Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Spectacular Settings! (#WEP)



Hosted by wonder-women Denise Covey and Yolanda Renee, the WEP (Write - Edit - Publish) Spectacular Settings hop is all about the power of place -- and the part it plays (can/should play) in writing.

Got a spectacular setting from a favorite book? Join the hop (it runs from the 19th to the 26th) and share! (More info here.)

The setting I'm sharing here is not from fiction but from poetry. And not just any poet, either. If you've followed this blog for a while, you might know I'm a huge fan of T.S. Eliot. A couple of months ago a long-time friend -- one of those people from the past that sometimes pop up into the present, usually bearing extraordinary gifts -- got together a small group of poetry enthusiasts for a reading circle on Skype (we're scattered all over, geographically), and the first piece we read was Eliot's Four Quartets

It's a piece I know well, maybe more than well -- it was none other than this old friend who introduced me to Eliot some 20 years ago, and the Eliot collection I own is one he gave to me back then... twenty years almost to the day we began reading. Several bits from Four Quartets have, in these two decades, gained special significance. For instance,



The inside flap at the back of my
T.S. Eliot volume. Debate still
rages on whether the book itself or 

the inscriptions (or the experience!)
were the greater
gift.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

Yes. T.S. Eliot is special to me. 



The bit I'm sharing today isn't from Burnt Norton but from the first verse of East Coker (the second Quartet):


     In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.

Let that sink in for a second. Read it again if you want. Read it aloud, yes, and let the rhythm work on you, on your imagination.

Do you see it? The lane in chiaroscuro, the way the afternoon light dapples everything, the shadows the branches cast, so regular, so thin -- yes, like window shutters against the glare of the sun. Can you hear the mild rumble of the passing van? (I imagine it white, for some reason.) Can you see the field stretching out, out there in the light while you are in the speckled shadows? Can you feel the warmth out there? Can you feel the coolness of the darkness where you -- as you are commanded to -- wait?


Eliot weaves magic into pretty much every line he writes, and I think the secret -- one of them, anyway -- is his unexpected choice of words. He could've gone on and on with indisputably beautiful phrasing about the light, about the field, about the van... maybe even deviated into describing a view of the town just around a bend in the lane. 

Instead, he eschews straight-forward descriptive words, which might have painted a pretty picture (and nothing more), in favor of two things: first, he puts us right there in the scene -- we lean against a bank while a van passes -- and he gives the lane not just character (did you catch the repetition of deep lane?) but also action; even though the lane is, presumably, inanimate and non-sentient, it insists on the direction / Into the village, seemingly hypnotised by it. 

Perhaps more importantly, these two things build up to create not just a setting but an ambiance: the shuttered lane, the fact that the light is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone, and the sleeping dahlias in the empty silence.

I'm there. In that lane. (Wherever it may be.) I can see it, breathe it, feel it on my skin.

To me, this is an extraordinary lesson in the potential of setting: its power is multiplied infinitely when instead of writing about place we write about ambiance.

Do I set too high a bar? Maybe. I believe that the farther you aim, the farther you'll reach, even if the throw keeps falling short. But that's for you, not me, to judge. Here's a favorite piece of setting (ambiance? dare I hope?) from my book THE MIRACLE OF SMALL THINGS (Truth Serum Press, Aug 2015). It's a tiny piece; the opening paragraph, in fact:


     There's no stillness like the stillness of Curaçao on New Year's Day. Pointless tropical sun on deserted asphalt, every business shuttered, everything forlorn. Not even trash stirs: the wind is on furlough too. There's also no New Year's Eve like Curaçao's, which explains the stillness. But to Luis Villalobos, this desolate emptiness feels like the cold shoulder of the world.
     Luis has just ruined his life.

Writing about this adopted island home of mine was challenging in ways I didn't expect. So few people have heard of Curaçao that it's like writing about a mystical Shangri-La -- and maybe it would've been easier to stick to Caribbean sun-sea-sand stereotypes, but... Well, see, I've fallen in love with this place. And I've fallen in love precisely because it isn't any kind of stereotype. There's so, so much beauty here -- but of the hidden, slippery kind, "the kind that the traveler seeking glamour or sycophantic perfection will never be able to see." And I wanted to bring that beauty to the kind of person who can not just see it but be smitten by it.

