2nd Place Story: “Landscape and Fall” By Mark Wagstaff

Posted on: January 17, 2011
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Landscape and Fall
By Mark Wagstaff

About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. Auden, for instance. You said: his command of situation, his juxtaposition of nature and torture, driven by grief for man’s smallness and doubt, counterposes the sun on water with the nagging nip of ice. The innocent with the purposeful, who may see but not recognise.
I remember, in the museum, your passion for these things. I travelled for fun, for Art with a capital A, as a tick on my tourist list beside moules-frites and cherry beer. But to you, the museum was destination, its paintings the source for larger emotions you read in their cracked sheen. Suffering was your theme. Nothing endured, anywhere, compared with your horror that days weren’t dreams; wishes weren’t means; and wanting-to wasn’t enough.
This spring afternoon – as Wiltshire falls to flat Somerset and tight, shiny daffodils nod to passing trains – tastes more of you than any day since our corrosive zenith, trading barbs in the Beaux Arts. You loved the idea of empty country, fifty-mile views; you, the chatelaine of some arty retreat receiving London queens and their hopeful lads in some profound fold of profoundly silent England, free from work, from cost, free to chase your misery to ground. You never asked if that was the future I saw myself contrived in, but I knew it would never happen so why fret? As if at sea, the train rocks by rough pasture, where rough-coated ponies stretch to feedbags on the fence. By houses lost down tracks from nowhere. By mile on mile of what, to you, was nothing at all. But the country is ripe with strange deeps and crenulations; scars and heads of land where, once, the ploughman and his horse turned from days uncaring. Ashy yards: the silent remains of ghost stations. The spoil of what’s gone.
You couldn’t leave the city. We never went anywhere unfurnished with trams, canals, museums; your bullet-point must-sees. The city, its gallery treasures, meticulously scheduled to your time. Your time, which I shared as I shared everything precious to you: reverently, passionately waiting my turn. Here and there, the levels rise to abbreviated hills: impositions on the vast drainage of the Somerset plains. Were those hills worn smooth by centuries’ isolation? Or are they man-made heights? Burial mounds for the long-forgotten, lonely kings of drowned, silent meadows. On a pond at the edge of the wood, you’d skate your handsome emotions on their short, scarred lives. Loneliness your weapon: in the Beaux Arts, on the catty journey back to the hotel when you said I had no soul. But I love cheap words, quick pleasures: my text the time it takes the tram to cross from station to bar. Of course I loved the bigger world you saw in fine oils, in the metrics of poets. But I loved it second-hand, in doggy ways, enjoying your sensations to keep you company.
A hard winter over, ice finally gone: a kinder afternoon light shaping trees where spring’s first coppicing fires drift and linger; I remember you the slow way. You couldn’t stand long journeys: these rides through four hundred miles’ hypnotism of place. These sheep scrubs, canalised rivers, swing bridges left you nervous for the tighter fields of Holland; the Huguenot country you made to admire when aching for Nantes or Reims. This muddy sea, shoddy to you, is treasure to me of blue and temporary silver in the rubbish. The white town on its headland – stark church clawing the sky – was something to suffer; these melancholy red cliffs a catafalque of sailors’ dreams.
As the train winds the shingle coast along its thread of steel, I drift in and out of reed beds, where huddled gulls pretend the sea in a salty river. You couldn’t sparkle like these shallows, not over such distance and time. Your big life glimpsed in lightning flashes, like the sudden flare as my eyes open again on another station in the far west. Magpies guard the brickyards; rural slums you’d call all this, flicking your fine nails. Places to suffer poverty, obedience; the chastity of not leaving. About suffering you were never wrong: one brave day I left here and suffered deliciously since. You left everything: in chaos, tears, unfinished, torn. Yet you were poetry, the most controlled art. I marvelled your distance and pace, glimpsed in lightning flashes; the searing ambition which carried you above doubt.
