Todd Dillard’s book “Ways We Vanish,” and How We Can Find Ourselves Again in Its Pages

Todd Dillard’s book “Ways We Vanish,” published by Okay Donkey, Cover Art: Sarah E. Shields

One of the hardest things for a reviewer to do is to select out the particular and most essential things which set any work apart from others within even just our own memories, or to perhaps find adequate words to paint pictures of words, not to mention taking account of any that others we’ve read might have isolated for attention.  So, reviewers may decide that a particular line or phrase, an image or even a whole poem deserves to be quoted.  Gven my own lack-and-well-a-day penchant for the hauntingly and suddenly rhymed, pointed line in a piece where nothing else rhymes, I could select lines from Todd Dillard’s book Ways We Vanish such as the final lines from “If You Are What You Eat Then Today I Am a Flood on My Mother’s Death Anniversary”:  “I too have let a child splash in rising waters/just to watch them run home, shivering, to me./I too have left the front door open and invited in the sea.”  Or, eschewing that tactic, I could pick the whole of the poem “Scratch Offs,” in which the governing metaphor is that of scratch off tickets, and the poem covers the track of time, of birthdays and whether and how much things from year to year change or stay the same.  But this work–though it comes in two separate books, and there are differences between them–functions moreso than some as a whole on the single topic of a life celebrating, coping with, and sometimes intensely grieving, family love.  There are more incidental poems, but they seem to operate as isolated moments, moments of freedom from the overwhelming, moments of curiosity about the outside world which can be spared from family life only occasionally.

First and foremost, this is a book of much spiritual and psychological cleanness, not versus being dirty or underhanded, but in the sense that it has a very special sort of subtext.  Usually, when people say “This has a subtext,” they often mean “This has an ulterior motive,” or “This has an anterior, hidden meaning,” and often they also mean “which I don’t entirely like.”  Others simply assume that everything has some sort of hidden/dishonest subtext.  Here, however, if Ways We Vanish has a subtext, it is an exciting one, for poetry, because the “ways we vanish” are ghostly in the sense of  being “ways we manifest,” the “ghosts” not being only the beloved dead and the past and gone moments that are manifested, but the living and present and in so far as the future is spoken of at all, even that.  All are luminous with their own manifestation.

The ghosts are very alive here, because the beloved ones always have a place, whatever pain has gathered about them as they lived or are living, and though I wouldn’t like to suggest something possibly sentimental or maudlin about a book which has such a clean, tight texture to its poetic stories, there is the same sort of sense in it of the dead persons as well as the dead moments still having a place in one’s contemporary history as there is in Wordsworth’s poem “We Are Seven.”  The difference being, of course, that here the voice speaking is one of an adult who knows the reality of death, not that of some “simple” country maid being interrogated in the Romantic haze of an elderly statesmanlike poet.

One of the poems I liked the most from the book is “Love Poem to My Brother As He Gives Our Father a Shave,” a poem which pictures two brothers with their father in a hospital room.  There is a comparison made about the sound of the scraping blade on the father’s cheek which is one of the loveliest and most touching I have ever heard:  “..that sound,/follicle scraped from flesh,/like tearing open/an envelope–its letter/good news–it says/you are alive/and the ones who love you/most are here, touching/your knuckles, wrist,/as if there grows on the body/a kind of Braille–“.

In fact, in general, the book is even at its most intellectual moments not a hidden text which one must decode and decode again; rather, it is a rough wolf’s tongue lick to its cubs and its mate as a sort of vade mecum into the true realm of poetry, the interior places where grows the root of poetry:  fellow feeling, family feeling, and creature feeling, such passages as those sharing tears and laughter with a small child: “my laughs love and mourn and see/they are like living that way.”  Here is a poet who is not afraid to say such things in the poetic voice, because they are from the excavations of the sometimes long-buried human voice, and he knows it.  And in reading this book, we too can find ourselves and our loved ones again, however long and away the time has been since we last were able to think in this way and say these things ourselves.  Rather, here Todd Dillard says them for us, in the saying of them for himself.

Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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The Taut Exactitudes of a Lyric Welsh Poetry–Matthew M.C. Smith’s “Origin: 21 Poems” and a Study in Poetic Opposites

Copyright Matthew M. C. Smith, 2018, 2019, Black Bough Press in association with KDP Ltd.,

Matthew M. C. Smith, the editor of Black Bough Poetry in Swansea, Wales, has reissued his 2018 book of poetry, the modestly entitled Origin:  21 Poems.  It is his first collection of poetry in a long life of working on poetry and studying poetics.  One of his first contributions to the body of work on literature is his doctorate at the University of Wales, a thesis on the poetry of Robert Graves.  Currently, Matthew divides his time amongst a career in work on anti-poverty, education and welfare work; an editorship at Black Bough Poetry/Barddoniaeth Y Gangen Ddu, and a new volume of poetry, all of which makes him truly a Renaissance man.

When I had finished reading Origin:  21 Poems, my first thought was that if I weren’t talking about poetry, I’d say that each of these poems is clinically exact, except that I am talking about poetry, and “clinically” is the wrong word; these are poems rich in feeling, fellow-feeling, and emotional wealth, and here the poetical indirections are made in short, minimalist code of metaphor and description, which perhaps has confused my own non-minimalist poetic practice.

This poetry is definitely something to learn, and to know how to do, for the beauty of the sometimes staccato revelations is extreme, the phrasing a sort of condensed shorthand on the road to perfect portraiture, to individual epiphanies, to separate visions.

The book Origin:  21 Poems is entirely situated around family situations, cultural ones, and  natural/mythological/religious ones (all those things in life that are so much bigger than we are), sketching a line from belief and belief systems through the societal structures and remnants of ritual our civilization has left us with to family and celebrations of family and faith, the most personal of all.

There are careful pairings of poems back and forth, weaving, knitting a net to catch us in, with the warp in one poem being a salute to air travel, to being a soldier, either modern or ancient, and the woof of the next poem following being a loving meditation dedicated to a child’s birth or to play with children, or, one of the most moving poems, a poem on the death of the poet’s father, containing some of the implications of his life.  There are poems on prophets and guardians and “prodigal” women, nature poems filled with the beauty of winter or the symbolic natural growths of the seasons, and the book ends in a tribute poem to another Welsh poet, Alun Lewis, who died in WW II.  There is no accident here in these weavings of opposites, because they not only thus form Smith’s dedication to being a participating witness in all the doings of life, but they also invite the reader to select favorite and most resonant phrases, to read aloud, and then willy-nilly, to be led into a different experience, just as life itself would demand.  Here are some of my favorite lines and their topical sources:

the birth of a child:  “You belong to the world/to rose-red rivers dipped by the sun/to the white path of light in darkest night/ to frosts of fire beyond our dawn”

the death of a father:  “No cry, nor whisper, a cross shape/near crested roar and the people you love/carried you from the shore”

“After Man”:  “The fern, the ivy/the circle of oaks/were fast losing names given…our time was terribly mocked”

the modern soldier;  “Men of arms…frame-ache, sting of sweat/body-rack past forest tracks/where whippet-lads lead/and bigger lads wane”

“The Moment”;  “cycles of sun and/nights of stone//Picasso/his sorrow of shadow/is cast across/a frieze of terror”

the poet’s homage to another poet:  “your words grow old/but dare not fade/I heard they took you/in feathers as light as snow/and in that whirling flight/as words exhaled/they kissed your fading glow”

Here, the taut exactitudes I have spoken of in my title are from line to line, but blossoming forth in between are the pictures, the images, bodied forth in and contained by the lines themselves.  The overall effect?  Almost a contradiction in terms, the lyricism of the burgeoning phrases, held firmly in the short precision of the actual words.  Thus, it should be no guess that the preference at Black Bough Poetry is for short, imagistic poems of 1-10 lines, and that the devotion to the human equation has produced a sense of community for poets of every stripe, who are regularly invited to participate every Tuesday online through Twitter, tweeting to Black Bough Poetry, in #Top#Tweet#Tuesday, a rollicking, fun-filled poetic experiment in exposing poets from all areas of the globe to the work of other poets of all kinds and schools.  As well, there are occasionally special seasonal contests and participations, such as the recently closed one for Hallowe’en 2021.

