters Gaiman wrote ‘Sunbird’ as a (belated) birthday gift. The name, Holly, is enshrined in the name of one of the characters, Hollyberry NoFeathers McCoy. The sunbird is a special Egyptian bird that the jaded members of the Epicurean Club set out to eat. But this bird is the Bennu Bird, or Phoenix, and there are penalties to its eating. All the members of the club except one die as a result of eating a bird whose home is the sun, the penalty of living off the source of mystery

‘The Monarch of the Glen’ is the curious aftermath of American Gods. It unites in one story Shadow of American Gods with Mr Alice and his sinister lieutenant (here named Smith) from ‘Keepsakes and Treasures.’ Shadow is on a walking tour of northern Scotland when he is recruited by a sinister doctor to be part of the security team at a local party attended by men and women of exceptional wealth, power, and eminence. Shadow suspects that there is more involved in this than he has been told. The barmaid Jenny goes so far in the way of warning that she tells him to call upon her at need and she will come to his rescue. The only other guests at this inn in the off-season are a man and his mother. The man is large and hypersensitive to noise. At the castle where the party is to take place, Mr Alice, the arranger of the party, tells Shadow that his role is to fight a monster. This is a centuries old ritual and Shadow is the chosen champion. The guests summon the opponent by beating drums. It is the other guest from the inn that responds. He is Grendel. He and Shadow fight but Shadow perceives that it is the intention of the guests to kill them both. In time he calls on Jenny who far from being a barmaid is a force of nature. She destroys the guests and the castle while Shadow carries Grendel to his mother. Mr Alice’s lieutenant appears and threatens to kill Shadow for his failure to abide by the conditions of the contest but Grendel’s mother takes Shadow under her protection, which is more effective than Mr Alice for all his wealth and power.

Where is the world in which such events are possible? Not here – where far worse, but more easily explained, events happen every minute. It is only after we examine American Gods that we can understand that the world of Shadow is the world in which ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ can occur. Gaiman has the skill whereby he can make us believe that a hero can defeat evil. Not, alas, in our world but somewhere.

Gaiman is, in fact, a writer with an incredible range. His trifles are engaging and mostly defy critical strictures. But when he abandons trifles, he storms along a mythic path irresistibly, full of potent forces and powerful revelations. A consistently and strongly imagined world can better tell us about this very world, at once our enemy and our prison, than the ponderous reportings of realism. What he does with the amazing is amazing. And, better than that, it has the power of untrammeled truth.

 

The Poems
Any new poetry needs close examination. The big question is – is it poetry or merely crippled prose. Gaiman’s poetry is not always central to his creative life, but it shares many of the same preoccupations and expresses them effectively. And of this alternative medium he has competent technical command.

Some of the poems meditate on the bizarre or on the normal in bizarre ways. ‘Post-Mortem on Our Love’ (Angels), for example, slips easily from the rationally analytic to the language of the autopsy. Just as many of the stories had their genesis in special circumstances, so too did some of the poems. ‘Luther’s Villanelle’ (Angels) was a birthday present for a friend and would be difficult to apprise without the knowledge of this background.

In ‘The White Road’ (Smoke) many of Gaiman’s preoccupations coalesce. It tells a folktale of the Bluebeard type. It varies from the easy but controlled opening lines

I wish that you would visit me one day

in my house.

There are such sights I would show you

to a refrain of great formality

It was not so, and

God forbid

It should be so

with its variants to show that all the horrors that the narrator would deny are indeed so. The Bluebeard of the story is Mr Fox – in fact as well as name – and suggests the use of the figure in Japanese folklore where the fox is an unfortunate, sinister, or villainous figure. Gaiman uses the fox in his other retelling of Japanese legend in The Dream Hunters.