Wake again to open water, the train flowing in echo of the tide; green fields merging in green water; sun painting the air wet gold. A tall-masted ship billows through the cliffs, greedily chasing the seagull breeze, tacking for the clear channel through rocks and trawlers. With somewhere to get to, it strives for the waves, dismissing the shore, ignoring everything behind it. Figures run the rigging, catch the sheets, pace the deck; nimble climbers scurry the crow’s while hardy masters – duffled in brocade – watch the rocks, the rising swell, fret the time and cargo, the gold at journey’s end. I hear their talk: the rocks, the roughening weather; the sheet blowing fit to snap from the prow. How poor the trade and low the pay. How they might as well be fishermen with scant a sail to speak of, then sweat their blood and salt their bones for merchants north and west. About suffering they were never wrong, these old masters that plied the breakers, that pulled a profit from four hundred miles’ coastal toil. How can they compare to you, the slave of art and wishes, when they’re forever free to die at sea. Your fall had every grandeur, while theirs – when it comes – will be a ruined hull, a cargo lost, a faster rival. Or old, sclerotic bones no longer strong for midnight tides; for mastery in an elemental age. They don’t see the shepherd, the ploughman scratch the red soil, but one day might envy them their springs and autumns, their regularity of days and weathers glimpsed in this past window. You were regular at nothing, followed nothing, finished nothing. Storm-stunted water’s edge trees have more purpose in their dead-handed clawing the sky, than you in your life of glamour.
While you suffered, how others sailed on, walked on, owned their dullness as I own mine: accepting some modest fate. That amazed you. As your star lost root and, glamorous, tumbled, to see the world shrouded in ordinariness was the cruellest fall. Sometimes you spoke so precisely of nature and torture, of how the Old Masters – Auden, Nicholson, Hardy – read the fall, I wondered if you’d landed unbroken among their words. But it was the clearness of fever before the drowning moment, when life – briefly possible – vanishes through the tide. Of course I cried. I wasn’t the world walking dully along: I hadn’t even that purpose. No somewhere to get to, except how we were: you marvelling at the breadth of horror distilled in fine oils; me, revelling in you.
The red cliffs slide away. Creeping the curves of Brunel’s genius, I catch at the sea. Its preservation of distance that taunted your hunger to get somewhere consigns me to the ploughman’s life of furrows and small circuits. My head to the ground, my foot to the ground, patient, dependent on what I’ve sown, on rain and sunshine that leaps far beyond my horizon. Your needy ambition saw you above, not travelling in slow misery of labour but flashed in sunlight across a landscape of nursery houses, papier mache cliffs, a bathtub sea and boat of dainty matchwood. Toy men you saw below, ignorant of their smallness while you, high above, mocked their furrows and circuits with your impasto of flight. Where dark clouds turn these glowing heights to early night, the ship tacks the last golden sun that brings the white town gleaming from its coast, shimmering, when I turn to look; beacon for journeys done.
You’d only begun. I envied you: a fierce, loving envy, drawn to your solar orbit you made real. Real. That word was your idol; the sailor’s lucky wave. To you, life was real or nothing at all. You loved the Old Masters, yet lived for the moment in ways they never could, with their discipline of getting up, setting times to write or paint, chasing patrons, squaring debts and doubts, head to the ground, foot to the ground, working to their graves for effortless art. To find, as Graves the old borrower found, the goddess smiles not for them. To you, what was real was true, and if truth is beauty then real is beautiful. Existence precedes essence, as sparkling morning precedes the tropic morbidity of midday; as the de Chirico afternoon precedes evening storms that flood the furrows, drown the flock, take even tall ships down. When you loathed the unreal, the inauthentic, you meant the everyday. The dull, striving, dog days of our lives. You knew you could fly, never doubted; the only questions: how bright and how high? You told me: about suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. Never wrong in the suffered dog-day, knowing that beauty exists only in the moment just gone; that truth is untidy corners the world ignores to get where it must; and that the real is composite, a flower of many flowers: rocks and storms and quiet ways, and the work that takes you down. These sailors, turning to sea, can’t chose the gale not to be real, can’t dismiss the broken spar as inauthentic. Idling here with empty hands, I imagine how they might flick their fine nails at a shattered prow, a ragged lateen, and tell the hurricane wind that existence precedes essence.
