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A Tribute to Walt Pascoe: Savage Uncertainties On The Road Home Reprise

Walt PascoeOn December 21, 2015–Winter Solstice, the day with the longest night of the year–a dear friend and an extraordinary human being said goodbye to life on earth. His name is Walt Pascoe and many of you know of his very human, honest, luminescent, and soaring artwork–artwork that matches his spirit completely. Many of you also knew the man himself–and, if so, feel the loss keenly.

Walt wrote an essay, accompanied by artwork, for Creative Thresholds three years ago–it ran December 21, 2012 (this is uncanny, perhaps fitting)–about his struggle with colon cancer. A searing, poignant, and brutally honest account of his experience. I’m choosing to run it again in honor of this amazing human being and friend.

We miss you, Walt.


Savage Uncertainties On The Road Home

by Walt Pascoe

And but so yeah.

Having recovered nicely from the insult of surgery to resect 10 inches of my large intestine, I was more or less happily bobbing back up to the surface of my murky little emotional pond. It had been disappointing to learn that cancer cells were already frolicking around my lymph system like unruly children, and that the tender wisdom of western medical modalities dictated a course of prophylactic chemo. But after a brief time for contemplation and acceptance I’d come to terms with “stage 3” and prepared myself accordingly. There was the relatively minor surgery to insert a semi-permanent, sub-cutaneous port in my chest for easy access to a major artery, and the inevitable institutional waltz w/ the doctors office and insurance company to pre-approve this gold-plated poisoning. And finally a couple more visits to the various scan-masters for more complete head to thigh reconnoitering of my tender corpus, in order to be doubly sure there were no other cancerous redoubts hidden under a rock somewhere. All this transpired in a relatively compressed time-frame, the doctors and staff proceeding w/ an admirable, if not entirely reassuring, sense of professional urgency. And so it came to pass that my oncologist only received the latest reports the night before I showed up to begin chemo infusions.

The six-month course of chemo for my particular cancer goes by the vaguely militaristic sounding acronym FOLFOX. Essentially it involves kicking back in the coolest recliner you’ve ever seen while various anti-nausea meds and the main chemical arsenal are deployed sequentially for a few hours. (What is it with all the battle metaphors?) One of the meds is more effective if administered in small bursts over 46 hours, so before you’re allowed to leave a pump is hooked up to your port and you wear this home. Its a robust little programmable squirt machine that looks more or less like the FedEx guys’ scanner, and you get to wear it on a belt around your waist or over your shoulder. So much for any shred of sartorial hipness I might have been clinging to in the waning years of middle age semi-decrepitude. On the bright side, the pump makes a rhythmic clicking sound which, while lying on the bed next to me at night, is not without a certain comforting intimacy…

“Incantations on the Road Home” 48”x64” Graphite on gessoed panel

“Incantations on the Road Home” 48”x64” Graphite on gessoed panel

Wait… what?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Turns out there was in fact a further metastasis. Stage 4. Another decent sized tumor wrapped around a bronchial tube near the entry point into my left lung, snuggly nestled next to my heart; a weirdly poetic location given the stressful mid-life transitions I’d been enduring of late, but one that rendered it inoperable. So a second biotherapy (a monoclonal antibody called Avastin) was added to the FOLFOX chemo regimen, all to be administered over a 6 month period…

“Raven Gets In” 48”x60” Oil on canvas

“Raven Gets In” 48”x60” Oil on canvas

“I always put lime on the people I kill. Wait… are you calling 911?” ~ Drunk guy in a Mexican restaurant, as related by my friend Melissa Johnston.

And so it seems that cancer has created the mother of all liminal spaces in my life. And it is from this strangely pregnant territory that I peer out into the… I want to say abyss… but like so many words now it seems inadequate, overused, and worked to within an inch of its word-ly life by the incessant hype culture hum we wallow in. The title of some crappy movie, complete with cross-licensed plastic action figures free w/ your next Happy Meal. And seriously, how many of us ever reach beyond the tremulous shadow of the concept and endeavors to actually process this deep down inside our whirring, buzzing lizard-brains? It crouches at the center of your chest like a cold rock, pulling you down through the turbid water more effectively than the finest cement shoes. Who the heck would want to go there voluntarily? Who…

“Fatal Shore” 48”x64” Acrylic on canvas

“Fatal Shore” 48”x64” Acrylic on canvas

Blaise Pascal wrote in “Pensées,” “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing it.”

It’s amazing how emotions flow just like weather.