As a final and defining note about this poet’s, Matthew M. C. Smith’s, contribution to the world poetic community, I would like to call attention to his election this month (November 2021) to be Broken Spine’s #Writer of the Month.  Already, he has participated in more than one poetic activity in this position, all of which information is available to the interested follower on Twitter.  If you are not yet familiar with Smith, his book is available on Amazon, and for all the many poets the world over who are already friends, admirers, and poetic colleagues of him and his welcoming, modest and self-deprecating humor, let’s give him another round of applause, and keep reminding him we are eagerly and a bit impatiently waiting to read his next book.  I mean, for a man who has so little else to do!  Seriously, though, be watching for Matthew M. C. Smith’s next volume of poetry; to judge based on this one, it’ll be another wonderful poetic experience.

Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)  

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“at first & then”–a transitioning series of poetic anthems by Danielle Rose

Cover Art: “Isadora Duncan in the Parthenon, Athens.” Photograph by Edward Jean Steichen/Wikimedia Commons.

Danielle Rose’s first chapbook, for that’s what it is, is a phenomenally impressive piece of first work, with none of the perhaps to-be-expected over-concision of such an item.  It is enough, gently enough, but not too much or more than enough.  It is, however, more than enough to establish a place for her among those who know and love poetry.  Nor is it a bit of preciousness, a fault that short poetry books can fall heir to, especially when they take up such complicated subjects as being trans-, and furthermore attempt to capture the experience as it passes or has passed.  For here, Rose has adopted a delicate but comprehensive poetic shorthand whose condensation is a sheer delight.

The poetry in this book is first of all modeled in formal cadences like the tones of Sapphic fragments, or all that we have remaining of Sappho, short clauses and phrases barely welded together, but at the same time sensate and sensible in their pulsing resonances.  Throughout, the experience of transitioning sexually is rediscovered and reemerges, moving from earlier stages of awareness (“at first”) through and always through imagistically rich moments to the second stage (“& then”).  It doesn’t stop there, however, but keeps on going, surrounding itself with the experience of difference as if to transition once is to acquire forever the habit and ability of change, of meta-phoring.

The book begins with the image of a suicide, sparcely but feelingly imagined as it must have been, in a mirrored world of isolation and aloneness, as if to question whether the buried woman inside must be likewise sacrificed.  In the first part of this book, interior and exterior distances are examined.  In some ways, the sense of isolation with the experience is so complete that there is no sense of human exchange in the poems, until “my mother’s tears” are mentioned in the final poem of the first half, which is cast in the form of a recipe for “gender swap potion.”  But the sexuality has not been without incitement:  there is a poem a few pages before this, a poem which bestows a certain fascinated gaze on the male-female experience:  it is entitled “on walking outside with my morning coffee at 9:00 am to find my new neighbors fucking like cottontails in their backyard.”  It is a vivid and frolicsome poem of a frank voyeurism, one which is not prohibited and not even particularly noticed by the performers being watched.

Much of the poem abounds instead in natural images and creatures, but contact with them is also fragmented and tangential, which is not a fault, but an attempt to locate the experience of difference in a topos of natural life.  This is the picture of a mind informing itself from literature, science of various kinds such as ornithology, with the cadences of poetry, and then desperately sometimes only accepting these as enough, other times couching the experiences in near-refusal, or at least despondency.  The word “empty” or the concept of an emptying-out-of occurs repeatedly, but not always in the same sense:  at first it is in an emotional sense of desolation.  Then, it becomes something taking place more in a comforted sense of achievement at being thought, for example “pretty in soft light,” “pretty like a swarm of bees passed out drunk                                                                                                                                                                       in a yellow flowerbed/pollen                                                                                                                         floating/all in soft light so pretty”

The reward for the writer, here, is not held back from the reader; this is not a selfish poesy:  in the final four words of the last poem, entitled “an inventory of things that have changed,” is the repeated word “joy.”  For in the end, from its opening lines to its closing anthem, this is a book about possibilities.

