Archive for July, 2013

Circa 1960

Its inviting canopy
a tunnel even on the brightest days,
in small town America
circa 1960, Elm Street was always
a resplendent jewel,
with branches embracing overhead.
While vice-like ice
would easily snap maple and pine,
straight-line winds
twist and uproot hemlock and oak,
the magnificent elm
thrived in the face of such adversity.
Yet by decade’s end,
like some Founding Father honored
on a street sign,
only that ghostly name remained.
The last of its shade
doomed not by a sharpened axe,
but an infected beetle.

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Moving On

The signs are subtle,
a gradual change in scents,
scenes, and sounds.
Pre-dawn is suddenly quieter.
Invasive mint nibbles
away at the garden’s edges.
Where just yesterday
corn stood barely knee-high,
its tasseled ears
are now a stretch to pick.
The usual suspects
still abound, be they robin,
cardinal, or redwing,
but absences are also noted
in the daily chorus.
Martin houses stand empty.
Swallows no longer
pirouette in the evening sky.
Dusk cannot contain
the dark’s lengthening stride.
We’ve been warned.
Even though the August sun
will sizzle away
these cooler starts to the day,
summer is moving on.

The Morels / Christopher Hacker

By the middle of this novel, I was ready to write a review of this novel that would have been less than flattering.  Two unexpected twists in its final chapters changed my opinion entirely.  The story focuses on the Morels—Arthur, Penny, and Will.  Arthur, the father, publishes a book of fiction, using his family’s actual names, in which he writes about having a sexual encounter with his son Will.  This novel rips apart his family and leads to Arthur being charged with sexual abuse, despite his contention the book is purely fictional.  The Morels is an examination of the power of art, literature in particular, and the fine line between fiction and truth.  To the disadvantage of the novel, Arthur remains a remote and difficult character to sympathize with from beginning to end.  While the book is well written,  its early chapters had me believing that this story of suspected child abuse was no different than other works on the topic.  Its unexpected plot twists are what made me reevaluate all that I had assumed earlier.  Hacker’s debut novel  examines how difficult it is to escape from one’s childhood history.  By creating a multi-layered story that challenges the reader with questions on the topic that cannot be answered easily, the author takes the reader beyond the question of guilt or innocence.  He shows that there is no black and white answer to the accusation of such a heinous crime in the case of Arthur Morel.

Stalin’s Curse : Battling for Communism In War and Cold War / Robert Gellately

For anyone wanting to learn what demons ruled Stalin’s psyche, Stalin’s Curse will prove to be a disappointment.  This account focuses on Joseph Stalin’s political actions during World War II and its aftermath.  Gellately contends that Stalin was sane enough to best both Roosevelt and Churchill in being able to expand the Soviet empire following the war.  He shows that even when the Nazis seemed just days away from bringing Russia to its knees, Stalin was looking ahead to establishing Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and beyond.  He contends that the dictator was a masterful politician capable of manipulating Western leaders to achieve his aims of territorial gains following the defeat of Nazi Germany.  While Stalin might have been irrational and untroubled by the deaths that he helped to orchestrate, in the international arena he was an unwavering revolutionary and master strategist.  Gellately does acknowledge that paranoia increasingly dominated Stalin’s personality in his final years.  But he also shows that right up to his death in 1953, the Russian leader remained focused on the goal of establishing  Communist regimes throughout Europe.  The book supports his thesis with credible documentation.  To its detriment, however, it does not bring the real Stalin alive on the page.  While it is not quite as dry as some of the historical tomes that I have read on the topic, Gellately fails to make his presentation of the facts insightful enough to explain what made Stalin tick during the final years of his life.  The author presents a convincing argument on the political side of the equation, but Joseph Stalin himself remains a mystery despite the newly released documentation that Gellately accessed following the collapse of the Communist regime in Russia.

Cataloging July’s Scents

I walked barefoot through
dew-laden grass
and at breakfast you claimed
my feet smelt minty.

After an hour of weeding,
the garden’s perfume
was already overpowered by
my own yeasty odor.

The human stink tempered
by a breeze stirring
each individual scent into
a spicy jambalaya.

Returning indoors, held up
to my ticklish nose,
a fragrant iced tea induced
an unexpected sneeze.

Co. Aytch : A Side Show Of The Big Show / Sam R. Watkins

In 1861, when the Civil War began, Sam Watkins was twenty-one and living in Tennessee.  He, along with a majority of young men living in the state, rushed to offer his services in support of the South.  This book is his account of the war as seen from the narrow focus of his battle experience during this time period.  Serving in Company H of the First Tennessee Regiment, at the beginning of  hostilities the regiment numbered some 1,250 men.  Over the course of the next four years it added 2,000 replacements.  On the day they surrendered in 1865, less than a hundred soldiers were still alive.  Throughout the book, Watkins keeps pointing out that his story is narrowly focused and does not include the grander perspective of commanding officers or politicians.  If Watkins’ account is to be believed, his regiment never lost a single battle until 1865.  Nonetheless, throughout the war, they seem to be mostly retreating rather than advancing.  The author served as a private until 1864 when he was promoted to corporal.  In this memoir, the emphasis is  on the fact that he was just a common soldier.  Yet he often mentions being around officers and generals, even sharing meals with them.  Watkins was shot in the arm at the battle of Murfreesboro, although he recounts numerous other close encounters with serious injury.  This book is certainly of interest from the perspective of what a common Confederate soldier experienced during the war.  But in the second half, the battles blur into repetitiveness and, I suspect, some embellishment on the part of the author.  Even so, he does a marvelous job of conveying the “you are there” feeling of a soldier’s lot during the conflict.  Written in 1881-1882, this book presents a picture in which, although every battle was won, the war was still lost.  For someone who wants to get a sense of what life was like for the common soldier during the Civil War, Watkins’ depiction presents an accurate account, if not an entirely honest one.

Enraptured

The puffball heads from
leggy dandelions are being dispersed by
by a spring-freshened breeze.
The morning air is thick with birdsong.
Despite a waft of pear blossoms
drifting through an open chapel window,
today’s sermon will not be
shortened nor communion service hurried.
This sepulchral hour of
pious devotion must be observed in full.
But outside – animate, rioting
in full color – a host of flowers, absolved
from such somber obligations,
enshrines the path leading to a courtyard.
There, a wooden replica of
Francis of Assisi has never knelt in prayer.
Enraptured by the secular,
this saint does not look heavenward as
he communes with God.
Rather, he pays homage to the pigeons
now gathering at his feet.