Tag Archives: memory

“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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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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“The Jewel of Seven Stars”–Memory, the Visual, and the Tricks Played by Them

Many years ago, about twenty-five years ago now, I first read Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars.  Bram Stoker, you know?  The same Bram Stoker who wrote the original novel Dracula, about the now-famous vampire(s) and their hunters.  The book I’m writing about today also has to do with the subject of the undead, though of a different kind:  this book has in it as main interest a female mummy.  Other sub-topics include astral projection, reincarnation, and animal sympathies (or aversions), among others.

Now, when I think back on the book as I recalled it from memory, one main image dominated my thoughts; that was of the heroine, Miss Margaret Trelawny, being experimented on by her father and other interested male friends (that sounds lewd, but I don’t mean for it to, or just downright gory and repellent, which I don’t mean for it to either).  I recall an image of her asleep on a bed in a sort of dungeon, with one hand crossed upon her chest; her hand had seven fingers on it, including the thumb.  That was the main governing image I retained of the book, and in order to disenchant the reader from this image, I’m going to issue a spoiler alert, and tell some of the actual book’s secrets.

First of all, the book begins in a somewhat Victorian way, with a just-begun courtship of Miss Trelawny by a somewhat older lawyer, Mr. Malcolm Ross.  He gets drawn into her life because something mysterious is happening in her life, and she calls for his help.  It turns out that her father, who is somewhat stern and forbidding and not well known to her, has been mysteriously attacked in a room in which there was no other living person, only a host of Egyptian artefacts and remnants of a tomb, all of which he had previously transported to his house in England from Eastern sites.  In the course of the investigation, her father, who is unconscious from the first attack, gets attacked several more times, with a near miss or two as well.  There is no visible person or thing to be seen attacking, and this is in spite of a faithful watch kept in the sickroom by Miss Trelawny, Mr. Ross, and several friends and associates including two different policemen, two nurses, a research acquaintance and friend of Mr. Trelawny’s, and a doctor or two.  Which is to say, the contemporary forces of reason and intelligence at the time the book was set in.

The main part of the book takes place between the beginning of the courtship and the time when Mr. Trelawny awakens from his trance, and is comprised of all the guesses and questions (and partial answers) the other characters come up with, especially regarding the female mummy, who has seven fingers on one hand, and whose mummified cat has seven toes, just as Margaret’s pet cat Silvio also does (who for mysterious reasons all his own keeps attacking the mummy cat).  In fact, the number seven is extremely prominent in the story, turning up everywhere.

Here’s the problem:  Margaret only has five fingers on each hand, not the seven I remembered, and it’s not Margaret who, near the end of the story, is experimented on by being placed in a sarcophagus and going through the magical resurrection ceremony that Mr. Trelawny had discovered in his research of the female mummy:  it’s the mummy herself!  All the mysterious suggestions that Margaret and the female mummy are related in spite of space and time are suggestions left tantalizing and unresolved.  And the book has, I will spoil this part too, a happy ending.

While this book is not a masterpiece, not nearly as thrilling and chilling as Dracula, for example, it is a “good read,” and I would certainly recommend it for a few nights of minor suspense.  There are in the book a couple of author’s plot mistakes (places where he contradicts something he previously said).  And, you may find the sentimentality of the love story silly, or annoying.  Never mind; this is a book with sheer entertainment value, and not much actual Egyptology of a genuine kind.  This is a couple of cuts above such books as King Solomon’s Mines and She by H. Rider Haggard, with a frothy charm all its own; or, perhaps given the constant mention of the odor of embalmed beings with all their enchantments and inducements to trance, I should say this book has a smoky charm all its own.  In any case, I’m very glad I read it a second time, and got both the visual image and the plot straight, at least.  Isn’t memory a funny thing?  That one image could leap out at you, and so dominate the surrounding landscape of the rest of the novel as to change one’s memory of the actual plot.  This book has no sense of humor, but it doesn’t need one:  it has mystery, and a mild form of creepiness.  Why not give it a shot?Shadowoperator

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Some serious God-talk for a contrary soul, no holds barred: Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers”

To reveal a truth that puts me in the rearguard (if anywhere at all) in the procession of people who expect things from a mysterious eternal source, not only do I refuse to give that source a conventional name, such as Allah, Yahweh, Christ, Buddha, etc., but I find great difficulty in being thankful.  I’m the grumpy child, the child who’s never satisfied, who grouses and complains about everything and wonders why things aren’t different, even though I myself haven’t perhaps done that much to make them different.  To others of more thankful vein, it sometimes seems that I believe we all enter the world with a certain amount of currency to spend, and I’m angry because I got shortchanged by the Powers That Be.  What Anne Lamott instead insists in her guidebook to prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers is that we’re all born with the same spiritual currency, and we can either shortchange ourselves and others, or recharge our “gift cards” by realizing that life is, in fact, a gift, and that we have the power to increase our appreciation and enjoyment of it, and to get both us and others through some of the rough spots.