(Shadowoperator:  Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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“Two Natures”–“Un Certain Sourire” for a New Generation and a Different Sexual Orientation

AppleMark

Jendi Reiter’s 2016 novel Two Natures follows a rich history of novelistic suggestion and tradition, though the subject matter is drawn from a time not that long ago, the 1990’s in New York City.  It lends itself to other titles, as well:  if Two Natures were not evocative enough, it might almost be called The Choice:  is a person one sort of being, another sort of being, and how does one decide what to do to live with or heal a split in one’s own psyche?

Even more, it might be seen as a relative of Françoise Sagan’s Un Certain Sourire for a new generation and a different sexual orientation.  In that book, as the female protagonist is trying to decide about her lovers, she thinks “Car enfin, tout au moins quand on est jeune, dans cette longue tricherie qu’est la vie, rien ne paraît désespérément souhaitable que l’imprudence.”  As Bentley Rumble‘s rewardingly close translation has this: “Because finally, at least when one is young, in this long swindle that is life, nothing but carelessness seems desperately desirable.”

It is in fact carelessness which simultaneously tempts and distances Julian Selkirk, the young gay hero of this novel, as being in the middle of the vivid and abruptly changing world of the 1990’s in New York City’s fashion community, and being at the same time involved to a greater or lesser extent in the amorous exchanges that go on all around him. He attempts to negotiate a deal with his God, a god from his Southern background who does not always consort well with the contemporary scene of Julian’s sexual orientation.

Julian is a fashion photographer addicted to assigning values in an aesthetic way to surfaces, to externals, all the while trying to see beneath the surfaces of people and events himself, in order to survive and seek happiness.  And the “carelessness” which I mentioned before is something he must be very aware of and leery of in the era of the AIDS epidemic.  Still, he is always drawn onward, into risky situations and into mourning for those who have fallen victim to AIDS, and he must constantly be assessing how he will evaluate those of his friends whose behaviors and choices flash up vignettes morally as clear as photographs and yet as confused in their significance for him as double exposures.

More than just being a history of Julian’s accomodations to his situation and moments of growth and decision, this is a romance novel for the gay male community, with none of the quick, easy answers of a cheap trade romance tale.  Instead, it is a genuinely fraught romance in the sense of the original French “roman,” a powerful narration of a portion of a man’s life and its loves in the French style, following the bright and sometimes frightening or threatening kaleidoscopic, shifting pattterns and cutting edges that one sees through the lens imperfectly when one is the central viewer; to someone not involved in the changes and their visions, it seems like only a matter of putting the kaleidoscope tube aside, of refraining from vision and wisdom.

But our Julian Selkirk is not a refrainer, and in the course of this novel, follows a path of wisdom-gathering all his own, in dealing manfully, as it used to be called, with everything from a difficult and abusive family situation to the changing fortunes and sometimes collapses of his heroic icons and of celebrities whom he must rely upon for his manner of making a living for himself.

And there is no lack either of scenes of passion, frank and explicit and enticing without being undignified or in any way what one would describe as pornographic, for they are written always from the perspective of a kind of love without sentimentality, and yet sentiment itself is often there.  There is a sharingness and a fellow-feeling in these pages that if read with sincere commitment to the human situation do not lend themselves to mockery, derision, or denial.  Go along with this author, won’t you, regardless of what your own orientation, or what you may think you already know of that of others, and discover for yourself how faith can be broadened to be inclusive of even those perhaps very different from you, or maybe you may even learn something more about the true nature of love in others.  I heartily recommend this book as it covers the entire spectrum of its readers’ experience, from that of the primer for those just finding themselves re: their awareness vís-a-vís this gay life, to that of the already aware/involved.  

Cover design by Don Mitchell, Saddle Road Press.  Used by permission of the author, Jendi Reiter.

