Archive for August, 2013

The Diagnosis

We all lower our voices a notch
when we speak of it,
but our eyes keep straying back
to where he sits,
that stranger assuming the name
of someone we know.

For those who haven’t yet heard,
we take them aside,
nod in his direction and whisper:
Don’t look now,
but when you get the opportunity,
he’s the one over there.

And later, when the conversation
becomes more open,
the topic of discussion something
to laugh about,
even then, stealing a quick peek,
we wonder about him.

After all, one can’t help but be
morbidly fascinated,
for while he still tries to join in,
that look of fear
in his eyes now sets him apart.
He’s become a diagnosis.

My Neighbor’s Daughter

In her garden
while the cat yawns
she dances

A ballerina
lost in the reverie
of grandeur

Trees kneel
and flowers hold
their scent

Every bird
suddenly hushes
in admiration

even the mosquitoes
remain stingless

As her cat naps
a captivated breeze
whispers encore

Summer’s Song And Other Essays / Don L. Johnson

What an unexpected treasure this book of essays turned out to be.  Sent to me as a gift for renewing my membership to a Wisconsin conservation organization, I had no knowledge of Johnson’s writing beforehand.  He was an outdoor writer and columnist for the Milwaukee Sentinel from 1962 until his retirement in the 1990s.  The essays presented here are drawn from pieces he wrote from 1962 to 1991 regarding his rural home in southeastern Wisconsin.  Organized by season, Johnson explores his home’s landscape to bring to life the varied wildlife and flora found outside his front door.  He is a font of knowledge regarding the plants and creatures he encounters on his daily exploration with a trusty dog by his side.  His brief vignettes are poetic masterpieces.  Taking the reader along on his strolls through the area’s highland and marshes, he reveals the splendor that awaits the curious when daring to step off the beaten path.  These essays are meant to be carefully read and savored.  I came away impressed by Johnson’s encyclopedic knowledge and with a deeper appreciation of the diversity of life to be found in rural Wisconsin.  His writing imparts the importance of simply stopping to listen and observe the beauty that awaits us outside any city’s boundary.  This jewel of a book deserves greater recognition.  Most who make the effort to track it down will cherish it as much as I do.

People Of The Book / Geraldine Brooks

While a work of fiction, People of the Book was inspired by the true story of an illustrated Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century Spain.  This Haggadah ended up in a museum in Sarajevo.  During the Bosnian war, a Muslim librarian rescued the book when the museum was being shelled and he hid it for safekeeping.  Earlier, in 1941, a renowned Islamic scholar had spirited the manuscript away to a mosque in the mountains when the Nazis threatened to burn every book associated with Jewish culture.  Based on these facts, Brooks creates a novel to explain how the Haggadah came to be and the different hands it passed through before finding a home in Sarajevo.  The account she crafts is fascinating and colorful.  However, I found that its parts exceeded the whole.  Binding the story together is the narrative of a book expert who is given a chance to analyze and conserve the manuscript.  The recounting of her family history and love interests pales in comparison to the other fictional historical figures she presents to explain the book’s history.  The heroine’s uncovering of a theft of the Haggadah after examining it, especially, seemed an unnecessary plot twist.  For me, it gets in the way of the tales she weaves regarding the book’s creation and survival to the present time.  It is these voices from the past and their involvement with the Haggadah that make the novel such an enjoyable read.  Brooks’ storytelling gifts shine brightest when dealing with imagined historical figures rather than its contemporary heroine.


Half-Blood Blues / Esi Edugyan

This novel opens in 1939 Berlin where a popular German American jazz band has been forbidden to play live because of the degenerate Negro music they perform.  The two Americans in the band are black, as is the band’s star, Hieronymus Falk, but he is a German citizen.  A brilliant twenty-year old trumpet player, his ability has captured the interest of Louis Armstrong who is living in Paris at the time.  When the Nazis arrest one player in the group, the rest flee to Paris where Armstrong gives them a shot at making a record.  While recording it, war is declared and in June 1940, the German army occupies the capital of France.  Soon after, Falk is arrested and disappears into a concentration camp in Eastern Europe.  Jumping ahead to Berlin 1992, Falk is now a jazz legend for the band’s 1940 recording that was rediscovered following the war.  The two American band members, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, are back in Germany to attend a documentary movie about Falk.  Their return to Germany and the documentary brings back many memories, and for Sid, a dark secret that he has long kept hidden regarding Falk’s arrest.  Edugyan does a marvelous job of recreating Berlin and Paris during the dark days of 1939 and 1940. She also excels at describing the bond of friendship that joined Falk, Griffiths, and Jones, which transcended the music they played together.  What she did not do nearly as well is make Falk a life-like character.  He remains a remote figure throughout the story, more legend than a person.  This was probably by intent, yet it prevented me from truly identifying with him or his plight.  I also failed to get a sense that these three men were master musicians.  Music in this novel takes a back seat to what happens off stage once their instruments are put down.  Even so, Edugyan’s second novel is a fresh and interesting read that recreates the plight of three black men caught up in war’s destructive whirlwind.

November Morning

Stepping from a warm bed,
the creaky chill of floorboards;
it penetrates bare feet.

In pre-dawn solitude,
this steaming mug of tea cradled;
an intimate encounter.

A treasured companion,
silence hushes the tick of a clock;
its minute hand stuck.

In abundant moonlight,
avarice is sparked by fool’s gold;
frost’s diamonds glittering.

With day’s soft whisper,
a tug of melancholy in the wind;
time marches on again.

Harvest Moon

In midnight’s dampening chill,
hawkweed and lupine straighten,
fooled into believing there
is warmth to be found overhead.

On a night this brightly lit,
one can almost hear berries ripen
as September’s abundance
prepares to fuel October’s migration.

Just as confused as me,
both of us awakened by the glow,
I listen to an early bird
heralding dawn’s spurious arrival.

Like some reveling monk
drunk on summer’s extravagance,
flushed and exuberant,
a crimson moon exudes pure silver.

Wild Flowers

Each April
after spring has declared itself,
in remembrance
of the dearly departed,
a day is set aside
for gathering wild flowers to
honor them.

One for Father,
another chosen for Mother,
a basket filling
as she dutifully remembers
in her sixtieth year
all those severed branches
from the family tree.

In seasons past,
the total could be crowded
into a single vase,
but this April it takes two
to accommodate
the aromatic bouquet their
memory exudes.