Archive for October, 2017

Cocooned

A wind-fueled blast of
arctic air has kept us cocooned
all weekend long.

Weak as it is, the sun’s
feeble warmth is compensated with
a deceptive brightness.

Reading the morning paper,
I lounge over a cup of tea and listen
to you putter in the kitchen.

More deaths in the news;
some named, warranting a headline,
others are simply statistics.

In the fragile protection
of brick and timber, how tenuous
our very survival seems.

Still, soothed by the gust
of furnace heat, full from breakfast,
I feel too alive to worry.

And glancing your way,
there in that splash of sunlight,
how immortal you look.

Bristling with electricity,
in need of your company, I rise
to help dry the dishes.

A spark crackles, strong
enough to ignite Spring itself,
when I lean in for a kiss.

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Exercise Equipment

Some hold accumulating clutter.
Others crowd valuable basement or corner space.
Most, unseen by the averted eye,
pine away to rust from neglectful indifference.
A few will be donated to charity.
Even more, dragged surreptitiously to the curb.
Every January, the ones that
remain appear on a list of New Year’s resolutions.
A number will be put to the test
for a month or two, until guiltily forgotten again.
Impossible to relocate without
the aid of another strong back, the majority will
shabbily acquire a dust coating.
Imposing, although corroded into obsolescence,
patience is their greatest strength.
They are sure to exercise the ire of whoever is
entrusted to cart away the estate.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales : The Strange And Fascinating Cases Of A Forensic Anthropologist / William R. Maples and Michael Browning

Forensic anthropology involves the examination of human skeletal remains for law enforcement agencies to determine the identity of unidentified bones, as well as to provide evidence in murder investigations. Maples, a noted forensic anthropologist, worked at the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at the the Florida Museum of Natural History.  Dead Men Do Tell Tales chronicles his career, highlighting his numerous high-profile or interesting forensic cases.

In the early sections of the book he comes across at times as a braggart, someone who likes to hog the spotlight. However, it soon becomes evident that he is a top-ranked expert in his field and truly passionate about the importance of his profession. Over the years he was involved in investigations involving many historical figures. The list is impressive, including Francisco Pizarro, the Romanov family, Joseph Merrick (i.e. the Elephant Man), and President Zachary Taylor.

Just as fascinating are the murder cases he was called in to help solve. Before reading this book I had no idea what the human skeleton could reveal in criminal investigations. With mere fragments of bone, a trained forensic anthropologist can deduce the age, gender, and ethnicity of the individual. More importantly, the skeletal remains often provide clues to the manner in which a murder victim was dispatched.

As this book shows, Maples was not only a gifted forensic detective, his insightful commentary also provides a detailed history, pre- and post-mortem, of the individuals he highlights. It was published in 1994, three years before his death from a brain tumor. In its final chapter, he expresses the fear that his laboratory might be forced to close for lack of funding. I’m happy to report that it is still in existence, now renamed the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine. For the families of murder victims, it is reassuring to know the laboratory is still helping to provide names to human skeletal remains. While Dead Men Do Tell Tales will appeal to fans of the TV show CSI, I recommend it to a wider audience who will appreciate its insights on the importance of a profession most know little or nothing about.

Bowling Alley

Under bright fluorescents, a darkening winter
afternoon is forgotten. Cigarettes
are lit. Lies told about the girls we have only
kissed in our dreams. The clack
and clang of pinball machines emboldening
the swagger of teenage rebellion.

The regulars have taken their usual seats
around the bar. Each sits alone,
barricaded from the others by empty stools.
More absent than present, idle
chit chat takes the place of eye contact
between calibrated sips of beer.

An aging peroxide blonde anchors one end.
The town’s first Vietnam vet holds
down the other. Although just three years
older than us, he might as well be
a thousand. The lethargic bartender eyes
Jeopardy on a black and white TV.

Behind the cash register, the owner’s wife
keeps sharp lookout for tonight’s
bottom line. Tracking the number of games
bowled by a family on lane one,
she fumbles the count of today’s receipts
and has to start all over again.

Meanwhile, a silent jukebox bothers no one.

A woozy rookie, I force myself to inhale.
The harsh tobacco crackles as it
disintegrates into ash. Using a pool table
for support, I finger the three
remaining quarters of my allowance and
sagely nod, desperate to belong.

Cornfield

A gaping hole,
or so it seems in a harvester’s tendering
of a view
where before there was towering corn.

Constant visitors
spiral down in an orchestrated glide,
drawn by
the tell-tale signs of a field freshly shorn.

These travelers,
some with necks extended, ever alert,
feast on what
is embedded between thistle and thorn.

What seems
bleak and barren, in the weeks ahead,
autumn’s harbingers
will find sacred ground to noisily adorn.

Night Clothes

What do the night clothes
that we choose to wear have to say
about their occupants?
Obviously, for us, there is no longer
the need to impress,
in them, our dreams still hold true.
Cloth shabby from wear,
they are wrinkled and loose fitting,
mimicking furrowed brows
and those bags beneath our eyes.
We’re at the age where
coziness has supplanted fashion.
Softer versions of us,
not so much disguise as costume,
their stretched seams,
like the aches of joint and bone,
have stood the test
of time despite weakening thread.
The proof of intimacy,
they represent that we’re at home
and comfortable together.

The Adventures Of Augie March / Saul Bellow

Published in 1953, and the winner of the 1954 National Book for Fiction, The Adventures of Augie March is a novel that uses an episodic style to tell the life story of its eponymous character. It introduces Augie March, growing up during the Great Depression, and traces his growth into adulthood. Bellow uses a series of encounters, work scenarios, and relationships to highlight the development of a boy into a man.

March’s boyhood years are spent in Chicago and it is obviously a city the author holds dear. With a keen eye, he portrays its squalor, beauty and corruption, capturing the essence of this bustling metropolis. The book celebrates, too, the American ideal that someone born into poverty can rise in society through sheer determination, with the help of luck. However, as a good many of its characters learn, success does not necessarily guarantee happiness.

For me, the most interesting parts of the novel are the early sections set in Chicago. When March reaches adulthood, his adventures take him to Mexico, different parts of the U.S., and finally to Italy and Paris. Throughout, he gets involved with a string of different women, jobs, homes, times of poverty and wealth. Included is a description of March during World War II when, as a merchant marine, his ship is sunk, and he ends up on a lifeboat with a man who turns out to be a lunatic. At times, it feels like the author has thrown into the story everything but the kitchen sink.

March is clearly intelligent, compassionate, and observant of the world around him. Still, there is nothing heroic about him or his actions; he seems to have no definite goal in mind. Instead, he tends to go along with the schemes and dreams of others. In the end, his “quest for identity” does not lead him to an epiphany. It is the journey and not the destination that ultimately makes March the person he becomes.

I read this novel back in my college days but remembered none of its details. Revisiting it again later in life, I better appreciate its depths and meanderings. Not that I was completely wowed this time around. Parts of the story struck me as far fetched and unnecessarily verbose. Still, I did marvel at Bellow’s talents as a writer. In this novel he seemed intent on writing a classic American novel. For me, it was worth a second read to discover how close he comes to succeeding.