I can go along doing what I think of as “well”: feeling optimistic, comfortable being alone, celebrating the liminal, accepting the transitory nature of things, handling the chemo, sensing health and wholeness on a walk in Whites Woods, meditating, reading, feeling a measured enthusiasm for the future w/o treating the present like just something to be got through, the master of silver linings, counting my blessings, deeply grateful for the love and support of my friends and family, acquaintances at the Post Office saying “hey, you look great”, relieved by the fact that I haven’t yet assumed the grayish-blue pallor of the wasting.

And then there will be this slow creeping intimation of unease, like a little darkening on the horizon. Just a few clouds on an otherwise sunny day…

Stillness and solitude in White’s Woods, Litchfield

Stillness and solitude in White’s Woods, Litchfield

Willem DeKooning referred to himself as a “slipping glimpser”.

As the storm gathers and starts to darken my interior landscape I can feel the slipping; the accumulation of tension in my heart and body. Fear, longing, and worry… a somatic ache that fluidly transmutes into a profound and painful spiritual dread if not checked quickly by some distraction. This is where it gets tricky being alone. It is so much easier to distract yourself from it when you are with other people. Just ignore and bury it in the cosmopolitan joy of human culture and friendship. Or loose yourself engineering a life.

“[…] almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of ‘psst’ that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer. ”
~ David Foster Wallace in “Infinite Jest”.

I guess this terror has always been present, and is for every human being. We do with it what we will. Tune it out. Turn it into art or literature. Transmogrify the brutal fact of our inevitable decay into infinite varieties of work and the illusion of progress. Am I thinking too much?! This is not always true. There are times when laughter and joy come in solitude and I can revel in it. But the laughter is hardened and forced when you are filled w/ grief at the prospect of loosing all you love… threatened in such an immediate, tangible way… I’m attached to my attachments! A lousy Buddhist if ever there was one! It’s amazing how I can go along feeling buoyant about the possibility of remission… and oh the delirious possibility of “durable remission”, held out there like the most seductive of outcomes. And then just tank for awhile… fall into the dark… gazing up into a night sky perversely ornamented with PET scan constellations of cancerous cells awash in radioactively tagged glucose, collaged all over my chest and neck, blinking out an inscrutable code… exhausted from the grasping after some more universal, ever-present , capital “L” Love. God. Some hopeful bulwark against the immensity of the void surrounding my fearful and trembling self. A glimpse perhaps…

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

~ Wendell Berry ~

(Collected Poems)

And so it goes. Alone with the Alone. It is a choice. A pseudo-monastic exile, punctuated by genuinely caring and helpful visits from my loved ones and the logistics of the chemo rhythm. Simone Weil said “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”…

"Exile Study No.4 ~ Perdita" ink and graphite on paper, 22"x 30",

“Exile Study No.4 ~ Perdita” ink and graphite on paper, 22″x 30″

And what exactly is it that I am attending to now?

Seeking Now through mindful solitude. That word, though: seeking! Seeking itself one of the most seductive of attachments. After the briefest foray into the silence, I flee back into the endless loop of intellectual and aesthetic dialogue w/ the dead. With those I’ve chosen to valorize as artistic mentors for 30 years: David Smith and Charles Olson. And into the radiating web of endlessly fascinating threads that fan out from their volcanic productions. Back into yet another painting or drawing, searching searching searching, always searching… wading through a rich but terrifying uncertainty…

“The Secret Life of Wind” 48”x64” graphite on gessoed panel

“The Secret Life of Wind” 48”x64” graphite on gessoed panel

“Sometimes when I start a sculpture, I begin with only a realized part, the rest is travel to be unfolded much in the order of a dream. The conflict for realization is what makes art not its certainty, nor its technique or material.”
–David Smith

In Alex Stein and Yahia Lababidi’s wonderful conversation, “The Artist as Mystic”, Yahia quotes Heidegger: “Longing is the agony of the nearness of the distant.” This resonates now. Not just a little! The words vibrate in my chest as if I were standing alongside a huge, beautifully wrought bell being rung. Small pieces of the rock crouching there begin to fall…

“The Chain of Memory is Resurrection I” 30”x40” graphite and acrylic on bristol board

“The Chain of Memory is Resurrection I” 30”x40” graphite and acrylic on bristol board


Writer and artist: Walt Pascoe

Please check out more of Walt’s art at http://www.waltpascoe.com/.

