Category Archives: Articles/reviews

“What beck’ning ghost, along the moonlight shade/Invites my steps, and points to yonder glade?”–Alexander Pope

There is a corollary to the proposition that there’s more rejoicing over the return of a prodigal son than there is over the continuing excellence of a constant one; that corollary is that it’s worse when a potentially good man goes bad than it is when a bad man continues what he’s doing.  In Kingsley Amis’s book The Green Man, we get a double reflection of this second notion, when we not only meet up with a modern day man of relaxed moral fiber, but also with the ghost of a minister turned evil revenant who confronts him.

In an English tradition descended from the ancient fear of nature and natural forces–for our worship of nature is an entirely different tradition, though equally ancient, which even so recognizes the power of the earth–the “green man” is a sort of roving spirit, sometimes neither good nor ill, sometimes outright malevolent, and sometimes given to testing mankind, as in the medieval tale “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which many of you will already have read and I hope enjoyed in a literature class.  In Amis’s book, the man of easy morals is an innkeeper named Maurice Allington, who is situated with his wife, father, and daughter in an old inn in Hertsfordshire, England.  Though the elemental force is so strong that there’s almost no bargaining with it, Maurice learns from the evil spectre of the minister’s ghost and a mysterious young man, and makes some sacrifices on his way to learning what evil and good may actually be about.

The book relies on a combination of fear and hilarity, the deep-seated source of a certain intensified response from the reader in both directions.  The book is not unlike other chilling literary/stage/movie experiences I can think of:  for example, the 70’s stage show “Dracula,” with its equally hysteria-inducing combination of the two otherwise opposed tendencies.  We alternately thrill with horror and gasp, then laugh out loud.  A movie experience utilizing this same formula was “An American Werewolf in London,” which used the by now reliable combination of slapstick, horror, satire, and cultural and occult lore that Amis’s book uses.  But Amis’s book preceded these dramatic offerings in time; it was first published in 1969, though also published in the U.S. by an American publisher in 1986.

So, just what are Maurice Allington’s problems?  Firstly, he is dissatisfied with his marriage to his wife, Joyce, and wants to bed the lovely Diana, wife of his best friend, the doctor Jack Maybury.  His father, who is not in the best of health, lives with his family and Maurice is unsettled by him, too.  He also has a massive drinking problem, as his concerned family members and friends constantly remind him.  And he has to decide if it’s his drinking which is causing the most unusual of his problems:  that is, he sees spirits.  He sees spirits and experiences psychic phenomena far beyond the limit of the simple antique ghost tale which is retailed by him to his customers at the inn to pique their interest.  Of course the book deliberately, artfully, and effectively leaves it unclear for the most part as to whether these are genuine manifestations, a result of the door between worlds suddenly being opened, or whether Maurice is actually becoming mentally unhinged and debilitated by the liquor and his own lack of balance alone.  The only being who seems to confirm the sightings he himself experiences is the cat, Victor, who in the time-honored tradition of cats with psychic abilities arches his back, hisses and spits, or runs out of the room and hides when the ghosts come to visit.

Maurice sees not only the sinful and spirit-summoning minister from the past, but also what turns out to have been the minister’s (Underhill’s) wife; an incarnation of a young man who acts something like a modern version of Christ but something more like a modern version of Satan; an apparent manifestation of a twittering bird which makes him wonder if he has delirium tremens; and a large clump of walking devastation of foliage which reads like one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s ents on steroids:  this last is the so-called “green man.”

The dapper young man without a name helps orient Maurice to the experiences he’s undergoing, though the orientation isn’t one conducive to dwelling safely and well in this world.  Others try to help him recoup his losses, such as his doctor friend Jack Maybury, whose wife Maurice is trying to bed on the sly.  His own wife, Joyce, and his son Nick and Nick’s girlfriend are all equally concerned, and are trying in their various ways to help Maurice come to terms with what they mostly regard as a fiction of his overwrought imagination.  His young daughter Amy is in danger of becoming a pawn in the game he is playing with his otherworldly experiences and foes.  Finally, he has trouble keeping track of the time, time having no meaning when he’s conversing with the elegant young man, because his watch and clocks no longer aid him in determining how time is passing when they are speaking to one another.  Worst of all, perhaps, is his difficulty in coordinating daily reality with the supernatural things which are happening to him (in his head?).

