Archive for August, 2016

A Critic’s Helpful Tips

Rather than simply to lie and compliment
the sprawl of my overgrown garden,
kindly, he takes time to critique what it lacks.
No kale or arugula. They are quite
trendy, you know. And beets would certainly
thrive in this well-drained soil.
All this green could use a splash of color,
something to provide an accent.
Perhaps borage decorating the fence line.
Not knowing what that is, I nod
sagely in agreement. My tomatoes and
green peppers are dismissed
with a glance. Where is the tang of spice?
Zing is what this garden needs.
And potatoes are so northern European,
composed mostly of heavy starch.
A lighter fare, surely, is the better choice.
Chives, parsley, and dill would
subtly enliven the flavor of a healthy salad.
To soften his remarks though,
he praises our fat Buddha, barely visible,
sitting serene amidst the tangle.
Mine, he notes as an addendum, is twice
that size, purchased in China when
we visited the Great Wall last September.

Wildflowers

I wish I knew the name of every wildflower,
but the few I do are the brightest and
most common, the ones that trumpet loudest.

Those betrayed only by their subtle scent,
shyly tucked among the underbrush,
are strangers, answering to no endearment.

Timidly, they highlight the blanketing shade.

When addressed, I am sure their names
would taste delicious on my tongue;
a sweetness I could later savor for dessert.

Yet without a book or a wiser friend along,
remaining nameless as I walk away,
their unlabeled presence defies cataloging.

Returning home, bashfully escaping my
colorless attempt at description,
they wilt into an unpronounceable memory.

Summer’s Demise

Overripe and showing her age,
attracting wasps rather than honeybees,
the perfume she wears is cloying.
Summer’s sizzle has begun to fizzle.

Once such an ardent suitor,
the sun no longer lingers to appreciate
that bewitching dusk she dons.
Her former charm now a cricket’s elegy.

A thinning chorus of birdsong
wakes this grand dame as she adorns
herself in dawn’s dewy jewelry:
Faux pearls worn on wrinkled fingers.

Bruce Catton’s Civil War / Bruce Catton

This book collects Bruce Catton’s history of the Civil War into one volume. Rather than attempting to tell the entire story of the conflict, including its messy political details, he focuses on the Army of the Potomac’s engagements with the Army of Northern Virginia, so ably led by Robert E. Lee. It is a one-sided telling of their bloody battles from 1861 into 1865, as seen through the eyes of the northern soldiers, officers, and commanders.

Catton was a narrative historian, and his many books on the Civil War provide colorful, detailed vignettes of the troops in the trenches. This three-part volume is a prime example of his writing style. Even though it is well researched and supported by footnotes, his intended audience is the non-academic. From the opening page to the last, it is a captivating read that I found difficult to put down despite its daunting length. By concentrating on the personal histories of the common soldiers and their officers, he drives home the horror of the battles and the bravery exhibited by those who took part in them.

Mr. Lincoln’s Army tells about the early stages of the war, at a time when the Army of the Potomac was led by the charismatic George B. McClellan, a commander beloved by his soldiers. However, he was far too cautious on the battlefield and this led to lost opportunities for victory and an early end to the conflict. His military career came to a close when he was relieved of his office after a disastrous defeat in the Battle of Antietam, a contest that could have been won with better leadership.

Glory Road chronicles the critical months between the autumn of 1862 through the midsummer of the next year, a period when the Confederates came close to destroying the Army of the Potomac. On the offensive, the Union soldiers suffered defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. This led Lee to attempt a counter invasion of the North, which resulted in his men’s defeat and repulsion at Gettysburg. During this fateful period, the Army of the Potomac had three different commanders leading them: Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, and finally George Meade, who took charge just three days before the decisive battle at Gettysburg.

The story of the last year of the Civil War is told in A Stillness At Appomattox. When published originally as a separate book in 1954, this account won Catton the National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Pulitzer Price for History that year. By this time, the Army of the Potomac’s battle-hardened veterans had mostly been either killed, seriously injured, or mustered out of the force when their terms of service ended. A new army replaced them, one made up of conscripts filling the shoes of the earlier volunteers. Its leadership now consisted of Meade and the determined Ulysses S. Grant, who decided to show the Army of Northern Virginia and the citizens of the South no mercy in his drive for a complete victory. Even so, the outcome was never certain. Nonetheless, thanks to outnumbering and outgunning Lee’s army, the well-equipped northern forces were able to batter the Confederacy into submission.

