Friday, December 23, 2011


Sunset on the solstice I stood in a field surrounded by hemlock trees, watching as night slowly seeped up from the ground – a spring of shadows – first filling the brush around the trees, then leaping from live branch to dead branch, until everything around me – slash piles, an old truck, humps of dead grass, boulders – began to change, become what they are when we are sleeping: shape-shifters, capable of entering any dream at will.  
This is why I love winter - the darkness seems to give rise to a world where shadows and bodies have exchanged places. 

Below are three poems that I think evoke the mystery of the long night.  The first, Atlin Lake, is by Erling Friis-Baastad, a brilliant Canadian poet who lives in Whitehorse, Yukon.  This poem can be found in his collection Wood Spoken: New & Selected Poems.  Find it, buy it, read it.  The second, Dream of the Lynx, is by John Haines, once a homesteader in the Alaskan wilderness, and late, great American poet who died this past year at the age of 86.  The third is a death awareness haiku by the 16th century Japanese haiku poet Basho. 

Atlin Lake
All night, the black lake
frets against basalt

Fails to rid itself
of last year’s drowned

In a cabin (only tethered
to dark by frailest chance)

again and again
                          an old man

                         is dislodged
               from someone else’s sleep

(Wood Spoken: New & Selected Poems, Northbound Press, 2004)

 Dream of the Lynx

Beside a narrow trail in the blue
cold of evening the trap is sprung,
and a growling deep in the throat
tells of life risen
to the surface of darkness.

The moon in my dream takes the shape
of animals who walk by its light
and never sleep, whose yellow eyes
are certain of what they seek.

Sinking, floating beneath the eyelid,
the hairy shape of the slayer appears,
a shadow that crouches
hidden in a thicket of alders,
nostrils quivering;
and the ever-deepening track
of the unseen, feeding host.

(Found in The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems of John Haines, Copper Canyon Press, 1993)

Sick on a journey –
over parched fields
dreams wander on.

(Found in On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho, Penguin Classics, 1986, translated by Lucien Stryk)

No matter where I live, I always find the days around the solstice to be strange and mysterious.  I am now living near a hemlock forest at the edge of the Catskill Mountains in New York state, but on last year’s winter solstice I was living by the sea (Swansea Bay) in Wales, was wandering through Bryn Mill Park, and encountered this:

I came upon an elderly woman staring intently at a lone heron, perched on a wire cage in the dead center of the park pond.  She looked a bit like my Abuelita, my maternal grandmother, her cold-reddened hands clutching a green vinyl purse.  I watched her watch the heron as the sky grew dark and a gibbous moon rose, shining in the black water between pond reeds.  How long she stared – frozen, transfixed – I don’t know.  The heron remained equally still, eyeing her.  I imagined her face inside his eye.  The reeds rattled in the wind…


News of the novel A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind:

 Because of the starred Booklist review in October (found at the end of the previous blog post) the novel has sold out of all stock in North America and will be going into reprint to fill out back orders, and so it will  be available once again in the US and Canada some time in January.  It continues to be available in digital form.

Meanwhile, the novel made Steve Donoghue’s honor roll of best fiction of 2011 at Open Letters Monthly.  His book review blog, Stevereads, can be found here.  What was said:

"There’s quite a lot going on in Gholson’s debut fiction collection, and all of it is orchestrated with such dry wit and deep thought that it barely ripples the surfaces of this story about a handful of remarkable people in a small village in Belgium. That village wakes one day to encounter fish everywhere, fallen on field and street, and the novel’s matter-of-fact surrealism takes off from there. As some of you may know, I usually detest whimsy in fiction – it almost always strikes me as laziness on the part of the author, who mistakes ‘anything can happen in life’ for ‘I can just let anything happen in my fiction’ and then refuses to correct the mistake when it’s pointed out to them. But controlled whimsy – ah, now there’s another story! And that’s what readers get here: wonderfully intelligent, controlled whimsy of a quality rarely seen in contemporary fiction. We should all band together and make this author famous."

