Thursday, June 26, 2008
Black Mountain Whispers – A tribute to Raymond Carver ($15.00 U.S.D.) (Cave Moon Press, 2008) by Douglas P. Johnson
Black Mountain Whispers – A tribute to Raymond Carver ($15.00 U.S.D.) (Cave Moon Press, 2008) by Douglas P. Johnson
Review by Pam Rosenblatt
In 2008, Douglas P. Johnson’s Black Mountain Whispers – A tribute to Raymond Carver was published by Cave Moon Press. The one hundred and five page paperback is filled with short stories and poetry, entertaining with surprising (sometimes terrifying, and sometimes humorous) twists and turns, especially towards the end of the pieces.
Johnson wrote Black Mountain Whispers with the renowned short story writer and poet Raymond Carver in mind. Carver graduated from Davis High School, the Yakima, Washington high school where Johnson is currently an English teacher. Carver passed away in 1988. Black Mountain Whispers is a tribute to Raymond Carver’s short stories and poetry or, more specifically, minimalism.1
What is minimalism? Minimalism began in the mid-1960 and its style was developed in music, art, and literature, remaining strong through the 1980’s. The definition of minimalism, according to Raymond Carver, is “ordinary language [is used] to expose the inability of communicating the reality of experience through purely referential language.”2
Some minimalism musicians include Terry Jennings, Dennis Johnson, Richard Maxfield, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Barbara Benary, Julis Eastman,
Jon Gibson, La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine, Harold Budd, and Phill Niblock.3
Such American artists as Barnett Newman, Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd and Sol Levitt created in the minimalism style.4
Major literary minimalists are Raymond Carver, John Barth, Richard Ford, Fredrick Barthelme, Mary Robison, Peter Cameron, Judy Troy, and Alice Mattison.5
According to Hiromi Hishimoto in “Trying to Understand Raymond Carver’s Revision’s” published in Tokai English Review, No. 5, (December 1995), pp. 113-147, minimalism in literature is about “economy of word”, “very short, abrupt but impressive sentences”, “lack of psychological impact”, characters that are “completely stripped down”, “sensibility by outer and inner description as well as lacks empathy and lack of interest”. Usually something vital is not mentioned in the story or poem which generates confusion, uncertainty, and inarticulateness.6
In the literature of minimalism, there’s “no verbal communication, no depiction of informing another character about a matter of grave concern.” It’s impersonal and without unity. If there’s any empathy, it’s dramatic, or it doesn’t exist at all, showing up at the end of the writing. The minimalist writer leaves out “communal grief” and no character description is given. Repetition doesn’t happen, and lengthy sentences are replaced by phrases. Traditionally, a piece of literary minimalism is “short words with short sentences and paragraphs, super-short stories”.7
Often people either like minimalism or they don’t. It’s a style that is often found to be “different”. In “Bowing to the Great God Usage”, writer Kyle Gann writes about minimalism in music:
For me, minimalism, for me, was always a different kind
of music, requiring (to misquote John Rockwell) a different
kind of listening. It wasn’t for everybody. It acquired a cult
following of unusually patient listeners. It was, and is, a different
type of listening experience than the attention-holding narrative of conventional classical music.8
Johnson’s Black Mountain Whispers is a “different kind of [book]”. He takes minimalism to an extreme with both his short stories and his poetry. In this review, we’ll analyze the clever, humorous short story, “Color of Milk” and the poem, “Sitcom Sabbath”, to better our understanding of minimalism in literature.
Johnson begins Black Mountain Whispers with “Color of Milk”, a short four and one-quarter page short story about two women enjoying each other’s company while one woman, a portrait painter, is putting the finishing touches on a painting that she made of the other woman, who is handicapped and sits in a wheelchair. The opening of the story consists of short phrases, short sentences, and short questions. This economical use of words makes the first fourteen lines of “Color of Milk” read very quickly, though true to literary minimalism, the reader doesn’t understand what he is reading right away. The beginning of this piece is confusing.
“Doesn’t smell burnt. Next?”
“Next? Easy. Cadmium Black.”
“It is to[o] Cadmium Black. I’ve been practicing.”
“Just black. Not Cadmium Black.”
“No, you tell it. I need to keep working.”
“You, you tell it better.”
“Deep breath. Better than glue. What is this?”9
The different metaphors for different colors like “Burnt Sienna”, “Cadmium Yellow” and “Cadmium Black” suggest that something colorful is going on. There’s confusion as to whether one of the speakers is smelling or looking at the different colors in order to identify them.
The story begin to unfold when the second speaker identifies a smell
“Turpentine. That one’s easy. He didn’t smell like turpentine.
Gasoline. He smelled like gasoline. Remember? He was working on a
lawn mower, so his fingers had old grease under the nails.
I could tell when he picked me up out of the gravel and put me back in
my chair. You didn’t mean to dump me. The wheel got caught in a soft
spot. Wait! Give me a chance before you wave it under my nose. What’s
“Like raw meat?”
“What do you think?”10
The relationship between these two women no longer seems blissful, as indicated by
the use of “Raw Umber”. The woman who’s the artist seems upset over something yet to be discovered by reading further.
As “Color of Milk” progresses, an interesting story unravels, one that includes
jealousy, love, and revenge. Johnson uses several minimalism techniques in the story to get his ideas across, or not across. He never identifies the women or man by proper name.
