Maybe, before I start talking about This Darksome Burn proper, I’ll touch on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Inversnaid,” from which Nick Ripatrazone’s novella takes its title. The poem takes a straightforward Romantic approach to nature as scene of the sublime revelation. To quote William Cronon from “The Trouble with Wilderness,”
sublime landscapes were those rare places on earth where one had more chance than elsewhere to glimpse the face of God.[…] Although God might, of course, choose to show Himself anywhere, He would most often be found in those vast, powerful landscapes where one could not help feeling insignificant and being reminded of one’s own mortality.
Hopkins describes a river at the waterfall, the pool at its bottom “so pitchblack, féll-frówning, / It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.” The last stanza roundly states Hopkins’ take-away:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,
O Let them be left, wilderness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
There is some fun to be had in theorizing This Darksome Burn through this last stanza: as a meditation on how hard it is to leave the wilderness, or rather on how the wilderness won’t leave its inhabitants, or how the wilderness is at its most savage when civilization runs feral. Maybe this wilderness reveals not Hopkins’ God, who finds—in His benevolence beyond our understanding—a place even for vorteces and weeds, but a wrathful or indifferent God, or no God at all. In any case, the Despair of Hopkins the poet feels more contemplative, absorbed, while the despair felt in any narrative form responding to “Inversnaid” is almost bound to be more visceral, a churn of conflict.
That said, This Darksome Burn‘s narrative follows Luke Coleman, father of Aurea and Ford, whose main desire is to protect what he cherishes from the violent loss encroaching around him. His wife Bel is gone for reasons hinted at but never explained. Luke’s horse runs off after his camp is attacked by wolves. Returning home, he finds that his daughter Aurea has apparently been raped by her ex-boyfriend Baxter. Luke attempts to exact revenge on Baxter while the very family/property he tries to hold together falls apart from within: Aurea will not bring Baxter’s baby to term; Ford’s desire to find his father’s lost horse leads him to disobey his father’s prohibition, only to be attacked by feral pigs.
The novella’s engine is driven by secrets: Luke will neither tell his children how he lost the horse nor allow them to go to the site where he lost it; Aurea, rather than telling her father, confides in the stablehand, Shope:
How could Aurea explain that it is Baxter, and yet it is not him? It is neither her nor him. She had led Baxter to the bed, took him, but saw his eyes glaze over. She knew it was his body but not his soul, and when they were finished and he walked away, he acted as if they’d only shaken hands.
This is a disconcerting passage on many levels, outdone only by “She tells Luke. There can be no rape because there is a baby. There is something left, and that makes it not a rape.” Which makes me wonder what sort of sheltered, possibly fundamentalist, upbringing Aurea may have had to lead her to such an expression of her own experience, or if Ripatrazone had the interest or capacity to flesh that part of her character out. What is the advantage to Aurea of accepting Luke’s characterization of the sex as rape in this situation? Why does she concede that the unborn fetus she’s decided not to keep is a baby? The novel later explains that Aurea sees herself as a college student, of a world into which a baby wouldn’t fit, so is she simply rehearsing words she thinks her dad would understand? The spare and gritty style of the narrative, with all its monosyllabic words in terse knots, chokes out some of the finer points which might be exfoliated in a novel. Which reminds me—
Though set in the Pacific Northwest, This Darksome Burn‘s major tropes will resonate with fans of the Western genre, as it’s more kin to The Searchers than to Krakauer’s Into the Wild. So the… narrowness… with which it deals with the above scene—not that I’m doing any better—will come as no surprise. Luke epitomizes the grizzled man who, after years wrestling with the wilderness, distrusts language as soft, civilized, effeminate. It is language which creates secrecy and intrigue, language which creates the man-made laws that interfere with his personal struggle against natural law.
Though this aesthetic decision gives Ripatrozone’s novella its color, it works against him in many cases. (1) In the big picture, Luke does not change as a character. His fundamental values about the world aren’t challenged or disproven so much as taken to their logical conclusion: that even those he wants to protect have to be protected from themselves, yet he can barely protect them from himself. The one surprise in Luke’s arc is that he ends up killing a feral pig instead of Shope or Baxter or a wolf. (2) And on the sentence level, we get dialogue such as
“You need to relax, Luke.”
“I’m damn sick of people telling me what to do.” He lets go of Shope. “I won’t be needing your help anymore.”
“I’m sorry I took the boy out there.”
“I just can’t trust you. I can’t trust anybody but myself.”
Or, when Luke presses down on a stable fly’s sting on the back of his son Ford’s neck: “’You keep those tears down.’ He hugs Ford. ‘Save them for something worthwhile.’” While there is background which explains that Luke is a sometimes history teacher, but isn’t every Shane formerly a preacher, a soldier, a farmer, etc.? If a character is going to so strictly inhabit a genre archetype, it’d be nice for that archetype to be pushed in a new direction.
Perhaps I’m not being fair by putting character at the fore when that’s not Ripatrazone’s aim and not the strong suit of a novella (considered as form). Instead, let me note that the very brief chapters are often so sculpted as to verge on interwoven lyrical prose poems of tender or wounded stoicism. When I read about a snow storm in which
Boundaries of rock and properties disappear. No ownership in a storm. Even the Siskiyou Mountains on the horizon bleach into oblivion. Telephone lines string like frosted yarn.
I almost jumped out of my chair and shouted, ‘The snow was general over all of Ireland!’ It was by far my favorite evocation of the setting. And the imagery in one chapter will often carry over into others, too. For example, in chapter 15 a stable fly stings the back of Ford’s neck, while in chapter 20 Shope smacks a stable fly that lands on the back of his neck. Bel’s death and Bel’s language are connected at several points to the/a stream. In chapter 2, the “life she gave to that stream, the stream that, itself, gave and took life. One breath for another. A dangerous stream, she promised.” In chapter 21, “She opened her mouth and the faint sound of something like the stream’s current exited her lips.” Such poignancy can feel a bit forced at times, but otherwise it weaves a thought-provoking tapestry which will reward those who reread This Darksome Burn.
This Darksome Burn, by Nick Ripatrazone. firthFORTH Books, forthcoming.
Jeremy Behreandt lives in Madison, WI.