For Henry James readers who have encountered some of the criticism written about James’s story “The Turn of the Screw,” this double-barrelled treatment of suspicious happenings, when a character is proclaimed by different critics to be 1) suffering under a real visitation from the other world or 2) suffering from an overactive imagination, a drinking problem, a psychological disorder, et cetera, will be familiar.  James is in fact mentioned in The Green Man.  And though I’m not going to reveal the ending of the book (with its unexpected romantic alliance), I can safely tell you without ruining the reading experience that even up to the very end the suspenseful questions of exactly what happened remain.  After all, part of the time we may be in the mind of a crazy drunk (or is he in legitimate danger of losing his soul?  Or has he squeaked “out from under” losing his soul?).  This is a book well worth the occasional difficulty with theological terminology and concepts; in fact, it is a book that I think Henry James himself would’ve been proud, in our time, to have written.

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October 2, 2021 · 8:10 pm

Apologies for Being Otherwise Busy, and a Suggestion for a Great Halloween Read

Hello, website, Twitter and Facebook readers! My apologies for going quiet mostly for a whole week or more now. I’ve been busy getting ready for moving (possibly) and simultaneously submitting poems, articles, and prose bits to publishers/magazines and checking on the same in Submittable and other sites. But as your reward, I have a Halloween suggestion for reading which will be guaranteed to shiver your timbers as well as the rest of you, from one of the greats. Please follow the Yellow Brick Road, or the trail of breadcrumbs to my very next post–it wouldn’t be a Halloween post if I didn’t keep you in suspense–and read my 2012 post on Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man. If you read the book, I promise you won’t be disappointed (Brrrhhhhh! And here I thought I was a back-to-nature woman!). Happy haunted dreams!

Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Halloween posts, What is literature for?

“What Pecan Light”–A New “Song of the South” Arises in Strict Self-Examination and the Protestant Confessional Tradition of Witnessing, Through the Medium of Poetry

Just this year, the editor/teacher/professional poet Dr. Hannah VanderHart has given us a monumental though deceptively short book of poetry on Southern life, thought, and tradition which belies the suggestion that a book need be long to achieve a worthwhile thesis and goal. The book is What Pecan Light. While the book goes from picture to picture of Southern life, and growing up in a family tradition of ownership of a chicken farm and farming in general, using images of food, daily habits, work forms, recreation times and religious traditions to which the South remains committed, the past with its Civil War history and history of slave-owning is never only a part of the background, but informs in its seriousness and rhetoric the whole.

The lovingly executed papier-mache in the photograph from the front cover with its mythically descended formation of human silhouettes-becoming-trees (by Rachel DiRenna) is a sort of key to the structure of the book as a whole: I too have had Southern relatives wondering what possible shape the South can take next, if it continues to change so much in its traditions and reverences, and being caught up in false notalgias, false because betraying of basic humanity.

Others such as Jessica O. Stark and Joy Katz on the book’s back cover have communicated at succinct and short length the cultural and societal aspects of this book. Though brevity is often said to be the soul of wit, sometimes a book merits greater length and remark where possible, and it is to this end that I devote myself today, while calling to the readers’ attention their deservedly appreciative remarks.

The book is one of tightly woven individual poems taking place in a loosely put-together structure which allows for visiting and revisiting, layering and relayering, of themes and motifs. The traditions and culture of the Southern United States in the states with which the poet is familiar are examined in an elliptical slide going from facts to Southern topoi and from Southern topoi to facts. “Topoi,” of course, in Greek, or “loci” in Latin, are rhetorical places, places where things happen and where facts may or may not reign. Here, the topoi are richly illustrated by Southern images and lifestyle portraits of the daily life of a family whose past is affected by the ancestors whom they have been taught to reverence, but whom more recent documents or examinations expose as flawed by slaving. This experience, when one thinks of it, is a universal experience in the sense that an appreciation of the facts portrayed and the reactions of the present-tense family committed to a more just existence are experienced by anyone who has imperfect human ancestors (which is all of us). That slavery is the issue here in this book makes it particularly rich for an American audience trying to heal the deep divides of our time, many of the roots of which are buried in older times.