When I first started reading her book, I found the trustfulness and the willingness to compromise with God annoying (as if one has a choice about compromising with an eternal principle, but then of course, she seems to think we do, in a sense).  She seemed to go from inspiration to inspiration, from eager acceptance of a divine force to a certain easy relationship with it, though she emphasizes throughout the book that these things aren’t true.  I had a certain skeptical “Oh yeah, sez you” attitude about it, which wanted to say that it’s just impossible to be so much on “hail-fellow-well-met” terms with some of the really suckassy things that happen, both in the name of God, and in the name of the negative principle (which some call “evil”), and which we’re asked to believe is a sub-province of God’s concern, one which he or she has reasons, mysterious ones, for not controlling better.

I continued to read, however, waiting for the “punchline,” as if someone were telling me a joke or tall tale; there had to be a punchline, a conversion scene, a “I-can-top-everything-I’ve-already-said-with-something-that’ll-knock-your-socks-off.”  I was getting near the end of the book and thinking that though less talented writers had sometimes given me something significant in less well-crafted words, that this epitome of the golden phrase had for once disappointed, when I found my passage.  This is something that usually happens to people in a prayerful audience when the minister or prayer leader says something that touches home, and then sometimes there’s an invitation to “come on down to the front and worship,” and that part always has infuriated me, and embarrassed me both for myself (my can sunk firmly in my seat, not budging), and for those who drift thankfully and solemnly down to the “front.”  In fact, I have only been in that sort of prayer gathering once or twice as a child or adolescent, the church I mainly attended not being so demonstrative, but existing, however thankfully, on a more “I’ll give you a call from my cell phone later” sort of relationship with divinity.

But certainly, thanks in part to the good humor and honesty of Lamott’s spiritual manual, for it is certainly something anyone in the habit of seeking illumination should have a look at, I had that important “ah-ha!” moment near the end.  I wasn’t expecting it, though so much of value had gone before (and I was sulky about that, because it meant I couldn’t dismiss the book wholesale).  Here, as if she knew me well and knew how many times I have dieted and starved and tried to get my avoirdupois under control, is the passage I ran across, full of simplicity and yet full of her particular brand of jesting about things which we often wince from, when they are dealt with by more solemn or thankless hands:

“You mindlessly go into a 7-Eleven to buy a large Hershey’s bar with almonds, to shovel in, to go into a trance, to mood-alter, but you remember the first prayer, Help, because you so don’t want the shame or the bloat.  And out of nowhere in the store, a memory floats into your head of how much, as a child, you loved blackberries, from the brambles at the McKegney’s.  So you do the wildest, craziest thing:  you change your mind, walk across the street to the health food store, and buy a basket of blackberries, because the answer to your prayer is to remember that you’re not hungry for food.  You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory.  You’re not hungry for cocoa butter.  You’re hungry for safety, for a moment when the net of life holds and there is an occasional sense of the world’s benevolent order….So you eat one berry slowly….Wow.  That tastes like a very hot summer afternoon when I was about seven and walked barefoot down the dirt road to pick them off the wild blackberry bushes out by the goats….Wow.”

