Archive for October, 2018

Implement Row

Disabled tractors,
automobiles with names
long lost to history,
discards still serviceable
if stripped for parts.

Behind our barn
rested the bleached bones
of obsolescence,
the family’s treasure chest
with a broken lock.

In that museum
overrun by weeds, axles
sagged, tempted
to snap on nights heavy
with moonlight.

Rusted, with tires
flat as the landscape,
that menagerie
mimicked the hue of
Nebraska wheat.

Implement Row
is what Father called it,
while the Mall
became the nickname
we children used.

When devising
inventions, in search of
precious metals or
weapons, it was our first
stop for shopping.

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Drown / Juan Diaz

In this collection of ten stories, Junot Diaz takes the reader into the barrios of the Dominican Republic.  It is a world where poverty is the norm, fathers are absent, mothers work long hours to keep food on the table, and unattended children run wild in the streets.  Most of the stories are told from the perspective of the children, and Diaz’s raw prose captures the harsh rhythms of their daily lives.  His characters are not politically correct.  Fathers cheat on their wives, children and spouses are verbally and physically abused.  In turn, the children become sexually active at a young age, are often cruel, and find humor in the misfortunes of others.  What draws fathers from their families is the lure of riches in Dominican Nueva York. Often, once there, they cut past ties and remarry in hopes of establishing permanent residency in the United States.

And yet as grim as this sounds, these stories also portray the tenderness and love experienced in the barrios.  Bursting at the seams with life’s urgency and the quest for dreams come true, Drown touches the reader’s heartstrings.

This collection of stories launched Diaz on his successful writing career.  And while I have no way of knowing, I would guess the recurring character, Yunior, is a representation of the author himself and his childhood in Santo Domingo.  Recently, Diaz has been accused of inappropriate sexual advances.  It seems to be a case where his fictional world manifested itself in real life.  But if these stories are any indication, Diaz’s childhood goes a long way in explaining his actions.  In the mean streets of the Dominican Republic, such behavior is considered the norm.  As he shows in these stories, little good can come from broken homes caught in poverty’s grip.  All too often, the next generation inherits the sins of their parents.  

Swing Time / Zadie Smith

When the unnamed narrator of Swing Time meets the girl who will become her best friend,Tracey, what draws them together is the fact that they are the only “brown” girls in a London neighborhood dance class.  While Tracey shows prodigious talent as a dancer, the narrator herself does not.  Over time, as they grow into adolescence, what unites them is their mutual love for dance; they spend hours watching VHS tapes of classic song-and-dance numbers.  Tracey is the alpha in the relationship, and she is sure her talent will bring her future fame.  The narrator, on the other hand, is content to follow in Tracey’s wake, having no clear dreams of her own.  Both girls live in public housing, but their families have little in common.  Tracey’s mother is white and single, and indulges her daughter’s every whim.  The narrator is the daughter of a white father and a Jamaican mother, an ambitious woman determined to escape from the chains of poverty through education and involvement in local politics.

Upon reaching early adulthood, an event occurs that causes a rift in the friendship.  Tracey ruthlessly continues her quest to become a first class dancer, while the narrator drifts aimlessly through her university years.  After graduation, the narrator stumbles upon what seems a unique opportunity;  she becomes the personal assistant to a global pop star, Aimee (a dead ringer for Madonna).  She spends the next nine years of her life in this job, still adrift and having no ambitions for herself.  Under the thumb of the demanding Aimee, the narrator has no personal life, no friendships or serious romantic relationships.  She has simply replaced Tracey’s dominance for Aimee’s.

In her final years of working with Aimee, having spent her time globe trotting with the pop star, the narrator becomes involved in helping Aimee set up a school in West Africa.  This exposes her to a village where, on the surface, the bonds of community seem strong and lasting.  Yet while the narrator envies the sense of home she’s found there, most of its citizens are looking to escape to bigger cities or distant marriages, well aware of the grinding toll poverty has caused.

Swing Time explores the meaning of friendship, the importance of dreams, and addresses the issues of race and class in today’s society.  Zadie Smith excels in capturing the world of prepubescence, adolescence, and the ambivalence of early adulthood.  Swinging back and forth through time and continents, this book has a delightful rhythm that shows that no matter how gifted the dancer, life’s dizzying swirl is no song-and-dance routine.  In Tracey’s case, what is portrayed is the disappointment a failed dream can bring.  But just as heartbreaking is the narrator’s failure to dare to dream a life of her own.

King Leopold’s Ghost : A Story Of Greed, Terror, And Heroism In Colonial Africa / Adam Hochschild

When first discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1491, the Kingdom of the Kongo was roughly three hundred miles square.  The Portuguese built churches and mission schools and actively engaged with local chiefs in what was to grow into a booming slave trade.  However, these early explorers stuck close to the coastal areas.  For centuries to come, central Africa remained a blank space on maps.  This changed after the Civil War when Henry Morton Stanley, a Welshman, took note of the European scramble to acquire colonies in Africa.  Up to that point, no expedition had managed to penetrate the interior of the Kongo.  Seeking his fame and fortune, Stanley decided to be the first to do so in 1872.  When he succeeded to tell the tale, he became a celebrity throughout the western world.