And so...

God Bless Us, Everyone.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Days of the Dead...and a Labyrinth

I don’t know when I first discovered the celebration of Dia de los Muertos, but it seems now as if I've always celebrated it, was born into the tradition.  

Day of the Dead is a Mexican Holiday that takes place on the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). There is probably a connection to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess called Mictecacihuatl.

One of the traditions is to build a private altar honoring those you’ve known who have died, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and favorite foods and drink of the dead. There is also a visit to graves - eating, drinking, and talking with the dead.  

John Berger once said in a conversation with Michael Ondaatje (Lannan Foundation Podcast): ‘What makes us human is the ability to live with the dead.’  The dead are all around us.  How is it possible NOT to see them?  

Where mega-capitalism and micro-technology meet there is incredible speed. The combination promises a fast ride to a glorious future. Much of mainstream US culture is about the future. The future - a favorite word of US politicians. Everything will be fine...IN THE FUTURE (an example would be Obama’s last State of the Union address and his stunningly vacuous rallying cry of 'winning the future'). The joke everyone already knows is this: the future will always be 'in the future'. A race to the future is futile - you constantly have to pick up the pace because it’s forever receding into the distance. 

Speaking and listening to the dead is something that happens outside that swirl of chaos. The dead are outside of time. 'Racing toward the future' is just another attempt to outpace death. There is such a pathological fear of death in mainstream US culture that acknowledging the dead in this way – not in some untouchable past, but as peers, living in the here-and-now – can help alleviate a bit of that culturally-induced paranoia. Eating, drinking, and talking with the dead puts me in touch with a continuum, helps me understand that I am in a lineage – there are those who have gone before me, those who will go after me. It helps me understand that I am involved in an ‘unsolvable’ mystery that is constantly going on all around me. Birth, death, birth, death...the continual turning of the wheel…

With that in mind, I leave you with a seven part prose poem written in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the week after Dia de los Muertos in 2006. It’s an odd piece. So, a bit of background: 

I worked at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe (if you’re from Santa Fe, it's known as Saint Victim’s), and from the back parking lot you can see the Jemez mountain range (where Los Alamos is located). For two years I spent a couple of minutes every morning looking at that range before going into the hospital. Over time, I began to feel that my paternal grandmother, a great storyteller who had died in the early 90’s, had become part of that mountain range. Or maybe she was that mountain range. I don’t know why.  Later that year, when burning dried herbs on All Souls’ Day, I felt that same presence in the area around my apartment. She was no longer a mountain range, had become something different (those spirits…always changing, shape-shifting...go figure).  

Santa Fe is located near many of the facilities involved in the making of nuclear weapons: Los Alamos, Sandia Labs, Kirtland Air Force Base, and, much further south, the White Sands missile range. What is so frightening about the production of these weapons is that it is so invisible. Much of the economy in the surrounding area, and all over the country, is intricately linked with Department of Defense weapons production. 

Santa Fe is a town of Labyrinths. Literally. There’s a labyrinth in front of the Cathedral, one out at the museum of international folk art, and there is a Labyrinth Resource Group that has built labyrinths at eight different elementary schools in Santa Fe (how can you not love a town that does that?). Whenever I walked down Griffin Street in the evening, I would always walk the three-circuit labyrinth at Carlos Gilbert Elementary school.

The poem is meant to be somewhat like walking a three-circuit labyrinth. In a three-circuit labyrinth the way in is the same as the way out - there is only one path. In the poem, the labyrinth is Santa Fe, the labyrinth is my mind; my mind and Santa Fe, linked. 

So, three turns in, arrival at the center, and three turns out. Sections 1 and 7 are the entrance and exit, echoing each other (there is a play between my grandmother as ‘guide’ and the final spider in the hospital bathroom - a reference to Spider Woman or Spider Grandmother, the one who weaves the stories that hold all the worlds together).