This seems so colloquial that one might almost miss the artistry.  And because I’m not a happy camper, I demand a certain level of artistry; I tell myself I deserve it, as a professional reader, but perhaps the truth is also that I sometimes engage in games of one-upmanship with other more fortunate writers, who’ve hit the print page.  That is, of course, my privilege, as a trained reader, but it also can blur the distinction between major issues of composition and minor faults or inattentions.  In Lamott’s quoted passage above, she not only hits on a huge human issue, the issue of displacement activity, a psychological phenomenon in which one urge or desire to act is replaced with something apparently less intense (in some cases, not this one, less harmful, as when a bird under challenge from another bird will whet its beak on a branch, or attack something inanimate).  She gets at the issue of real desires vs. cheap replacements that are no good for us.  And, she shifts the narrative from the “you” it starts out in to the “when I was about seven” part as if piercingly aware of the defensiveness people like me have to being rescued by gods.  Now, granted, berries are better, but in my ordinary life, “the wildest, craziest thing” I might do is to go into a health food store and buy blackberries.  Or at least, it runs a close race with other forms of genuine activity, because I’m likely, being on a reduced budget, to convince myself that berries at a health food store are way more expensive than a candy bar, which is cheap eats for all who dare disregard their health.  At any rate, this was my passage, the passage that particularly touched me.  It reminded me of all the times my five-year-older aunt and I rode up into the country with my grandfather on his repair truck (he worked for the Coca-Cola Co., and the big supply trucks often overheated or broke down up in the hills where they travelled in the summer).  My aunt and I usually found berry bushes, totally wild and unsprayed because they belonged to the earth, not to farmers or growers, and we collected and ate berries to our hearts’ content.  Now, my aunt is in a nursing home and will probably continue there, despite the fact that she is not very elderly, because she had a brain bleed about a year ago which decreased her ability to function.  Trying to take a page from Anne Lamott’s book, I attempt to place the one experience of her, speaking haltingly to me over the phone, side-by-side in the eternal scales with my youthful experience of gathering berries together, and thanks to Lamott, it’s a bit easier to do, even for someone like me, who feels a little safer on the non-trusting side of life.

So, that’s really all I had to say:  Lamott’s book is a lovely book, one that you may fight with as you like, but that may turn out to have something for you too in it, even if you are not profoundly spiritual, as I believe she must be.  After all, you don’t have to say “God,” or even “god,” or even “goodness me!” if you don’t want to.  All that’s required is a mindful attention to the up currents as well as the down currents, and a resolve to be a better, or at least a more completely whole, person. shadowoperator

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“Sleepless Nights”–or, Getting My Insomnia Steaze on with Elizabeth Hardwick

I know that I certainly owe my readers an apology:  I have been away from the posting box for several weeks now, and during that time, occasional checks have shown me that my readers are a great deal more faithful than I am.  Readers from all over the world have been reading or possibly re-reading all my posts thus far, while I have been doing other things that called me away from the computer

What have I been doing, you ask?  Or possibly you’ve lost interest by now–let’s hope not, though.  I have been busy starting to get handmade gifts ready for Christmas in a few months.  And, I have been up early and late when I would have preferred to have been getting a good night’s sleep, many a night.  I am either sleepless thinking of all I have to get done, and have been wakeful in the wee hours (and finally, I usually give up and get up to start my day), or I’m up late at night, finishing up some aspect of one of my projects.  Sometimes, I have actually been up all night in my eagerness to get work done.  Little by little, I have been aware of how much more people could get done if only they didn’t sleep.  But finally, last night, my hectic schedule caught up with me:  I was so sleepy that all I could do was eat, read the very last of a book which has supplied me with a few moments here and there of literary pleasure during my work, and go off to sleep.

The book?  Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless NIghts.  How appropriate, I hear you say!  Yet, I have preferences in general for books which are not all about style and issues of style, whether of writing or of life.  But I had simply chosen this book off the shelf at random out of the sort of idle curiosity which has led to some of my most favorite literary adventures, so I persisted with it.  Though accordingly it’s not really my type of book, it was perfect for the episodic and halting manner in which I had time to read it.

The book begins by announcing an apparent scenario, topic, and theme, which I give here in brief:  “How nice it is–[this crocheted bedspread,] this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home.  The niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle–that is what I see.  More beautiful is the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street….If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.  Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself.”  From that point onward, however, one gets lost in a kaleidoscopic shifting back and forth from one place and time to the next, from a girlhood (based on Hardwick’s own) in Kentucky, to homes in New York, Maine, Connecticut, to many life stories not her own, for example of some of the cleaning ladies and laundresses she has known.  These are all short sketches, then the topic is switched to someone else, some other locale.  Perfect to me for reading from moment to moment, a few pages one night, a few pages the next!

There are literary riffs played on the life and times of Billie Holiday, detailing her behind-the-scenes experiences as viewed by a close outsider, close in proximity if not in emotional terms.  Yet, it is hard to tell just how much of the meandering and rather plotless narrative (one cannot reallly call it a story) is actual fact and how much is made up.  Hardwick mentions at one points that her mother criticized her for making up some things which weren’t true and putting them amongst things which were, and if one were out to get either a purely fictional story or essay or conversely a memoir, then the demand to separate fact from fiction might be apt.