In Brussels, there was one person who took a keen interest in Stanley’s accomplishment.  Leopold II, the King of the Belgians, had long dreamed of acquiring a colony in Africa and he saw in Stanley a man he could use to accomplish this goal.  Hiring the explorer, Leopold began to send missionaries and a private army to lay claim to an area he renamed the Congo Free State.  To win public support for his endeavor, he portrayed himself as a humanitarian seeking to put an end to the Arab slave trade.  In newspaper articles widely distributed, he was lauded for his selfish efforts to bring enlightenment to the natives.

Nonetheless, his intent from the first was to drain the area of its natural resources in order to fill his own bank account.  This first involved the collection of ivory, and later the harvesting of rubber, using the natives as forced labor.  During his reign from 1885 to 1908, as this book graphically documents, 10 million Congolese died due to harsh treatment (including mutilation), starvation, and disease.  It was only when a few brave missionaries began to report on the atrocities that the rest of the world began to question Leopold’s actions in Africa.  Even so, using his wealth and power, the King was able to successfully counter the charges against him and continue his one-man rule in the colony through most of his life.

King Leopold’s Ghost brings this sad piece of history to the light of day.  Much of the story focuses on the human rights advocates who began a world-wide campaign to force Leopold to end the exploitation of the native population.  While their efforts did have some impact on the worst of the abuses, the Congolese still remained under European control.  When the Belgian government took over governance from the King, little was done to prepare the country for future independence.  When it finally was granted in 1959, the entire territory had fewer than thirty African university graduates.  There were no Congolese army officers, engineers, agronomists, or physicians available to help steer the country during the transition.

Following the horrors of World War I, a “great forgetting” began in the West.  Leopold’s actions were whitewashed in history books and museums.  It is only with the publication of this book in 1998 that there was an increasing public awareness of the Belgians’ colonial crimes.  King Leopold’s Ghost features a riveting cast of heroes and villains.  The evidence that the author unearths, while horrifying, keeps the reader engaged throughout.  It goes a long way in explaining why the Congo is still a war torn region today.  The book’s title is appropriate since King’s Leopold’s ghost remains a haunting figure still.

Urge For Repair

On this winter night, this house is
a catalog of familiar sounds.
Starlight and gusts of wind already
haunt the upstairs attic.
Downstairs, the basement strains
under the weight of years.
Like a ship at sea, the beams’ tired
bones grumpily creak.
Waiting for sleep, your mind seems
restless as its ghosts.
In your childhood, Morpheus’ arms
opened welcomingly
and took your body to a place where,
stretching for the future,
it awoke a quarter of an inch taller.
Now when summoned
into tonight’s fragmented dreams,
finally transported by
the urge for repair, it is knowing
with dawn’s awareness,
you will be even shorter, on time.

Killers Of The Flower Moon : The Osage Murders And The Birth Of The FBI / David Grann

When the Europeans first encountered the Osage Indians in North America, they were located in Missouri near the Missouri and Osage Rivers. With the encroachment of white settlements into the area, the Osage moved west onto the Great Plains. In the 19th Century, they were forced by the American government to relocate again. This time they made the trek to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). There they were one of the few tribes to purchase their own reservation. In doing so, the Osage wisely added the following provision to their contract: the land’s “oil, gas, coal or other minerals” would belong to the tribe alone. This insured that they owned not only the land itself, but whatever was below it as well.

With the discovery of oil on the Osage reservation in the early 1900s, members of the tribe became wealthy leasing their rights to prospectors. This led to the Federal government, ostensibly concerned about the tribe’s ability to manage this windfall, to require individual Osage Indians to have white guardians to oversee the spending of their money. This requirement was waived in the case of families with mixed blood. Such oversight soon resulted in the Osage becoming targets for theft, graft, and mercenary marriages.

In Flowers of the Killer Moon, David Grann focuses on what became know as the “Osage Reign of Terror.” Officially taking place from 1920 through 1924, during this period members of the tribe began to be killed: some murdered outright, many others dying under mysterious circumstances. Ineffectual, and often incompetent, local law enforcement failed to make any headway in finding who was responsible for the murders. This is not surprising since many were bribed to turn a blind eye. Desperate, the Osage finally convinced the Federal Bureau of Investigation to take on the case in 1924. Newly appointed as director of the agency, a young J. Edgar Hoover was eager to do so, feeling that if the case could be solved, it would bolster his credentials and win greater respect for the Bureau at a time when it was still fairly new and poorly funded.

Grann details the ensuing investigation, which reads like the plot of a first class detective story. And typical of such stories, Killers of the Flower Moon has a surprising twist even after the series of murders was seemingly solved. The main culprit arrested and convicted was a wealthy white rancher intent on getting ownership of the murdered Osage land rights. However, in the final section of the book, Grann illuminates that the conspiracy involved far more than a handful of individuals associated with the rancher, and that the reign of terror began long before 1920.

This book brings to light a shameful chapter in American history. It documents how the lust to acquire the Osage wealth led highly respected members of the surrounding white community to turn to murder to achieve their ends. This story of blatant racism, greed, and corruption should be included in every school textbook. Killers of the Flower Moon is an indictment not only of the criminals involved, but of an entire culture that fostered such an activity.

Setting The Stage

A bee or two
in search of hardy perennials

An orchestra of
crickets culled to a quartet

Every cobweb
flung now entangles only wind

Migrating birds
sprout in the place of leaves

Clocks turned back
no longer hurry for the dawn

The stage has been
set for November’s arrival

Soon all will
burrow into sleep’s warmth

But not quite yet…

A curtain rises to
reveal tonight’s pantomime

An aurora borealis
recreating the fourth of July