Sections 2 and 6 are the same turnings – but one is going in and the other going out (nuclear weapons production in contrast with a storm). Sections 3 and 5 are related in the same way, so there are echoes between them also (the ‘chatter’ mentioned in Section 3 comes from a moment when I was sitting in the park next to the cathedral and a businessman walked by, talking into a headset, and, because the technology was new and I had not seen it before, it looked as if he was just another crazy in the park muttering to himself).   

Section 4 is the center, taking place at Heron Lake, a small lake on the New Mexico/Colorado border, north of Santa Fe.

Enough. It begins with the burning of dried herbs. A spirit appears out of the smoke…

Labyrinth: Days of the Dead

The way out is the way in

1. Entrance

Sage-smoke weaves around yellow leaves, wraps a black trunk. Heat-crack from a hollow stem. You appear, half-blind (but this is not you as I once knew you, this is you as you are now - half-formed, half-smoke).

I want to return to that dim-lit kitchen, watch your bent hands knead dough; white dust down your apron (but this is not you as I once knew you, this is you as you are now - vague guide, weaving something new).

Tonight, I’ll follow you anywhere. Back through the dead elm leaves that follow me home (I don’t care if it’s not you as I once knew you, I know only you – whoever you are – can thread this world together now – merge dry leaf, burning leaf, crack of the heated space inside a hollow stem).

2. Dark Corridors

It moves around here at night, a thief over dry leaves in dream. Los Alamos, Sandia, Kirtland, White Sands. Through the bathroom vent, a sucking wind, cluck of an old woman, fingers boiled phosphor-blue. Beneath her nails, a shock of black in the blood. Daedalus: Copernicus: convoluted folds of the brain, a map through: the solution moves away, gets close: Galileo. Newton. Fascinating hole that creates itself. Crush and release. Einstein: suture of time, space: Oppenheimer, Teller, Szilard: inertial confinement fusion: rune of angular momentum: a new world safe: nonlinear tantra equation:

                                              To reveal the secret at the heart by making it.

The razor wire fence walks through the night. A hum behind the wall. No source. How it continues with or without you…

3. Lost Cells

Chatter into headsets the schizophrenic’s dream of eternal ethereal partners for all perpetual motion jaws no bird call no wind against dead leaf no symmetry of cathedral stone

No one will miss stone

Chatter laugh chatter text chatter lights chatter button chatter pricks the chatter skull aluminum foil chatter hat can’t stop chatter signals nothing but chatter across stars lost inside chatter

I will miss stone

(there’s a high, thin rattle of leaves, like mouse bone chimes or dried sugar-skulls, rolling toward their own kind. Can you hear it? Leave the last pay phone receiver dangling. Let the dead talk to the dead:


4. Circle of Scrub Oaks, Edge of Heron Lake

Auburn-gold leaves soon-to-be-brown they ring
a bleached juniper trunk they ring
wind in waves down the dry hillside swallowing broken stone they ring
the half-moon beat of black wings beneath the heart they ring
her empty sockets watching red soak up the last light they ring
my hands holding a tiny mouse bone they ring
her promise of death so close against my cheeks flamed by cold they ring
the dead silence after waking suddenly from a deafening dream of coyotes they ring
a sepulcher of shale reeds fossilized nail-polish bottles they ring
three blue birds in the morning squirting juniper seed shit into the cooking pot they ring
her empty eyes her blessed empty eyes haloes of dark matter giving birth:

an osprey dives
into the blue


5. Salvation Army

Football radio-chatter cuts off. All of us suddenly dropped through the silence between jean-rack and rack of old sweaters, past macramé plant hangers, flower plate patterns, discarded corporate team-building seminar T-shirts, and faux-gold candle-holders (so many candle-holders).

His thin brown fingers slow-cinch a cracked leather belt around a tiny, shrunken waist. Her face, a face that will never close (cracked open, revealing black ash swirling through falling snow).

The born-again woman behind the register (pancake make-up, heavy rouge) smiles at a woman with four children in tow, coming in from the cold.