However, this book is a book about getting one’s insomnia steaze on, about all the ideas, notions, pictures of the past and speculations about the present and future which occur to one when one is wakeful, and if one accepts the book on those terms, then one will be more than satisfied.  Yet, it is not, curiously, the author’s own insomnia which gets main mention, first mention, or even predominant mention in this book.  She tells about Louisa, for example, an acquaintance who actually suffers from insomnia, and says:  “After a dreamy day, Louisa went into her nights.  Always she insisted they were full of agitation, restlessness, torment.  She was forever like one watched over by wakefulness in her deepest sleep.  She awoke with a tremor in her hands, declaring the pains, the indescribable, absorbing drama of sleeplessness.  The tossing, the racing, the battles; the captures and escapes hidden behind her shaking eyelids.  No one was more skillful than she in the confessions of an insomniac.  These were redundant but stirring epics, profoundly felt and there to be pressed upon each morning, in the way one presses a bruiise to experience over and over the pain of it….Her hypnotic narration is like that of some folk poet, steeped, as they say, ‘in the oral tradition.’  Finally, it goes, sleep came over me…At last…It was drawing near to four o’clock.  The first color was in the sky…Only to wake up suddenly, completely….Unsavory egotism?  No, mere hope of definition, description, documentation.  The chart of life must be brought up to date every morning:  Patient slept fitfully, complained of the stitches in the incision.  Alarming persistence of the very symptoms for which the operation was performed.  Perhaps it is only the classical aching of the stump.”  Thus, insomnia is compared poetically to a sort of illness or medical condition for which one requires surgery, and which must be kept track of by someone to assure the patient’s health and well-being.

Romances of the author’s fictional self are sketched out (for one must remember that none of this book actually purports to be a memoir, while it prefers to blur the lines and distinctions between fact and fiction).  There are also portraits of romances and life histories in miniature of other sets of lovers of whom the author knew, or with whom she was acquainted, not necessarily anyone as famous as Billie Holiday, but people who form part of the landscape of the author’s mind.  In short, these are all the topics and scenarios about which a fictionalized version of the author has thought in the small hours, and the connection amongst them is maintained by the style of masterful reminiscence of a long life, though without the sort of condescension to “elderly” memories that one might see as a danger to be avoided in this style of writing.

Thus, it seems that it can truly be said, in the “Urban Dictionary” slang of our own time, that Elizabeth Hardwick is in this work showing her “steaze” ( I am told this word means, among other things, “styling with ease,” making it an appropriate if anachronistic accolade for such a writer).  It’s not essentially my kind of work, since I prefer to be reading a consistent or at least a less episodic story line.  Still, it kept me reading from night to night as I got my own insomnia steaze on, and a good literary companion is not to be cast down upon.  I would recommend this book for its sense of control of a difficult and querulous subject, a subject as difficult and querulous as an insomniac herself.  And who knows, you might come greatly to admire a writer who can seem to meander and wool-gather without once losing track of her readers’ interest and willingness to go along in an exploration of the places and times and acquaintances of a single, remarkable, if fictionalized, life.

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Julia Alvarez’s “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”–another perspective on the revolution from “The Farming of Bones”

Some time back, I wrote a post on Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones with the subtitle “There is no such thing as a small massacre.”  Julia Alvarez’s book How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is another perspective on the same political situation in the Dominican Republic/Haiti island; it is told not from the viewpoint of the countless number of Haitians who suffered in the massacre which came about at Trujillo’s command, but from the supposedly advantaged perspective of some rich Dominicans who, because of political sympathies which were in line with those of the Haitians, were also deprived of their homes and livelihoods, though the characters in this book in particular were lucky enough to escape without losing their lives or suffering imprisonment.  Instead, they went to the United States as immigrants, and were able to re-establish themselves there.  This advantage also had attendant disadvantages, however, which is part of the unspooling tale Julia Alvarez unwinds, from the beginning present tense in the novel, when thirty-nine-year old Yolanda (known as Yoyo to her friends and family), the third child in the family of four children, revisits her roots.  The tale then moves on from section through section to the family’s past.

