Original Short Fiction: The Graveyard Whistler on Literary History and the Art of Irony
The Graveyard Whistler's Introduction
Hello, my name is Belmonte Segwic, (a.k.a. The Graveyard Whistler, a handle I used in grad school), and I just recently earned my master of arts in creative writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. After achieving that momentous event, I decided I would go for a PhD in the history of letters. Thus I had to go searching for a topic about which to attach my literarily waning interest.
With a ton of doubt on my mind, I started rummaging the Internet searching for my focus of interest. Unfortunately, I am still searching for that focus, but I am happy to report that I found an interesting piece that caught my eye because its title contains the term "Irony," and irony is my very, extremely very, favorite literary device.
This little piece involves a spat between a brother and a sister. Apparently the sister is an accomplished writer and the brother is barely capable of reading with any competent level of understanding. I came away wondering why she gives this lout a second thought—but then, he's not my brother!
(Disclaimer: I contacted that writer who composed this piece and asked permission to use it. I told her I'd need to reproduce it pretty much verbatim. She gave permission but asked that I change the names to protect the guilty. I do not bother to give her name but I did change the names of the brothers, and she then gave final permission for its use.)
No doubt when I do finally locate my permanent area of interest, I will work some of the concepts in this piece into my dissertation, but for now I give you the piece for your perusal. It gave me a chuckle or two. Maybe it will do the same for you.
Cain and Abel
O, the Irony!
The kerfuffle started when my brother misread my poem, "The Dumpfered Burdings." I offer the poem here in its entirety because I will comment on its contents later.
The Dumpfered Burdings
owed to Jonathan Swifts' "A Tale of a Tub"
The burdings have come round again, come round again
In nightmare after nightmare:
His son has a clamp tight to each ear
He floats in a moat of splayed gravity
Where the grass springs over his rake;
And sucks in the morning frost
While his wife flies sorely through the moist
And dies peacefully like a heart attack on a dead skunk.
The dumpfered burdings boom under his nose;
He smells the blood on the rigging and blows out tissues
Dripping from a dozen dangling seeds that sprout
Out of the mouths of old frosted men.
His eyeballs slide sideways in the cool
Afternoon and register a blank and bare stare.
Each window shines in the blown dust bowl.
To his own blank soul, he puts his money
In pockets, in back pockets, in front pockets
Jumps up and down and dances like Nazis
That have lost their tongues to other vultures,
Flags that flap communazism over the land
Where corn and peas used to flourish:
He thinks he can; he can do to any a man
Won't let morning shiver on his shoulder,
While Big Gov eats his liver
Until he stumbles and staggers back to his hell-hole
Where he will pour an amber drink
And keep on drinking until each gulp
Has landed him another stop sign
He fears he will never grasps enough dollars
As he strains his brain and rectum
Listening to the cold clank of ice cubes
In his tin cup.
After fifty years of taking no notice of my poetry, my brother Alvin encountered "The Dumpfered Burdings" on my personal Web site and fixated on the idea that poem was about him. Apparently thinking he could smear and shame me in the eyes of family and friends, he infringed upon my copyright by copying and pasting on his Facebook wall the poem along with his lament: "Be glad you dont have a brother whose a poet!" (sic and sic)
To my son, he expressed deep pain over the poem, claiming he felt that he had been "punched in gut." I tried to assuage his anguish by explaining that the poem was not about him but was influenced by the Jonathan Swift tale titled "A Tale of a Tub." But no explanation about the poem’s genesis could dissuade him from insisting the poem was about him. After an intense email exchange, I finally reported his infringement on my intellectual property to Facebook, and they removed my property from his FB page.
What strikes me as the ultimate in irony is that before the kerfuffle about "The Dumpfered Burdings," I had never written a poem directly to, for, or about him. Only two poems hovered in his direction, "Which Way Sky" and "The Battle of Lobster Bay."
After all these years of paying little to no attention to my poems, he went rummaging through my Web site, apparently looking for something with which to smear me, and he thought he found it by claiming to find himself in two poems (he also found himself in "The Mostly Monroe Doctrine," but he didn't copy and paste it on FB) that I had placed on my Facebook companion page to my personal Web site.
Why Does He Insist the Poem is About Him? Politics?
I still have no idea why he chose/chooses to believe a false narrative over the truth. I do not understand why he seems to want the poems to be about him. They are not flattering portrayals, which implies that he wants to believe I have negative opinions/feelings about him. Again, I do not understand what he gains from believing that.
I speculate that because I am a big part of his past, yet now I do not fit into his thoughts of the past the way I used to, he deems me a suspicious character. My political leanings tilt the opposite direction from his, and he is foaming-at-the-mouth loyal to his side, will brook no word against it. I have become the enemy in his mind, or so I surmise.