Did I succeed? Is there any such thing as success in this writing thing we do? Another gorgeous, if a tad neurotical, Eliot quote (also from East Coker but from verse V, the last verse) to close:


[...] and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.

Yes, I realize the book is published and critiques won't lead to an improvement on this particular bit, but they most definitely WILL lead to my growth as a writer (and as a person... critiques do that, you know). So, please. Any thoughts you have on this briefest of offerings -- construction, word choices, what it made you imagine / feel / think of -- and how it could've been improved to make you imagine / feel / think of whatever better... All of it and more is not just welcome but much appreciated. 



Critique preference: FCA

For the life of me, I couldn't figure out how to add the Linky list to share the other Spectacular Settings participants, so if you're in the mood for more place and atmosphere extravaganza, please visit the Write - Edit - Publish website for the list. And thank you, so much, for the visit!

48 comments :

  1. Hi Guilie! What a treat it is to do the rounds, reading such spectacular settings, both from the pros and from the delightful WEPpers. Thank you for participating and for reminding us of TS Eliot's genius. I see from a previous post that you host/participate in poetry group/s and how wonderful that you appear to be somewhat an expert on Four Quartets. And I love the photo of the lovely old tome. Reading poetry out loud is the way it was meant to be, as poetry is sound. I love these two lines from the Second Quartet--'The dahlias sleep in the empty silence./Wait for the early owl.'

    I was so excited when I saw your book was published and reading the opening, I can see why it was accepted. Not sure how it could be improved.Truly. I love the feeling you impart into the well-loved setting of Curaçao. 'But to Luis Villalobos, this desolate emptiness feels like the cold shoulder of the world.' Awesome. And then you introduce the thought that Luis just ruined his life...

    Thanks so much for sharing with WEP. I hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

    Denise :-)

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    1. Thank you, Denise! For the visit, for the thoughtful comments, for the warmth toward Luis and his story. As far as I'm concerned, the friendship has already begun -- and it is beautiful indeed :)

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  2. Hi Guilie - I enjoyed the TS Eliot quote ... and those deep lanes - I guess it helps living amongst and always imaging the beyond ... the fields, the plantings ... and that village with perhaps a creamy lamp light glowing out.

    It's great you're promoting Curacao ... we all need to know life in other parts of the world, or imagine and see through spectacular settings into the truth of reality of land ... Luis is about to have some challenges to contend with ... cheers Hilary

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    1. So glad you liked this, Hilary! How lovely to think you might have some of those "deep lanes" close to you to walk down. That's how I'll imagine you :) Thanks for the visit!

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  3. Poetry has taken a back seat in my life for so long, but I it's time a gave it some attention again. Thanks for bringing T. S. Eliot back onto my radar. As for your piece, I like it. I like seeing places through other people's eyes, especially if I have no experience with it myself. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. I know what you mean about poetry and the back seat, Toinette... In the last decade I think I bought one poetry book, haha. (Lots to catch up with now!) I'm so glad you enjoyed the Eliot bit here -- and if you do get around to reading more of his stuff, or anything else, please come back and tell me about it. Nothing better than talking poetry ;) And you liked my own bit! Thank you for that!

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  4. Poetry is such a wonderful medium, often people think I am strange when I say I like poetry but I reply with a quip, what do they song lyrics are written as, that is a form of poetry as well. I love the more historical poets rather than modern day rap artists but that's just me. I love to find out about new places and I can imagine island living has advantages and disadvantages. Your first paragraph is a great hook with that last line.