Alvarez has cleverly and significantly timed the tale so that she paints the picture not only of small revolutions going on in the family itself (such as when the four daughters, Carla, Sandi, Yoyo, and Fifi, rebel against their Mami and Papi during the sixties and seventies by becoming “offensively” American in their ways of thinking and behaving, and act much as other rebelling youths did during that time period), but she has also slotted the backward-developing story into the space of time such that it is during the girls’ late pre-adolescent period, just before they go to America, that they become aware that their Papi is a Dominican rebel, wealthy and privileged though he may be (he shares this status and these beliefs with many of the other men of the huge de la Torre clan, too).  This gradual retrospective story method allows for the girls’ own innocence as pampered rich children in the Dominican Republic to emerge also little by little, showing perhaps what some of the original causes of the revolution were, though there is never any overt or heavy-handed preaching of political views or goals.  Papi is just Papi, with his political preferences and his strong love of family.

Beginning with a section describing Yoyo’s present-day visit back to the island from the U. S., the tale is told in consecutive chapters, with each girl’s story told in turn, as a separate kind of “short story” which, however, probably could not stand alone.  The story goes back and forth between them, in third-person narration largely, though Yoyo’s sections predominate in number and length by a bit, and some of hers are in first-person narration.The very end of the novel itself is thus the farthest back in time, when Yoyo, the writer-poet daughter of the family, recalls finding a tiny baby kitten, not knowing what to do with it or how to justify adopting it from its mother before it has been weaned, only in a fit of childish behavior to hurl it from an upstairs window.  The story ends with her remark that often in her adulthood, waking up from her “bad dreams and insomnia,” she sees the mother cat, “wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art.”  The story is so completely imagined and detailed that I didn’t feel this needed a “spoiler alert,” as in this book one reads for the whole substance and not just for the “whodunit” or final outcome, moving and well-imagined as it is.

To “lose one’s accent” is shown throughout the book to be a double-edged sword:  it allows one to defend oneself more readily from outright harassment by those of one’s adopted country who are mean or cruel, and even helps ease one’s way through the shoals of well-meaning condescension by more kindly disposed (if ignorant) Americans.  On the other hand, there is a lot more lost with the accent itself as one adapts to a new culture, a whole missing part of oneself which can cut to the quick with its absence.  Altogether, this book is a very meaningful and well-considered picture of both privilege and loss, of both development and possible retrogression, which should be on every library bookshelf and which well repays a thorough read-through.

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“Tomas Takes Charge” and Cinnamon Sticks–A Childhood Memory

Back in the day, when I was in primary school (known otherwise as “grade school”) and was doing lots and lots of reading, I got a book as a gift.  Though I had received many books as gifts, other than “baby books” they were mostly soft cover; this one was my first “collector-grown-up book,” as I thought of it, because it was hard cover and yet still had illustrations to please my youthful taste.  The short novel is called Tomás Takes Charge.  It is by Charlene Joy Talbot, with illustrations by Reisie Lonette.  My twelve-year-old nephew gave me a new copy of the same book for Christmas last year, and though I have to say it has certain drawbacks to my adult taste, I still remember it being one of my first childhood exposures to those growing up in a different culture.  First of all, I came from a small town, and this book is set in the area of Washington Market in NYC.  As well, it is about a young Puerto Rican boy, Tomás Lorca, and his sister Fernanda.  To my adult perceptions, there is something not quite right in the almost stereotypical portrait of their favorite neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Malloy, and also in the fact that all of the people who help them out the most are Anglos.  But to a child, these matters are different, and I didn’t have as keen a view of such things then as I hope to have developed since.  Another part of this bookish memory is of course chewing on cinnamon toothpicks while reading the book, over and over, to such an extent that my tongue often burned and the places where I had marked my page with a cinnamon toothpick reeked of the spice to the extent that it is an indivisible part of the original memory.

The toothpicks were the province of the grade school girls, who, back in the days when grocery stores and pharmacies still sold one-ounce bottles of clear (top-strength) cinnamon oil, would make “cinnamon sticks,” so called because the boxes of toothpicks were soaked in a strong cinnamon oil-water mixture until they absorbed all the moisture, then dried and exchanged for favors and treats from other children at school.  I made my own like most other girls, but I always kept the strongest and most pungent for my private “stash.”  But enough of that:  suffice it to say that cinnamon sticks, so made, were my version of the madeleines made famous in Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust.

