Archive for July, 2015

First Bite

The wind has done an about face;
no longer does it drawl a southern accent.
After a humid, mosquitoey summer,
our flower beds are overrun with weeds.
Most plants seem to have inhaled
and doubled in size, despite the neglect.
As if taking credit, possessively,
I downplay what the season’s wrought.
From my porch seat, this shift
in the jet stream seems merely academic.
Neighboring windows are open,
the children still engage in outdoor play.
Cooler now, after the day’s heat,
the invigorating temperature refreshes.
The late blooming waft of scents
continues to intoxicate the busy bees.
Only the arrival of early twilight
betrays the myth of a fairy tale ending.
Like Adam, I’m loath to accept
the consequences of autumn’s first bite.

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After The Party

What kind of party was this, with the last guest
tendering goodbyes before midnight?
Thirty years ago, the gathering would have been
just beginning to annoy the neighbors.
Still, confronting the jumble of dirty plates and
the dregs left in these sticky glasses,
it’s grungy enough to have been a loud success.
Finally beginning to feel the alcohol,
I snuff the candles and settle on the dark porch.
There’s no moon to welcome the arrival
of another day, no church bells’ chime to mark
this solemn changing of the guard.
Seconds later, the transition seems seamless.
A week ago, September arrived hot
as August, but tonight, I feel winter’s approach
like a bad cold; now we can only hope
a feeble Indian Summer delays the inevitable.
The last time that I paid attention,
fireflies still generated their own electricity,
flaming like matches in the hedges.
The chill has extinguished all but the crickets.
Sizing up the dark, I burrow deeper into
a sweater and savor their off-key symphony.

Alone with the remains of the season,
I’m in no hurry to begin tidying up the mess.

Absalom, Absalom! / William Faulkner

When it comes to writers who mastered the art of Southern Gothic literature, William Faulkner is often the first name that comes to mind. In Absalom, Absalom!, a novel first published in1936, he is clearly at the top of his game. The plot could easily be explained in a paragraph or two. But thanks to Faulkner’s teasing out the history of the Sutpen family in bits and pieces and allowing different narrators to provide their take on the story, the puzzle he presents is slow to fit together on the page. Like peeling away an onion, the core of the story is revealed only in the final chapter.

Set in Jefferson, Mississippi in the decades surrounding the Civil War, the novel details the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a proud white man born into abject poverty in western Virginia. Escaping to the French West Indies as a teenager, he has only one aim in life, to seek his fortune no matter what the means. Once there, he becomes an overseer on a plantation and later takes part in subduing a slave uprising. Afterwards, thanks to his heroics, he is allowed to marry the plantation owner’s daughter and she bears him a son. But he has the marriage declared void when he learns his wife is of mixed race.

He then travels to Jefferson, intent on building an opulent mansion which becomes know as “Sutpen’s Hundred.” To do so, he brings in slaves and a French architect whom he has somehow coerced into spending years building it from the ground up. Sutpen is driven not only to live as the wealthy do, he intends to become the head of a family dynasty. That means finding a suitable wife; love does not enter into the equation at all. And he succeeds, marrying Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of a local merchant. Over the years, she fulfills his dream by giving birth to two children, a son and a daughter.

Since the delight of this novel comes from the careful unraveling of the Sutpen family’s histories, I will not give away too much here. Suffice it to say, Sutpen’s first marriage comes back to haunt his second. Faulkner’s intent is to use this family as a means of recreating the zeitgeist of the South during this period. The themes of incest and miscegenation play a big role in the tangled web that the author cleverly unravels.

What makes this book so special, though, is not simply the story that Faulkner shares with the reader. From the very first page, one becomes aware this is no ordinary novel. Faulkner is a writer’s writer. His prose is rich and complex, and reading a handful of pages is like consuming a full course meal. It is not a book one can hurry through; it requires the reader’s entire concentration. As a youth, I found his use of language too big a challenge to work my way through. But as an adult, I was able to comprehend and savor the richness of his prose. With its biblical Old Testament feel, reading Absalom, Absalom! introduced me to a true classic that has stood the test of time.

The Cat’s Table / Michael Ondaatje

The year is 1954 and an eleven-year-old boy (Michael but nicknamed Mynah) has boarded an ocean liner to leave his home in Colombo in British ruled Ceylon. He is headed to England to join his mother who he has not seen since he was a little boy. Mynah is the book’s narrator and the story is a magical account of his three-week journey across the Indian Ocean, the Arabian and Red Seas, the Mediterranean Sea and finally the Atlantic Ocean.