The only character he capitalizes besides the pronouns “I” and “You” is the name “Mom”.11 He never lets the female speakers show empathy, except when the woman
apologizes for falling dramatically out of her wheelchair.12 He stereotypes13 the man as a sex symbol type of handyman who flirts with the women, both of whom become jealous of one another. There is a danger lurking in this short story. Menaces are typically found in literary minimalism.14 In “Color of Milk”, it’s a complex danger. It’s the power of the paintbrush, as the artist keeps painting mustaches under the other woman’s nose either on her face or on a canvas, as it’s not clear, and the woman with the painted mustache has no idea what it looks like:
“What’s color is this?”
“It’s new. Don’t know. Paint a mustache under my nose, so I
can try and memorize it for later.”
“You look like Hitler.”
“Who is that?”
“Or Aunt Hilda.”
“Is it orange?”
Through economy of word, abstract thought, humor, and inarticulateness, Johnson has
written a fine minimalistic lead short story, one that motivates the reader to continue onto the following short stories, many of which aren’t as easy reads and contain threatening, violent, and scary situations which may cause the ordinary reader to put down the book and read the comic section of his Sunday newspaper. But, if you’re the type of reader who enjoys surprises, twists and turns of fate, then you probably will like the rest of the short stories in Black Mountain Whispers.
Black Mountain Whispers’s poetry is complex, abstract, innovative, and often confusing, the latter typical of literary minimalism, then again the writing is sometimes very economical and clear. “Sitcom Sabbath” is a fun yet serious poem found on page 90.
The poem’s speaker has prepared for the Sabbath by cooking
Fresh garlic cloves
Six chicken breasts
Half cup of white wine
One cup of vegetable broth
Tablespoon olive oil
Teaspoon black pepper
Heat oven to 350º. Rub chicken with olive oil. Halve garlic
Cloves. Slit chicken breasts. Place garlic halves into slits. Place seven to
Eight sprigs of tarragon over and around breasts. Mix white wine with
Vegetable broth and pour over chicken. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake
For 30 minutes. Check chicken. Uncover and bake 10 more minutes.
Serve with brown rice or green salad.
Serve with pumpernickel.
Serve family on T.V. trays.16
Here the speaker has made a special Friday night dinner just to have this weekly holiday
event’s relaxing time thwarted by fate. Death acts as the menace here. The speaker’s grandmother dies.
Listen to Mom’s hoarse, snorting sobs.
Grandma just died.
I talked to her an hour and a half ago and said I love you. I could tell
she was trying to say something, but it didn’t come out.17
The whole poem lacks empathy, until the speaker’s mother says to the grandmother, “I love you”. When the speaker’s mother says, “I could tell she was trying to say something, but it didn’t come out”18, the reader feels a sense of confusion and inarticulateness of verbal communication.
The speaker doesn’t commiserate with his, or is it her, mother after learning of
the grandmother’s passing. What she does is rote. The short, economical sentences lack emotion. Some repetitive phrases would probably be normal to hear, but Johnson doesn’t
write that way. In his minimalistic style, he uses sentences without a subject noun or pronoun to convey the emptiness of a holiday evening gone awry.
Check calendar. Confirm today is a full moon.
Listen to laugh track in the back ground.
Wonder how to say goodbye to Grandma.19
The last line of “Sitcom Sabbath” is beautiful in its simplicity. The speaker just says,
“Goodbye, Grandma.”20 Johnson has captured a distinctive moment and conveyed powerful feelings without emotion, without tears, without personal feelings exhibited.
“Color of Milk” and “Sitcom Sabbath” are two separate genres and reflect the development of minimalism in literature from the 1960’s through the new millennium. Johnson has written a book that capitalizes on the minimalism style, a style that not everyone accepts, but it has definite qualities and can be identified as such. Black Mountain Whispers is a good read to understand minimalism techniques in literature.
ArtLex, “Minimalism”, ArtLex on Minimalism.
Carver, Raymond and Gallagher, Tess, editor. All of Us: The Collected Poems. (New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1996).
Carver, Raymond. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. (New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1989).
Gann, Kyle “Bowing to the Great God Usage”, PostClassic.
HighBeam Encyclopedia, “The narrowed voice: minimalism and Raymond Carver”.
Hasimoto, Hiromi “Trying to Understand Raymond Carver’s Revisions”, Raymond Carver: Precisionist, 6/5/2008. http://www.whitman.edu/english/carver/precision.html
Johnson, Douglas P. Black Mountain Whispers, (Yakima, Washington: Cave Moon Press, 2008).
“1970s AD – Decade | Studies in Short Fiction | Find Articles at BNET.com”.
1 Douglas P. Johnson, Black Mountain Whispers, Yakima, Washington: Cave Moon Press, 2008, p, 107.
2 HighBeam Encyclopedia, “The narrowed voice: minimalism and Raymond Carver”, p. 1
3 Kyle Gann, "Bowing to the Great God Usage”, PostClassic, p. 1.
4 ArtLex, “Minimalism”, ArtLex on Minimalism, pp. 1-3.
5 “1970s AD – Decade | Studies in Short Fiction | Find Articles at BNET.com”, p. 3.
6 Hiromi Hasimoto, “Trying to Understand Raymond Carver’s Revisions”, Raymond Carver: Precisionist,
6/5/2008, p. 4.
7 Ibid, p. 7.
8 Kyle Gann, “Bowing to the Great God Usage”, PostClassic, p. 1.
9 Douglas P. Johnson, Black Mountain Whispers, p. 15.
10 Ibid, p.15.
11 Hiromi Hashimoto, “Trying to Understand Raymond Carver’s Revisions”, p. 3.
12 Ibid, p. 7.
13 Ibid, p. 4.
14 Ibid, p. 13, 15.
15 Ibid, p. 17.
16 Ibid, p.90.