VanderHart’s book is a deeply and seriously wrought picture of a family whose traditions are in the process of renovation despite their otherwise deep Southern ties, as the mother-figure in the poem teaches the newest members about the slave-owning past and the attitudes of prejudice, the practices of repression, that have been perennial in the world every time a subject people have sought freedom and self-determination. Thus, the poetic voice throughout, while not denying some degree of nostalgia but treating it both with reverence and due suspicion, makes from her own consciousness a critical voice arising from the midst of these traditions and cultural ties. She examines them both as they stand separate and apart from the greater life of the whole United States, and as they form the source of the root of Southern loyalty to the whole, where it exists.

For Southerners–and this was true in my childhood in the not-quite-South also, in West Virginia where people regularly divide themselves according to whether they have Southern loyalties of a traditional sort or Northern loyalties of the “West Virginia went with the North” sort–loyalty to the United States has in the past been first and foremost loyalty to a Southern-style home atmosphere, welfare, and traditions unless one is a social critic as for example VanderHart is here in her role as poet. Thus, this “monumental” work, as I called it once before, is a new sort of Southern monument, a Southern testament, a testifying of a religious sort, as poetry always has been, of a word structure rather than a stone or metal structure, but in the public forum just as a literal statue of a Confederate general or widow would be. And it is both long overdue for all of us, Northerners and Southerners alike, and most welcome in its overwhelming gift of a new language plinth to stand in our mutual public square.

This book is available from Bull City Press, at 1217 Odyssey Drive, Durham, NC 27713, http://www.BullCityPress.com . It is also available from Amazon.com.

Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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Filed under Articles/reviews, lifestyle portraits, Poetry and its forms and meanings, poetry as societal witnessing, What is literature for?

“An Incomplete List of My Wishes”–What a Title Does for a Book, and What a Book Can Do for Its Readers

First of all, let me introduce Jendi Reiter to those of you who may not be familiar with their work, as I must admit shamefacedly I was not myself until recently. To list all the awards and accolades they have received, I think I cannot do better than to quote the short biographical credit on the back of this fine book of short fiction: “Jendi Reiter is the author of the novel Two Natures and four poetry books and chapbooks, most recently Bullies in Love. Awards include a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship for Poetry, the New Letters Prize for Fiction, the Wag’s Revue Poetry Prize, the Bayou Magazine Editor’s Prize in Fiction, and two awards from the Poetry Society of America. Two Natures won the Rainbow Award for Best Gay Contemporary Fiction and was a finalist for the Book Excellence Awards and the Lascaux Prize for Fiction.” Jendi is also one of the editors of the Writer’s Digest acclaimed website winningwriters.com, and a very kind, accommodating, and encouraging model for writers and artists. Their website is at JendiReiter.com and they can be followed at @JendiReiter on Twitter.

Now to the book itself, and that provocative and enticing title: An Incomplete List of My Wishes. How universal the title is, how it speaks to the complete human experience of having many goals, dreams, and wishes, which sadly and tragically sometimes, but also humorously and happily sometimes, we may or may not get to register with whatever recording angel or god we believe in. This book has the greatest virtue of many books which happen to be constructed with at least the permission of the recording angel of the gay experience, that it is accessible to everyone, is for everyone, is inclusive of every truth of the human being, no matter how flawed or partial that person’s individual life is: and it even more explains for everyone who is not a total moral idiot the gay lifestyle and experience, both as it is constituted in itself and as it intersects with the straight ones.

For, this book has one quality in particular which leads even a relatively unfamiliar reader through its maze of situations and conditions, lives and their pitfalls and victories, both major and minor, both saddening and joyous: I can do no better than quote the book itself for the key informing dramatic motif of the whole: “…but she…would henceforth always be someone chosen, someone who had said yes to herself” (p. 99, “The House of Correction”). The sympathetic characters in this book are also those who have said “Yes” to themselves, sometimes at great or even life-changing, life-risking costs. The book overall promotes courage as a feature of human life, as an answer even when the question is dire and unfair.

“Exodus,” the first short short bit of fiction beginning the book, is like the Biblical book that bears its name, a statement about the end of innocence and an objective correlative for the issue of mortality which crops up again and again in the book, not exclusively in relation to the issue of AIDS, but also in conjunction with those issues of indifference, brutality, imperfect love relationships which affect everyone, LGBTQIA+2 or straight. This book bridges the many gaps people imagine they have between them, and this short piece introduces the collection.