(Shadowoperator:  Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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A Quick Post to Call Your Attention to a Worthwhile Cause–The Center for New Americans in Western Massachusetts

Dear Friends of My Website,

Now is the time to stand up and be counted for all the places in the U.S. that are trying to perpetuate justice for refugees, immigrants, and new Americans. There is one such body in Western Massachusetts. My friend Jendi Reiter, whom you have encountered on this site before as the author of “An Incomplete List of My Wishes,” an excellent book of short stories which I reviewed some weeks back, is going to be composing a poem a day during the month of November to help raise money for this cause. They have also written some books of poetry, have one in the offing, and have a novel, “Two Natures, ” which is going to be reviewed on this site soon. It just goes to show that even very busy people, who are also editors and judges of contests, as Jendi is (at Winning Writers.com), can still take the time to participate in activities which are socially oriented and return a direct benefit to the community in addition to giving poetical benefits, which though profound are supposedly less tangible and direct. In this case, the gift of poetry and the gift of societal involvement are tied together, and operate together.

All that is necessary to to mention the charitable side of the enterprise, which is sponsoring Jendi for this effort. Your contrtibution, however large or small, would be of immeasurable benefit in aiding this worthwhile cause. All you need to is to make a credit card or personal check donation to the address(es) at this link: https://cnam.org/civi/pcp/info/?reset=1&id=532 . If there are any other facts you need to know, you can inquire at that site. The full title of the body in question is: The Center for New Americans: Education and Resources for Immigrants and Refugees in Western Massachusetts.

I don’t mind telling you that I have a very small income, but I have donated $10 to this cause. Even $5 would be welcome, and spreading the word whether you can contribute or not is valuable too, as others will thus be empowered to act in this manner. Thank you for your time and attention to this announcement, and your potential action on behalf of our new citizens-to-be. Jendi thanks you, and I thank you, and you can act in the assurance that the beneficiaries of this program thank you, too. All the best, Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett) P.S. Please note: This post was originally put up on 10/18/2021. Today is 10/19/2021. It was necessary to repost to correct the charity address link because the donation is supposed to go the address above, to sponsor Jendi directly. The charitable effort will still benefit The Center for New Americans in Western Massachusetts, it’s just that now the business side of things will be correctly arranged at the right link. VLB

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C.T. Salazar’s “American Cavewall Sonnets”–Or as William Blake Would Say, “Hear the Voice of the Ancient Bard,/Who Present, Past, and Future Sees…”

With cavewall sonnets, it is necessary to speak of an ancient bard or ancestral voice intoning rich, mysteriously rich and tantalizing if sometimes evasive syllables. My feeling after reading through C.T. Salazar’s book American Cavewall Sonnets several times is that I will have to live a long time with this book before I feel I really understand these poems at all as thoroughly as they deserve; but don’t understand me to be complaining. From the beckoning and lush art of the front cover–what one has come to expect from Bull City Press’s chapbooks, here the cover art being Wildstyle Still LIfe by Collin van der Sluijs–the story of the poems is one of equal lushness, richness, elliptical at some points, but a straightforward celebration and reveling in language. If you’re expecting the rhyme or meter of a traditional sonnet, don’t: though some of the lines have distinguishable meter, it is intermittent and tends to occur in first lines where it does. The main sonnet constraint (and here, in the glory of the unrestricted experiment it would be a constraint to expect a formal sonnet) is that each poem is 14 lines long, 8 lines followed by a separate 6, and in one case, a visual poem of two recurring words, even that form isn’t strictly adhered to. But trust me, if you give these poems your time and heartfelt participation, it won’t matter a jot to you if the traditional sonnet is left totally in the dust for this spell of poetry.

Thus, formally speaking, this book of poetry is not a docile housemate, though sometimes a frenzied one; it is never reallly indecorous or disrespectful, however. It respects first of all the internal distances between reader and poet, and negotiates them without rapine or plunder of the reader’s resources. What do I mean by all that? Here’s an example:

"The rifle scope was a failure indeed
of the imagination--look through there
and everthing becomes           a target."  (p. 13). 