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    1. I hear you, Sally -- and I love your comeback! Of course, song lyrics, if they're even halfway good, are poetry, too. I guess there's a bit of a high-brow stigma to poetry, which is a shame... Too many posers giving it a bad name, and too many potential poetry lovers turned off by the literary-status-symbol quality surrounding it. Song lyrics is a great way to break through that barrier, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if you've influenced one or two unsuspecting souls into checking out a poet or two :) Good for you! I hope you don't mind if I use the line, too... With due credit, of course ;)

      Thanks for the visit, Sally!

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  5. Guilie
    You more than achieved your goal, and the two snippets, T S Eliot's and your own work prove that in the shortness of your examples. Genius.

    As both, immerse the reader in the setting. T. S. Elliot takes the reader on a journey where each step is memorable, and your book The Miracle of Small Things, where the "stillness" is supported by the prior evening's mayhem, and the "cold shoulder" of Luis realization leaves the reader wanting more.

    Excellent introduction to a mystery we all want the answers too. (I can't wait to have your book on my bookshelf.) Your love of Curacao, of words and poetry are clear in the photograph of your T. S. Eliot book. A romantic, and somewhat magical inscription on the inside flap, has me voting for the experience itself, as the greater gift.

    Thank you for your amazing contribution to the WEP Spectacular Settings Challenge. Well done. I can't wait to read more of The Miracle of Small Things.

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    1. You're probably right, Yolanda... The experience was the greater gift. And the reason I cherish this book so much is probably because it's tied to it... A souvenir of the heart, so to speak. Haha -- and what a souvenir it is :) Thank you so much for the kind words on my work -- I'd love to know what you think if/when you do read the whole thing. And thank you, too, for hosting this wonderful hop! I'm falling behind, but I'll catch up over the weekend :) Great, great group of people <3

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  6. I hear your passion and the passage from T.S. Elliot is very visual. I love the sleeping Dahlias. I think you wrote a beautiful passage about your home island. Congrats because i don't think i could do something like that.

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    1. Thank you, Birgit! I'm an admirer of your own creativity, which I'd never be able to do :)

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  7. Guilie, your fragment invokes the feelings of isolation and loneliness and abandonment. Very moving.

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    1. Thank you, Olga! I'm honored you enjoyed it -- and yes, that's exactly the atmosphere I was trying for. Doubly honored that I was able to get it across. Thanks!

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  8. I don't think that I'm well placed to critique T.S Elliot. I'll just say that I loved the excerpt. Takes me back to my childhood, walking my dog in wonderland, warmed by leopard sun, immersed in imagination. You are wrong however. The van is definitely red. It's the postman. Luis is so beautifully embedded into his environment. Lovely prose. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. A red van -- preposterous! :D I find it very interesting that one can become so attached to something imaginary, as if there were a 'right' and 'wrong' way of imagining things. In honor of doing away with rigidity, from now on I will always imagine this particular van red :)

      Thanks for the visit, Jenny! Glad you enjoyed the bit about Luis.

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  9. "In the beginning is my end". T.S. Eliot certainly had a way with words, as do you, Guilie. Your posts involving Curaçao make me want to visit, precisely because it is so unique. Your excerpt conveyed the deserted atmosphere of New Year's Day so well, along with Luis' desolation. I want to read more!

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    1. He did have a way with words, didn't he? I love him. And I'm so glad I'm able to bring a bit of Curaçao's magic to you. Would be lovely to have you visit! I think you'd like it here. (Well, except for the bit about stray animals... That's not nice. Then again, more people that don't like it is exactly what the island needs in order to evolve.) Thanks so much for the visit, Debbie!

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  10. This is altogether lovely Guilie as is your introduction to the Miracle of Small Things. Thank you for sharing that with us. Getting out of our stereotypical ways of thinking and feeling will always take us places in our hearts and souls. Poetry, prose, paragraphs can take us - who knows where - when our imagination is stimulated. This post of yours has done that for me.

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Susan. You're so right; stereotypes hinder us, not just physically but emotionally. And yes, literature has that magic wand to change it :) Thank you so much!

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  11. Elliot is a teacher of sound and rhythm--how to use this language of ours to do more than only tell a story, but to dip deeply into the wells of our souls and draw up the richness waiting there.