Four of the short stories function as an introduction and vade mecum to the novel Two Natures, as they are affecting and short excerpts from the characters’ lives from that novel. The stories are “Two Natures,” “Julian’s Yearbook,” “Today You Are a Man,”” and “Five Assignments and a Mistake.” Though I have not yet had the opportunity to read the novel in which these characters make a main appearance, their short essays in guiding us through the stages of awareness and growth of a gay man and his sister and cohort are fine as they are here, pieces capable of standing alone structurally and rhythmically.

The story from which the title is drawn, “An Incomplete List of My Wishes,” gains part of its sense of incompletion in the fictional element of the story from the fact that a death row inmate appears in it indirectly, who is at the point of ordering his last menu, the last life choice he will be able to make for himself. But the narrator of the story is the woman whose daughter he may or may not have killed, who is also wrapped up in contemplation of choices, last and lasting both.

“Waiting for the Train to Fort Devens, June 17, 1943” is a story “written” by another sort of recording angel, a photograph preserved of men on their way to war, men both doomed to die and fated to come back and live as survivors, their individual conflicts and choices recorded as well in the book of memory.

“Altitude,” as one might expect by the title, deals in clever and short order with the dizzying sweep of differing abilities to scale heights of human endeavor and experience.

The story “Memories of the Snow Queen,” a collection of fictional meditations and variations on a frightening theme from a children’s story in a manner related to that of A. S. Byatt, reveals a grotesque and overwhelmingly dysfunctional secret to a young woman attempting to reconnect with this fragment of her past.

To end off the book, Reiter has chosen a story of an adoption, “Taking Down the Pear Tree,” which along with a finely tuned portrait of all the human actors involved in such an endeavor, is also a meditation upon family, grief, and change as a structural and inevitable part of human life.

All in all, I am delighted to have read this book and to have thus encountered even indirectly the dramas and conundrums some other humans experience, with the residual obligation and joy of developing more understanding and warmth towards these, my fellow beings. That is always of course the point of good fiction, to give its readers a point d’appui for the extension of understanding, but in this book in particular, Jendi Reiter makes it overwhelmingly easy for a reasonable, willing, good reader to comprehend their characters and their own creative reasons for giving them the lives they did. Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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Matthew 25:29–A Sunday “sermon” from an agnostic, on the topic of “Them as has, gets.”

I’m taking as my departure point for an essay on creative writing today a Biblical verse which has perplexed a good many people, and caused others to wonder if God was on their side after all. I mean no disrespect to those who are believers, it’s just that the Bible, like the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and other religious scriptures the world over, is part of the substructure of the culture, whether we like it or not, and as with all these texts, it has a great many conundrums, puzzles, riddles, and posers in it for even the diligent, reverent, and hardy.

The verse in full runs: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” For those who are more interested in Biblical lore and interpretation than in creative writing, my actual topic, there is a site which I personally know nothing about and cannot vouch for online, but they advertise a whole study guide online on the Biblical topic. They are called ConnectUs Commentaries. At this point, you might want to stop reading me, and start reading them.

Now, for my commentary. The verse is certainly a head-scratcher, insomuch as it doesn’t at first seem suggestive of New Testament standards of justice and fair play. I can remember my grandfather, who was a poor man, a coal miner, but who was deeply religious, and non-resentful of those who had more, still wryly smiling and saying, “Them as has, gets.” And he seemed to see it as an interpretation of the way things went in earthly life, where things are unfair sometimes, perhaps more often than not, and rich people and advantaged people got more of whatever good life they already had, while others not so lucky got nothing, or lost what little they had. His own fortunes improved, I am happy to report, but “them as has, gets” still seems indicative of a lot of things going on in the world today, for a lot of the world’s people. Of course, if it was speaking of spiritual qualities, it’s perhaps my own prejudice, but I think my grandfather had those in spades, and maybe that’s why he was able to remain a secure believer in his religion all his life.