In Tomás Takes Charge, Tomás and his slightly older sister, who suffers from agoraphobia, are left alone in their apartment when their father, their only living relative, is suddenly and unpredictably absent.  Mr. and Mrs. Malloy attempt to make sure that the two youngsters go to their “godmother’s,” a concocted story which Tomás produces in his fear of being sent to Welfare, but Tomás’s ingenuity is too much for the older couple.  He finds a way of housing himself and his sister in an abandoned top-floor apartment a few streets away.  The rest of the novel is largely taken up with showing the many and various ways that Tomás employs to feed them and keep them clothed and happy, even to the extent of finding an old discarded portrait of George Washington and a map of the United States to hang on the walls.  Though his sister is abnormally afraid to go outside, she coaxes a mother cat and kitten into their hideaway to help keep away rats, and she does the cooking and cleaning, leaving Tomás to play the conventional “man’s” role.  Tomás accidentally trespasses on an artist’s loft apartment, where he meets Barbara Ransome, who by his very luck happens to be a children’s book illustrator in need of a model.  This gives Tomás even more money to contribute to his little household, and all in all things seem set to prosper.  Nevertheless, the summer is drawing to a close, and Tomás and Fernanda are uncomfortably aware that they have no heat in their hiding spot; and then Tomás takes a tumble on the fire escape while crossing the roofs, and sprains his ankle, concerning the illustrator because she is expecting him to come the next day for work and he doesn’t show up.

Luck plays a large part in the children’s fortunes, but as it is a children’s story, this is perhaps appropriate.  On the same day that Barbara Ransome goes out looking for her little male model, having previously believed his tale of living with an aunt, she meets up with the Malloys.  When they compare stories, they feel sure (of course) that Tomás and Fernanda are hiding in an abandoned building somewhere in the area.  They go out to look; at the same time, Fernanda remembers what her brother has told her about Barbara Ransome’s skylight apartment and starts a smoking fire in the grate in theirs, hoping that Barbara will see it and come to their rescue.  Luckily, of course, Barbara’s brother is a psychiatrist, and as a doctor he goes with the firemen who are summoned (because others not connected with the story have seen the smoke as well).  There is just the matter of “setting the record straight” about Welfare, which happens when Tomás speaks with a representative and finds him nothing like the monster he had feared (this too seems like an apologia for the system, given all the abuses in children’s services which have been exposed in recent years, but this book is full of best-case scenarios, so one has to accept it for what it is).  The ending is the best it could be, under the circumstances:  they find out that the reason the children’s father has not returned is that he was killed in a car accident.  That is, he didn’t just desert them.  The Malloys knock down a shared wall between their apartment and the next adjoining empty room in order to make more space, and adopt the waifs.  And that is the basic story line.  I haven’t hesitated to give the full story without a “spoiler alert” because it is a children’s book, one a parent might have an interest in for a child, though as I have remarked, being written in 1966, and carefully slanted toward praising the system while also carefully attempting not to insult immigrant industry, ingenuity, and pride, the book would perhaps need a stream of ad libbing by an adult reader to bring it up to date (and children do get impatient with extraneous material, as I recall from trying to read The Secret Garden to a child a few years back, all the while giving a brief explanation of the British empire and class system).  Whatever may be the case now, when I was in grade school in the 1960’s, the book was progressive for its time and given its intended audience, though not as progressive as most adult liberal literature of the same time span.  And it is part of childhood memory for me, as I set sail upon the waters of fiction to a better understanding of others with different ways than mine.

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In Favor of Wool-gathering: A Crocheter’s Meditations Upon Both the Craft and Life

Though I begin by entitling this post “In favor of,” in actual fact it might more accurately be termed “for and against,” or “pro and con” due to the fact that nothing in life is perfect and all things have their down sides.  But beginning that way would lack the literary resonance of “in favor of,” which precedes other essays on life of more worth and importance than my modest effort, so I lay what claims for it I can, to belong to that fellowship.  Also, I am taking poetic license by calling it “wool-gathering,” because while this is a noteworthy pun in the case, in actual fact for a lot of people including me, it’s more like “acrylic-gathering,” since I often work in the less soft and more resilient acrylic yarns which are cheaper and bulkier both.  These caveats aside, I can justifiably refer to myself by the crafter’s jolly appellation “a happy hooker” (a bit of a hokey punning cognomen in use since the madam Xaviera Hollander’s bestseller came out in the 1970’s, a name supposedly adding more dash to crochet’s use of a single hook as opposed to the milder knitter’s pun of “knit-wit” for the use of two needles).