From this, one can see that while the poet has no intention of allowing his poems to be the target, to succumb to facile interpretation, the reader is welcomed into the lovely disorder and chaos that do aim towards meanings, but multiple meanings, as toward multiple–no, not targets–but caresses of the imagination. These are gentle, yet serious touches on the reader’s arm and consciousness.

The moments of darkness are not denied, the ones that keep humans sheltering in their illusions rather than facing what confronts them. “I never talked about what I saw in the river: /the humans who drowned.” The “mosaic” of our moments of darkness and also of belief is the mosaic “made from the salvaged chips of empire.” (p. 10)

And the force of memory in this consciousness, one which the poet tries to bring the reader to expand and to share with him, takes its turn too in the book–thus not only the target has been magicked away, but time cannot lose its soul to passing, and permanence becomes conceivable as more than a dream:

"This room was no longer, so I put it
back together/I put it back in my
mind/I put it in the back of my mind....
At the end of the world I'm told
a prayer could harden into a full
moon bright enough to guide our fathers back."  (p.27)

It’s not a matter of self-deception, though. In the ellipses I have placed above, the fragility of a broken vase is mentioned, and in the following line just below, we are told: “Even a whisper can bruise.” In such a world, wherein the poet must mediate and (once again) negotiate for himself and others, Salazar positions the poet in the most human and resonant of places: in the juncture between fragility and breaking and constancy and wholeness, we are finally told, as the summation of that sonnet and the book, “love, touch me.” And that sense of trust in our human capacity amid the challenges which may overwhelm us at any moment is a sense of trust in the bond, too, the compact, between poet and reader.

Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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“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?

When Does a Textual Riddle Seem to Have a Personality (and When Is a Person Like a “Problem in the Text?”)

In this poem from my book “Poems from the Northeast,” I consider one of my favorite moments in literary classes (and simultaneously an application of textual analysis to psychology): that moment when the professor frowns, pushes his/her/their glasses up on their nose, coughs, then says: “in this passage, there is a problem with the text.”

IN THIS PASSAGE, THERE IS A PROBLEM WITH THE TEXT
I am a problem in the text
     That has never been resolved
A hint, a monstrous suggestion
     Which cannot be confirmed
I trouble the mind that wants
     To settle like a hen over eggs
I ruffle her up, she clucks uneasily
     And pecks at where she thinks I am.
In August, I am an unexpected wind
     That hints of winter
I do not answer, I ask.
     Always I bring them to the question
With troubled faces, angry expressions;
     People clumsily resolve me
To this or that
     Proving their points with good evidence
Which they have misinterpreted.
     The pages around me
Pose no problems--
     My commentary
Is relegated to a footnote here or there,
     A short section in the appendix.
With so much else decided,
     One word or phrase cannot trouble overlong--
They forget me.
     They are happy with the story being told.
But still, inconveniently, I come back,
     I perplex, I mock without mockery;
There may be some treasure in me.
     They think I have a purpose
But they don't know what it is,
     Feeling, suspecting,
That if they did it would make
     All the difference.
And I ask,
     What difference would it make?
I am the corner you didn't turn
     When you could
And couldn't turn when you would,
     Because I too exist,
And not only for the greed and delight
     Your mind has in pictures.
I have the right to live
     Not simply as a point in space
But as myself at that point.
     Yet attack the point how you will,
When you come there
     I am gone and you know nothing.
I evaporate, I drift away
     And you can stand all day
Like a lovelorn schoolboy
     For the date who didn't show up.
You let me be at peace
     And I am with you;
You gain confidence,
     You think this means
That now you will know all--
     You chase and I evade.
You punish and I bow to punishment.
     You walk away in anger
And I go back to what I was doing.
     You have lured me to interpretation
And I have been lured,
     But more and more
I see the trap
     And am impatient with such stupidities.
You always think you know me,
     And even when it seems so,
I slide from your mind,
     And you grope
And reach for the light,
     And wonder what I meant.

Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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Filed under Literary puzzles and arguments, Poetry and its forms and meanings