Archive for May, 2016

An Ode To Water

In winter
it is a drink that
I disdain
unless it steeps
my tea—
give me instead
the taste
of fermented grape—
or a shot
taken straight—
the first
for its afterglow of
contentment—
the latter whenever
I require an
immediate blast of
furnace heat

In summer
such abstention is
rescinded—in
cup glass or dipper—
bring me
the well’s depths—
aged nectar
from ancient clouds—
with a tang of
iron for seasoning—
something so
elementally simple
that the sun’s
furnace is nullified
by the shock
of its ambrosia’s
aching chill

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The Plague / Albert Camus

The Plague was published in 1947 and tells the story of a mysterious plague that broke out in the French Algerian city of Oran.  In the town, the outbreak begins when thousands of rats are discovered dying in the streets.  Their appearance proves to be the catalyst for the spread of the bubonic plague among the general population.  This leads the city officials to quarantine not only the ill, but the entire city from the rest of the world.  The town’s gates are shut, and almost all communication with the outside world is suspended.

Despite its critical acclaim, for decades I resisted adding this book to my reading list.  I feared it would be too distressing, presenting a voyeuristic view of the horror and panic of those dying from the disease.  To my surprise, Camus takes a completely different tack.  The novel focuses instead on the hopes, fears, and ultimately the resiliency of a population facing the terror of the city’s plight.  It provides an intimate look at the differing strengths they drew upon to keep their sanity during full year Oran is cut off from the rest of the world.

Camus achieves this by focusing on the growing friendship of five individuals who find themselves trapped within the city walls.  There is a young doctor, Bernard Rieux, who works tirelessly to bring comfort to the dying, despite being unable to provide them a cure.  Cottard, a traveling salesman stranded in the city, seems to be strangely pleased about the outbreak because he is fleeing from the police as the result of some unnamed crime in his past.  Joseph Gard, a clerk in the city government, spends his nights revising, over and over again, the perfect opening sentence to a story he imagines will bring him fame.  Raymond Rambert is a journalist visiting the city to research a story on the living conditions in the Arab quarter of the city.  Finally, there is Jean Tarrou, another outsider stranded in Oran after the gates are closed.  It is his diary that the book’s narrator draws heavily on to describe the conditions in the town.

The book’s narrator, one these five characters, remains unnamed until the story’s end.  His voice is what gives The Plague its unique appeal.  Instantly likable, he is able to portray the horror and yet find comfort in the efforts to provide support to the stricken.  Along with the other four, he rises to the situation to provide what help he can.  The plague, too, is a major character, but it remains mostly a mysterious, unseen presence.  It is the Angel of Death who must be fought, even if it cannot be defeated.

This novel tackles numerous themes.  It deals with exile and separation, the resulting solidarity of community, its resiliency, religion’s strengths and weaknesses, and the acceptance of the unexplainable nature of why some remain healthy and others succumb.  For those who have resisted reading the novel thinking it would only present a picture of doom and gloom, I encourage them to take the chance to learn otherwise.  In the end, this novel’s message focuses on the importance of hope and kindness.  Masterpiece is a word too often tossed out to describe published novels.  In this case, it is a term richly deserved.

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey / Thornton Wilder

In 1714, the finest bridge in all of Peru broke and cast five unfortunate souls into the canyon below.  The bridge, woven by the Incas more than a century before, had hundreds of persons pass over it on a daily basis.  The crash of the bridge was witnessed by a missionary, Brother Juniper.  Moments before crossing the bridge himself, he wonders why did this happen to those five travelers rather than himself.  Did God have a reason for choosing them rather than anyone else in the vicinity?  He resolves to investigate the lives of these victims to answer this question.

What follows is a detailed history of three of the people who fell, and comments on the other two.  I found the premise of the book intriguing and I was curious to learn the Brother’s conclusions.  It seemed to be the perfect detective story.  Unfortunately, his inquiry proved to be disappointing.  While the lives of the three characters profiled proved interesting, they were presented in such a clinical fashion that I never came to truly care what led them to the bridge on that fateful day.

Published in 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey won the Pulitzer Prize the next year.  It has been listed as one of the best 20-Century novels by several editorial boards.  This gave me pause, as I wondered if there was something in the book that I missed.  Probably not; it just happened not be my cup of tea.

The final chapter has Brother Juniper wrestling with several mathematical formulas to try to measure the spiritual significance of these five individuals.  His results fail to show if their deaths were a punishment or a reward to hasten them heaven-bound.  What he uncovers is not surprising.  Like most of us, they were uniquely gifted with positive and negative traits.  In the end, this “act of God” is a mystery no detective can solve.