6. Storm

Soft white flash folds the city in half, south-end pressed north. Rune of angular momentum. An audience of shock-blue faces stare through the bedroom window: lost ancestors who will still not accept the end. Water drums the roof loud as coyotes keening Time back to its origin:

chaos (non-linear tantra equation of lips at the back of the neck)
chaos (fingers curl, uncurl)
chaos (a new syllable startled out of the mouth)

A terrible skeleton tapdance: snakeskins clang against yellow leaves, mouse bones slip into the mouth of rolling broken bottles, condoms swallow spider husks - all the forgotten scattered things gathered into one swift river

cheek to thigh

  Thunder against the wall vibrates like ginger on the tongue

                                                    how it burns   

7. Spider in the Hospital Bathroom

She clings to tile, feels the table-flat underside of desert clouds, juniper hills, last yellow chamisa bloom on the road’s shoulder, cold web-shadow across sandstone

         (there is no water in the way she moves
                                quick down white strands to his throat
                        she is a necklace of quills.
          the end of his abdomen a bobbing mouth,
                                                                        empty gourd

                  his one free backleg struggles, kicks

             she pulls him deeper, 
                                             underneath the white canopy, 
                                                 and they hang together)

 The entire world inside her. The old secret, again and again:

                                           a trickle of sandstone dust sifts over sun-cracked green lichen

                                                                                      into my hands

November 2-8, 2006
Santa Fe, New Mexico


Booklist Starred Review for 
                        A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind

A Fish Trapped inside the Wind.

Gholson, Christien (author).

Oct. 2011. 268p. Parthian, paperback, $14.95 (9781906998905)REVIEW. First published October 15, 2011 (Booklist).

Like the most finely cadenced, beautifully fanciful works of surrealism, this novel beckons with its subtle nuances before it leaps into a dazzling mastery that will ensnare even the casual reader. The town of Villon, Belgium, is experiencing an extremely odd phenomenon. Dead fish are strewn everywhere. Flung over yards and stoops and fields, the fish puzzle the residents no end as they speculate on the significance of such a bizarre happening. Other intersecting events include a rally meant to protest a decision to use local quarries as toxic dumps and the festival of St. Woelfred, who fled into the wilderness in the seventh century to live out her days reflecting in prayer. A rumored set of lost Rimbaud poems propels the action in ways unimaginable at the start yet utterly convincing by the conclusion. Gholson skillfully interweaves the individual stories of six main characters: a magician, a priest, a Rimbaud scholar, a journalist, a seer, and an aging lothario, who connect and conflict with one another in ways that ring true as each grapples with the choice of “walking through the mirror” of illusion—or not. Building to an extraordinary crescendo of an ending, Gholson’s poetic, purely magical, yet resoundingly human tale deserves a wide audience. — Julie Trevelyan

Monday, October 17, 2011

On the Side of the Crow Redux

At the beginning of October my book of loosely connected prose poems, On the Side of the Crow, was released here in the UK by Parthian Books.  

Oddly enough, considering the current occupation of Wall Street, a narrative thread running through a number of the poems in this volume contains the character of Mae Sistore - a mysterious revolutionary who was, perhaps, the catalyst for a silent revolution. Throughout the book, people are crowding into the streets of capitals across America - without signs, without slogans.  An occupation of silence.  

No one seems to know what they want. No one in authority, that is. 

I wrote the initial draft of Crow in 1994, in Des Moines, Iowa.  When I revised it in Sacramento, California, in the summer of 2001, the Mae Sistore character appeared and demanded to be let into the volume, along with her strange, silent revolution.  She could have been my antidote to the frustration I felt over the complacency that had settled over America during the Nineties.  As Mike McDonough said in Coldfront Magazine about the Mae Sistore character, she is “a mysterious, goddess-like underground radical hiding from the FBI. Though incognito, she has inspired a huge gathering of protesters protesting nothing.  TV pictures are beamed worldwide, but each person must find out the meaning of this protest for themselves.”