‘Cold Colors’ (Smoke) is Gaiman’s commentary, bold in concept and firm in execution, on the period in London that he describes as one “of financial excess and moral bankruptcy.” It is in every sense a major work with a consistent vision that carefully exploits Shakespearian diableries, elements of the occult, and the excesses of contemporary corruption. In one vivid scene of this long poem, Gaiman describes an earth which has split open to allow the living, soon bored with the spectacle, to look down upon the suffering of the damned in Hell. Gaiman interlaces into his denunciatory vision the language of the computer and of modern means of communication and travel.

Given that it is an awe-inspiring poem, it is hard to know what to make of Gaiman’s statement that for publication in The Time Out Book of London Short Stories he “reformatted it as prose and left a lot of readers very puzzled.” It is hard to imagine any other result being possible.

‘The Sea Change’ and ‘Desert Wind’ are poems of moderate length. In the first a sailor in peril of drowning has a vision that will years later lure him to his death. In the second a lost wanderer has a vision that will years later lure him to his death. Gaiman’s introduction explains the separate circumstances from which each of these poems resulted, but offers no explanation for their remarkable similarities.

This anomaly has two points of interest. Gaiman responds best in the creation of his short fictions and poetry to specific situations and requests. Those, Gaiman himself tells us, who request that he write anything he wishes “rarely get anything at all.” It is even more interesting to perceive that to read the poems by themselves is a different and richer experience than to read them with the stories.

‘The Fairy Reel’ (Fragile is a wilder version of Yeats’s ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ and has a remarkable similarity of imagery. It revolves on its own necessities formally and is an effective piece of captivating artificiality.

‘The Hidden Chamber’ (Fragile)is another (cf. ‘The White Road’ in Smoke) and moodier consideration of Bluebeard. This Bluebeard is subtler than the other. There is no test, no secret chamber. He is sufficient in himself to inspire terror.

and you may wake beside me in the night,

knowing that there’s a space without a door

knowing that there’s a place that’s locked

but isn’t there.

‘Going Wodwo’ (Fragile has special qualities. Its subscription, for example, to the theme of the noble savage and the felicity of its phrasing. It’s short enough to quote in full and sufficiently typical to make that desirable.

Shedding my shirt, my book, my coat, my life

Leaving them empty husks and fallen leaves

Going in search of food and for a spring

Of sweet water.

I’ll find a tree as wide as ten fat men

Clear water rilling over its gray roots

Berries I’ll find, and crabapples and nuts,

And call it home.

I’ll tell the wind my name, and no one else.

True madness takes or leaves us in the wood

halfway through all our lives. My skin will be

my face now.

I must be nuts. Sense left with shoes and house,

my guts are cramped. I’ll stumble through the green

back to my roots, and leaves and thorns and buds,

and shiver.

I’ll leave the way of words to walk the wood

I’ll be the forest’s man, and greet the sun,

And feel the silence blossom on my tongue

like language.

‘Locks’ (Fragile) doesn’t, if Gaiman’s introduction contains all the relevant information, appear to have been written in response to a specific request or occasion. It has an entrancing number of levels. A father tells the story of Goldilocks to his two-year-old daughter. To him storytelling is a sacred act and his daughter interacts with his story as he considers his own father and meditates on what fatherhood means and involves.

How are you to behave if you find yourself within a fairytale? Gaiman gives the details in ‘Instructions’ (Fragile). The result is appropriately enchanting as he gathers into his list all the details of proper behavior. Like ‘Locks’ it was not apparently written for any particular occasion.

‘The Day the Saucers Came’ (Fragile) is a comic poem in which fantastic accumulations of the bizarre lead to an ending that is both unexpected and comically tidy.

Gaiman’s poems are felicitous creations. His means are simple and his control of them complete. And his range is wide. He commands the voices of satire and comedy as well as the singing voice of the lyricist. It is difficult to perceive the poems apart from the prose works, but the attempt to do so places a special value on the poems that is an unexpected enhancement.

Read part one of this piece, which includes an introduction and an analysis of The Sandman: here

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

 

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