-Paperback: 68 pages
-Publisher: Otoliths, 2009
“What follows then is a re-telling of that uncommon event. But by re-telling I mean a specific sort of invention that might be confused, by the uninitiated and the poorly fed, for myth-making. Even out-and-out fraud. I really must insist whatever opinions you form in the process should be wrung out thoroughly. And hung up with animal skins.”
-from Folly’s List of Companions
The storyteller has, until only recently, played an integral part in the development of modern civilization. The very basis of human communal discourse lies in those moments around the primordial fire in which ‘the hunt’ was both recounted and embellished for the benefit of the remaining, cave-bound, tribe. As such, the story is, at once, both historical act and performative gesture. Through stories, we impart our basic cultural values and attempt to convey the lessons necessary to ensure both the survival of our immediate kin and, by extension, the customs and traditions we hold sacred.
Over the last half-century, the role of the storyteller has been largely decentralized, displaced by mass-media conglomerates with committee-minded plot lines and focus-grouped pabulum cooked up to appeal to the lowest common denominator of our collective attention spans. A new discourse has arisen, based not on the direct experiences of disparate, tight-knit communities of individuals, but on the commercialized representations of cultural difference on an unprecedented international scale. But take comfort. All is not yet lost.
In Through the Funeral Mountains on a Burro, Charles Freeland invokes that first primordial storyteller with a masterful ease of style both refreshingly new in its perspective and reassuring familiar in its anecdotal nature. The subtle, shifting tales he weaves, interspersed as they are with strange advice and questioning digressions, leave little resemblance to any myth or fable in the traditional sense. That is to say: they do not draw on a distant and idyllic past, but rather a strange and disjointed present in which all the world’s myth-systems seem to exist simultaneously alongside the commercial detritus of the 20th century:
"We return with our heads under our arms, as if we expect at any moment to be assailed by ravens. And not the literary kind either, but those that haven’t lent their names or dispositions to so much as an ad for lawn furniture. Haven’t followed the river to where it becomes something without boundaries, something so enormous the engineers are scratching their heads."
-from Post Hostile Machine
If the pastoral appears in these passages, it is in constant opposition to a distinctly more contemporary human landscape. Indeed, the conflict of civilization with the natural world is a recurring theme throughout the text; between ravens and lawn furniture, rivers and engineers, animal skins and invention, myth and opinion; Freeland’s stories take their shape from the palpable friction that arises between these elements. They are not so much told, in the linear sense, as they are formed gradually in the reader’s mind by elliptical processes of description and diversion. The final result is a layered, multi-dimensional surface (fully enclosed) the form of which is perfectly described/inscribed but the contents of which remain a distant mystery to be, at best, hinted and guessed at. Like any good story, they demand the active and attentive imaginations of their audience.
And like any master storyteller, Charles Freeland keeps his readers/listeners engaged with a repertoire of age-old techniques presented in his own distinct and musical prose style. Through direct address and the frequent use of collective pronouns, he demands more than just complicit witness, but rather the direct interaction of audience with each passage at hand. By way of example:
"You’d think people would get sick of waiting. But maybe they don’t mean the same thing by “waiting” as we do. Assuming of course, we can come to some sort of consensus ourselves."
-from Fugue, Commencing at the Toes
Taken altogether Freeland’s collection seems to suggest and acknowledge that, while no such consensus is ultimately possible, it is nevertheless the responsibility of the writer/storyteller to strive after that ever elusive goal of communal experience. In fact, our individual and collective histories depend on it. These intricate, experiential fictions so full of strange truths, rhizomic digressions and subtle humor come humbly closer to that goal than any I’ve encountered in quite some time.
Of course, no book is perfect and Through the Funeral Mountains on a Burro is no exception to this brutal rule. Its faults are, however, so small as to be easily missed or happily overlooked. For my own part, there were times when the arrangement of the overall collection felt somewhat discordant, specifically in “Small Concavity at the Base of the Neck” and “Lost Voices of Jamestown.”
Here Freeland abandons the already established form that characterizes the rest of this intricate and deliberate series of narratives. Instead of the succinct surrealist transitions framed by continuous prose blocks found throughout the rest of the collection, each of these two-page pieces is composed of numbered stanzas seemingly loosely connected to each other and their overarching titles. The brief, interjectory nature of these formal intrusions is, perhaps, intended to inject some variety into the eye’s journey through the text. However, the infrequent nature of the gesture ultimately struck this reader as more disruptive than surprising or re-engaging.
That said, this is a damn fine book full of original and engaging prose poems/stories whose leaps and connections will inspire the imagination upon first encounter and then continue to surprise the ear with each subsequent read.
Through the Funeral Mountains on a Burro is available from Otoliths for $10.45 plus S/H.