Archive for January, 2017

The Presence

I thought it was there

 

Underneath my bed, far darker

than the dark itself.

Crouched in a closet’s shadows,

silence manifest.

Ascending to an unlocked door,

its footfall on steps.

Secreted in the gaps between

elevator and floor.

The specter hurrying me home

without giving chase.

A Goliath impervious to stones

flung in hasty flight.

Something I could only thwart

in my parents’ arms,

Be safe against in the burrow

beneath blankets.

All those years of looking back

over my shoulder…

Not aware that what I feared,

 

it resided inside me.

Skating Backwards

Lake Como, 1966.
The murky puddles of a late January thaw
have again hardened
into transparency on its bumpy highway.

Father and son,
each is wearing a pair of skates looped
around their necks.
Sharpened blades clank as they advance.

That husband…
so awkward when on the dance floor,
despite nearing fifty,
once laced in, possesses Astaire’s grace.

At twilight, their breath is a downy cloud.

Despite the work
of augers that have left behind potholes,
a clumsy teenager
is taught by example to skate backwards.

Love And Summer / William Trevor

Even though William Trevor may not be a household name in the United States, he was a highly respected Irish novelist, playwright, and short story writer. Over the course of his lengthy career he won numerous prizes, and was nominated five times for the Booker Prize. I learned about him late in 2016 when The Economist featured his obituary upon his death at age 88. That prompted me to visit the public library where I picked up Love and Summer, the last novel (2009) he wrote over the long course of a prolific career.

It is a haunting story about a shy orphan girl, Ellie, who is married to Dillahan, an older farmer living near the the town of Rathmoye in Ireland during the 1950s. Her husband is kindly, hard working; a man of few words. She is often left alone during the day while he tends to the land and his sheep herd. Dillahan is haunted by the tragic deaths of his first wife and only child a number of years before. Ellie came to the farm following that to work as a servant. However, after some time together, when Dillahan asked her to marry him, she accepted. While she does not truly love her husband, she does respect and care for him.

The story takes place over the course of a summer, opening on the day that Ellie meets Florian Kilderry, a young photographer in the process of selling his deceased parents’ house, with plans to leave Ireland entirely. The chance meeting of these two lost souls begins a summer love affair. Or at least that is how Florian views it, while Ellie dreams it might be something more long lasting. This topic has certainly been written about before, but in Trevor’s capable hands it takes on a fresh life, with several unexpected twists and turns.

William Trevor was noted for creating characters that hooked themselves into the reader’s imagination, and this talent is on full display here. He also captures the slow pace of rural Irish life during this time period, and highlights the importance of neighbors and the Catholic Church in the daily activities in and around Rathmoye. He is able to avoid entirely the cliches and stereotypes often associated with small town life.

Love and Summer is a short work, and I can imagine a good many people being so captivated that they read it in a single sitting. Its prose is precise, eloquent, and captures the splendor of a brief Irish summer. I found the book’s conclusion to be spot on and satisfying. For those readers who enjoy “quiet fiction” that speaks to the heart, this book is one to make note of. William Trevor died peacefully in his sleep during the early hours of 21 November 2016, leaving behind a bibliography that I’ll certainly be exploring further.

Dazzle Of Silver

The weak, slanting sunlight
of midday does not carry enough heat
for us to shrug off overcoats
nor to put a blush on this pale season.
Seemingly transparent as
strained broth, tepid as a forgotten cup
of half-drunk morning tea,
after all the miles of desolate space
traversed in eight minutes,
who can hold it responsible if here at
the journey’s final mile
its imparted warmth fails to soften
a north wind’s brusk sting.
Spending its meager fortune upon
a frostbitten landscape
unimpressed by its horde of silver,
the transaction still dazzles
and blinds when distant tin roofs
blaze like a summer day.

Selected Fiction / Henry James

The stories and a short novel included in this collection are drawn from three decades of Henry James’ writing. Its first story was published in 1879 when he was thirty-six; the last is from 1909, when he was sixty-six. Arranged chronologically, the pieces trace the author’s growth as a writer. All of James’ typical themes are included here, including a ghostly tale written late in his career. A good many of them have a European setting, but others take place in Boston or New York City.

This collection opens with two well-know pieces, Daisy Miller (1879) and Washington Square (1881). It is understandable why these two stories helped to launch James’ career as a successful writer. Each is well-written and accessible to the general reader. Moving deeper into the book, the stories start to challenge, complexity-wise. Rather than being action-based, they begin to focus more on the psychological inner motivations of the characters portrayed.

For me, the story that stood out from the rest was The Beast In The Jungle (1903). Its protagonist, John Marcher, has a secret that he has shared with only one other person: he believes his life will be defined by some catastrophic or marvelous event. When the event does take place late in life, he is blind to the fact. When he realizes what the defining event was, it is far too late to seize the opportunity. In the end, the “beast in the jungle” is himself; having spent so much time in anticipation, he’s not truly lived at all.

For a reader who wants to be introduced to James’ writing, Selected Fiction makes a perfect introduction. However, be aware that while the stories included are not book length, they are by no means short. Reading Henry James requires time and persistence.

The Year In Review

Another birthday celebrated—
that candleless
cake a blueberry muffin.

Both of us on all fours—
a garden toad and I
exchange startled stares.

Activating a motion sensor—
an astute spider waits
for what the light attracts.

Glued to her mother’s side—
four fingers blossom
in answer to how old she is.

At sixty-four and a half—
an unexpected treat,
a guilt-free afternoon nap.

For the first time in years—
an eight minute mile,
fueled by jagged lightning.

An October moon’s revival—
a lone cricket’s encore
despite a dusting of snow.

M Train / Patti Smith

Patti Smith first became well-known as a musician in the 1970s, merging poetry and rock into a number of successful albums. While she still turns out the occasional record, Smith is probably best known now as an author. In 2010, she won the National Book Award for Just Kids, a book that chronicled her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the late sixties and seventies. M Train is another work of nonfiction, one in which she describes a year in her life. It also includes reflections on the past, her dreams, as well as the craft of writing and artistic creation. The opening sentence sets the stage and explains what is to follow: “It’s not easy writing about nothing.” Yet in describing the randomness of a year in her life, the puzzle pieces assemble to provide fascinating revelations about Smith’s personality and history.

Bohemian is a good word to describe Patti Smith. Clearly influenced by the Beat Generation, though she came of age after the fact, she is the progeny of that literary tradition. In this book, using self-reflection and the landscape of memory, she sets out to “remember everything and write it all down.” And while the story is centered around her life in Greenwich Village, she easily shifts between dreams and reality, past and present. There are the big moments of her life shared with her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, and the trips they shared before his death. But mostly, it is the mundane activities of her daily life that are highlighted. One section of the book she describes as “an aria to a coat,” another as “a requiem for a café.” Who would have guessed Smith was a member of an Arctic explorer’s society, that she compulsively takes Polaroids of the places she visits, and loves to watch detective shows on TV.

M Train is a book about nothing, and yet it is about everything important in Smith’s life. Reading it is like sitting down with this artist in a café over a cup of coffee and spending hours captivated by her remarks. She is a woman who has always lived and dreamed “outside the lines.” In one of her dreams, she asks the spirit of Osamu Dazai, a renowned Japanese writer: “What is nothing?” He answers: “It is what you can see of your eyes without a mirror.” This book is Smith’s attempt to take the reader to that important place of nothingness.