And now to begin, actually.  Crochet, like knitting, is a craft which abounds in opportunities for error, because in order to render even the simplest pattern, one must count stitches, so that I can see it being excellent homeopathic therapy for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it is probably a good way to acquire a roaring case of said disorder.  One thing’s for sure, unless one has crocheted a good long while and is only doing a simple single crochet or double crochet pattern (two of the basic stitches), it is nearly impossible to carry on an intelligent conversation or watch an exciting television program at the same time.  Such frivolity of approach brings on dropped stitches (missed stitches) and other unintentional and erroneous embellishments of one’s work.  The down side is that one is often working merrily along on a complicated and repetitive pattern, sure that because the repetition has become second nature that one is “sitting pretty” in one’s rocker or easy chair, so to speak, when suddenly two rows from where one made the original error, one discovers a flaw that necessitates the intervening work being pulled out and reworked, with more humility this time.  Probably the best secondary activity is to listen to music of a non-controversial or balmy nature, which is better than Muzak but doesn’t require singing along while muttering to oneself over and over again “one, two, three, four, five, three stitches in that one, one, two, three, four, five, skip two, one, two, three, four, five, three stitches,” etc.  Even classical music could become too disruptive, especially if it is a stirring piece that one feels compelled to hum or utter “ta-da-da” along with.  Many things in life, occupation-wise, call for tedious and unwavering attention to a specific thing, but crocheters (and knitters too) are among the crafters who most needlessly and relentlessly punish themselves with this form of self-abuse as a hobby.

One is also given a lesson about memory.  For example, try to repeat an afghan or piece of clothing that you have done before, and without a written set of instructions with exact stitches recorded (and books of patterns are surprisingly expensive for what they are), you are doomed to hours of frustration.  I have recently learned even more about the faults of memory, the necessity for patience, and the occasional failings of expert advice.  Taking down an afghan that I wanted to repeat but no longer have a pattern for, I looked at the pattern intently and tried to remember just what I’d done.  But memory could only take me so far:  I kept making things that just didn’t resemble what I was looking at.  So, I had to keep trying (patience, jackass, patience).  Then, to my great joy and regret (joy because I found a store pattern which was like part of what I was trying to accomplish, regret that I had to pay so much for it), I noticed after putting in the first row that the pattern writers weren’t perfect either (the limits of experts).  True, they were only a stitch off, but it left me trying to think up clever ways of coming up with the extra needed stitch at the end of the row.  I fudged it, and am proud to say that the gods sometimes aid the diligent and well-intentioned (and sheerly stubborn, or as a British friend of mine used to say, “bloody-minded”–so much more poetic!)

And now, I’m well on my way to accomplishing my goal of figuring out the (as it turns out) quite complicated pattern I once did blithely  in my foolish youth, when success was only a few stitches away, and I had plenty of time and patience, excellent memory and ingenuity.  Creativity, it turns out, can take many forms, and is often made up of these things almost exclusively.  What one realizes with this craft at least is that time is finite, patience and memory often decrease with age, and ingenuity is called upon more frequently to make up for the shortages of the other three.  As one of my favorite refrigerator magnets has it, “Age and guile always overcome youth and skill.”  So now you have it, my completed post.  Last but not least:  this post was inspired by the reflection which visited me this morning that I have obligations willingly incurred to my readers and blogging buddies as well, and it was high time I produced another post.  As to those of you who are waiting for me to respond to their posts, take it as read that i will do so very soon.  Right now, I’m still wool-gathering, and have to finish a bit more in order to be satisfied!

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The Perennial Appeal and Vision of Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears”

Though I was planning to post in a few days on another work entirely, today I happened to read Caroline’s post at BeautyIsASleepingCat , and was struck with an exchange she and I had about the material of a book she was reviewing, and which she is currently receiving comments on (for those who have read it or are interested in reading it, as am I).  Her review topic was J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, and I’ll just repeat the part of our discussion that is pertinent to my own topic today:  in effect, we talked about the way that sometimes, happy memories from the past can make us unhappy in the present because they are no longer a part of our current experience.  This is part of the character’s experience in the book she is discussing, and for some reason–and it turns out to be a fairly good one–I was unable to dismiss my own faint memory of some other work, at some other time, which had been on the same general subject.