So, what does this has to do with creative writing? Well, we all know what it’s like to suffer from so-called “writer’s block.” It can exist in having a case of “diarrhea of the mouth and constipation of the brain,” or spewing out lots of meaningless garbage that’s clearly useless for any other purpose than being tossed out. Or, it can exist in simply trying to function in a mental vacuum which is not cooperating with you. It’s blank, bare, void: it hates you, it resists your every effort to populate it with images or rhetorical structures, if you’re a poet, with characters and scenes, if you’re a fiction writer, with arguments and provocative thoughts, if you’re an essayist, or if your work is a cross-over which uses the techniques of more than one of these forms, it refuses absolutely to talk to you and let you do anything at all. So, what do you do? If you want to “have” something that will miraculously produce that, “to you much will be given,” what can you do?

First of all, don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. I mean, if after a long, hard haul, you then decide you want to run a florist shop instead of write, that is your choice, and you may be someone for whom it’s a good and mature choice, but you’re the only one who can really make that decision. I mean, you may always find that once in the florist biz, you are an excellent writer of your own marketing material. And that may be what you really want to do with whatever writing talent you have. And everybody can develop at least some; c’mon, now! But it’s also true, to honor the opposite position of truth, as I used to tell my younger brother when he said he wanted to be an astronaut, or a concert pianist (he never said those things, I can’t honestly remember exactly what I was bugging him about): “If you want to be the world’s best concert pianist, as long as you’re sitting in the floor by yourself in a cardboard box, you’re it. But the minute you get out, it always depends on the opinions of other people.” I could be a real wiseacre when I was an adolescent, and a real pain in the ass, but I occasionally said something that was pretty much okay.

So, if you 1) don’t give up and 2) rely on someone else, not necessarily on anyone and everyone whom you can foist your problematic manuscript upon, you’re at least part of the way there. And now, I am going to say something more original, I hope, which maybe you haven’t heard so frequently. The other first two observations are standard fare when it comes to advice, but I didn’t want you to think I hadn’t heard them before, or was unaware of them. 3) Keep the manuscript, even just the blank paper with a title or four words on it, if that’s all you have. Keep revisiting it every day or two. Keep looking at it. Try first one sentence then another after the first four words. Use the four words as a suggestive sentence fragment, then write a couple of complete sentences to follow, or a couple of other poetic lines. If you’re trying to write an essay upon a certain topic, and your topic is one you have pre-selected, this may be a little harder to do, but you can always try a different slant on whatever you’re writing about. Always, always, always, always, when writing a poem or story or novel, be willing to follow wherever the thought leads, just to see where it’s going before you decide it’s not what you want. Always let it talk to you for a while, let it run away with you. You’ll know soon enough if it’s sheer crap. And if you doubt yourself, that’s the time to put it in front of your friendly audience, in all its minor and unachieved glory. That person or those persons may be wrong in what they say to you about it, particularly if they tell you to ditch it totally (most thoughts end up leading somewhere that you may even be able to pick up years later and develop), but you can take an angle, perhaps an entirely new angle from what they say to a new stance on the topic for yourself. It’s a debate, after all, a discussion, not a dictation from them to you. By the same token, you can’t make them feel what you feel about it, so if your feeling is strong enough, take their advice with a large grain of salt, thank them for their effort graciously, and go on about the business of grooving along with the poem/story/novel/essay/etc. which you feel strengthened in your pursuit of. And again, remember, however small the portion you start out with, your goal is always to develop it beautifully, meaningfullly, into more: “Them as has, gets.”

Shadowoperator

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Filed under A prose flourish, advice on creative writing from a practitioner, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

“The Pearl”–Fawziyya Abu Khalid and Predicting the Future of Arabic Women

In the midst of so much controversy in the contemporary world about what to do to help people, both women and men, to achieve their rights and to be treated equally by their societies and fellows in those societies, it is refreshing and uplifting to read a poet who has a whole-hearted belief that things can only improve, though she is not incognizant of the problems to be faced, it is clear both from her political involvements as they are reported in her brief biography1 and the determination in the forward-looking tone of her poem, which I will comment on here (it is not possible to print the whole poem, even though it is relatively short, because it is not in the public domain. Brief quotes only are allowed.)