To achieve the surrender of Lee’s forces, Grant counted heavily on the talents of William Tecumseh Sherman and his calvary. While some might question his ruthless methods, as this book shows, he was a courageous soldier and an inspirational leader. To my surprise, another important figure was George Armstrong Custer, who later became infamous as the general killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

I already knew much of the history that this book recounts, but thanks to its wealth of detail, I came away with a better understand of how its separate pieces stitched together into a coherent whole. Catton’s accounts of the the various battles are gripping and horrifying. It made me appreciate the courage it took for the soldiers who went into battle knowing that most of them would be killed in the fray. And while this three-narrative volume focuses primarily on the North’s side of the story, I also grew to respect the Confederate soldiers’ determination against great odds and the masterful leadership of Robert E. Lee. For anyone wanting a better understanding of the devastating cost of the Civil War, this book is a must first read. It provides a ringside seat to the the horrors of this all-out war. I for one felt humbled and grateful that the brave soldiers of the Army of the Potomac risked life and and limb to preserve the Union and bring an end to slavery.

The Lowlands / Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowlands is a novel that covers many decades, almost the entire lifetimes of its main characters. It opens in a Calcutta neighborhood where two brothers, inseparable throughout childhood, are about to be divided by politics. It is the 1960s, and Udayan, the more impulsive of the brothers, is drawn into the Naxalite movement, a Communist-inspired rebellion, intent on eradicating inequity and poverty in India. The other brother, Subhash, focused on his studies, does not share his sibling’s political passion.

A separation occurs when Subhash travels to America to get his Ph.D.  His college is located in a northeastern coastal corner of the country. Before he can finish his program, news arrives from India that Udayan has been killed by the police. Subhash immediately flies home to learn the details of his brother’s death and to provide comfort to his grieving parents. There is a surprise waiting when he gets back to Calcutta though; Gauri, the woman Udayan had married after Subhash left for America, is pregnant and living with his parents.

It soon becomes clear to Subhash that his parents have no love for Gauri; they are only interested in the grandchild she carries. To honor his brother’s memory, Subhash decides to propose marriage to Gauri and offers to take her back to the United States when he returns to finish his degree. Since Gauri, too, realizes that her in-laws will try to raise the child without her input, she accepts the offer from a man she barely knows.

While it may sound as if I am giving away much of the story, these are only the opening chapters of a family saga that will extend into the next century. Once in America, Gauri gives birth to a daughter, Bela. From there, Lahiri concentrates on the complicated relationships of a family in which the ghost of Udayan continues to haunt them all.

What makes the novel such an engaging read is how the author weaves the pieces of their unfolding lives with a seamless authenticity. Throughout, there are surprising plot twists, and yet they ring true on the page. Spanning generations and the divide between two cultures, Lahiri’s precise prose effortlessly unravels the inner lives of Subhash, Gauri, and the daughter who believes they are both her parents. In this family, secrets are kept and not revealed until after irreparable damage is done. A New York Times reviewer of the book wrote, “Lahiri handles her characters without leaving any fingerprints.” I fully concur in that assessment. While not a happy ever after tale, it captures the complexity of their actions with tender concern and understanding.

Damaged Goods

Downtown on a pedestrian path,
6:30 a.m. Seen from afar,
a traveler, one might surmise.
Someone pulling a wobbly
suitcase on wheels, shoulder bag
heavy across her chest.
A student perhaps, rushing for
an airport shuttle or bus.
But no, despite her lack of years,
bowed under their weight,
what she knows is self-taught.
A life where a fortune is
merely the jingle of loose change.
Her home a suitcase with
a broken zipper, luggage serving
as the only jacket owned.
Damaged goods, guarded eyes
reveal upon getting closer.
Downcast, curtained, the hurt
contained within allows
no one to carelessly trespass.
In passing, your concern
is of no assistance to her at all.

The Shortcut

It was my pre-dawn shortcut to work
throughout the winter months.

Now my shadow stands stymied,
where once I carelessly trod.

That potholed route has been excavated
by a sun awake well before me.

My morning commute now shows what
this season’s labor has produced.

Unfurled, an algal bloom’s green carpet,
a deceptive welcome mat.

Peering across to where I need to be,
today I rush to punch the clock.

These days, I’m envious of those who
can still plow straight ahead.

Crossing the scummy pond’s highway,
unemployed wood ducks

effortlessly navigate the shortcut as
I hurriedly detour around.