Towards A 21st Century Literature

by Marc Nash
Marc Nash-Non-Linear

Marc Nash-Non-Linear

Marc Nash-Non-Linear




Marc Nash-Non-Linear

Marc Nash Marc Nash has worked twenty years in the counter-culture in the music business and for the last 4 years has been working in the freedom of expression realm. He lives, works and performs in London. He is the father of twin teenage boys and coached their soccer team which caused more sleepless nights than anything to do with literature. he has published 6 books, with a seventh due out later this year. He has two more kinetic typography videos and two storyboarded graphic novels to collaborate on.

Marc Nash’s Flash fiction collections:
“Long Stories Short”

Marc Nash’s novels:
“Time After Time” (structured around The Butterfly Effect & Schrödinger’s Cat)

Marc Nash’s Blog

Anne Carson and the Experiment(al)

by Mark Kerstetter

cover-anne carson's beauty of the husband

Art critic and novelist Michael Welzenbach wrote in his wonderful book Conversations with a Clown that, of all of the arts, painting is the most complex. It got me to thinking that the claim is more suited to the language arts. One might begin by saying,

The unique complexity of language arts is rooted to a blindness of their aesthetics due to the commonness of language. We use language in speech and in all kinds of written discourses to convey all kinds of information, but also to make art and essays about all kinds of art. The unique complexity of language arts comes out of the medium’s existence as at once mundane and unimaginably flexible.

So connected in the mind is the relationship of language to context-dependent meaning, to the conveying of information, that a work of language art that does not do this is treated with a deeper more disquieting suspicion than unconventional art in other media. Indeed, it is almost nonsensical today to use the phrase “unconventional art” except as applied to language arts. It has long been the case that people expect the visual arts to be weird. We are far from the days of scandal and protest. Even so dismissals such as “my kid could do that!” or “that’s not art!” persist. Some still manage to be offended by free improvisational music. But if the former are often made out of amusement, and the latter annoyance (“It’s just noise!”) the suspicions leveled against weird language art are something else. This is a suspicion of something which is possibly threatening, possibly subversive. It is one thing to make sounds which skirt all known boundaries of melody and rhythm. It is quite another thing to disregard the conventions of language. Is the person even speaking? Are they thinking? Are they sane?

We associate proper language with rationality. Therefore non-rational language art can simply be dismissed as “nonsense”. But if we are asked to take it seriously what do we say of it? To write an essay about a work of non-rational language art is to use the same medium as the artist. Yes, one reminds one’s self that the use of art and the use of essay are two distinct uses of the medium, but those reminders creep in and get entangled, threatening to pull the wise essayist into the wild deep. Yes, that poem is a mighty fish, taking the poor critic for a ride. The fact is, the essayist may not simply remind himself in silence, or even once, but this reminding—that the poem and its analysis are two distinct uses of language—underlies the whole endeavor like a shadow. And what does one say about a text which combines normative with weird language? Art threatens the essay the way madness threatens reason. Why else is the most common stance of the essayist to play master, to be the one in control, the one who explains, who shines a light into the artist’s blind spots? Because to not do so already looks like concession, a relinquishment, to some degree, of the normative use of language and thus of the possibility of making one’s self understood.

Nothing is more dismissive of weird language art than the designation “experimental writing”. By labeling the text at hand as such one renders it harmless before one has said another word about it. And any positive value that the text might have is only that which is restored to it by the authority of the critic. The very power of the phrase is seen in the offhand manner with which it is thrown around. The function of the word “experimental” is to render the unwieldy and weird text inert and impotent, like a lab specimen, to stifle the mode of inquiry that the text gives rise to. Its effect is to shut the text down, like turning a machine off. The beast is only safe with a spear through its heart. Since it is not turned on, not moving, it is not doing what it is supposed to do, and the reader has no more sense of it than a visitor has a sense of a great stuffed grizzly frozen behind plexiglass. This inert thing sure looks puzzling. Guess who holds the key? In consequence a daunting new difficulty is added to a text that by its very nature challenges the reader. Well, you see, he is told, it’s experimental.

But all works of art are experiments if they are seen as lines of inquiry or as particular responses to problems posed by society and by other works. A novel is the elaboration of an experimental self: such a character will respond in such a way to such a set of problems. A fiction is a hypothetical life, a novel is a rehearsal for an imagined state of affairs. This situation does not exist, but it could; the “could” places it in the realm of the experimental. What the critic does when she singles out a given work as “experimental” is two-fold: first, she ignores the fact that all literary works are experiments. Second, she casts the integrity of the work in question by saying, in effect, it is that much more an experiment than other works, that much more capable of failure. In fact the designation “experimental” almost assumes an aspect of failure.

