Archive for March, 2017

Faces

Some faces have been erased; all that remains
is a name attached to an empty space.

Some never age beyond a youthful birthday,
are perfectly preserved in memory.

Some, having mastered the art of deception,
merely mask the truth beneath.

Some, buried in vague remembrance, vanish
into a jumbled composite of others.

Some are favored at a glance, appreciated
for beauty’s fleeting presence.

Some, cragged with time and acceptance,
weather into something finer.

Some, a mere handful, have inquisitive eyes
that kindly probe and connect.

Some, beloved, wait patiently to be recalled
whenever we find ourselves alone.

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Foregone Conclusion

In your lap you hold an entire life.
It is the biography
of someone you’ve grown to admire
these past few weeks.
The ending is a foregone conclusion,
but still you read on.
Your notebook is filled with other
recommended titles,
best sellers and critics’ favorites,
hardbound and new,
their stories impatient to be told.
Even so, your pace
slows as you near the book’s end.

One chapter to go, contemplative,
you stop and look up,
surprised to find that another dusk
dominates the sky.
The day’s expanse, whittled away,
has been replaced by
a bronze haze that envelops what
remains in shadow.
Reluctantly turning the next page,
there is just time
to journey with him down a road
that all must take,
as luminosity gives way to night.

The News From Ireland & Other Stories / William Trevor

Earlier this year I was introduced to the work of the Irish writer William Trevor (1928-2016) in the form of his last published novel, Love and Summer. While I enjoyed the book, I wanted to read one of his short story collections, a format that Trevor excelled at, according to the critics. And after reading The News From Ireland & Other Stories, I can add my voice to the chorus in praising his short story writing prowess.

This collection, published in 1986, features twelve stories set in either Ireland, England, or Italy. The protagonist in each is Irish or of Irish extraction. Most are set in contemporary times, but several take place in the 1800s (including the book’s title story). Trevor has the knack of drawing the reader immediately into these stories, as with deft strokes he lays out his characters’ life history in just a few short paragraphs. His character sketches are outstanding: subtle, featuring good people trying to honestly navigate a difficult life moment with their humanity intact. While they might not always do the right thing, their intentions are kindly. They are individuals the reader feels comfortable spending time with.

Another talent that Trevor exhibits is ending each story with an unexpected twist. Yet upon reflection, his choices seem the only possible way to conclude them. In other words, these stories ring true to life. For anyone looking for a place to start reading Trevor’s oeuvre, this collection is a good choice. The same goes for those who take delight in reading the genre of short stories. The News From Ireland & Other Stories shows a master of the craft at his peak.

Nothing Ever Dies : Vietnam And The Memory Of War / Viet Thanh Nguyen

As a child, Nguyen fled Vietnam with his family following the Communist takeover of the country. In this book, he addresses the topic of the “second” Vietnam War. He begins by writing, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” It is the second war, the memory of the actual conflict, that he examines here. South and North Vietnam, the United States, Cambodia, Laos, and South Korea, all took part in the war. Nguyen looks at how each country interpreted the conflict, after the fact, in their novels, memoirs, cemeteries, monuments, films, and museum exhibits.

It made for an uncomfortable read at times for this American. The author does not paint a pretty picture of our reasons for taking part in Vietnam’s civil war nor our actions during it. Worse still, Nguyen documents in great detail how, through the use of America’s cultural dominance across all forms of social media, the global memory of that war has been manipulated to present our motivations and misdeeds in a sanitized form.

While Nguyen addresses the importance of shared humanity, he argues that it cannot be acknowledged until all sides involved admit the inhumanity of their actions during conflict. In the case of the Vietnam conflict, no country that was involved emerged without bloody hands and a guilty conscience. During and after the conflict, all involved valorized their own sacrifices while demonizing “the enemy.” To prove his point, Nguyen examines books and movies that have been published after the Vietnam War, showing how both America and Vietnam reinterpreted the “facts” to whitewash what actually took place.

Nothing Ever Dies is not an easy read. Not only did it leave this American reader feeling defensive, Nguyen’s complex arguments were at times difficult to decipher. As another drawback, he is often repetitious, making the book more of a slog than it needs to be. Even so, it is a thoughtful and provocative exploration of how wars are later reinterpreted through memory and forgetting. For the reader willing to have their preconceived notions about the Vietnam War challenged, this book might change their perceptions of the the Vietnam War in particular, and warfare in general.

The Basil And Josephine Stories / F. Scott Fitzgerald

In 1928, while he experienced trouble finishing Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald began to write a series of short stories that focused on his youth, each featuring the same boy from age eleven to eighteen. In these nine stories, the reader follows the progress of Basil Duke Lee as he moves through adolescence, from his school days in Minneapolis, to going East to an exclusive prep school, and finally culminating in the first two years spent at an Ivy League college. Along the way, he tastes the bittersweet triumphs and painful defeats of love, and navigates the typical minefields that strew the adolescent years, as he strives to make a name for himself in the greater world.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald followed with five stories about Basil’s female counterpart, Josephine Perry. At sixteen, she is caught in the social whirl of parties where she attracts the interest of both boys her age and young men. Rebellious and self-centered, she manipulates every situation to get whatever new shiny object (or person) has caught her eye. But as she nears eighteen, having at last met the man of her dreams, Josephine is taught a great lesson: beauty alone cannot compete against a woman who has the depth of character that she sorely lacks.

While a good many of these stories were published separately in various magazines, they were not gathered together in a book collection until the 1950s. The quality of the stories varies throughout, but in each, Fitzgerald vividly captures the roiling turmoil of emotions and passionate dreams that define adolescence. Reflecting the social norms of the time period in which the stories were written, Basil has more opportunities to succeed and be forgiven for his missteps. Josephine is confined to the narrow expectation that her purpose in life is to attract a rich husband and finally produce children of her own, all the while making sure not to be “too forward.”

While the world Fitzgerald was writing about in these stories was long gone by the time of my own adolescence in the 1960s, the experiences of Basil and Josephine rang true and sparked similar memories from my youth. For anyone who has read and enjoyed Fitzgerald’s work, these stories will serve as an interesting prequel to the novels that brought him fame.

Wooden Horses

Dirty manes cruelly
tugged under a child’s command.
Faded paint peeling.
Cracked and bruised with age.
Always saddled.
No wonder their backs sag so.

Condemned to never
touch ground or soar skyward.
Forever at a gallop.
Racing the same tired course.
Chained to a pole.
No wonder these nags creak so.

Proud wooden horses
freed from the tree by an artisan.
Glossy in their prime.
Arched tails raised in a salute.
Eyes intent and black.
No wonder riders perceive it so.