As we are told in the biographical paragraph itself, “Fawziyya Abu Khalid was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia [in 1955]. She studied in the United States, taking a degree in sociology, and has been teaching at the Girls’ University College of King Saud University….Her work celebrates the strength and abilities of women, as well as indicating her commitment to political concerns.”1

In her poem The Pearl, Abu Khalid compares the legacy of generations of Arabic women to the physical legacy of a pearl, handed down from grandmother to mother to her, to her own daughter (or niece, etc., it isn’t quite clear). “The three of you and this pearl/Have one thing in common,” she says, “simplicity and truth,” making the two terms one in a touching poetic figure which conquers ordinary language usage. As she predicts in her poem “The girls of Arabia will soon grow/to full stature.” She further notes that they will find their predecessor’s traces and will say “‘She has passed by this road,'” which in her view, by the end of the poem, leads to “the place of sunrise” and “the heart’s direction.”

Though this more or less fairly reports the entirety of the poem’s movement in time and space, it cannot fairly represent the poem’s delicacy and beauty, as fine as a pearl of great value itself. It is humbling to realize that even though women all over the world are still having major problems getting recognized for their contributions and accomplishments, that a woman in one of the perhaps harder places to achieve this feat is so hopeful and so full, again, of strong determination, both for herself and for others to follow her. We all should have such inspiring and leading women in our lives, and she is one not only for Arabic women, but for women of the world.

This poem can be read in its short but lovely entirety in English translation (performed by Salwa Jabsheh and John Heath-Stubbs) on page 508 in the same volume which I mentioned in my last post just above, for which, see below:

(1In this case, both the poem and my biographical data are drawn from the large compendium text of world literature which I have now had occasion to mention several times on this site: Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World: Where the Waters Are Born, edited and compiled by Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel, with study questions and suggestions for further research. It was published by HarperCollins College Publishers back in 1995, and is still valuable today.)

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Rabindranath Tagore and His “Gitanjali XXXV” (“Where the Mind Is Without Fear”)–A Prayer for Our Modern Country

Though I have often heard the name, Rabindranath Tagore (born Rabindranath Thakur), I have only read a smattering of his works, barely one or two. But this one I wanted to write upon today (and quote in full, as it is short and in the public domain), because it is a universal prayer for any country at any time, and especially for our country, the U.S., right now.

First, a brief biographical note, for anyone who may not be acquainted with this figure of world literature. Tagore was born in Calcutta, India, in 1861, and died in 1941. He was born into a wealthy Bengali family of scholars, religious reformers, writers, and musicians. Though he never took a full university degree, he started an experimental school in 1901 called Shantiniketan (“the abode of peace”) which was based on the ancient schools of India, conducted in the open air, because he did not find the British system of education sufficiently acceptable for his countrymen and countrywomen. It became later Visva-Bharati, an international concern stressing world peace and societal reform. He published his first poem in 1875, when he was 14, and wrote in many different genres, not only the creative (though all genres of writing are in some manner so), and provided by focusing on traditional philosophical thought a bridge between the past and the present.

For his book Gitanjali, which he wrote in Bengali but translated into English himself, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Though the British knighted him in 1915, in 1919 he renounced the title due to the British massacre of many hundreds of people in Amritsar. He is the person who gave the title “Mahatma” (“great soul”) to Mohandas Gandhi. In 1940, he wrote Crisis in Civilization, which had an international humanitarian focus, and centered on racial equality. Both India and Bangladesh have since adopted poems of his as their national anthems. It is customary and frequent to find him quoted in world literatures, where all of his humanistic qualities are thus in the foreground of other countries.

Now, here is the poem, Song XXXV from Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
     Where knowledge is free;
     Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
     Where words come out from the depth of truth;
     Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
     Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand
           of dead habit;
     Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action--
     Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

While I do think that this poem is universal in its applications, for every country in every time, I cannot help but think that Americans in this time in especial, with all of our particular distresses and tensions and quarrels and discord in general, may find it uplifting and inspiring.

(My biographical data is drawn from a large compendium text of world literature which I have had occasion to mention before on this site: Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World: Where the Waters Are Born, edited and compiled by Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel, with study questions and suggestions for further research. It was published by HarperCollins College Publishers in 1995, and is still valuable today.)