    You've obviously allowed his prose to find that richness within you because your excerpt reveals your talent as a writer. Beautifully captured setting and not one word more than needed. Not one less.

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    1. Oh, I love how you said that: "dip deeply into the wells of our souls and draw up the richness waiting there." Yes. YES. That's possibly the best definition I've ever heard for what this writing thing we do. Thank you so much for that, C! And that you feel my work has quality is high, high praise. Thank you for that, too!

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  12. Whenever I think of Eliot, Journey Of The Magi springs to mind. For many years, I taught the poem to grade 9's. Poetry is my first love but has since been ousted by flash fiction. I need to get back to reading more poetry.

    The snippet from your book packs a punch. Every word is well-chosen and in perfect position. Really powerful in its simplicity.
    I can't wait to read it.

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    1. Journey of the Magi! Love that one, Michelle; just reread it in your honor :) It's also a *great* example of setting, actually — especially in terms of simplicity working in favor of depth. Thanks for reminding me of it :) So glad you enjoyed the bit from MIRACLE! Your copy will be on its way soon :)

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  13. Guilie, I knew this would be one entry I wold enjoy, and boy was I right.

    Eliot has been my favorite for many years now. I mouth around his words, tasting, biting, chewing them when things go south for me. Thankyou for showcasing one of my heroes.

    I'm yet to get my hands on your book, but when I do, I already know it will have to be on a break-day-- I'll forget all about my writing and work otherwise, lost in Luis' world.

    Your excerpt reads like poetry, too, and I don't think it can be bettered but for one word--'everything'--- you've evoked such a wonderful picture with lyrical specifics, this word seems like fruit left hanging on the tree, another opportunity for your wonderful eye for detail.

    Love you, Guilie, and love your work. Congratulations on your book!

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    1. Thank you so much, D! I'm glad you enjoyed T.S.; of course you'd be among his fans :) He's an extraordinary artist, so full of surprises. So full of lessons, too, for the contemplative eye. Thank you for the kind words on the excerpt from MIRACLE — so funny you caught that everything... it's bothered me from day one, too :) Looking forward to your feedback when you do read the whole thing!

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  14. Thank you for sharing about a truly great poet T.S. Elliot. He has wonderful poetry.

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    1. Ah, a fellow Eliot fan :) Glad you enjoyed it, Rasma.

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  15. Prufrock was the first bit of poetry that I memorized on my own - for no other purpose than the sheer pleasure of it.
    "There's so, so much beauty here -- but of the hidden, slippery kind,". Wow, that nails it. Reminds me of a conversation in college. I was trying to explain to my roommate the beauty of a particular black and white image of a deserted house with a dead bird on the porch. (She was horrified.)

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    1. I love synchronicity... Last night a friend shared a video on FB about "why modern art is so ugly" (or something like that). Basically this dude, some professor or something, elaborated on the idea that aesthetics are sorely lacking in modern / contemporary art. My response? Aesthetics aren't necessarily art, and art (certainly) doesn't need to be aesthetic to be art. I think the same applies to beauty. If we insist on seeing beauty only in the aesthetically pleasing, we'll miss 90% of it. I'm glad you're among the few who refuse to do that, Li.

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  16. I love T.S Eliot. Like Li, I memorised Prufrock. For myself. And still snippets come into my head...
    I love the elegant, deceptive simplicity of the excerpt from your book. Not a word wasted, not a word out of place. Thank you so much.

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    1. Prufrock is a-ma-zing. I never memorized it, not in any intentional attempt, but some lines have stuck... "like a patient etherized upon a table" — and that opening line, Let us go then, you and I — How can anyone forget that? (I actually had to include that one in the book, haha). I'm beyond pleased you enjoyed the bit from MIRACLE — thank *you*!

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  17. Such a wonderful share. So deep. I loved it. "Pointless tropical sun" - that says so much right there.

