Archive for January, 2016

Lethargy

These windows have been sealed tight by the cold.
The breeze is as sober as a judge;
unable to remember the last time it had flowers
on its breath. This silence, too,
can barely recall the sound of garden chimes that
orchestrated chorusing birds.
Imagination fails to conjure up an appreciation
for shade or a glass of lemonade.
And no matter how determined or hard working,
a monotonous furnace cannot
replicate a balmy summer day. Experience proves
the hottest cup of tea will taste
tepid before the final sip. Once again, I’ve waited
too long to dress and accept
the sunshine’s invitation. Twilight is already here.

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The American / Henry James

Henry James has always struck me as a writer’s writer. There is no denying he is a gifted author; even so, when reading his novels in college, despite being told otherwise, I found his novels ponderous and dry. Now in my sixties, I decided to revisit him to see if my initial impression had changed.

The novel I chose was The American, originally published as a serial in the Atlantic Monthly in 1876-1877. It is an account of a rich American businessman who comes to Paris on a European tour. Christopher Newman is someone who, although born into poverty, has succeeded in making a fortune by dint of sheer hard work. Nearing middle age, he has come to Europe to explore the Old World and perhaps find a wife as well. Newman is intelligent and good-natured, even if not culturally astute.

The core of the novel concerns his determined courtship of a young widow from an aristocratic family, the Bellegardes. James does a wonderful job of contrasting Newman’s “can do” attitude with the Bellegardes’ stiff, fossilized adherence to ancient traditions. The woman who captures his heart, Claire de Cintré, while beautiful, is a timid soul who is dominated by her mother and older brother. Thankfully, a younger brother, Valentin, befriends Newman and agrees to assist him in winning his sister’s hand.

From the first, it is clear that to win Claire, Newman must first win over her mother, the forbidding and haughty Madame de Bellegarde. While she finds him gauche and not worthy of her daughter, he does possess one thing that interests her, wealth. This leads her into allowing him to propose marriage, and his proposal is accepted. End of story? Not quite; it is merely the first half of the tale. In the second, a contest of wills develops to see if Madame de Bellegarde will actually allow the marriage to take place. While Newman is determined to succeed, he does not fully understand the disdain the mother feels toward him and to the new ways he represents.

While it is no way “action packed,” I found the story highly engaging. It is not in the least a dry academic read. To my surprise, there was even a bit of subtle humor woven into the text. If I have a complaint, it is that the second half of the story was a bit too melodramatic for my taste, although I found it believable throughout.

The theme of the story can be found in Newman’s name. He represents the rising New World, while the Old World is represented by the Bellegardes. In The American, James knowledgably portrays the cultural divide between America and Europe, and does so in an entertaining manner. It has piqued my interest in diving deeper into his impressive catalog.

Bank Lobby

Leopard print slipper boots,
lime leggings speckled with red polka dots,
neon coral glitter tee,
gem-studded sunglasses, pink with hearts.
A walking fashion faux pas,
see how she beams a response to my smile,
proudly shouldering a plastic purse.

As if alone on center stage,
she leaps and twirls across the worn carpet,
imagining herself a princess.
While envious of her brazen self-assurance,
I feel a twinge of sadness,
knowing how soon adolescence will dictate
conformity’s insipid need to blend.

A Savage War Of Peace : Algeria 1954-1962 / Alistair Horne

First published in 1977, A Savage War of Peace is the definitive account of the Algerian War. This was a war between France and a loose federation of Algerian independence movements. While undeclared, it lasted for eight years and resulted in the deaths of more than a million people. It was indeed a savage one, with all sides resorting to the use of indiscriminate terror and torture. What makes it especially relevant today is that the conflict in many ways served as a dress rehearsal for the horror currently convulsing the Middle East.