Of course, they weren't protesting 'nothing'.  Back then, I imagined a movement of silence because I felt the issues were so complex, on such a vast scale, that any media-friendly slogan or sound-bite could easily be appropriated and re-packaged for consumer consumption - and so ignored.  A massive vigil of silence seemed more powerful than any slogan I could come up with.  

Hanging Loose Press, 2006
 On the Side of the Crow was eventually published in the United States by Hanging Loose Press in 2006.  

The original intention behind the book was for it to be like a walk through a gallery - but a moving gallery, a gallery without walls, a gallery of stories rising from the faces I passed every day on the street.  So each individual piece in the book echoes a work of visual art. 

When I finished the book I called these pieces prose poems. Some of them could easily fit into the category of flash fiction.  Some might even label them ekphrastic poems (Ekphrasis: a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art).  You can call them whatever you want. They are what they are.

A Joseph Cornell box is less a box and more of a window, I think.  

 Below are four sections from the book.  

Mandala Depicting the Secret Life of Worms

Some say worms are able to rise with evaporating water.  It happens with frogs, toads, puppet heads, horse hooves, shark teeth, and fish, why not worms?  I've seen fish swim out of the rain, flop onto the streets of a Florida marsh town, and die.  No time for even one question.  

I say worms are able to rise into the sky with the ghost of water.  They ascend through the bitter caverns of chicory weed stems, past the shadow-wash of sycamore leaves, into skies thick with the gaunt drunk faces of those who refuse to enter the afterlife because they're afraid it's just like this world - more empty labor. The refuseniks of heaven huddle in groups, wait for pieces of the world they came from to rise up into their hands on the invisible wings of evaporating water.  Frogs, worms, fingernails, fish.  If they're lucky, an occasional bottle of gin.

Some say worms sleep through it all, victims of chance, pure bait.  I say worms created hunger in the clouds and endlessly sacrifice themselves to their creation.   

The worms freefall through transparent mouths, ride the rain down, beat against lonely umbrellas, tumble past faces wincing in the mudwater spray of car tires, hang over petal-cups of new blossoms, stretch long on macadam.  Their bodies glisten over the thirst-driven world.

How many times can a worm rise, drop, rise again?  Some say there's a worm who's been riding the waterwheel since before lightning struck emptiness.  They call that worm "Intelligence Arising From Appetite."  I say that worm is your mother, your Uncle Lester watching TV, your next door neighbor bending over - just this minute - poking a worm stretched out on the sidewalk after the first warm rain, steam rising from the pavement around his shoes.

Violet Skies the Night before Fall's Victory:
  Junk Sculpture

There's a ceiling of blue-cloud in the first sun-gone minutes.  The blue deepens.  Eddie Slivic sits on a torn couch, looks over his junkyard.  Rusted washers, dryers; a sea of cars without teeth, eyes, feet.  Violet furrows darken above the humid air.  Through the violet, the dim pale blue of the moon.

Eddie looks up at the moon, hears Dick Carver's horse somewhere out in the sea of cars, munching something.  "What that fucking horse finds to eat out there is beyond me."  He gets up, goes into the kitchen, brings a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses back to the couch.  Every time Dick comes looking for his skeleton-horse he sits on Eddie's porch all night, talking and drinking.  When he's drunk enough to cry, the old man looks out over Eddie's junk and shouts, "A holy view!  A magnificent view!"  Then he turns to Eddie and says, "It's true.  You'll see it soon enough.  All the failed, fucked up things we've done with our lives become magnificent when taken whole."   

Eddie hates tears.  Doesn't know what to do around them.   No one's ever told him he doesn't have to do anything.  "It's an epic created by this flesh!" Dick sometimes shouts.  "Magnificent love lost!  Magnificent impatience!  Magnificent wrecked marriages!  Magnificent scattered, angry children!" 

Dick drives his pickup into Eddie Slivic's yard, stops.  Eddie smiles, raises the bottle with one hand, holds up two glasses with the other. 

In the morning the air is sharp as sun on water.