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    1. Thank you, Lenni! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

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  18. It's been an absolute pleasure to come across your blog and read first your quote of TS Eliot, your thoughts on it and then your own stunning opening lines. All I can say is that I really want to read your book after reading this extract. Eliot is a great favourite and a huge inspiration always. Poetry can so often create a setting with all the atmosphere you want with a minimum of words.

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    1. "[...] the atmosphere you want with a minimum of words" — exactly, Kalpanaa! You put it so well. I suppose that's why I enjoy poetry so much. One of the reasons, at least :) And I'm floored — humbled, thrilled — that you enjoyed the opening of MIRACLE! If you do read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it :) Thanks for the visit, and the lovely comment... It's one I'll come back to on those 'down' days to cheer me up :)

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  19. I found the description lush in your own writing, but there is a slight jarring in the story when you jump from mentioning New Years in one sentence and then introduce the character in the next. That could be my understanding of the subtlety. Thanks for sharing some of your work, and for highlighting the words of TS Eliot.

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    1. make that 'mis-understanding. Sheesh. BTW, I love this line: 'In my beginning is my end.'

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    2. Thanks so much for the feedback, D.G.! It's always helpful to know which bits have the potential for misunderstanding. Glad you enjoyed TS, too :)

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  20. The lines by T.S. Eliot have a beauty of their own, no doubt, but the way you mined the meaning and character from them was masterful Highlighting the insistence of the deep lane and how it gives the scene more depth than a simple description really made me think more of my own sense of descriptiveness.

    My favorite part of your piece was the mention of how New Year's Eve a Curacao led to the desolate New Year's Day we find ourselves in. It says so much about how raucous things may have been the previous night without overstating it.

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    1. I'm honored, Arpan, that you found my commentary on Eliot insightful... He's rife with layers, meaning impossible to pinpoint with any degree of absoluteness, so I'm very happy that anything I said helped bring out another layer of his for you. And I'm thrilled to have brought across that understated sense of wild New Year's celebration! Thank you so, so much for that :)

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  21. Love T.S. Elliot. Fantastic choice in excerpts...

    Your description summed Curacao perfectly. I've never been there on New Year's day, but I can envision it. A charming unblemished island. Hidden, almost secret...waiting to be discovered... I'm a huge fan of the Netherland Antilles, having vacationed there for many years.

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    1. And you've BEEN TO CURAÇAO!!!! (Okay, the Netherlands Antilles — when it still existed.) How COOL is that?!?! Hahahahaha... You can tell I don't meet a lot of people who've been here. Usually it's, "Cura-who?" :D And if you like (liked) the NA, you absolutely must come for New Year's sometime. I mean it. There really is no New Year's celebration like this one. For starters, it begins at 11 AM. Yes, AM as in morning.

      The fact that you've been to Curaçao and found my description accurate... Well, Michael, you've no idea how much that means. Most people who read the book before publication have never been here... I could be talking about Guadeloupe or Barbados, and they wouldn't know the difference. So — yes, I'm delighted you liked it. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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  22. I love the T. S. Elliot. The second reading of it got me more than the first.
    Your excerpt is brilliant, too; I really got the emptiness of it all.

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    1. Thank you so much, Laura! I'm so happy you enjoyed the post :)

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  23. Ahhh, a T.S. Eliot fan, I see. LOVE him. He was the magic man to me. And this: "Pointless tropical sun on deserted asphalt" talk about word choice and setting. WOW. Poor Luis. I must have that book. And I have heard of Curaçao. A poet's paradise, isn't it? :-)

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  24. "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” How true, these words of Eliot, when infusing words with emotion, it ignites a passionate reaction whereby readers desire the meaning. Make them feel something, and they'll turn every page. Your writing stirs the emotions, in all its raw, refreshing glory.

    The Weight of Wonder

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  25. Hello,

    Here from the WEP and a poetry fan. Eliot is magical, and your analysis of his lines masterful.

    The flash put me right there beside Luis, not sure that there is any scope for improving on it. 'The wind is on a furlough too' - loved that, and the pointless tropical sun (heat) that feels like the cold shoulder of the world.

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