Vultures and the Bones of Description
Vultures and the Bones of Description
by Thamiris

So I'm writing this story that seems to call for a few vultures in the sky, hungrily eyeing my protagonists, when I decide I'm not entirely sure what a vulture looks like.  My knowledge of them is mostly from cartoons, which seems inadequate somehow.  Besides, when I start writing these vultures, they're just hanging there, you know? They feel obligatory and gawky above their natural awkwardness, like I'm writing for Loony Toons and my fic has all the subtle sophistication of a Porky-narrated romp through chaos.   What's the point of these vultures?   Just to add some color?   As foreshadowing?   As comic relief?   How, in other words, do I describe a vulture in a way that gives it meaning other than a fuzzy, big-mawed doom and gloomy shadow in the sky?

Then I come across this passage in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, right after the Bundrens have taken Addie's decaying body from Samson's barn, Samson, who is haunted by the smell of her:

But it was still like I could smell it.   And so I decided then that it was smelling it, but it was just knowing that it was there, like you will get fooled now and then.   But when I went to the barn I knew different.  When I walked into the hallway I saw something.   It kind of hunkered up when I come in and I thought at first it was one of them got left, then I saw what it was.  It was a buzzard.   It looked around and saw me and went on down the hall, spraddle-legged, with its wings kind of hunkered out, watching me first over one shoulder and then over the other, like a old bald-headed man.   When it got outdoors it began to fly.   It had to fly a long time before it ever got up into the air, with it thick and heavy and full of rain like it was (118-119).
First, I think, goddammit!  Serendipity.  Faulkner and I are on the same wave-length.   It's like touching the hand of God.  When inadequacy comes running after, I decide to tackle just why Faulkner's buzzard worked, to pick his descriptive bones.   What then does Faulkner do?   Why is he The Great American Writer, and I'm just me?  (And it's not just because I'm Canadian).

Most obviously, he doesn't try to cram his big dumb bird into a single line, like I would.   Instead, he takes his time, walking like that frigging buzzard through Samson's barn, only much more gracefully.   Maybe because I write mostly short stories, maybe because I see so much disdain toward description, maybe because I read too much poetry, but I squeeze mine into single sentences, neat little suitcases of it, destination clearly marked, like if I write more I'll embarrass myself through self-indulgent violet prose.

Even if you buy this, it's no license to crawl:  nothing's more excruciating than a long, belabored description.   Like Faulkner's, it has to hit at least two other bases.   Here those two are originality and theme.   His buzzard is anthropomorphized, a hunched old man, hairless and alone, unconcerned with the watching Samson.   The bird just  wants to fly the hell out of there, despite his age, despite his rain-heavy wings.   The journey's got this aching pathos, but faintly grotesque and morbid, too, since the bird was drawn to the barn because of that phantom (or not) stink of dead flesh.   There's an added uncomfortable layer of morbidity because that bird isn't just a bird.   Nope, it's this ugly creature is a soul, Addie's soul, Everysoul who dies with unfinished business, with love and anger undeclared like feathers thick with rain.

Samson, watching, will be defeated by this bald buzzard.   Get it?   With his Old Testament name, he's the bald buzzard, shorn and disempowered in this story by his inability to talk to his wife who has been sobbing since Addie Bundren's dead body came to visit her barn because she understands the unfixed cracks the other woman's death leaves in her family.

Faulkner gives us death, pathos, futility, all wrapped in this lumpen bird.   What I got from it, as a writer constantly grappling with description?

  •   Slow down.
  •   Make your description original through juxtaposition.
  •   Make it symbolic.
  •   Inject it with emotion.
Makes my "A trio of skinny-necked vultures soared above Autolycus' head" seem pretty lame.   Talk about bare bones.
Vultures by Thamiris February 2001 (c)

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