Archive for October, 2015

Darkening Into Melancholy

Homebound with old age
Recompense for a long day
This visiting moon

Once again the Fall
Ground hardened into concrete
Blunts the beak that feeds

Summer’s elation
As leaves decide to be wings
Ablaze, it soon chars

Time’s musical chairs
With another seat removed
Narrows the circle

Melancholy’s gift
Over the dark evergreens
A sky frosts with stars

Far From The Madding Crowd / Thomas Hardy

It had been decades since I last read a Thomas Hardy novel. Now, picking up Far from the Madding Crowd, I was surprised at how clunky his prose often struck me. And yet, embedded throughout are descriptive turns of phrases that delight the mind’s ear.

In this book, for the first time, Hardy adopted the term “Wessex” to designate the geographical area for the story’s location. It is the location in which he was to set a good many of his future novels. Published as a serial in 1874, the story is quite straightforward, describing a lover’s advances rebuffed and his patience rewarded in the final chapter. The heroine, Bathsheba, struck me as selfish woman who plays fast and loose with Gabriel Oak, a shepherd who is hopelessly devoted to her. While an admirable suitor, he also comes across as too saint-like to be totally believable.

What has delighted readers through the years is the rich atmosphere that Hardy presents as a backdrop. The locale is a remote agricultural district in southwestern England. It brings to life the rhythms of an agrarian culture that was already fast disappearing at the time the book was written. The rural people described come across as wise philosophers, and their lives are portrayed as essentially untroubled. Even if a pipedream, Hardy’s Wessex is a place we all want to believe existed, once upon a time.

While the topic of Far from the Madding Crowd is a serious one, like Dickens before him, the author is astute enough to introduce comical moments to lighten the piece. While the story itself is rather pedestrian, it does vividly capture the scents and views of a world far removed from our own. The pastoral landscape he presents continues to speak to the heart. Hardy’s great achievement is bringing his Eden, this Wessex, alive on the page.

Allhallowtide

On All Hallows’ Eve,
Mother wore the costume of her former self.
Unresponsive for a full week,
a blanket disguised her shrunken present state.
Above its tattered fold,
a familiar face appeared with wrinkles erased.

On All Saints’ Day,
Mother at last neared that fabled Gate of Gold.
A humble supplicant, reluctant
to join the ranks of the Day’s honored martyrs.
How typical of her,
queuing patiently, the last but never the least.

On All Souls’ Day,
a thin blanket was drawn across Mother’s face.
Her death certificate signed
as official before a cold, gray morning dawned.
With every Allhallowtide,
let us pray that her faith was finally rewarded.

The Sound And The Fury / William Faulkner

A melodrama from start to finish, The Sound and the Fury has all the necessary ingredients: illicit love, an idiot brother, another brother who is suicidal, a third scheming to gain control over the family inheritance, and the unfathomable servant who witnesses the unfolding events with sad stoicism. Add in the fact that the story comes from the pen of one the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century, and the result is a true classic that continues to impress readers today.

The book encapsulates the tragedy of the Compson family. Set primarily in 1928, it flashes back and forth in time to piece together the jagged shreds of a composite photograph. It features a cast of remarkable characters: the beautiful, rebellious Caddy; Quentin, the doomed brother in love with her; Benjy, a mute manchild who represents the unspoken sins of the Compson family. There is also the truly evil younger brother, Jason, whose character represents the dark side of human nature.

Faulkner allows each of them to step forward to tell their side of the story. What makes Faulkner’s stories so special is his delightful prose. The plot’s tangled web is slowly and carefully assembled to create a masterpiece. What will startle many readers is how, in the Deep South at that time, blacks were still treated like slaves. And yet the strongest, most alive characters in this book are the black family who wait on the Compsons hand and foot. Without their help, the Compson family would not be able to function. Dilsey, a black servant who began life as a slave, is a character that quickly won my affection and admiration.

Before The Sound and the Fury, I read Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom!, which makes a great complementary book by describing the festering wound in America’s Deep South following the Civil War. So many books are soon forgotten; but thanks to the characters created in this story, The Sound and the Fury is guaranteed to embed itself into the reader’s longterm memory.

Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenter ; Seymour : An Introduction / J. D. Salinger

It has been four decades since I last read J.D. Salinger’s work. This book served as a reminder of what a gifted author he was in his prime. The two long pieces in this collection were first published in The New Yorker.   Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter appeared in 1955.  Seymour : An Introduction followed in 1959.

It is an appropriate pairing, as both stories concern Seymour Glass, a stock character who appears in many of the author’s works, along with his brothers and sisters. Only, in this case, Seymour does not actually put in an appearance in either piece. Despite his absence, he is the focus of both.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter (what a great title!) is set in May, 1942 in New York City. The narrator, Buddy Glass, Seymour’s younger brother, has returned on leave from infantry basic training to attend Seymour’s wedding. He is the only sibling able to do so; the rest are scattered across the globe serving in the military. It turns out that Seymour is a no-show for the exchanging of the vows. After the awkwardness of a ceremony that never takes place, Buddy finds himself in a taxi with four angry relatives from the bride’s side of the family. Hilarity ensues as Buddy tries to explain his brother’s actions and soothe ruffled feathers.

Buddy is again the narrator in Seymour : An Introduction. The year is 1959 and Buddy is now middle aged and an established author. His intent in this rambling piece is to capture Seymour’s essence as a life force following his suicide, but Buddy’s narrative is almost impenetrable at times. It circles and loops and continually fails to bring the real Seymour onto the page. He touches upon the numerous qualities that made his brother so special, yet throughout the narrative, Buddy continues to get sidetracked and Seymour’s essence is merely suggested, never proven. Ultimately, it is the myth of Seymour that Buddy wrestles to understand. It is a reminiscence about how Seymour influenced Buddy’s life and the lives of the rest of his family. I think the author’s purpose is to show how little anyone knows of another’s inner life, no matter how close the relationship. It is a complex piece that takes effort on the reader’s part to get through. While Buddy fails in his attempt to bring his brother back to life, the attempt is emotionally honest and heart-felt.

Salinger withdrew from public life in the second half of his life. His final published work appeared in 1965, and his last interview was in 1980. He died at age 91 in 2010. Rumor has it that posthumous stories may soon be appearing. These two lengthy pieces are an excellent introduction to Salinger’s work. Perhaps newer stories will evoke renewed interest in this uniquely American writer.

Bouquets

In the name of love,
so many bouquets are presented.
Purple iris,
trumpeting the heart’s delight.
A blush
of carnations to accompany
cheeks on fire.
The passion of orchids emptying
one’s wallet.
That rainbow of tulips hovering
over a vase.
Gardenias’ intoxicatingly eloquent
infusion of perfume.
Having climbed its thorny ladder,
the dizzying heights
of a rose’s inflamed declaration.
But the first bouquet
is the one presented to Mother:
Those spiked suns,
stubbornly rooted to resist the tug.
Even in a simple
jam jar, droopy dandelions evoke
love’s tender reply.

Recovery Room

I have surfaced, aware but not
there.
An assemblage of faces, huge as
gods,
masked bandits, their eyes demand
speech.
Bemused, I remain an actor stage-
struck.
Cotton mouthed, with a knotted
tongue,
I’m numbed anesthetically to the
glare.
A slack marionette, tube-tied, I
wait
for pain’s sharp tug to regenerate
desire,
fear, the scaffolding of a past
life.
Chagrined, having forgotten my
lines,
fog-wrapped, I become invisible
again.