Archive for May, 2017

Reading The Future

They are surrounding a Ouija board
on a candle-lit patio,
pre-teen girls bravely taking turns as
disembodied spirits possess
their fingers and guide the planchette
in search of an answer.
The first questions are simple ones.

“What number am I thinking of?”
“Which of us is Jewish?”
“Who does Mara have a crush on?”
“Where do we go to school?”
“How many of us are in orchestra?”
Its heart-shaped arrow,
barely touched, correctly replies.

But soon they thirst to know what
the future might reveal.
These young girls seek a prospect
showing distant roads
that have not yet been set in stone.
A destination close enough
to easily reach in their imaginings.

“Will any of us become famous?”
“Are we forever friends?”
“What is my husband’s first name?”
“Do dreams come true?”
“How many children will I have?”
Hurrying Fate’s verdict,
a divining Ouija board decides.

Crucible Of War : The Seven Years’ War And The Fate Of Empire In British North America, 1754-1766

Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War is an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) account of the British and French battles in North America during the Seven Years’ War, which lasted from 1756 to 1763. This international war is better known here in America as the French and Indian War. Anderson’s purpose in this book is to show that the war played a major part in planting the seed and informing the American Revolution a decade later. Not only did it alter the relationship between the French, the English, and the Native American allies of those two warring parties, but more importantly, it caused a rift between the colonists and their mother country that would quickly widen in the years following England’s expulsion of the French from North America.

Before the Seven Years’ War, the British government had maintained a hands-off approach to the American Colonies, allowing them largely to run themselves. However, with the outbreak of war with France, the British leadership decided to focus on militarily defeating the French in North America. As Anderson ably proves, they succeeded only when, after a rocky start, they began to treat the American colonists as allies rather than subjects. Almost all of the Colonies were able to raise large armies that were crucial in aiding the British military. So too were the various Native Indian tribes who switched their allegiances to fight against the French.

While Britain emerged as an imperial power following the Seven Years’ War, the government was heavily in debt, having also helped to subsidize the armies of Frederick the Great of Prussia to engage the French on the Continent during the long years of war. In need of cash, the king and Parliament thought it only fair that the colonists should help to foot the expense of the war. The Americans thought otherwise. While the taxes were not particularly burdensome, the Colonies rose up in violent protest against their implementation. When it became clear to the British government that they could not enforce the legislation, the measures were quickly repealed. Despite this, their efforts at tougher governance had already caused the rise of new political parties in the Colonies, all intent on maintaining their right to control local affairs.

Also addressed in the book are the Indian Wars that erupted in the Ohio Valley region between the Native Americans and the colonists following the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. Settlers were rapidly beginning to encroach upon land granted to the tribes in treaties. The British government tried to stop the rampant land speculation, but only succeeded in causing the colonists to become more defiant and unruly. The frontier was just too tempting a morsel for those Americans (including George Washington) who saw the area as a get-rich scheme by stealing fertile Indian land to sell to settlers desperate for acreage. The war proved a bloody one, and while atrocities occurred on both sides, the colonists were clearly the invading force. Sadly, our forefathers had no qualms in ignoring treaties and the rights of the Native Indians.

The Seven Years’ War is often overlooked in the annals of American history and certainly unappreciated for the part it played in the American Revolution. Crucible of War masterfully recreates the time period and demonstrates the War’s importance in helping to steer the Colonies toward unity and independence from Great Britain. It is not an easy read, but certainly a rewarding one for anyone seeking a better understanding of this pivotal moment in our country’s history.

As a side note, this book reveals that the current politically conservative opposition against taxation has long roots going all the way back to the Colonial period. At times when reading Crucible of War, seeing how greedy the colonists could be, I could not help but feel some sympathy for the British government’s perspective back in the 1760s, trying to keep such a rowdy, ungrateful lot in line.