I hear your voice, accusing: that’s exactly, you’d say, exactly the shallow thought that makes you worthless. But worthless, I know what I’m worth. We have to aspire, you said: go better, further, higher than our fathers. But there’s no end to that road. To be greater all the time, to live life ever intensifying, needs endless skies and oceans; ascent without asphyxia; infinite latitude, because each achievement grows small, as grand inventions degenerate to furrows to be ploughed. Out here, where making dogs bark is entertainment, where spring is the yellow crocus that bursts the grey dam, there’s no choice but endurance; trimming sails to the wind, head to the ground, foot to the ground, keeping the flock from a fall. You said: don’t live a small life, but we live all our life. On deck, faded jacket braid, the twist of hard-worn cloaks, of men the sea has filled with every salt emotion. Men whose lives are large as the oceans of antiquity; and narrow as the draught between the shoals. Seas they sail bring unknown lands, glossy woods to search for water, where shade belies stone painted men their truth a trap of thorns, their beauty: poison darts. And beyond: the kraken’s maw, the fall from the edge of the world. How small their lives after all.
When the clocks change, birds still sing. We order, catalogue, contrive labyrinths of arrangements. Our ship goes brave and reverent of progress. Our wake stains the sea with monumental striving. But soon, our path dissolves to the spectral hollows of a dismantled railway, to waves that erase all sign. As we go forward, nothing is left of before. Calcified life becomes story. Flesh dissolves, blood betrays its essential dust and such sheen, such poetry as once we might have delivered, is cargo lost to tides beyond navigation. You felt it in your fall, your sheer descent from wonder, in your blood itched with art of existence and essence that shied too close to the sun.
The ploughman turns away to strike another furrow. His horse, blind, knows only earth and the whip. The shepherd reads clouds; his rustic algebra senses the distance, equates the harm the storm brings. His dog watches the flock; the flock sees nothing but its next mouthful, their whole selves grained to life among the chalk earth. The fisherman casts his line, hopeful of a pool between the rocks, of hunger delayed before trapped fish are freed by rising water. Birds wheel away. The trawlers hove to, not chancing the swell. Rival ships, billowing blustery boasts of mastery, chase towards the white town, captains fretting the change of weather as the last sun gilds the sea. And in the white town, in jumbled docks and palazzos, traders and the money men send boys to watch the chase, to run the moment cargo comes. All fretting, in lives of immense, unfettered ordinariness.
Everyone watches some other place, everyone’s busy. Life’s too doubtful to look from the furrow; to miss the sheep; to lose the catch; to risk capsize; to deliver last; to sink money in unwanted cargo. You’d say small lives don’t matter. Stalled, as if at an easel, I see all lives run together in the impregnable largeness of our one life. I watch sailors struggle the sheets; the ploughman turn and turn; far off figures on the quay. I see them all at once in this one situation, joined in a tableau of art and system.
I see something else, something that doesn’t and can’t disturb their labours. A spark of light; a broken wave; a drowning. How high you flew. How gold your wings and dreams. At your midday, you soared clean of grasping ground. Those of us who – our joy muted – are wary of passionate chance, watch the poets with magic in our shaded eyes, frightened and believing as sailors in the blue yonder, that past the furthest island waits the darkest fall.
I see what no one else saw: a boy fall from the sky. See his wings betray their wax, see light extinguished. Existence extinguished. Argued truth, loud grandeur, silenced by the waves. I expect you to rise, carried in whooping triumph on some serpent. But the waves close; the ploughman turns; the ship sails on.
Shocked awake as the train moves: moors and dockyards beckon and, beyond the bridge, places I’ve spent half a life in flight from. In sunset miles from the sea, a platform stationed nowhere, its signs in language I don’t recognise. The paperback for the journey still hides its fatal twist. The magazine keeps its strategies, its economics, unread. My coffee’s cold, my sandwich hardened to rock. And the notebook I brought to write these words remains closed on the ledge.