I have always thought he was more interested in me than I have ever been in him. I know that he seems like a vague figure to me when I think about the past. I remember a lot of the stuff we did during the our childhood down on the farm in Upstate New York. But here is an odd thing: I do not remember ever talking to him as we were growing up. Of course, I remember he was there, we were part of the same family of five; we have a younger brother named Tommy, whom I do remember, even though he is ten years my junior, while Alvin was three years closer to me age. I do also remember that Tommy was a sweet kid, and Alvin was a morose pouter. But I never took either of them seriously because they both had very different interests from mine.
Never Close as Adults
Of course, Alvin and I never went to school together, well, not exactly. Because I was seven years older than he, by the time he was in first grade, I was in middle school. I know I would see him after school walking home with his friends, and sometimes I'd catch up to him, and we'd walk the rest of the way home together. I cannot remember one single thing about which we might have talked as we walked.
I went to his wedding ceremony, held at the mobile home of a justice of the peace near Chittenango. I do not think he attended my wedding at the Chittenango United Methodist Church, but I am not certain. I cannot visualize him there. He is not in any of the pictures, but he still could have been there.
The point is that I have always felt rather neutral about Alvin, at least after we became adults. I felt somewhat motherly toward him when he was very young; he was so much smaller than I was. I think I felt that I had to protect him. But I never really became interested in anything that interested him. I hardly even remember what interested him. I've always thought our interests differed greatly because of the difference in age and gender.
I know I always thought it odd that he liked Annie Oakley, and he probably liked Annie Oakley because I did. He actually owned two Annie Oakley costumes which were, of course, my idea, because I was too big to wear them; they did not make them for big kids like me. I do remember his saying he wished he could wear them, but boys don't wear skirts. My mom told us to say the outfits were mine, if anyone ever asked. No one ever did!
Still, he would become interested in things I paid attention to, but I cannot remember becoming interested in something because he did. As adults, the only thing we could ever safely discuss was our childhood, which always interested him much more than it did me. Even that subject can be dicey, the age difference makes it very difficult to find memories that are the same.
Negative Attention Better Than None?
The point of this speculation is to try to understand why Alvin so adamantly wanted those poems to be about him. Maybe negative attention is better than no attention, which is pretty much what I have always bestowed on him, and actually, I had long felt somewhat bad about that, until after he told my son that if we were not siblings, we would not be friends; then, I felt that that is just the way it is. I realized that we just do not have enough in common to be close. But that also is exactly why I would not write a poem about him—he just does not appear on the screen of my attention for me to be motivated to write a poem about him. (I have thought more about Alvin during the hours in which I have composed this essay than all the years before this ridiculous event.)
Here is an admission that I had not revealed before, and which would probably only feed his obsession to have "The Dumpfered Burdings" be about him: on an early draft of that poem, I had actually placed the epigraph, "for my brother." But I later removed it because it would have given the wrong impression. I thought of epigraphing it for him because of the gibberish in the title and the other images that attach to the notion of gibberish. (Early on, he was assigned the nickname, "Gibber." Our parents said he used "gibber to himself in his playpen," so the name "Gibber" stuck.) I also thought of dedicating it to Tommy, but Tommy was not like the obsessive character in the poem either, so dedicating it to either of them would have been deceptive.
Under a very different, truly close sibling relationship, that poem could be perceived as funny—even if I had intended it to be about him—as with very close friends who can call each other names like "nigger" or "bitch," which only indicates the closeness and the love between the name-callers. When people know they share true common, strong bonds, literary hyperbole and other rhetorical devices are employed only for entertainment and to intensify those bonds, not to belittle, as those extreme examples do when taken literally.
However, such is not the case with us. We do not trust each other enough to use irony with each other because we have never been that close. And this is something I learned only after this kerfuffle. I have certainly realized that I cannot trust him.
Why Poem Could Not Be About Him
The interpretation of any poem can be a tricky thing, and in Alvin's interpretation of "The Dumpfered Burdings," he had to contort and distort to make the poem about him. For example, the man in the poem has repeated nightmares about drinking and drowning; does my brother have such nightmares?—I do not even know if he has those nightmares; if he does, then that makes a happy coincidence for his interpretation. But obviously, because I do not even know if he has them, I could not have attributed them to him in the poem. When I first asked him about having those nightmares in the first message I sent him regarding the poem, he did not answer.
(Later he said he has nightmares about his daughter painting grapes during the night at a sword factory, and somehow he seemed to accept the drowning nightmares as portraying his fears for his daughter. Of course, I did not even know about the daughter-painting grapes-nights nightmares. Obviously, his inability to read and interpret poetry has added to the kerfuffle.)
