Mors Vincit Omnia: Martin Amis

I’m saddened by the news of Martin Amis’s death. Like many around my age, I discovered Amis through Time’s Arrow, a book I still maintain is remarkable in ways far beyond the “gimmick” of its reversed narrative. From there I read just about everything as it came out, occasionally with—from a creative point of view—near agonistic intensity. How did he do that, I kept asking myself, both amazed at his style and angry that I hadn’t been blessed with anything like it.

There are valid criticisms of Amis’s work, particularly some of his early novels’ depictions of differences between the way the men and women think and communicate (easy to forgive), and Islamophobia (a problematic term, as fellow traveler Christopher Hitchens observed, but nonetheless a real strain in some of Amis’s later writing). But one knock I will not countenance is that Amis was all style and no substance. Nothing could be further from the truth for Amis, as with Nabokov, who was equally—and equally wrongly—accused of the same thing by readers who can do better. Amis’s fictional worlds—and to some degree, as evidenced by his memoirs and reviews, his real world—were often characterized by recognizing the dark heart permanently twinned with the light one. His sometimes caustic, satiric style was, despite its consistent erudition and humor, too easy a target for some readers’ fixations.

At any rate, Amis was a bona fide literary rock star (which he apparently mostly hated) with an inimitable, unmistakable style and a scathing, fascinating, intellect. There’s no good way to capture this in a short space, but I am nonetheless dropping here a few bits of Amis culled from my commonplace books, in rough order of my affection for the titles they come from.

The Drowning Man Dreams of Different Deaths

Toppling from a tightrope
stretched between your bare knees

Last fallen man in a dance contest

Jumping from a plane wearing a
backpack instead of a parachute

dying, as they say, of laughter

Stomach so stuffed with sweets
the witch can barely cram you
into her glowing oven

Of thirst, mouth too dry to form words

So quickly from the impact
you still can’t believe it

In your sleep
stiffening into
something of an embrace

James Dickey

James Dickey: An Appreciation


A few early poems:

James Dickey (1923-1997) was, to my mind, simultaneously one of the most well known and one of the least appreciated authors in America. Most people are aware of Dickey’s work even if they themselves don’t know that they are: his novel Deliverance won the prestigious French Prix Medicis and was later made into an Academy award-winning film in the early seventies that almost everyone has seen (or heard thanks to its famous “Dueling Banjo” soundtrack).

But Dickey’s first love—and he explicitly made this point many times—was poetry. And strangely, despite being more popularly known for his fiction, it was in his poetry that Dickey was truly something of a revolutionary. Sometimes it is the case that a pervasive influence on poetry is known most fully only to other poets, particularly if the poet is one who, like Dickey, is primarily known for a single piece of fiction. I heartily recommend his fiction to anyone, but I strongly suggest that anyone who hopes to write poetry today be familiar with Dickey’s work.

Happy (would Be) Birthday, Mom

Mom and I, September 2015, Lewiston Idaho
Mom and I, September 2015

Dear Mom,

You should be 67 today.

I should be scrambling to get flowers, which I always forget, to go with your present, which I mostly didn’t.

You should be reading my sarcastic birthday card, trying to decipher my joke about your prime and this prime numbered birthday.

We should be chatting about about how you’ve been spending your day, the passing of time, your grandkids, movies we’ve seen and want to see, the books you are currently reading, how to get rid of the spyware in your browser, and maybe the latest quacky health ideas you’ve learned from some celebrity on tv or in a magazine.

The Sins of The Father

In Exodus1, we are told that God will:

…visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.2

I don’t believe in a God who can take what strikes me as a monstrous action, but I’ve nonetheless believed the essential dynamic to be true for a long time. In fact, I can pinpoint the moment of my dark epiphany to September 1986.


Last of the really early poems for a while, this one circa 1990. I make no claims for these other than that they are, indeed, poems.


I entered the dark to the sound of a voice
Echoed a thousand times, an exploring shadow
Which called all of me to revel in the night

Battling Lawrence

Another early poem, circa 1991. This was originally titled “Sleeping with D. H. Lawrence.” I’m not sure why I changed the title.

Battling Lawrence

I dream at night of sleeping with D. H. Lawrence.
Unafraid of the movement
I sway under him, feeling the motions
Of a hundred frustrating imagined women.
In their vagueness they are too much like me
And I am lost in the whirl, waiting for some
Distinction to surface until eventually,
Faceless, I curl around myself
Tight and fetal,
His warmth and person comforting
And slippery seeping out of me.

Scroll to Top