Friday, April 28, 2017

April 28: Haystacks, Pain, All the Truth

So tonight the passage from Slaughterhouse is a little lengthy:

At the base of the pole from which the light bulb hung were three seeming haystacks.  The Americans were wheedled and teased over to those three stacks, which weren't hay after all.  They were overcoats taken from prisoners who were dead.  So it goes.

It was the guards' firmly expressed wish that every American without an overcoat should take one.  The coats were cemented together with ice, so the guards used their bayonets as ice picks, pricking free collars and hems and sleeves and so on, then peeling off coats and handing them out at random.  The coats were stiff and dome-shaped, having conformed to their piles.

The coat that Billy Pilgrim got had been crumpled and frozen in such a way, and was so small, that it appeared to be not a coat but a sort of large black, three-cornered hat.  There were gummy stains on it, too, like crankcase drainings or old strawberry jam.  There seemed to be a dead, furry animal frozen to it.  The animal was in fact the coat's fur collar.

Billy glanced dully at the coats of his neighbors.  Their coats all had brass buttons or tinsel or piping or numbers or stripes or eagles or moons or stars dangling from them.  They were soldiers' coats.  Billy was the only one who had a coat from a dead civilian.  So it goes.

And Billy and the rest were encouraged to shuffle around their dinky train and into the prison camp.  There wasn't anything warm or lively to attract them--merely long, low, narrow sheds by the thousands, with no lights inside.

Somewhere a dog barked.  With the help of fear and echoes and winter silences, that dog had a voice like a big bronze gong.

Kurt Vonnegut survived internment in a German prisoner of war camp, the firebombing of Dresden.  Surely, Vonnegut, like Billy Pilgrim, traveled across Germany on a train with other captured soldiers.  And, I would guess, he was forced to put on the coats of the dead, like Billy.  In fact, much of Billy's wartime experiences are probably drawn from Vonnegut's life.  In a way, in Slaughterhouse, Billy Pilgrim is wearing Kurt Vonnegut's overcoat.

Vonnegut's book is an interesting mixture of fact and fiction.  In order to be able to write about his life during World War II, Vonnegut had to invent a time-hopping optometrist who gets abducted by aliens.  I understand this impulse.  There are some things about my life that I have written about in my poetry that I would never approach head-on.  As Emily Dickinson advises, I told all the truth, but I told it slant.

I think that's the job of any writer--novelist or essayist or poet or blogger.  To find a way to depict the truth in some form.  For example, I have written about my wife's mental illness and the difficulty it has caused in our marriage.  Like Vonnegut, I've taken some of the most painful moments of my life and transformed them into poetry.  A poem I wrote about my wife's stay in a psychiatric ward won an award from a literary magazine.  I have never read that poem in public.

So, I guess my point tonight is that pain makes great literature.  They're two sides of the same coin.  Last night at a gathering for my book club, we talked about the need for sadness in life.  If sadness didn't exist, then we would never understand true happiness.  To write about sadness is a way of writing about happiness, as well.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for the truth of Kurt Vonnegut.

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