This is a journey that will be embedded deeply into his memory. He tells his story looking back from a middle-aged perspective. Aboard the ship, the richer passengers are placed near the Captain’s table during meals and Mynah is relegated to a table far removed from the ship’s center of gravity. As one of his adult companions at the table points out, their placement is at the “cat’s table” since it is where the least prominent members onboard are seated.

Joining Mynah at the table are two boys his age who he quickly befriends. One is a bold troublemaker, Cassius, and the other is Ramadhin, a cautious asthmatic. These three soon realize that boys their age are invisible to most adults aboard. And they quickly take advantage of this fact. With reckless abandon, they begin to explore the ship from top to bottom. This leads them to numerous interactions with the oddball characters, both at the “cat’s table” and elsewhere on the ship. Ondaatje does a marvelous job of recreating the thoughts and actions of these young boys. As seen through their eyes, the daily activities taking place during the journey assume an enchanted quality.

There is a more serious sub-plot regarding a prisoner aboard the ship, a dangerous murderer being transported to England for trial. While an interesting aside, I simply delighted in the boy’s daily (and nightly) adventures.

Looking back on this three-week journey, the adult Michael reflects on its importance in his life. While it represented a suspension of time, a period of unexpected independence before beginning a supervised life in Britain, he tries to explain why this moment of his life played such a major part in shaping the writer he would later become.

He finds, to his sorrow, that the numerous friendships he struck up during the journey broke apart the minute the ship docked in London. In this novel, Ondaatje captures the exuberance and wonder of youth, as well as the adult’s regret of unfinished business and what has been lost in the seriousness of adult life. Having read the author’s earlier book, “The English Patient,” and not being all that impressed, I found this work to be a pleasant surprise. The ship, Oronsay, represents a playground that any of us would take delight in.

 

Deck Of Clouds

California
is bone dry and ripe
for a tremor.

There…

Ghost lightning
sparks wildfires and
smoke clouds.

The Midwest
is soggily sprouting
wild mushrooms.

Here…

Rheumatic bones
creakily forecast rain
under dark skies.

We all share
the same season at
a gaming table.

Overhead…

Chance shuffles
and distributes its
deck of clouds.

John Dollar / Marianne Wiggins

Having read a later novel by Wiggins and been impressed, I looked forward to diving into this earlier work. What had most impressed me with Elements Of Things Unseen was Wiggin’s colorful use of language. That same gift is on full display in John Dollar, and initially, this novel’s opening chapters charmed me.
In 1917, Charlotte, a war widow, sets out for Burma to start life over as a teacher. In this exotic new world, Charlotte rebels against the British attitude of superiority, adopting instead the native costume as she tries to assimilate herself into a different culture. And soon after her arrival, she takes as a lover the sailor John Dollar, a renegade like herself.
But then the story takes an unexpected twist. In 1919, John Dollar and Charlotte set out to visit a distant island with a group of British families who are intent on renaming the island in honor of King George. At first, it seems merely a holiday outing where the British can picnic and celebrate their dominance in this remote outpost. But then an earthquake causes a destructive tidal wave and the book takes a sharp, darker turn.
It is also the point where the book’s most interesting character, Charlotte, disappears until the final chapter. With eight young girls who have survived and a seriously injured John Dollar now marooned on an uninhabited island, the book at first seems to be an updated retelling of Robinson Crusoe.

Replacing Charlotte in the spotlight is an adolescent Indian student of hers, Menaka, called Monkey by the other British children. From her perspective of youthful innocence, the reader is compelled to witness a series of truly horrifying events, the first of which left me feeling sick to my stomach. But I was held spellbound nonetheless. With her riveting prose, Wiggins details the children’s slow descent into barbarism and madness.
At times, it seems Wiggins’ sole purpose is merely to shock the reader. But her writing skill elevates the story to something much more subtle. She surrounds the disturbing elements of the book with elegant, haunting prose that accents the beauty as well as the horror.
It is a novel that I hesitate to recommend since it such an unsettling story. While it captivates, it will leave most sickened and saddened. The faint of heart should beware. But for the adventurous reader, it is a story that will keep them on the edge of their seat throughout.

Mirror

As we get older,
the attraction is no longer mutual.
Looking back at us,
a pair of eyes now judgmental.
Honesty rather than
tenderness returned in that gaze.
What we once were
is no longer there to appraise.
And so the whole
is superseded by the singular.
Attention is assigned
to enhancing the particular.
Our daily ablutions
require facing the ugly truth.
But beauty still waits
to be found by a kinder sleuth.
For glass isn’t all that
we should hold up as a mirror.
In a dear one’s eyes,
the ravages of time disappear.