Archive for December, 2014

Saturday Night (An Embarrassment Of Choices)

To get some reading done,
you steal a spare hour from the night before
and welcome the dawn.
Then, with a “to do” list as your roadmap,
gathering up the reins,
already at a full gallop, the day’s underway.
After errands, cleaning,
laundry, meal preparation, hours spent in
refereeing the children,
your reward is the destination of nine p.m.
Back in your favorite chair,
faced with an embarrassment of choices,
you’ve come full circle.
Do you spend the next ninety minutes with
wine or hot chocolate?
Cradling a book or the remote wrestled
from your husband?
Sitting upright or curled into a cozy ball?
Whether half asleep or
half awake, time’s coin is easily misspent.
Gambling the entire pot,
recklessly, you decide, just for a moment,
to simply rest your eyes.

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The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt / Edmund Morris

When I began this first book of Edmund Morris’ three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, I knew that Teddy and I would be spending quite a bit of time together this winter. Fortunately, he is a fascinating individual to spend time with. Roosevelt from his earliest days was the kind of person who dominated whatever room he entered. In this first volume, Morris takes the reader through Roosevelt’s childhood up to the moment he learns that he has become President of the United States following William McKinley’s assassination. All the sides of Roosevelt are revealed in this biography. While a naturalist with a keen interest in preserving wilderness and wildlife, at the same time he was an avid hunter who took delight in tracking and killing big game animals. He also supplemented his inheritance and income as a politician by writing numerous historical books dealing with naval warfare and the settling of the American West.   A number of them became the definitive textbook on the topic covered. After the death of his first wife, he traveled to the Dakotas, where he became a rancher and won the admiration of the frontiersmen living on the fringes of society. Roosevelt was also a strong believer in Manifest Destiny and pushed for American expansionism. This led him to volunteer in the Spanish American War and take part in battles in Cuba. Above all else, he was a politician through and through. On his upward climb toward the Presidency, he served in the New York State Assembly, ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City, served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and was elected Governor of New York. Roosevelt was clearly a brilliant man, a born leader, and a person with strong opinions on a wide array of social and political issues. While I’m not sure I would have liked him if we had met personally, I cannot think of a more interesting character to spend this winter with. Thanks to Morris’ presentation, the physical presence of Theodore Roosevelt leaps off these pages. I’m eager to pick up Theodore Rex, the next volume in the set.

Winter Morning Ritual

The kitchen is dark except for the flame
from a stovetop’s gas ring.
That copper kettle, old as our marriage,
spouts steam with a wheeze.
I lift it when the water’s clamorous roil
begins to fog an outside view.
A tea ball, filled with English Breakfast,
rests in a cherished mug.
After decades of use, stainless steel and
orange ceramic have browned.
Like a smoker’s nicotine-stained fingers,
neither can be scrubbed clean.
When first splashed, contained leaves bob
and rise with their fragrance.
Then sinking, only the aroma remains as
the flavor gradually steeps.
A daily ritual accomplished in the dark,
I cradle the cup for warmth.
Forgoing milk and sugar, its bitter jolt
is what morning requires.
Anticipation always sweetens the taste
when awaiting tea to cool.

Cleopatra : A Life / Stacy Schiff

Even though Cleopatra died in 30 BC, she remains well-known to this day. Or rather, as Schiff points out in this fascinating biography, it is the image created by her enemies that has lodged itself into our imaginations. Having defeated her on the battlefield, Rome had good reason to demonize Cleopatra and portray her as a powerful enchantress who used her sexual charms to seduce Caesar and Mark Antony. It is the Roman record of her life that has been passed down to us. Separating fact from fiction, Schiff presents an in-depth picture of the last active pharaoh of Ancient Egypt and the broader history during her reign. Her research shows that Cleopatra, who came to power at age 18, was a remarkably competent monarch, canny enough to remain in power for decades in a dangerous world where Rome was the dominate power in the region. The wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean, she constantly had to fend off other rulers interested in overthrowing her. Unlike their counterparts in Rome, women in Egypt were allowed to play leading roles in the government and in the home. Schiff suggests that sexism played a part in the Roman demonization of the Egyptian queen. By today’s standards, Cleopatra might be called a bloodthirsty queen. Over the course of her reign, she married her brother and then had him murdered, poisoned another brother, and later dispensed with an ambitious sister as well. But as Schiff points out, this kind of behavior was common among the ruling elite throughout the ancient world. While the Roman historians painted Cleopatra as promiscuous, it appears she only had sex with two men. However, those men (Caesar and Mark Antony) just happened to rank among the most prominent Romans of the day. The author has done a marvelous job of stitching together the disjointed historical record of Cleopatra’s life. Carefully researched, this scholarly work brings this legendary queen alive on the page, without a dull word. As Schiff shows, while not a particularly beautiful woman, Cleopatra was an intelligent individual who used every tool in her quiver to stay in power until her forced suicide at age 39. Like Caesar and Mark Antony, I too found myself captivated by Schiff’s Cleopatra, who finally gets her due in this masterly biography.

Backyard Picnic

Tired of dining on lettuce,
a rabbit decides to snack on the dandelion centerpiece.

Fed up with table manners,
a flick of the frog’s tongue adds a fly to today’s menu.

Tickled by an ant’s bare feet,
out loud, a peony sneezes a petal onto the tablecloth.

Rolling over in the fern,
somebody’s puppy begs to have its belly scratched.

When the sugar cookies wear off,
it will snuggle on a lawn chair for an extended nap.

Minding his Ps and Qs,
a teddy bear at the table solemnly waits to be excused.

Atop that mushroom stool,
a caterpillar rises on its hind legs to enjoy the view.

Drunk on too much sunshine,
a baby cumulus overhead simply decides to evaporate.

The Stories Of Anton Chekhov / Anton Chekhov

Don’t be fooled by the title of this book, it is not a complete collection of all of Chekhov’s short stories. Rather, it gathers together twenty-two of his most “characteristic” tales. First published in the Modern Library by Random House in 1939, the copy I am reviewing was republished in 1959. Readers of contemporary short fiction might be surprised that Chekhov’s stories are not plot driven. Instead, they tend to be descriptive slices of a character’s “day in the life.” Nor are they particularly short; a number stretch to novella length. For the most part they are detailed observations of Russian humanity, with a focus on the lives of ordinary people. Chekhov does not spend time moralizing about the actions of his characters. Because of his in-depth description of them, he makes their actions seem inevitable. Unfolding at a leisurely pace, these stories struck me as studies for possible novels the author explored and then set aside. Because of Chekhov’s detailed prose, reading this collection is like taking a time machine back to Russia in the 1800s. While the tales are usually serious, Chekhov leavens them with the use of gentle humor. The best story here is also the longest. The Steppe follows a young boy who is traveling across the Eurasian Steppe to a distant town to begin his education. It perfectly captures the thoughts and actions of a child. As seen through this young boy’s eyes, the reader is introduced to a cast of colorful peasants, who show us what life was like in pre-industrial Russia. By the time I finished this collection, I came to appreciate why Chekhov is considered among the elite writers of his time, and all that have followed.

Exuberance

If winter
did not silence the most
ardent tongue,
the crickets would still
be dominating
the night’s conversation.
Overripe, beneath
our bedroom window,
an insomniac
garden would yet be abuzz.
Or carried by
the breeze from the lake,
a heron’s splash
might startle us awake.
Instead, winter’s
hushed reticence haunts
troubled dreams.
Having already forgotten
such sounds,
how we long for April’s
noisy exuberance.