Archive for June, 2018

Manual Of Summer

The Manual of Summer is
almost complete.
For the past month we have
awoken at dawn
to hear the birds engaged
in dictation.
An uncensored romance,
graphic with
countless trysts, frantic
activities occur
on every drafted page.
Passions flame,
clamorous lovers compete.
Languid days,
perfumed and alluring are
accompanied by
the seductive melody of
stem and leaf.
Even an April bitter wind
is portrayed as
a breeze that whispers
come hither.
Authoring this manuscript,
birds foretell
the intimacy of a season
that ripens,
pregnant with possibility.

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Making Camp

These waves,
choppy as an imported
kung fu movie.
Almost airborne, we cling,
bumping from one
rising swell into the next.
Seated up front,
facing the turbulence,
the wind spray
soothes my sunburnt
neck and arms.
Crowding the banks on
the near side,
now mottled, trees rise
to block the sky.
In this fading twilight,
we bear witness
to a metamorphosis
as blurry pines
and aspens combine.
Not quite lost,
almost certain we’ve
yet to pass it,
every eye, alert, strains
to recognize
a familiar landscape.
Looking back,
as dusk’s gloom races
to engulf us,
the inky plume from
our engine has
already been erased.
But then ahead,
a welcoming beacon
informs us there
is no longer a need to
fear the dark.

That campfire awaits
today’s catch.

Lakeshore Path

A raw Sunday.
Honed needle-sharp,
a probing wind
penetrates every layer.
Face first,
we refuse to present
our backsides
and confess defeat.
Prickly, soon to
soften into a carpet,
needles rain
from towering pines.
Plump red oaks
cast their reflections
like anchors
upon the open water.
Unruffled,
mallards glide past.
Ushered south
as the days shorten,
with a splash,
visiting coots settle
awkwardly into
a patch of sunlight.
Transient as
that leaf adorning
your unruly
hair before it again
soars in flight.

Life And Fate / Vasily Grossman

While Life and Fate is not a well known book in this country, it continues to receive critical acclaim and has been favorably compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Both novels are war epics that deal with pivotal periods of Russian history.  Grossman was a Soviet Jewish journalist who covered the Battle of Stalingrad and later the liberation of the Treblinka extermination camp.  He wrote a number of novels during his lifetime, but this one (his final work) draws directly upon his experiences as a journalist during World War II and his emotional response to the Holocaust.  In heartbreaking fashion, he shows how both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia sought to answer the “Jewish” problem by stirring up antisemitism among their respective citizenry.

The story centers around the Battle of Stalingrad, where a determined city held the Germans at bay and turned the tide of war in the Allies’ favor.  Thousands of its citizens were either killed in the fighting or starved to death during the long siege.

Its central characters are Viktor Shtrum and his wife Lyudmila.  Viktor is a physicist of some renown, involved in Russia’s early attempts to harness the power of the atom to create a nuclear weapon.  His wife’s first husband had been arrested during Stalin’s 1937 purges and died in the gulag.  Viktor’s own mother, in the Nazi-occupied sector of the Ukraine, is arrested as a Jew and later sent to a concentration camp’s gas chamber.  Grossman surrounds this family with a wide array of interlinked characters caught up in the war’s horrors.  He does not shy away from showing how these individuals had not only to fear the German army, but also Stalin’s secret police.  It is a time period where a careless remark could easily lead to imprisonment and decades spent in the gulag.

While fiction, the novel has the ring of truth from beginning to end as Grossman conveys what he witnessed during the siege.  Sprinkled into the story are brief chapters that take the reader into the minds of Stalin, Hitler, and Friedrich Paulus, the German general who commanded the Nazi army surrounding Stalingrad.  But it is the author’s ability to capture the thoughts and actions of the common citizenry that makes this such a riveting read.  Its haunting prose depicts the plight and valor of a people caught in the vise of two totalitarian forms of government, fighting to preserve the soul of Mother Russia.