Porch Light Haikus

In my midnight tea
fat free, a splash of moonlight
chalky on the tongue

The wind can’t decide
which scent to put on tonight
so I’m drenched in all

This late in July
resurrecting a sweater
despite sunburnt arms

Alarmed eyes look up
from a lamp-lit page to find
ominous silence

Extending shadows,
trees repopulate with twins
in starlight’s coupling

Drowsy with belief
Heaven’s vast eternity
as my only proof

Venus, morning’s star
a reminder that black tea
will awaken dawn

Just Kids / Patti Smith

Just Kids is a memoir of musician Patti Smith’s relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. It highlights a period in the late Sixties when they met in the streets of New York City and became each other’s pillar of strength. Young “bohemians” and nearly penniless, they pooled resources to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Mapplethorpe, even at this early point of his life, believed himself a gifted artist, and Smith remained a fervent believer in his talents through the ups and downs of their relationship.

Smith herself lacked a burning desire to pursue fame of any sort. It was Mapplethorpe who encouraged Smith to share her poetry and artwork with the greater world. For a good many years they were inseparable as a couple. In the end, it was his growing sexual involvement with other men that ended their relationship as lovers. However, they would remain soulmates and each other’s muses right up to Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989.

For anyone interested in the cultural underground unfolding in New York City during the late 1960’s into the 1970’s, this memoir will provide a fascinating snapshot. During their time together, Smith and Mapplethorpe had interactions with countless personalities: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sam Shepard, Andy Warhol and other Warhol superstars, as well as the quirky inhabitants of the Chelsea Hotel. Smith does a good job of capturing the energy that resulted from the mixture of the City’s leading intellectuals, drag queens, musicians, and the bohemian street people who swirled in and out her life while in Mapplethorpe’s company.

Strangely, it is Robert Mapplethorpe who proves to be the weakest part in this memoir. Smith is clearly enamored of his personality and gifts, and yet she failed to convinced me to feel the same. She barely touches upon the sadomasochistic imagery of his photographic work for which he is best remembered. Instead, she tries to present him as the kind prince in a fairy tale recreation of their time together. The picture she presents of him seems too pure, ignoring the warts of their complicated relationship.

That is beside the point I suppose. What Smith is trying to capture in his memoir is the innocence of youth, a time when it is easy to believe that fairy tales are indeed real. Personally, I found a later book by Smith, M Train, to be a more captivating story about her life following fame and fortune. But for anyone interested in Smith’s early growth as an artist and development as a songwriter and musician, Just Kids will be a book worth reading. A National Book Award winner, it proves that Robert Mapplethorpe’s belief in her writing ability was justified.

Piano Teacher

Autumn has arrived and the silence has deepened.
The piano teacher’s windows are now closed.

For months on end, the dusk had been ushered in
by the sound of the only piano to be found
here in the confines of this farming community.

Up the two blocks of Oak Street and down Main,
its reverberation penetrated alleyways
and helped to tuck the children snug in their beds.

His sashes thrown open to catch a dying breeze,
the birds and town fell silent listening
to him play classical pieces no one could name.

How will the children feel safe in their dreams?
What will draw parents to linger outdoors?
Who knows if he’ll bother without an audience?

Autumn has arrived and there will be no encore.
His summer screens are now in the garage.

Windows Jimmied

Bucolic it isn’t.
A clanking wind chime sways.
Trees rustle
in their cassocks of leaves.
Mobbing a squirrel,
a murmuration of starlings
noisily dive-bombs.
A plane has passed, but not
the trailing sound.
Children on a trampoline
no longer need
to use their indoor voices.
Dandelions sprout
in a lawn mower’s wake.
When the scene
does hold its breath and
tries to pose for
a still life, someone with
allergies sneezes.
Today, scents vociferate.
Windows jimmied,
a cacophonous exclamation
introduces Spring.

Listening To The Dark

Thank God for the clouds
My somber heart would go blind
If there were moonlight

Each passing headlight
Reveals in a lighting flash
The clock’s startled face

A lonely cricket
Thinking it can’t get colder
Defiantly sings

Maple in the wind
With just one leaf remaining
Is sadly speechless

Transient sirens fade
Yet a racing heart remains
In full speed pursuit

Should I try to read
In the lamp’s glaring presence
How alone I’d feel

Autumn dawn is late
But the geese are now airborne
With ice on the pond