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Have you seen it? The mystery of the vanishing WordPress.com post

My last post but one took place on March 17th, 2021. At some time after that, I published the last post I have done since then. I cannot now recall the title, but it was a post on the subject of Geraldine Brooks’s novel “The Secret Chord,” a book about the life and reign of King David. I felt about the book that it was a very fine book indeed, and so I had done a careful and what I thought was a basically good and responsible post about it. The post was up for a while, though I can’t recall if I got any comments on it or not. Repeatedly these days, I am informed that so-and-so new person is following my blog, but most of my followers seem to be shy of comments, so that it’s hard for me to verify how many people may have seen my post, though I usually get somewhere between 10-75 reads a day by a good number of viewers.

So, imagine my surprise when I went to look back at the post to see if I had remembered to mention something particular in the book, only to find that the post was no longer on my website, in any order at all! Please write in and let me know if you have any answers for me to this conundrum, as I am in the near future going to be publishing a very important (to me) post indeed, all about my book of poems which will soon be published, and I don’t want to take the risk that it too is going to vanish.

All the best, I hope someone among my readers can help. Shadowoperator

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How Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” inspired an astoundingly beautiful book full of warfare, miracles, and ugly realities

In the “Afterword” of Geraldine Brooks’s book The Secret Chord–the title is drawn from Leonard Cohen’s song, published, I think, in 1984 or so–she states: “David is the first man in literature whose story is told in detail from early childhood to extreme old age. Some scholars have called this biography the oldest piece of history writing, predating Herodotus by at least half a millennium. Outside of the pages of the Bible, however, David has left little trace. A single engraving uncovered at Tel Dan mentions his house. Some buildings of the Second Iron Age period might have been associated with a leader of his stature. But I tend to agree with Duff Cooper, who concluded that David must have actually existed, for no people would invent such a flawed figure for a national hero.” (p. 350)

Brooks also mentions that it was her sons who inspired her to write the book as well, the younger by his energy in scouring the Biblical countryside with her where she was exploring, the elder by taking up the harp and later playing a version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for his bar mitzvah. This inspiration led her to her studies of other Biblical scholars’ works on David, his dynasty, his reign, the uniting of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the eventual passing of the united kingdom to Solomon in his youth, at which point the book ends, on an after all triumphal note, and after the recounting of much suffering.

When I say that there is much suffering in the book, and ugliness, it is also because there is a sense of much truth in it, whatever one decides about the actual details and whether or not they are accurate. It is poetic truth, even in the moments when the description is of warriors being disemboweled, the visionary Natan (Nathan, David’s prophet) in the grips of an inspired fit, a fratricide or the incestuous rape which called it forth, the relations amongst David and his many wives and concubines, David’s passionate and dangerous–because traitorous to King Shaul (Saul)–relationship with Yonatan (Jonathan) and many other realities which we imagine that we have curbed, modernized, controlled, or accepted today, but which from all we know of the news from the papers, are still realities that we often prefer not to see. This picture of a kingship calls them back into vivid relief.

As to David’s being a “flawed hero,” there is no question that he is so at least in this retelling; the matter is dealt with very craftily and well by having different people narrate their experiences of him to Natan, who is charged by David to gather the truth about him into one account. Some of the people concerned have kind thoughts, some have bitter and angry thoughts, there are even some humorous, bawdy, and mixed narrations. All of this helps paint a picture of a fascinatingly complex, savage, cunning, and adept ruler, who yet according to this account fears his God and listens when his prophet speaks. And by the end of the book, there is retribution more than enough to go around.

The book is exceedingly well-balanced, well-written, and totally gripping, no matter what you thought you knew about David before. Even if you are not inclined to be interested in Biblical accounts, the book stands on its own as a work of extremely accomplished fictionalized biography, and is not at all “churchy.” In fact, I suspect the churchy would tend to avoid it like the plague. To round matters off, let me say that this is easily the best book I have read in probably the last 5-10 years, if memory serves me correctly, and I used to read rather a lot. Why not give it a try? It is available on some library websites, and should be easily accessible in bookstores, though it is a few years old. Though the research Brooks did is considerable, and is listed in the back with the rest of the “Afterword,” you needn’t fear being intimidated by too much bookishness or academic verbiage, if that should be your aversion: the book, the subject, and the story are all immensely accessible. Shadowoperator

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When is a teenager more than a usual teen, and how are rulers formed? “Mithra: Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah”