When Grossman completed this novel in 1960, he was informed that it was a work unfit for publication.  The Communist government seized his manuscripts and destroyed them.  Fortunately, one copy escaped detection, and a number of years after Grossman died of stomach cancer, it was smuggled out of the country and published in the West.  Life and Fate highlights the many acts of kindness that took place during the War and shows how courage helped to alleviate some of its horrors.  It also portrays the human desire to be able to speak and act without having to fear the iron fist of totalitarianism.

This novel is long, nearly 900 pages in length, and with its huge cast of characters (and all those Russian names!) it is a challenging read.  Nonetheless, the story’s depth and emotional resonance is richly rewarding.  It is a book that deserves to be assigned reading in universities across the globe.  Celebrating the power of the individual against the intolerance of the State, its message remains as relevant today as the time it was written.  It is indeed a novel worthy of Tolstoy himself. 

Prague Winter : A Personal Story Of Remembrance And War, 1937-1948 / Madeleine Albright

Prague Winter is both a family memoir and a history of a country.  In its pages, Madeleine Albright writes about her family’s deep roots in Czechoslovakia, entwining their story with an account of that country’s quest for recognition as an independent state during the Twentieth Century.  Particularly, she concentrates on the years from 1937 through 1948.  It was a period in which the country went from an independent democracy to occupation by Nazi Germany and, following World War II, occupation by Russia.

What Albright learned in researching this book is that she is part Jewish, and that during the Nazi occupation many members of her family were executed by the Germans because of their faith.  It is a fascinating tale of a country caught in the crosshairs of both fascism and communism, personalized with the story of what her family endured throughout this turbulent time period.

The author’s early childhood was spent in Czechoslovakia.  Her father, Josef Koreb, was a high ranking politician in the independent government.  He fled the country with his family after Germany occupied it, and spent the war years in Britain as a member of Czechoslovakia’s shadow government in exile.  They returned home following the war’s end, and for a few brief years her father served as the country’s ambassador to Yugoslavia and Albania.  Once the Communists took over control of the government, he defected to the United States with his wife and children.

Albright, who served as America’s sixty-fourth Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, is well placed to tell this intimate history.  Growing up, she was on familiar terms with the key political figures involved in Czechoslovakia’s struggle to remain independent.  It is a gripping tale of a small country attempting to hold the Nazis at bay, and later to stay free of Russian control.  Presenting the broader history of this time period, she paints a picture of the West’s betrayal of the country’s independence, first with the Munich Pact that allowed Germany to occupy Czechoslovakia, and later turning a blind eye to Stalin’s seizure of power.

For most American readers, the history she presents of her birth country will be enlightening.  With her background of government service, she is able to fully describe the nuances of the moral dilemmas that Czechoslovakia’s political leaders faced at the time.  She also drives home the point that the struggle of democratic governance is something no one can take for granted.  In light of today’s antidemocratic movements, it remains a timely message.  Impressed by her intelligence and keen insights into world affairs, I came away feeling it’s shame our country does not currently have leaders of her caliber in the White House.

Heat Lightning

Stepping from sidewalk
to grass, bare feet perceive
no difference.
August’s dry forecast is
a liturgy that seems
to have been set on repeat.
Tonight, I dreamt
I cast a net in an attempt
to harvest the mist.
Awakened with my thirst
unquenched, if I’d
listened carefully perhaps
I could have heard
diligent spiders spinning,
been reassured by
a guardian angel’s whisper.
But the silence
of lighting etching across
the horizon is
the only sound I recognize.
Its embroidery is
the wind’s faint recitation
of a prayer that
tomorrow will not answer.
Folding again
into sleep, thunderous
dreams continue
to haunt me until dawn’s
relentless blue skies.

Nearly Empty

In a neighbor’s deserted yard
the last shriveled apple
drops into lifeless grass from
a once laden bough.
The glowing maple that lifted
sagging spirits now
stands forlorn in the puddle
of its own decay,
humbled by the sky’s majesty.
A solitary cricket
calls from beneath the porch,
receiving no answer.
Those nut brown sparrows,
attentive undertakers,
attend to summer’s residue
tucked into our eaves.
On the leeward side, we’ve
stolen back outside
for the season’s final picnic.
Bathed in sunlight,
sadly toasting the departed,
let us drink from
the remaining Chardonnay.

November looms…
The bottle is nearly empty.