Archive for January, 2013

January Is Not Fooling Anyone

Summer clothing stays interred
in a drawer.
The trees have seen
this presentation before and
remain stoic.
Even rambunctious daffodils
keep dormant.
January is not fooling anyone.

Then what explains
a neighborhood’s silly antics,
the raucous birds,
this blossoming of angels in
softened snow?
As every false spring proves,
one does not
need to be a fool to act foolish.

When They Severed Earth From Sky : How The Human Mind Shapes Myth / Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber

This book takes an in-depth look at mythmaking and makes the case that “myths” were not intended to be perceived as fiction, a story simply shared for entertainment purposes.  Rather, they were created to be carriers of important information.  Many relayed details on cataclysmic events such as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and other natural disasters.  The authors show how such myths were encoded to insure they were passed down and remembered in nonliterate societies.  They also examine how myths degrade and change as they pass from one generation to the next.  Do you want to know the true meaning about the myth of Prometheus?  Why dragons appear in so many cultures’ myths when no such creature ever existed?  This scholarly tome attempts to answer these questions and interpret many other ancient tales.  Be warned, it is “academic” in nature and most would consider the material to be dry.  With the wealth of detail presented, I found reading just five pages in a sitting to be a “full meal.” Nonetheless, the authors make a strong, well-reasoned case to support their argument.  They even managed to embed some humor to lighten the mood.  For anyone interested in myths and willing to take on a challenging read, When They Severed Earth From Sky provides a comprehensive explanation on how such stories came about and why they survived the test of time.

The Tango

Anemic for years,
an eyesore for the last few,
barely taller
and easily cradled in my arms,
there it stood,
stunted and seemingly fragile.
Naively, I thought
that tools were all I needed,
never expecting it
would require bravado and
intimacy, too.
After leaning into rocky soil
to uncover
sinuous roots branched in
every direction,
an axe produced sap rather
than cut tendons.
It took an abrazo to complete
the uprooting:
As shoulder leaned against
the knit of gravity,
bound root and brut force
met in a tango.

Catherine The Great : Portrait Of A Woman / Robert K. Massie

Born as Sophia Augusta Fredericka, Catherine’s life might seem a fairy tale come true when seen from afar.  Raised in a minor (and poor) noble Prussian family, at age fourteen she travels to Russia where her second cousin, Peter, is in line to become the next tsar.  Betrothal to Peter follows and they marry.  Fourteen years later, she becomes Empress Consort, and shortly after, the Empress of Russia.  Catherine’s reign continues for the next thirty-four years until her death.  But when the details are examined, the fairy tale aspects of her story evaporate.  The marriage was an arranged one and her husband did not love her.  In fact, during their fourteen-year marriage, he never had sexual relations with her.  Nonetheless, the result of taking other lovers, she bore him two children.  Once Peter became tsar, he indicated wanting to have his mistress to replace Catherine as Empress Consort.  However, before he could act, a coup d’état led to Catherine being named Empress.

From the first, Catherine was a determined young woman, intent on succeeding in her adopted country.  She quickly learned Russian, converted from German Lutheran to Eastern Orthodoxy, and did everything she could to win the hearts of the Russian people.  An intelligent, well-read woman, one key to Catherine’s success was an ability to find and surround herself with powerful, talented men who were devoted to her.  The first half of the book, describing her rise to power, held my interest entirely.  Less so the second half.  Even though the period of Catherine’s rule is considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire, the telling is not nearly as gripping.  Too much of the focus is on the many different lovers she had throughout her life, all men much younger than herself.  Massie also wanders off-point to pursue side stories that have little to do with Catherine.  Those quibbles aside, this biography brings the era of Catherine’s reign alive in a comprehensible manner.  She expanded the empire by winning wars against Turkey and Poland.  Became a patron of the arts, literature, and education.  Believing in enlightened autocracy, tried to improve the lives of the serfs.  Catherine was indeed a remarkable woman who led a charmed life.

Tallying The Deficit

In the absence of fragrance,
how useless a nose feels
exposed to winter’s frigid air.

Without the allure of shade,
few trees tantalize once
a swirling skirt is removed.

When not accompanied by
the thrum from insects,
how dark the night sounds.

Needing a splash of contrast,
be it petal or feather,
this landscape’s eggshell hue.

A parade of industrious ants,
it’s what January lacks
to rouse us from our naps.

The Long Song / Andrea Levy

As impressed as I was by Small Island, The Long Song sealed the deal, providing proof of Andrea Levy’s talents as a writer.  In her follow-up to prize-winning Small Island, the reader is introduced to the story’s narrator, Miss July, the child of a field slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation.  The life story she tells is not always straightforward; she often tries to sidestep its darker aspects, only to be brought back in line with the editorial assistance of her son, Thomas.  Her narrative switches between a third-person past and a first-person present.  She was conceived, she reveals, when the plantation’s overseer forces himself upon her mother.  As a young girl, her beauty attracts the attention of Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantation’s owner.  Separated from her mother, Miss July becomes a house slave and is renamed Marguerite.  She soon becomes indispensible to her mistress during the dark days of the island’s slave rebellion of 1832.  During this time she also becomes pregnant with Thomas, who she will leave on the doorstep of Baptist missionaries in hopes that he can have a better upbringing than she can give him.  After the British crown abolish slavery in 1834, a new overseer arrives on the plantation.  Robert Goodwin is the son of an English clergyman and fired with a sense of idealism.  He is also strongly attracted to Miss July and takes her as a mistress, which leads to the birth of another child.  But while Goodwin opposed slavery, he is intent on insuring the now-freed slaves continue to work for him at low wages, with few days off.  This ultimately will lead to tragedy both for the plantation and Miss July personally.   The book is peppered with humor and spiced with earthy Jamaican patois.  Some will be disturbed by Miss July’s attitude regarding her status of being a superior “mulatto” rather than a “negro.”  But that is what I liked most about the book; none of the characters came off as feeling “politically correct.”  The history Levy is writing here is based on actual events, and her characters seem just as real.  This book proves that the promise of Small Island was fully justified.  Both books deserve a place on any reader’s nightstand.