Driftwood in Moonlight: 
Articles from The New York Times Spliced Into
A Sumi-e Brush Painting 
Mae Sistore stands on the beach, staring at a long white twist of driftwood.  She is saying: "...body by white salt and silence...body by moon tide and silence...body by wind, body by water..."

All these years working for something to move, to change - and now - suddenly - today - seeing the huge crowds on television, gathering in front of every state capitol, surrounding banks, schools, blocking intersections, all silent, some smiling, arms linked.  It was beyond anything she’d ever imagined.  And it had nothing to do with her.

She is saying:  "...body by sharp sand and turmoil...body by sun-scorch and turmoil... body by wind, body by water..."

She looks beyond the bleached sweep of the driftwood limb, at the ghost crabs searching the night coast for food.  Moon reflected off wood blinds the crabs, penetrates their shells, illuminates their soft whispery meat. 

She is saying:  "...body by wind-wheel and sorrow...body by moon-funnel and laughter...body by wind, body by water..."

A coiled string of seaweed lifts, reborn.  A sand breeze blows through its dry brown body and it moves like a tumbleweed along the moonlit rise of dunes, following the imprints of a huge crab.  It catches up to the crab, veils him, marries him, and they move off together, back down to the rhythm-black water. 

She repeats the chant:  "...body by white salt and silence...body by moon tide and silence...body by wind, body by water..." 

Seaweed trails the crab, follows him into his hole.  Tomorrow morning someone will look at the swish and arc the seaweed made in the sand and think "snake."

 Sculpture of a Desert Town in the Manner Of
Giacometti's Dog

I stopped at The Desert Star Motel in Winnemucca.  They gave me a coupon for a free cocktail with dinner at the casino across the street.  Inside, a man in bright green shorts held a baby in his arms while he played the slots.
Outside, the white-hot sun.  Casting perfect right-angle doorframe shadows onto doors.  I walked off the main strip.  One block over, there was a residential street.  Palms in front yards.  Where all the casino workers lived, I guessed.  Behind the houses on the north side of the street was a field of burnt gold grass sloping up to the highway.  Gold hills beyond.  When the traffic died down, you could hear the sound of snakes moving through straw.   

A kid with a burnt, peeling face, wearing his shirt over his head like a hood, wandered up to me.  "Hey," he said, "you don't look like you're from around here."  I shook my head.   "You heading north?" he said. "I'm heading to the Rainbow Gathering in Idaho.  Greyhound wanted to take me through Salt Lake, but that's too far out of the way, so I jumped."  "I'm heading to Sacramento," I said.  "I just came through there," he said.  "Bad town.  They found some burnt heads in a trashcan.  It was in the papers."  I looked out at the hills, nodded.  "Well, have a good trip anyway," he said, and wandered off.  

A couple doors down, there was a little girl sitting on her front steps, staring into the hills.  "What's it like living here?" I said.  "It's alright," she said and shrugged.  "You gonna stay when you grow up?" I asked.  "Might."  The front window curtains caught the hot wind, blew back into the dark living room.  I didn't know what else to say.  I'm not good with kids.  She pointed at the hills.  "There's mountain lions up there," she said.  "Sometimes they come down, kill a dog."

That night, I turned off the air-conditioner, opened the windows.  Around 3 a.m. I woke. Two coyotes were prowling around the pool.  Their fur glistened blue.


In the UK, the book is available through 

or from 


If you are in the United States and suddenly feel the urge to buy this book, thinking to yourself, “Holy crap! How could I have missed this book the first time around!  I didn’t realize something so…uh…interesting...was out there!  I need it NOW!" 

Order it from:

Don’t delay.  Operators are standing by.


In other news, my novel A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind was released in the United States & Canada at the beginning of October.

It is currently available at:

"What is at first unusual may be followed with legend. 'A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind' is a unique story of a small Belgian town who are pelted with dead fish by the wind. As the town deals with its dead fish problem, the people ponder what it means. Blending in folk legend of small European towns and the effect it will have on their lives, 'A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind' is a moving and thoughtful read, very much recommended."

Midwest Book Review