June 5, 2019

“A Continuous Unfolding”: D-Day, David Milch, García Lorca, and the Return of “Deadwood”

By Stuart Mitchner

Tell me a story of deep delight.
— Robert Penn Warren

On the heels of the controversially rushed, truncated final season of Game of Thrones, HBO has released Deadwood: The Movie, the final chapter of David Milch’s “story of deep delight,” the series brought to an equally untimely and even more unfortunate end in 2006.

While the distinguished novelist/poet/critic Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) may seem an unlikely godfather for such a work, the depth of his influence is made clear in Mark Singer’s recent New Yorker article, “David Milch’s Third Act.” Anyone who has kept faith with Deadwood during the long wait for this moment should read Singer’s piece, as well as Alan Sepinwall’s outstanding appreciation in Rolling Stone. Far more significant than the revelation that Milch has Alzheimer’s is what Singer’s profile shows about how the lessons Milch learned from his mentor at Yale have given Deadwood the literary magnitude that sets it apart from other HBO masterworks like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Game of Thrones.

Referring to Warren, Milch says, “He was a teacher, but he was also always a searcher. He was respectful in sharing the pursuit and you felt you mustn’t fail to bring anything but your best attention and respect for the transaction….You felt that you must suppress everything irrelevant or distracting…. You had in his presence an effect of a continuous unfolding. It wasn’t so much an unfolding of a truth as it was of a passion ….The great blessing of Mr. Warren’s presence was a rising up in one’s heart of the desire to acknowledge that shared experience.”

“Kubla Khan”

When Singer asks whether Alzheimer’s “had given anything in return,” Milch speaks of “a continuous sense of urgency … an acute sense of time’s passage.” His suggestion “that time is ultimately the subject of every story” leads to a quote from Warren’s poem “Tell Me a Story,” lines that Milch has cited over the years “in classrooms, writers’ rooms, personal encounters, lectures, and interviews”:

Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.

The last two words echo in the “deep romantic chasm” of one of the most famous poems in English, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” As he transcribes his laundanum dream, Coleridge hears “an Abyssinian maid/Singing of Mount Abora,” and imagines his “deep delight” could he revive “Her symphony and song.” In the opening stanza of Warren’s poem, he recalls hearing the “great geese hoot northward” when he was a boy in Kentucky. Though he could not see them, “there being no moon/And the stars sparse,” he “heard them.” The experience of being involuntarily receptive to wonder and mystery, as expressed in Coleridge’s visionary dream, similarly informs Warren’s haunting line, “I did not know what was happening in my heart,” which also evokes the wonders Deadwood achieves in its most poignant and powerful moments. Right now I’m thinking of the night scene near the end of the movie when Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) look up in “deep delight” at the slow magical fall of snowflakes as Milch concludes his “story of great distances and starlight.”

In Walks Lorca

García Lorca is here because today, June 5, is his 120th birthday. So capacious is Milch’s vision that it’s possible to imagine an American incarnation of the Spanish poet walking down the muddy main street of Deadwood sometime between the shooting of Wild Bill and the snowy starlight Jane and Joanie delight in a decade later. Lorca would have a guitar, as he did when he was a student in Granada playing and singing Spanish folk music and making a name for himself before becoming a famous poet and playwright. There’s a Deadwood ambiance in the “Gypsy Ballads,” where “Rider and horse appear/With a long roll of the drum” and “Light like a deck of cards,/Hard and glossy and white,/Cuts in the brittle green/Horses rearing in fright.” Or Lorca might sing of the “lunatic afternoon” in which “Angels of black took wing/To the far air of the West.” He ends “Afternoon’s Last Light” singing, “O unarriving Night,/Object of fear and dream,/How long the slanting sword,/How deep the driven wound!”


Until Deadwood changed the dynamic, I was working on a D-Day sequel to last week’s celebration of Whitman and Memorial Day, which ended with me smoking a Camel from the pack found on my bellygunner uncle’s body after a freak training accident in February 1944. But for that, he might have been in one of the B-17s scouting the skies over Omaha Beach three months later.

Following the theme of cigarettes as a shared sacrament in films and fiction as well as real life, and guessing that Lorca must have been a smoker, I cast a line into the cyberstream and came up with Leslie Stainton’s Lorca, A Dream of Life. It turns out that on the night of his arrest by Nationalist forces on August 16, 1936, Lorca was given a carton of (would you believe?) Camels by a friend. He was wearing “dark gray pants and a white shirt with a tie loosely tied around the collar” at the time, and when he demanded to know why he was beng arrested, he received a one-word answer, “Words.”

Two nights later Lorca was handcuffed and driven to a small building six miles from Granada with a schoolteacher and two bullfighters known for left-wing politics. The poet offered the last of his Camels to a young guard who was on duty that night, asking if he could have a newspaper and “more tobacco.” After humoring Lorca with smalltalk, the guard told him that they he and the other three were going to be killed. The sun had not yet risen when they were shot beside a stand of olive trees and buried in a nearby ravine.

In his introduction to The Poet in New York and Other Poems (1940), José Benjamin presents Lorca’s murder as “the purest and clearest example of the martyrdom of an entire people.”

“He Didn’t Suffer”

Among the items the U.S. Army Air Force sent to my mother, along with the cigarettes and his dog-tag, was a large glossy photograph of a B-17 like the one my uncle died in, along with a letter to the effect that “he didn’t suffer,” and a handsome Citation of Honor signed by the commanding general of the Army Air Forces. The citation declares that “his sacrifice will help to keep aglow the flaming torch that lights our lives,” so that “millions yet unborn may know the priceless joy of liberty.” It ends: “We who pay him homage, and revere his memory, in solemn pride, rededicate ourselves to the fulfillment of the task for which he so gallantly placed his life upon the altar of man’s freedom.”

The Citation of Honor doesn’t give my uncle’s full name, which was Robert E. Lee Patterson, in honor of his grandfather, a Confederate general who served with Lee. His other grandfather, C.A. Davis, played the fiddle with Bat Masterson’s band in Dodge City. I like to think he was with them when they performed in Deadwood at Al Swearengen’s Gem or maybe Cy Tolliver’s Bella Union. I still have the fiddle.

Telling the Story

The two characters from Game of Thrones I can imagine showing up in Deadwood are Jerome Flynn’s earthy, wisecracking sellsword Bronn and of course Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, whose wit and eloquence qualify him to sling words with the likes of Ian MacShane’s Al Swearengen. In the rushed conclusion of Game of Thrones it’s left to Tyrion to tie up the labyrinth of loose ends in an uncharacteristically stilted speech: “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”

As David Milch shows throughout Deadwood and most movingly in his interview with Mark Singer, it’s the way you tell the story that counts. In quoting Milch on the influence of Robert Penn Warren, I found myself taking out lines (see the ellipses) for the sake of moving things along, not realizing that Milch was holding forth in the style of one of his characters. That said, I’ll restore a characteristic omission. Speaking of his mentor, Milch says, “You had the feeling that there were two spirits residing in a holy place. And there was an absolute lack of self-consciousness to the process. A mutual absence.”

When Singer, in his frank but delicate probing of Milch on how he deals with dementia, refers to his “ability to pull back from whatever is immediate and contemporary and go to a place—say, Deadwood—where your characters exist,” Milch says, “I think that is the chief blessing of art, the opportunity to organize one’s behavior around a different reality. It’s a second chance. You pray to be equal to it, equal to its opportunities. We both know that some days you’re better at that than others. In my case, there’s a continuing unfolding discovery of the limitations of that vision.”

In Deadwood: The Movie, David Milch and his cast and crew are more than equal to the many unfolding opportunities.