We’ve subjected you to a lot of stuff about our own writing on this site, so now I’d like to talk about someone else’s. First, a bit of background: For as long as I can remember, even when I was a child of three or four, I used to watch cars go by, look at the people inside, and realize that these people had entire lives — kids and jobs and dogs, hopes and dreams and sorrows — yet all I was ever going to see of them was this one brief moment. I used to think about that all the time, and it both bothered and awed me. (Okay, so I was a weird kid!) Imagine my amazement when I came upon the following poem by a guy with the decidedly unpoetic name of Vern Rutsala. It’s called “Other Lives,” and it just blows me away, even 30 years after I first read it.
You see them from train windows
in little towns, in those solitary lights
all across Nebraska, in the mysteries
of backyards outside cities—
a single face looking up,
blurred and still as photograph.
They come to life quickly
in gas stations, overheard in diners,
Loom up and dwindle, families
From dreams like memories too
far back to hold. Driving by
you go out to all those strange
Rooms, all those drawn shades, those huddled taverns on the highway,
cars nosed-in so close they seem
to touch. And they always snap shut,
Fall into the past forever, vast lives
over in an instant. You feed
on this shortness, this mystery
of nearness and regret—such lives
So brief you seem immortal;
and you feed, too, on that old hope—
dim as a half-remembered
phone number—that somewhere
People are as you were always
told they were—people who swim
in certainty, who believe, who age
with precision, growing gray
like actors in a high school play.
Another of my favorite poems is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I don’t usually care for this kind of poetry — Eliot’s most famous poem, “The Waste Land,” leaves me cold — but I love this one. It’s very long, so I won’t reprint it all, but here are the last few stanzas:
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
I love the rhythm, the sound, and meaning of this poem — so much so, in fact, that I used part of the last line, “Till Human Voices Wake Us,” as the title to one of my short stories. (Unfortunately, two decades after I used the title, some scoundrels in the movie industry decided to give their film the same title. My story and the movie are nothing alike, but for the record, I thought of it first!)
My short story “Plainview,” which was published in the British magazine Crimewave in December 2010, was my first attempt at writing a mystery. Surprisingly, it’s gotten some very nice reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. On this side, it’s been selected for inclusion in a best-of anthology called “The Interrogator and Other Criminally Good Fiction,” edited by Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg. Other authors in the antho include Joyce Carol Oates, David Morrell (Rambo), Max Allan Collins (“The Road to Perdition”), and Michael Connelly (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), among many others. Pretty cool, eh?