Nobody comes out looking particularly noble in Horne’s account. The French army engaged in torture, illegal arrests, and killed countless innocent Muslim Algerians caught in the crossfire. A number of its high-ranking generals attempted a coup against the French government, led at that time by Charles de Gaulle. The European-Algerians (Pieds-noirs) also engaged in acts of terrorism against the Muslim population, as well as carrying out numerous bombings on French soil when de Gaulle began negotiations with the native Algerians. The main independence movement was the National Liberation Front (FLN). Like the Pieds-noirs, it too used terrorism to achieve its aims. Worse still, FLN ruthlessly killed thousands of moderate Muslims who did not totally support their agenda.

Horne does a marvelous job of presenting this complicated story. His account is both intelligent and accessible to the reader, even to someone not well informed about the conflict. Horne certainly has riveting material to work with. This decolonization conflict featured guerrilla warfare on the parts of both FLN and the Pieds-noirs, bloody bombings of soft targets, assassinations, including a number of attempts on Charles de Gaulle himself.

Scrupulously fair in presenting both sides of the conflict, Horne has created a book that will be appreciated by both the academic and general reader. It is essential reading for anyone wanting to better understand the violence wracking the Middle East today.

The Death Of The Heart / Elizabeth Bowen

Published in 1938, The Death of the Heart tells the story of an adolescent thrust into a new world following the death of her parents. The sixteen-year-old orphaned Portia Quayne moves into the home of her much older half-brother. What she finds in this new home is a troubled marriage where her brother’s wife remains cold and aloof, regarding the young girl as an intrusion into the household’s complex dynamics.

Still grieving from her mother’s recent death, Portia keenly feels the sense of rejection in her new surroundings. To assuage her loneliness, she bonds with a housekeeper who knew her father. She also falls in love with the first person that expresses a romantic interest. At age twenty-three, this young man is quite a bit older than she. He also turns out to be a bit of a bounder, but fortunately one who knows better than to destroy her innocence.

What makes this novel a delight to read is that it does not focus only on Portia, but also on the adults in her life. While a coming of age story, it broadens to encompass the other viewpoints as well. Thanks to Portia’s arrival in their lives, these adults are forced to acknowledge their own disappointments and come to terms with the directions their lives have taken.

The reader might suppose the “heart” that is dying in this novel belongs to Portia. However, Bowen shows that the “heart” can be threatened throughout life. The Death of the Heart captures the confusion and innocence of childhood, as well as the complexities that adult life brings. The author has created a host of characters here that remain likable despite their flaws. A quiet book that unfolds without resorting to unneeded dramatics, it speaks directly to the reader’s heart.

Beneath The Conversation

Wrapped inside a blanket of his own making,
beneath the conversation,
asleep, he uses the closest foot as a pillow.

Cloudy eyes have brought him to an island
where familiarity steers;
navigating by scent, he is blind to the loss.

Even if he cannot decipher the complexity
of our orchestrated voices,
his tail can still thump in accompaniment.

Day’s end finds him content, sprawled there
amidst pungent socks,
easily mistaken for a wool rug that sneezes.

Impressions

“Hang on a sec,” Mother said, “Dad’s out in the garden.
It finally stopped raining yesterday
and he decided to tackle this week’s crop of weeds.”
And there he was in my mind’s eye,
on hands and knees, working his way down a row of
snap beans, carefully inspecting
tangled vines for signs of rot or marauding cutworms,
while his mud-encrusted fingers
ruthlessly pinched and tugged weeds from the soil.
I could hear Mother’s footsteps
through the kitchen, the slam of the back screen door,
and her loudly yelling his name,
then nothing save their grandfather clock’s tick-tock
as the phone lay unattended.
On her second shout, I pictured him tilting his head,
finally roused from a reverie,
as he grudgingly struggled to lift himself upright,
straightening the kinks with
popping knees and a sharp stab of pain from a back
that was no longer cast iron.
When he came to speak my name into the receiver,
clearing his throat of silence and pollen,
a whiff of his damp garden carried all the way to me.