In Between

After the evening meal, the women
would congregate in
the kitchen to drown the dirty dishes.
While they worked,
their entwined voices were never at
a loss for words.
On the back stoop where I sat with
the men, I could hear
the tide of those competing mothers’
voices chorus into a wave.
A soothing ocean defying the silence.
Dematerializing into
silhouettes, uncles and Father begin
to vanish, betrayed
only by the red tips of cigarettes.
In that pungent sizzle,
what passed for conversation was
mostly monosyllabic,
as if only the next shortest word
could complete their
observation about the weather.
What mattered more
was the texture of their voices
than the content.
Staring up at a sprinkling of stars,
up past my bedtime,
I inhaled the musk of the men,
pungent with the sweat
of their day spent at hard labor.
Held captive between,
I’d eavesdrop on the kitchen talk,
then focus my attention
outdoors, as sleepily wrapped in
a warm blanket of voices,
I waited for the rest of life to begin.

Historical Remains

The teeth on my exhumed skeleton
will betray me, revealing
that I was a child during the 1950s.
The playground of dentists,
what is left of the 32 will soon attest
to pre-fluoridation days.
A dental bridge, crowns and caps,
sealants to prevent rot,
fillings and evidence of root canals.
Hygienists during
this lifetime placed the blame on
poor dental habits,
improper brushing, the absence
of daily flossing.
Future historians will know better.
In a more perfect world,
despite the evidence of decay,
they will acknowledge
the sweet temptations no tongue
could ever resist.
Bazooka Joe, Atomic Fireballs,
Root Beer Barrels,
Tootsie Rolls and Sugar Babies,
gummy Jawbreakers.
Finding a photo of me wearing
Wax Lips, they will
marvel that I had teeth left at all.

Moby Dick, Or, The Whale / Herman Melville

Ishmael, the book’s narrator, and the only surviving crew member of the Pequod.  Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby Dick, the white whale that had earlier deprived him of a leg.  Starbuck, the chief mate, a Quaker from Nantucket who attempts to talk Ahab out of his mad quest and even considers killing him.  Queequeg, the tattooed son of a chief from a cannibal tribe residing on an island in the South Seas.  These are characters so vividly brought to life by Melville that they still resonate in modern consciousness centuries after being introduced.  Then there is the albino sperm whale, Moby Dick, an old bull whale of prodigious size and strength.  He is known today to even those who have not read the novel.  His presence continues to haunt modern memory long after whaling has come to an end.

While I knew the story line and its intense drama before picking up the novel, I was taken by surprise at the wry humor the book provided, thanks to Ishmael’s narration.  His observations make it a textbook on whales and whaling, as well as a gripping high seas adventure story guaranteed to enthrall.

In lesser hands, this novel might be a rousing tale, but few writers are capable of bring the depth of detail that Melville supplies.  He is a master craftsman when it come to the written word, and one soon realizes a few pages in, that they are in the presence of true genius.  I have no doubt that for centuries to come this classic will continue to delight readers who have no recollection of what life was like back when man pursued whales for the oil they supplied.

Moby Dick was published in 1851, a time when countless whaling ships prowled the oceans.  Times change; today’s reader most likely abhors the practice.  But no matter how politically correct one is, it is hard to imagine not being drawn into a story of the contest between man and whale at a time when the odds were evenly divided between the two.  Ishmael clearly respects and is fascinated by the whales that the Pequod harvests along the way before its confrontation with the great white whale.  He portrays Moby Dick as an intelligent adversary capable of holding its own against the technology of the time.  While I found myself rooting for the whales, I grew to appreciate the crewmen who risked life and limb to harvest these leviathans.

Countless critics have described the symbolism and allegory that Melville employs throughout.  The whiteness of Moby Dick, the biblical references, Queequeg’s coffin used as an extra life buoy.  All that aside, one need not understand all of these references to appreciate the drama of the story.  Melville’s use of “you are there” detail has the reader hanging on his every word.  Hook, line, and sinker, it pulls the reader into the story, even if they do not fully understand the book’s minute details.

Many claim this to be the best novel ever penned.  That is beside the point.  I find it hard to imagine anyone not being engaged by Melville’s tale.  In comparison, modern writers fall far short of what Melville achieves in this classic.  One hundred years from now, I predict the book will still captive readers, as it did me.

Cardinal

Surely he has mistaken
the sinking moon for an awakening
splash of sunlight.
Scarlet in royal garb, he commands
as only a monarch can.
Never mind that the dark seems to
have erased him entirely.
His voice alone brooks no opposition.
Its pronouncement
isn’t merry; he is not trying to woo
the heart’s response.
Rather, a squeaky gate that bangs,
as far as sound travels,
complete dominance is proclaimed.
A comfort perhaps
to his queen and their hatchlings,
he goes off like an alarm.
This bombastic braggart at 4 a.m.
must think, ad nauseam,
that he sings pretty, pretty, pretty.
Who am I to disagree;
a tuneless serf, I dare not rebuke
his confident majesty.