18 December 2012

So Quiet the Earth, by David Lee

I discovered David Lee's poetry on the Internet, which, for me, is how it often happens. I read as many of his poems as I could find online, excited and delighted by their rough reality, the dialogue, the non-traditional language and subject matter. Irreverence from a hog-farmer/preacher.

"Amanda Strayhorn, Reverend's Wife," was the first one I found. I told a friend of mine that it was the longest poem I'd ever read without being threatened by a teacher. In addition, it's probably the longest poem I've ever read without stopping--a poem I couldn't put down, a page-turner. This tale of a pompous preacher whose wife became famous for the articles she wrote about their sex life and how that all played out in their lives and those of their neighbors is funny, thought-provoking, masterful, beautiful, and perfect. There are probably some more adjectives I could add, but after all, verbs are more effective. "Amanda Strayhorn" simply skewered me.

Some excerpts:
...they were a typical unhappily married couple
with five obstreperous children whose birthdays
were as much a mystery to the Reverend
as Greek, dishwashing, or putting the toilet lid down... 
...he could take off his glasses before engaging
the bedroom and proceed to enjoy the wonders
of conjugal delight through deprivation of sight
which would intensify the inner light of spiritual union
and thereby expand his prowess to the Lord’s great approval... 
...every Saturday afternoon after he worked himself
into an erotic frenzy writing sermons on Satanic temptation
of Baptist youth into the fires of hell through visions
of sexual degradation upon which he expounded with vigor...
This poem led me to read "Nighthunting with John," a poem about "...hunting / hogfeed with John / up and down the black alleys / splitting a case of Lucky..."

I also read "The Chain Letter," an excellent fable about luck, the futility of anger, and superstition, among other things.

I searched my library to see what David Lee I could find. They had only one volume, a book published in 2004, So Quietly the Earth. As I sniffed around in it, I was initially disappointed. It looked to me like Mr. Lee had deserted the wondrous narrative forms I'd been enjoying. Quietly is a kind of ode to the Southwestern United States, it would seem. The poems that I have read so far celebrate the millions of years of geology, the pushing-up of mountains, the ancient seas that once covered what is now desert.

As I continue to read this book, I find that I really like these. Lee has the kind of connection to nature that seems to come to us old men. Furthermore, his voice is not missing or changed--it surfaces quite recognizably--he is in the presence of unspeakable grandeur and must himself be quiet, and let the Earth write his lines.

Through the pages runs a series of short poems entitled "While Walking," plus a number. For example:
While Walking (V)

Luke 18:16

Do you think the rocks are listening to us?
I don't know. Do rocks hear?
The ones that are alive do.

One of the poems that caused me to reconsider my abovementioned disappointment is "Ode Beneath a Hummingbird Feeder." This poem has little to do with geology, but reveals a reverence for hummingbirds that at least equals my own. Here's the final stanza:

Oh, arrogant little warrior
if I had a naked weapon
I could brandish like yours
I, too, would suffer
no foolish rival suitors
sipping at my ruby fount. 

Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs

Loss of memory equates to loss of culture. Culture transferred by word of mouth, by demonstration, rather than by writing or recordings.

The automobile as an agent of cultural destruction, loneliness, sprawl. The demise of the trollies at the hands of GM.

Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society's decline from cultural vigor.

shift from faith in logos to mythos

...conservatism that looks backward to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview...

p. 31  "The miracle of money growing on houses operates even more potently in the [US]..."

p. 34 "The most serious and widespread increase was the need for an automobile"

p. 35 ...probably the most important: speaking relationships among neighbors and acquaintances...

p. 37  automobile -- chief destroyer of American communities

p. 38-39

destruction of elec. street car systems GM, Robert Moses, Fiorello La Guardia
interesting notes on this topic p. 186-188  see also www.almankoff.com

p.98  Americans...don't ... think that any place outside the United States is totally real; their curiosity about Canada seems almost nonexistent

Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River is a good mystery, and a terrific novel. Its characters and setting are irresistible. Lehane's skill is awesome; he manages to write exactly what I want to read: a novel that creates a world that draws me in, a world that I am loath to leave behind when I read the last page and put the book down.

We are introduced to the three main characters in their childhood. Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle are pre-teens living in what is probably a part of Greater Boston which Lehane calls Buckingham. There is an incident, Dave is kidnapped by two men, but he escapes several days later and is returned to the neighborhood.

Many years and events later, the three are brought together by tragedy. Sean has become a State Trooper. Jimmy is an ex-con who owns a store, and Dave has a nondescript job about which we hear little. As the action begins, explodes, and the investigation and mystery progress, we learn more and more about these three men, their families, and their past and present lives. They become more and more real, more three-dimensional.