But he did respond when I pointed out that the man in the poem can smell: he said that "smelling blood" was always a metaphor and claimed that blood has no smell; neither claim, of course, is true, but again a happy claim for him to believe in order to keep the poem about him. So there is one metaphor that cannot point to him because I did not know if he has drinking/drowning nightmares, and one literal image "smelling blood," which also cannot point to him because he has been diagnosed with no sense of smell.
The man in the poem distrusts the government, which is portrayed in the "dances like Nazis," and "Flags that flap communazism over the land," along with the ironic assertion that he thinks he can, echoing the Cesar Chavez farm workers' slogan, when the poem character obviously believes otherwise, accounting for his nightmares; he fears excessive taxation, one of the reasons he feels that he will never "grasp enough" dollars. That is the opposite of Alvin’s political philosophy; he is a "single-payer," big government fan—"big time," as he once expressed it. I also heard him say once that he was the "yellowest of yellow dog Democrats." Yet somehow he thinks his political philosophy would result in nightmares that condemn the very philosophy that he espouses.
So there are at least three metaphors/devices/images that all indicate the poem is not to, for, or about him. Actually, minus the gibberish imagery, only the fact that he has a son and wife with heart problems makes him similar to the man in the poem, but then Tommy also has two a son and a wife who actually did die of heart failure.
At one point in the discussion, I offered my brother a poem that I called "Persephone on the Brink" with an epigraph to him. He responded with an emoticon, whose meaning I could not determine; it was :--), a smiley face with a nose. But then he fell silent. To get him to respond, I sent him via email a silly, satiric apology, in which I lamented suppressing my feelings and thus not being aware that I was expressing my true feelings for him, and for that I apologized.
Interestingly, he accepted the fake apology and yet castigated me for suggesting I didn't know my own mind. It seemed that he would realize that if one part of the piece was outlandish, then the apology was just as outlandish.
Thus, more back and forth, until I posted in his FB comments a non-literary but real apology—I apologized for writing a poem that seemed as if it was about him. Again, no response. So I wrote him to make sure he understood what I was apologizing for, and he went ballistic, posting my parody apology along with the real apology to show my hypocrisy. I tried to defend myself in the comments section by explaining that the one apology was satire. Again, no response.
I made the mistake of unfriending him on FB, and he deleted my explanation allowing only his claim of my hypocrisy to stand; I could no longer defend myself against his malicious claims. It was at the point that I reported his earlier infringement of copying and pasting my poem on his wall. When FB removed his infringement, the offending comments went with it.
Aftermath: A Suite of Nightmares
From this whole situation, I have reaped the benefit of a series of nightmare poems, which I include in my book, The Dumpfered Burdings & Other Poems. Trying to demonstrate how other versions of the poem might have worked better and not offended him by making him think the poem was about him, I wrote several revisions of the poem. Of course, none of them satisfied him, but I was left with a group of eleven poems that worked well for what I call "The Dumpfered Burdings: A Suite of Drunken Nightmares."
Mystery and Lack of Trust
It remains a mystery to me why Alvin finally decided to stop castigating me over the poem. I had apologized to him many times, even writing that silly, obvious parody of an apology, but none would do. After he made a veiled threat about spreading my poems over the Net, I tried one last time to apologize.
I told him again that I was sorry that he was hurt even though I had not meant to hurt him, and suddenly, he accepted that last apology, saying that's all he ever wanted, even though I had apologized many times before. Maybe I should have asked him why he finally decided to accept that apology, after he had spurned all the others, even at one point calling me a fraud.
But at that point, I was exhausted by the whole thing and convinced that all he really wanted was to sound as if he had been correct; therefore, the apology he accepted is likely not the apology I offered, but to get this behind us, I have to be the one to let it go. It is not likely that he even sees the distinction between apologizing for writing a poem that he thought was about him and writing a poem that was actually about him.
We have since gained a mutual peace and are relatively back to where we were before this whole kerfuffle began. Of course, I can never fully return to those days. It must remain a mystery to me, but I feel that he will continue to believe in a false narrative that exists only in his imagination.
In the final analysis, he is my brother, and I love him, but after this kerfuffle, I know that I can never truly trust him.
The Graveyard Whistler's Final Comment
Sibling rivalry is a pathetic thing. (I used to wish I had a brother, but after running into a number of disgruntled siblings, I'm feeling pretty lucky to have grown up an only child.) Nevertheless, I do believe this piece offers some interesting aspects of trying to communicate with irony. The sister probably should have known that the brother was just not literarily savvy enough to understand that her poem could not be about him. And poor Alvin was confused at every turn, especially when the sister employed irony, as she did with the political statement in her poem.
I am kicking around the notion of focusing my dissertation on letters of famous literary figures who have confused their audiences with "irony." I think that might work. I'll keep you posted as I continue to research this issue.
Thanks for taking this literary journey with me!