As it so happens, it was one of my favorite of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems, short and to the point though it is, in contrast with his several lengthier poems which have won worldwide acclaim.  The poem is “Tears, Idle Tears,” and I am able to give it here in complete form, because it is available elsewhere on the Internet as well:

“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,/Tears from the depth of some divine despair/Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,/In looking on the happy autumn-fields,/And thinking of the days that are no more./”  “Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,/That brings our friends up from the underworld,/Sad as the last which reddens over one/That sinks with all we love below the verge;/So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more./”  “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns/The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds/To dying ears, when unto dying eyes/The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;/So sad, so strange, the days that are no more./”  “Dear as remembered kisses after death,/And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned/On lips that are for others; deep as love,/Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;/O Death in Life, the days that are no more!/”

I’ve always said that no one can milk an emotion like Tennyson!  But how does the poem actually work?  It seems to work by an intricate set of connecting words and phrases which rely on experiences everyone has either had or has imagined having, so that its universal appeal can easily be understood.  In the first stanza, Tennyson begins with the rhetorical trope of paralipsis, or denying something that he is in fact going to affirm, when he first says, “I know not what they mean,” and then goes on to tell us exactly what they mean.  The tears are “idle” only in the same sense that they are “vain,” not as in “vain’ equalling “empty” or “egotistical,” but “vain” as in “useless,” “hopeless,” “having no worthwhile issue.”  The present “autumn-fields” are “happy,” but the speaker is sunk in recollection by what they call up to memory.  There have been other autumn days and fields which were happier still.

In the second stanza, it’s not just the memories that are said to be past, but also what would be a rather eerie visitation by friends “up from the underworld,” were it not a welcome visitation.  The beam of sunlight which the speaker can imagine “glittering” on the underworld sail as it rises is challenged in its “fresh” quality by the nearly concurrent “sad” quality (a word reiterated throughout the poem) which “sinks with all we love below the verge,” so that “the days that are no more,” the phrase repeated in the end of each stanza, has a focus on the distant horizon, whether in the rise of memories or their return to the underworld which apparently stores them, the horizon often being a symbol of life’s bourne, limits, and of death.

The subject of death having been well-introduced by now, the speaker makes a tie between an experience everyone has perhaps had, that of “dark summer dawns” and hearing “the earliest pipe of half-awakened birds,” and links it with an experience that awaits everyone but which only those who are already gone could actually have, “the dying ears” hearing the sounds, and the “dying eyes” which see the casement “slowly grow[] a glimmering square.”  This stanza uses the word “sad” as well to describe this imagined experience, but whereas in the second stanza it was  living persons watching those from the underworld approach and leave, at least in imagination, so here it is the imagined dying people who have the “strange” experience of watching the dawn of a day which they possibly will not live to see the end of.  In this respect, the poem reminds me a little of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” which also discusses a moment when “I could not see to see,” and purports to be talking from a time after that moment, to judge by its past tense.

Lost causes seem to be the subject of the fourth stanza, whether that of kisses that are no longer accessible, or fantasies about love and lovers that did not bear fruit, and the word “hopeless” emphasizes the whole tenor of the poem, which acknowledges happiness only to grieve its short tenure.  The days that are no more are “deep as love,/Deep as first love,” which is another repetition emphasizing what is missing from the present that was available in the past, love itself, since the speaker seems not to anticipate any further happiness from the current moment or day.  And then, of course, “wild with all regret,” whether of things not done at all or things that can be no longer done, we get the strongest statement yet of the speaker’s dilemma, “O Death in Life, the days that are no more!”  Here, the grieving requires emphatic punctuation at the end of the line, and Tennyson caps off his line with an exclamation point, to emphasize that death is a main concern to the speaker, whether actual deaths that he is mourning or the loss of happier times which he cannot conceive will come again or be followed by more happy times.

Now, having written about this poem and having lived with it again for a short space, I can say that there is a sort of catharsis one experiences when reading a poem such as this one, so that as well as turning out an inspired bit of work, Tennyson has provided a vision with a workaday or utilitarian use.  My older teachers in grade school and even in high school were excessively fond of poems with this quality, which in Samuel Johnson’s words could “point a moral” and “adorn a tale.”  Their own confreres amongst the more exalted academic circles at the time of their own youth must have surely pooh-poohed this approach to literature, and it has its limits.  But I do have to say that having re-read the poem after a long time of not seeing it in front of me, I do feel not only admiration and reverence for its aesthetic qualities, but appreciation as well for the cathartic release it engenders.  I think it likely that the book Caroline is reviewing, A Month in the Country, may well have similar cathartic capabilities.  Why not visit her site and see?

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