I ask my readers to bear with me as I cope with the eccentricities and idiotic difficulties of the new editing systems now preferred by WordPress instead of the Classic editing form. Any more rational company would charge the paid-for plans for the amount of choice selection now forced upon the ordinary (unpaid) user like me, who would vastly prefer the old system of HTML editing by easy access to editing choices. Instead, WordPress has installed a complicated system of choices for editing on the ordinary user, and saved the lovely, simple, ordinary “Classic” editing format for their “business” users for another two years. I wouldn’t ordinarily inject formatting problems in a literary post, except for the incorrect typing, above, of the title of the wonderful book I am reviewing: full book titles are supposed to be put in italics, not in quotation marks, but even finding the system to use for a simple italic form involves one in learning the complete system of new formatting options. It should read, Mithra: Stone Sorceress Hidden Pharoah, but it was not to be. At any rate, that bit of business being concluded (and I hope the author, J. M. Rattenbury, will forgive the apparent citing of a short story when his book is a fine, more than 300-page YA novel), I get down to the more important “meat” of my discussion (flies around the table thus already having been swatted).

As many of you may remember, I have earlier mentioned that I was the proofreader of a bracing and energetic YA novel that was to be published late this summer. Well, it has made its appearance, and I would like to recommend it now to the public as the excellent historical fantasy it is. In its basic outline, it follows the adventures of a fourteen-going-on-fifteen year old young woman in Egypt, who suddenly is made aware of her own royal status at the same time as she is deprived of all the adults she had previously depended upon who could guide her steps or help her achieve adulthood safely. Instead, she is forced to make do with the help of a slightly older young Roman soldier and a young boy, at a time when Rome was the predator upon Egypt for the sake of its grain shipments.

Mithra, it turns out, is a Ptolemy, and is the granddaughter of Queen Cleopatra, which leaves her open to the animosity and conquest-hungry behavior of the Roman Emperor, though it helps ensure her popularity with the average Egyptian citizens of her country, who are tired of the Roman occupation and Roman brutality and overreaching qualities. Along with the young Roman soldier, Lucius Crassus, who has been jailed by his own officers for refusing to kill Mithra, she travels by ship up the Nile from her home city of Alexandria to the area around Memphis and the Temple in Saqqara, where she hopes to find a way of solidifying her hold on the country through a mystical rite known as the worship of the Apis Bull, the symbol of the god Lord Ptah. She must deal with the accidental absence of Lucius and depend only upon the help of Inteb, the young boy travelling with her, after a while, when it seems that Lucius has met his mortal match. But although she is alone in some senses, she has with her a magical amulet named Sopdet, which gives her power over stone and metal, and has besides her growing adulation by the ordinary people of her country.

This book is a book for all those who like to ponder what would have happened if….if Cleopatra had left an heir, if they themselves as young adults had been in Mithra’s situation, if it were possible actually to be the possessors of a magical amulet, if the whole situation around them depended upon their own luck and skill at learning about people. But it’s also a book for older people who want to experience what their teenagers like to read about, what they daydream about, what heroic experiences they themselves still fantasize about in their more mature achievement-oriented lives. That is, it’s a family book, which could be read aloud as an evening’s entertainment on various evenings to amuse young and old. As an adventure story, it shares some of the better qualities of the great adventure and travel stories, like The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, The True Game Series, Dune, and others which have coming-of-age themes in them.

The book is available from booksellers in the United States and Britain at least, possibly elsewhere worldwide, but it is also available online from Amazon.com for $12.99, and Amazon.uk for 9.99 GBP (under the author’s name, J. M. Rattenbury), Mithra, and on Kindle. As well, it is possible to acquire it directly from the UK publisher at https://olympiapublishers.com/books/mithra, ISBN number 978-78830-744-4. For those in the Boston area (where the author hails from) it is also increasingly available and can be requested at the public libraries. I have deliberately not mentioned the ending, as it has an intriguing sort of cliffhanger at the end, not in the interests of posing resolution difficulties for the audience, I don’t think, but merely in the interests of taking a new view of the ancient world. Though the age of the protagonist is 14-15, I would recommend this book for anyone from a mature twelve-year old to a curious twenty-year old, or for any parents or family members interested in sharing the adventure. Shadowoperator

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