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Robert McKay

June 27, 2012

A Story Should Include

(English lesson plan for new Americans)

– Characters. For instance: migratory birds whose calligraphy may be magnetic but may just as easily come from outer space.

– Beginning middle end. In the geologic migration of Time, the antecedents of birds are reptiles. The heirs of birds are automobiles. The heirs of automobiles are fossils. The heirs of fossils are birds.

– Problem. Or, a garden that doesn’t turn out to grow vegetables, but teeth.

– Exciting middle. Like, for example, the exciting middle, the fat, actually enormous, completely bogus, middle of this continent. Fat with grain! Exciting with vast migrating herds of boarded-up factories! Oh their thunderous bellows of silence! Oh their rectangular plyboard eyes! Watch out! They’re coming!

– Detail. We’ll leave that part to the reader’s (boarded-up, migratory) imagination.

– Setting. Interior or exterior. Landscape being of course a form of music. Ditto architecture. Story writers being of course mere librettists, utterly dependent for their bread on the opera-composers who might variously sign their works, Fate, Desire, History, Bad Luck, Lady Luck, Weather, Forgetfulness, Topography, etc.

– Migrations. And if it’s a story on this continent, the tradition is in favor of a migration of fossils. Herds of fossilized buffalo, their cries buried in the air, the endless tectonic air of this continent. The migration, after that, in which “nothing happens” [1] : a migration of reptilian automobiles that cense the Interstate (which is a mythic world-snake of poured lava) with the ghosts of fossilized reptiles. These epic migrations — without which who could have a story? — even as they displace herds of our continent’s young into the narrative equivalent of tent cities also made of fossils, are to be fair also doing us the service of repatriating displaced fossils to the air of this continent, which is like a vast sovereign cemetery ruled by dinosaurs. As was said, who could have a story without migrations like that.


[1].  Plenty Coups, chief of the Crow Nation, told his people’s story. It had a beginning (omitted here), a middle (omitted here) and a neat, satisfying end: “When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”


Robert McKay is based in the Old North End of Burlington, Vermont, where he is an educator and activist. His poetry has recently appeared in Measure and Montpelier’s Poetry Alive series, and has been set to music in the Vermont Poetry and Song Project. His criticism appeared in Visions of Joanna Newsom (Roan Press, 2009). He was an undergraduate fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2008. He is associate editor of The Salon, a scrappy handmade journal of established and emerging writers. His first collection, Cities of rain, is forthcoming from Honeybee Press.

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