EDITORS’ CRITIQUES:
Geoff Anderson, Literary Magic Senior Editor:
I couldn’t stop reading Landscape & Fall once I’d got into the swing of it, although, by the end,
I felt a bit like I do when I’ve had a couple of chocolates too many. On the other hand, that is my feeling on a single reading. With further readings I think the prose wouldn’t slither down my throat so quickly and my greater intellectual understanding would counter the emotional
richness, with the result that I may not feel so ‘overfed’ by the end.

The piece could be helped by better layout, better formatting. It is such a heavy block of prose. On the other hand, this is consistent with the style, which is almost stream of consciousness. I’m not sure if an orderly sequence of paragraphs would be helpful or appropriate
– breaks in the stream might be an encouragement to go off and make a cup of tea!

What’s it all about?

Superficially, it’s about a relationship that came to an end. A relationship between an artist and a ‘consumer’ of art who lives what the artist considers to be a dull, ordinary life. Such a relationship was doomed since there wasn’t an ounce of equality within it. He (I assume the artist was male!) looks down on her from his creative heights.

Philosophically, it’s about art being a parasite on the body of human suffering. The writer is travelling somewhere on a train (one reason I like this piece is because of its dreamlike quality, making me not be absolutely sure what’s happening in ‘reality’) and, as often happens on train journeys, she drifts into a limbo of thought and dreams, leaving her reading book unopened and sandwiches uneaten.

The farmer and the (merchant?) sailor are presented as archetypes of people who work on the edge of suffering, in contrast to the artist who soars above their work and their suffering to draw inspiration from them like a leech. Farmers and sailors work the land and the sea, heads
down, not daring to raise their eyes in case they hit a rock and the ship founders or the crop fails.

The writer’s vision of this work is the ‘landscape’ (and seascape) of the title, through which the train (of thought) is passing.

The other half of the title is the word ‘fall’, and indeed, central to the whole piece is the artist’s fall. Again, I’m not sure what this means. Did he die? Did he cease to be commercially successful? Did he lose inspiration? Was the writer in fact his muse, so when she left, so did his
success?

The reader (if we have a positive view of art) may find some poignancy in the fact that the artist has fallen, but the writer doesn’t have much sympathy for him, rather suggesting that the artist had flown too high and so was doomed to fall – I remember a reference to the wax wings
of Icarus. All the sympathy is with the workers, ‘my head to the ground, my foot to the ground’.

I finish by wondering again if editing would improve or spoil this item. I suppose my doubt suggests the author’s version should stand.

Rocky Reichman, Literary Magic Editor-in-Chief: From the birth of this story to its death, the author has managed to create a pattern of thought that grasps at readers and lets them follow through. But unlike most stories, this work does not just capture readers and lead them on via their emotions. For some, this story can lead them based on its logic, too. The beauty of this story, and what makes it well worth its prize from Literary Magic, is the balance it stretches between differing styles.

First, the way it is coded. Landscape and Fall can be read as a full poem, a song that one sings to another. Its richness in detail, esteemed value devoted to every word and the meaning embedded in each thought makes it more of a poem than anything else. But more than the style of writing is not just the poetic tools in which this story gets its point across, but the point across.

Readers may vary in their interpretations, but the wording and the mention of reality and living big versus living a simple life rings clear throughout every paragraph, and forms the basis for the DNA of this story. What Landscape and Fall has done is put forth an argument for living a simple yet authentic life rather than a more glamorous but highfalutin one. A simple enough, message, yes, yet delivered in a unique style, with metaphors and word choices more likely to imprint this lesson into the minds of those who consume the story. While the piece lacked enough organization to fit into the standard model of a fiction short story more so than a poem, the author can fix this issue by working in pieces-or subtracting pieces-that can help tighten up the order of the story to ensure that it not only gets its point across but does so in the frame of a larger story. By focusing more on the story instead of less on the argument, the message remains as strong as the author intended it to be, yet there is a solid coating around that message that can make this not only a work of argument, but a work of fiction. A work of art.

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