The mystery itself is a good one. I can brag that I figured it out at about the 70% point, but that didn't spoil it for me, as I couldn't really be sure. And the mystery, while it's every bit true to the form and strong enough to stand alone, is not all there is to this book. We are every bit as involved in the nature and lives of these men, and how they will each deal with what life has dealt them.

While I enjoyed Moonlight Mile quite a bit, I think that Mystic River better reveals the talent of this powerful writer.

A Publisher's Weekly review of the book

The Mystic River entry in Wikipedia (about the river, not the book -- but see the "disambiguation page" for more)

IMDb entry for the movie made of Mystic River

A New York Times review of the movie

A New York Times Sunday Book Review interview with Dennis Lehane

04 December 2012

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

I owe my discovery of Marge Piercy to a blogsite called Poetic Medicine, where I saw "What's That Smell in the Kitchen?" and became curious about what else Ms. Piercy had written. There is quite a bit. I borrowed this book, a novel, and one of her poetry collections, "Available Light," from the library.

This is the story of a woman named Consuela, a Chicana living in New York City who has run seriously afoul of the court and mental health systems. Consuela has been committed and confined in the past, and it is not long into the book before she is, once again. This time she is to be subjected to a horrifying experimental procedure involving the implanting of electrodes in her skull which can be activated by remote control.

Piercy makes what could be a dismal indictment of the mental health system of the 70s (the book was published in 1976) and a (thoroughly justified) feminist rant against the repression of that time into a much more interesting story by the introduction of a character who turns out to be something of an illusion. Luciente is a woman from the future, 2137, who has learned to project herself into the past and communicate with Consuela, who is sensitive to Luciente's mind-touching. Consuela is able to visit Luciente's world, although only as a sort of illusion as well. The futuristic world provides a contrast to the time in which Consuela lives, and provides her character with the strength to mount her own rebellion against the injustices in her life.

I enjoyed reading this book and look forward to reading more of Piercy's work. The mental health system, and the lot of the poor, non-White, and female may have improved a little bit since 1976, but only a little. Today Consuela would not be institutionalized, she would simply be homeless, and would have to take her chances on the street with the rest of society's castoffs.

I don't feel that Luciente would think we'd made much of an improvement.

Sweet Spot, by J. T. Barbarese

I read a poem by J. T. Barbarese in the New Yorker. There was something about it that I liked, but I really didn't "understand" it. I used Google to look up some of the names and odd words in it, and gained a little bit of insight, but what I found in the process of doing this was that the poem itself was posted in at least two places. While it was at least attributed to its author, I sincerely doubt that either of the bloggers that posted this entire piece of work had obtained permission to do so. They didn't state that they had.

Being a general busybody, and curious, I looked up Mr. Barbarese, and found that he is a professor at Rutgers. On his web page he gave an email address, and I wrote to him, tattling on the copyright scofflaws. To my surprise, he answered me. He thanked me for complimenting his poem, and told me that he had a new book out, called "Sweet Spot," which I might enjoy.

I don't get a lot of emails from real live published poets who get their stuff printed by the New Yorker. The Internet yielded a copy of his collection very quickly, and I have enjoyed it immensely for the last few months. This is one feature of a good book of poems: it takes a long, long time to read. It takes me a long, long time, anyway. I got this book in the spring, and took it along on a couple of vacation trips over the summer. It sits near my chair at home now, and I am still dipping into it every now and then.

A couple of excerpts:

From "Earth Science:" 
"I smell me
coming up behind me
some days--
sweet sarcophagal


From "Rudolph on the Roof:" 
"...the ring finger will be sprung from the knuckle,
the spine unplugged from the cortex
followed by the sunless harvest of the molars,
the sockets mortised out, the busted saddle
of the ribs in the muddy rot at rest like the hull
of a sunken man-o'-war..."

Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane

Robert B. Parker has left us, and, by implication, so has Spenser; but Dennis Lehane has given us a new Bostonian. Patrick Kenzie is not Spenser, Angela Gennaro is not Susan, and Bubba is not Hawk, but there are parallels. The differences are somehow endearing, though, and more interesting.

Kenzie doesn't like guns, and if I'm not mistaken doesn't fire one in this entire novel. He is more likely to be hurt than to hurt anyone. We are not told that Angela is beautiful or perfect, but that Patrick and Angela are very much in love, with each other, and with their four-year-old, Gabby. Bubba is probably the closest to his Parker shadow, a more or less omnipotent force or trump card with fierce and uncompromising loyalty to his friends.

We are brought into a complicated story that involves incompetent parenting, kidnapping, teenage pregnancy, mobsters from the former Soviet Union, and a bit of priceless jewelry from the history of Kiev.

It's a masterfully done piece of detective fiction. I look forward to reading another one soon. Lehane's Mystic River was made into a movie starring Sean Penn and others.

Lehane's latest book is Live By Night.