Archive for November, 2015

The Monarch

Blame it on today’s potent wind:
The Monarch is drunk.
What kind of migration is this,
where it cannot steer
in a straight line? Look at it,
staggering sideways,
loping back to guzzle on that
purple coneflower.
Hitching a favorable breeze,
frenzied, yet aimless,
as if Mexico will come to it.
Be warned, this is
where heavy nectoring leads.
Using a soft stalk for
a lamppost as the world swirls,
see the drunken fool
resigned to riding motionless.
Trusting even so,
it will reach home eventually.

Responsibilities

To rise before your responsibilities make you,
before the life that you live awakens,
is to appreciate a fresh slate of possibilities,
as if washed ashore, finally safe on
a remote island of calm, each moment prolonged
in the half dark ticking of dawn.

To attend to the usual routines without haste;
throw open curtains, boil water,
finally shed the fears that black night brought,
and carefully assemble, act by act,
the day’s wardrobe, finding the perfect fit to
properly clothe your public self.

Then when it’s time, sensing the rush has begun,
with traffic no longer the exception
and the meddlesome wind beginning to stir,
having enjoyed a chapter or two,
go on – as any mother would – be a gentle alarm,
whisper your responsibilities awake.

Shawl Of Feathers

In the teeth of the gale,
heaviness does not
necessarily denote permanence.

Those crows, for instance,
light enough to lift
like balloons, anchor on limbs.

While embedded roofs,
a century old, sail
with armories of tile and nail.

In such a wind, who knew
a shawl of feathers
would prove more stormproof.

Random Family : Love, Drugs, Trouble, And Coming Of Age In The Bronx / Adrian LeBlanc

Random Family is a work of journalistic reporting, but it could easily be mistaken as a novel. It reminded me of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. In both works, the authors are voyeurs, using a “fly on the wall” approach, with the reporter nowhere evident in the unfolding story.

Published in 2004, Random Family immerses the reader in South Bronx’s ghetto area. LeBlanc focuses on two Puerto Rican women and their families during the 1980s and 1990s. Jessica and Coco are both adolescents when first introduced. However, in a neighborhood plagued by gang violence, rampant drug use, and desperate poverty, children grow up fast. Before the girls reach eighteen, they find themselves mothers. And reaching age twenty-three, with no husbands and several children by different fathers, they are hopelessly trapped in the area’s crumbling housing projects. Jessica ends up getting involved with a drug kingpin and eventually spends a good number of years in prison.

The harsh reality of life spent beneath the poverty line may be a familiar topic for most readers. But by focusing on these two families, LeBlanc puts human faces to the statistics and headlines. Limited by their lack of good education and their poor spending habits, neither Jessica nor Coco has the wherewithal to better herself. Time and again, despite their best intentions, they make the same errors of judgment. Yet while far from perfect, both are loving mothers, and do their best to protect their children from the dark influences of their environment. This book shows how extended families continually, while having next to nothing themselves, generously help out other relatives and friends in even more desperate straits.

LeBlanc spent eleven years chronicling the lives of these individuals, and the detail she presents is incredible. So much so that I could not help but wonder if some of the thoughts and conversations presented were created out of whole cloth. That doubt aside, Random Families is an engrossing read from beginning to end, albeit a sobering one. Still, LeBlanc offers no solution as to how these families might escape from the ghetto’s grip. Having presented the evidence, she leaves the problem for society to solve.

Black Water Before Ice

With no breeze,
the cold is a ghost solidified.
Before daylight,
this lake, too, will harden.
Already erased,
a sunny day’s transparency.

Gloves removed,
cupped hands now a ladle.
On the tongue,
before numbing, it burns.
Minerals murk
a tea savored by the bones.

Connoisseurs
might detect a hint of leaf.
Name the stones
used to flavor this recipe.
A novice merely
stiffens inside at the taste.

Billy Bathgate / E. L. Doctorow

Several decades ago, I read two of Doctorow’s better-known novels, The Book Of Daniel and Ragtime. Neither book impressed me all that much. With his death earlier this year, I decided to revisit his catalog, and Billy Bathgate was the book that I chose.

Doctorow is famous for his historical fiction, and this book uses the infamous mobster Dutch Schultz as its touchstone. Its narrator is Billy Bathgate, a brash fifteen year old living in the Bronx in the early 1930s. Miraculously, he manages to catch Schultz’s attention and is adopted into the gangster’s inner circle.

Billy is introduced to the dazzling world where organized crime is firmly rooted in the community through the use of violence and corruption. To ensure its existence, “bought” police officers and politicians are also on the payroll. As the book’s narrator, Billy is clearly precocious. He is also street-wise, thanks to growing up in poverty with only a mother present as a parent.

The opening scene, in which Schultz dispenses with a hit man he feels has betrayed him, is truly chilling. It takes place on the high seas with the doomed man well aware of his coming fate as his “concrete boots” dry on his feet. It is a scene that haunts, as does the concluding chapter where Dutch Schultz and the top members of his gang meet their violent end. 

Billy Bathgate is the perfect narrator for this story. Through his immature eyes, the reader is introduced to the drudgery of daily life in the criminal world, punctuated by unexpected outbursts of violence. While guileless, it is clear that he is studying everything that he sees to help support his quest to establish himself in the violent world of organized crime. His unique mixture of cunning and naivety makes him a character the reader can identify with despite the sordid situation he finds himself in.

Doctorow was famous for recreating specific historical eras, and this book does not disappoint in that regard. Yet its greatest strength is that this story is not necessarily specific to a time period, but continues to be relevant today. It is not your typical gangster novel, which is why the book continues to engage readers twenty-five years after it was first published.

Moth Smoke / Mohsin Hamid

Several years ago, The Reluctant Fundamentalist introduced me to Hamid’s work. It was his second published novel and I quickly realized the author was an important new voice in the world of fiction. The book ranked as my favorite read in 2013. Moth Smoke is Hamid’s first novel. While it did not impress me to the extent that The Reluctant Fundamentalist did, it is still an outstanding book.

Published in 2000, Moth Smoke is set in Lahore, Pakistan, and it portrays a city in flux. While ancient customs are still firmly entrenched in the general population, a younger generation has created an underbelly culture that is fueled by drugs, new money, night clubbing, and high-end shopping expeditions. Their parties and lifestyle emulate what they were exposed to as students at universities in the West.

Moth Smoke’s main character is Darashikoh (Daru) Shezad, a college educated young man who gets fired from a banking job in the early chapters. From there, he experiences a steady decline in his social standing and personal life. Complicating matters, he is in love with the wife of his childhood best friend, Ozi. Worse still, Daru comes from the wrong side of the tracks. Raised in poverty, he does not have the connections that Ozi has. So while Ozi (and his social circle) lives a life of pampered ease, Daru descends into drugs and dissolution.

What makes the novel special is its innovative structure. The story features the voices of many of Daru’s acquaintances, each supplying a clue to his character and ultimate fate. Many also have splendid asides, such as where one lectures at length on the dangers of air conditioning. As in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid plays his cards close to his chest. The entire puzzle is slow to be pieced together, and the true picture isn’t revealed until the final page.

Moth Smoke focuses on the subtle relationships between riches and corruption, friendship and betrayal, modernization and tradition. If not familiar with Hamid’s work, this would make an excellent introduction. Afterwards, you will be eager to add The Reluctant Fundamentalist to your reading list.