Archive for April, 2014

Unexpected

Praise be – a holiday,
an unexpected one, on a Tuesday no less.
And the two of us
sipping wine on the floor beside the fire.
Call it a snow day,
the slow one we’ve been hurrying to find.
Our only job today
is to be the flames’ appreciative audience.

Better than a birthday,
to be home alone, snowbound together.
With a well stocked
fridge and an extra bottle cooling, too.
Huff and puff as it will,
wind cannot spoil this impromptu picnic.
Unbuttoning a bit,
winter’s irritability is music to our ears.

Frosting on the cake,
dusk brings guests to enliven the party.
Neighbors beguiled
by the wafting aroma from our chimney.
They bear the gifts
of warm conversation and time to bide.
Knowing who to thank,
you propose a toast to the weatherman.

The Long Valley / John Steinbeck

Steinbeck published his first novel in 1929 and followed with two others in 1932 and 1933. These books did not sell particularly well nor did they garner favorable reviews. The author had reached a point where his writing career seemed likely to evaporate due to lack of success. At this critical juncture, he moved back to California to serve as a caregiver for his mother who had suffered a debilitating stroke. In desperate need of money, Steinbeck turned to writing the short stories that make up The Long Valley, a compilation published in 1938. They show a young author coming into his own as he begins to write with a clear geographical identity. These stories are set in the Salinas Valley of California, the area where he was born and raised. Their themes foreshadow the topics of his later classic novels: the struggle of dirt poor farmers to survive when pitted against the elements, the tensions between town and country, and the plight of the common laborer to earn a living wage. Most of the stories in this collection are outstanding, with delightful plot twists that take the reader by surprise. Some are funny, others dark, but all show an artist stretching the boundaries of his craft. If one has not read his work, this book will serve as great introduction to what later made Steinbeck a Nobel Prize winner. For those who have read and enjoyed his novels, these stories will provide a glimpse of their genesis.

The Woman Upstairs / Claire Messud

The woman “upstairs” in this novel is Nora Eldridge. An elementary school teacher in her late thirties and still unmarried, acquaintances perceive Nora to be Ms. Dependable. To friends, family, and neighbors, she is a person who can be counted on to be there when assistance is needed. While seen as prim and proper, the real Nora in private life is not straight-laced. She has a foul mouth, occasionally smokes dope, and has had a number of lovers over the years. While serene on the outside, inside she is angry about being trapped in the sham and pretend of her assigned lot in life. Her mother, trapped in a suffocating marriage, has drilled into Nora that she should never become dependant upon a man. She is the one who persuaded Nora to become a teacher rather than to pursue a career as an artist. Nora is nearing middle age when a family from Paris turns her world upside down. She is introduced to the Shahids when their son Reza becomes a student in her classroom. His mother, Sirena, is an Italian artist on the cusp of international success. The father, Skandar, is a well-known Lebanese professor who has come to do a fellowship at Harvard. Through Reza, Nora befriends Sirena and is talked into sharing a studio with her. Quickly, Nora finds herself falling in love with all three members of the family. In their company, she is led outside the boundaries of her narrow world, and comes to believe she has a strong bond with each of them. It is evident to the reader that while Nora is a convenient friend to have in a country strange to the Shahids, the friendship they return is casual at best. What makes Nora such an interesting character is that a good many people can identify with her. It is common to feel oneself an outsider, on the fringe of others’ achievements and glamorous lives. Messud does an excellent job of bringing Nora to life and capturing her “inner self.” Nora, with her failure to appreciate the life she already has, is not necessarily a person any of us will admit to being like, but all will recognize people they know in her. The surprise twist at the novel’s end confirms what Nora and the reader have subconsciously suspected about the Shahid family. Alas, even then, Nora fails to realize that the grass is always greener elsewhere, no matter where you stand.

Breakfast Still Life

Breakfast is an orange,
peeled, halved, and placed on
separate plates–
one chipped, and both as old
as our marriage.
On yours, each segment is
individualized by
the use of sticky division,
while my chunk
waits to be devoured whole.
Sharp, but puzzled,
an eraser-tipped pencil taps
on your crossword,
a distant accompaniment to
the book I’m reading.
Our mismatched cups waft
competing scents,
each darkly brooding under
their discrete clouds.
After decades side by side,
what’s left to say?
When they meet in a smile,
our eyes converse.
Quiet is the tie that binds.

Cacophony Of Spring

As if tied to its seductive tug,
solitary hearts flutter and soar like kites in
April’s rambunctious breeze.

Its decibels turned up past ten,
chipmunks, birds, and children squealing,
spring is an atonal garage band.

Every breath a potent cocktail,
drunk on the sweet perfume of olfaction,
erratic bees totter between sips.

Trying to master multiplication,
driven by procreation’s insistent murmur,
pollen is flung in wild abandon.

Knowing well that the tongue
is a spoon, like windows thrown open,
mouths agape take it all in.

The Woodcutter

I can picture the woodcutter in
the crisp autumn air.
He is neither young nor elderly,
weary nor exhilarated,
simply lost in the precise rhythm
of a task ingrained.
It seems the axe and he are one.

I can see Dad in that armchair,
mostly skin and bone,
close to a blazing fireplace in
the winter of his days.
Though the room is sweltering,
from October to May
he wears long johns beneath.

I still recall the stockpiles we
children helped to stack.
That assembly line of siblings
after a Sunday dinner,
passing wood into the cellar.
In September’s warmth,
those cubits seemed excessive.

I cannot forget how Dad always
called for another load,
even when too frail to take part.
After all, that old man,
dozing through his final seasons,
remained a woodcutter
strong enough to fuel our house.

Stasis

Stasis.
Although this glass is half empty,
the bottle is half full.
I’m drowsy but not quite sleepy.
While the book’s plot
is fuzzy, its words have yet to blur.
Tomorrow’s no closer
or farther away than yesterday.
Full moon or no moon,
what difference does it make with
the curtain drawn.
I’m not the least bit curious to
get up and check.
Besides, I couldn’t move if I tried.
Not with your head
on my leg, and you and it asleep.
Whether my life has
turned out the way I imagined
is irrelevant tonight.
All that matters is, in my future,
I cannot conceive of
another I’d rather spend it with.
Stasis.