Daphne Merkin’s review of Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband reveals a prejudice for normative language in poetry. She flatly asserts that “the enterprise of poetry has become almost willfully insular” and that Carson “sometimes seems lost in an enterprise of her own devising.” That sounds like saying Carson is lost in her own mind, which sounds like a description of madness. Carson will write a poem as if it were an essay, an essay as if it were a poem; she weaves Dickinson and Saint Augustine together into a single text; she places a poem that is suggestive, visionary, enigmatic, next to one that is analytical; she sketches great narratives with a few lines, and she reveals the way in which a poet, writing over a thousand years ago, is a contemporary radical. She makes the old appear new and the new appear classical. What, today, seems more new? At one time Emily Dickinson seemed new. When her poems were presented to the world a little over one hundred years ago, her friends and editors were sure to caution the reader that they were not written with publication in mind. Had they been they would not have “inevitably forfeit[ed] whatever advantage lies in the discipline of public criticism and the enforced conformity to accepted ways.” 1 Comparing her work to some of her contemporaries, Mabel Loomis Todd wrote, “Like impressionist pictures, or Wagner’s rugged music, the very absence of conventional form challenges attention.” 2 In the edition from 1948, Carl Van Doren reminds the reader again that Dickinson “did not round them out into accepted forms of verse.” 3 Today such comments are historical anecdotes. Dickinson has become classic. Yet to those, like Carson, who know how to read, Dickinson is still a wild beast. Indeed, Dickinson’s poems, exactly the way she wrote them, do not seem to be the versions most commonly read today.

Making it new is one of the things we expect of artists and by responding in hypothetical ways to contemporary challenges, how can writers fail to be experimenters? Must the twentieth century battles of the avant-gardes be fought and re-fought, then fought again? Haven’t the achievements of the modern era permitted Anne Carson to adopt a variety of styles, forms and voices without anyone raising an eyebrow? Hasn’t all this been settled? Alas, no.

I do not propose the question to diminish the challenges that writers such as Carson offer. It is asked in the same spirit that Milan Kundera said that Diderot and Sterne

were the greatest experimenters of all time in the form of the novel….When I hear learned arguments that the novel has exhausted its possibilities, I have precisely the opposite feeling: In the course of its history the novel missed many of its possibilities. 4

—remembering that the “greatest experimenters” were two founders of the novel. Isn’t it curious that Anne Carson can be perceived as insular when one of her most dramatic effects is to present the new moment of today’s poem as, not merely equivalent, but as essentially the same moment as that of an ancient poem, a classical poem? This experience helps sweep the table clean of the last crumbs of oppressive notions of the avant-garde; it is a new concept of the new.

If we follow this new feeling, and ask in a broad kind of way why the possibilities that Kundera cites have been missed, one answer that offers itself is the blindness to the aesthetic potentials of language due to a prejudice for its normative uses.

The bias is easy to understand. So much so that it is a little odd to even acknowledge it, but acknowledge it we must, since a receptivity to the aesthetic potentials of language requires one to look at language as if it were a weird thing, an untamed beast. From this perspective, the purest form of language art is indeed outside the norm. No full and rich sense of language as art is possible without an open mind to this art. Why then the resistance, even amongst writers, who should know better?

Perhaps part of the answer can be glimpsed by taking a look at Kurt Schwitters. In 1920 he wrote, “I pity nonsense because it has been so neglected.” 5 It is fair to say that by now quite a bit of attention has been paid to it so that one feels that a good deal of sense is welcome. But if some of Schwitters’ texts fizzled out in weak frivolity—too much nonsense—much of today’s poetry and fiction limps along with cumbersome textual attachments designed to make sure that the norms of language are given their proper due. It’s a dull-sounding truism to say that weird language art is meaningless without normative language as a contrast. But it would be a mistake not to recognize that normative language is dead without the life-force of its opposite to infuse it with the energy of new ideas. A conversation between the two is vital. The great writers of today are those, like Carson, who can combine the two primary forms of language into a single text. They are the great experimenters.

1. T. W. Higginson, Editor of Emily Dickinson Poems (The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1948), 23
2. Ibid. 125
3. Ibid 16
4. Milan Kundera, Afterword to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Penguin Books, 1981), 231. See also Kundera, The Art of the Novel (Grove Press, New York, 1986) 15
5. Kurt Schwitters, PPPPPP (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1993) 215.

Mark Kerstetter Mark Kerstetter is restoring a house in Florida, where he writes poetry, fiction and essays and makes art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites.

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