Tag Archives: originality

“Poems for Susan” by Arthur L. Wood–A Poet’s History of a Love in the Years ‘Round 2020, in Resounding Verse

Poems for Susan in a seasonal bouquet, Copyright Arthur L. Wood, Cover illustration by the author.

Arthur L. Wood is a young poet from the U.K., residing near Winchester, Hampshire, who is generously sharing his first collection of poems, Poems for Susan, which was written in a few short months’ time in the warm season of 2020, some of his poetical recitals of his poems being on YouTube.  But more about that later.  He is a widely versed poet (to make a true pun), whom the notable writer of his Foreword, Raymond Keene, OBE explained, has written a work which bars the progress of the destruction of intellectual civilization.  This may sound hyperbolic, yet if you’ll indulge me with this post, and try the young man’s poetic skills for yourself, you’ll see that it’s only perhaps a bit overgenerous.  In this sense, we wait for what more he will do, because he has made such profit of his early opportunities, that now he may be the only person who can live up to them.  As Raymond Keene notes, he has been under the influence of “Baroque and Metaphysical verse,” and Marlowe, Shakespeare, Byron, Blake, Yeats, Eliot, and others.  Sometimes, Wood alludes to these poets outright in the verses of his book, sometimes he seems to have swallowed them whole and digested their substance, then integrated it into his work wholesale, a good thing, as it proposes a tradition of continuous poetic involvement.  The quality I find most enchanting, however, is the sheer intoxication of words, which to me of all the influences named is the most like Shakespeare at his heights, in the use of sometimes startling verbal inexactitudes which then become new and vibrant precisions for the reader, which is the way true poetry works.

The book begins with “A Preface in Seven Parts,” followed by 70 separate poems of varying meters, rhymes, and subjects, though the overwhelming number are devoted (and I stress that word, devoted, or consecrated, perhaps) to one main subject, the subject of a young love. It is organized and passes through easy stages of poetic awareness, though a careful editorial process seems to have shaped the work into a whole, as if the poems are all parts of one long poem.

Now, just to give a bit of a tempting taste of the treats in store for the reader: The gradually evolving subjects are these:

Of youth and friendship, sometimes under the influence initially of drugs and alcohol;

On those first drugs I ever took
In fields with friends when I was young
With dances of delight and song
And shimmers by the aching brook.

That long and weary journey through
A world of new sensations sweet
Nervous in the dizzying heat
Obliterating on the dew.

Of the threat of madness or emotional instability;

And twice or thrice, I oft forget
I held a knife and slit my arm,
I longed for some enchanted calm
And shook in midnight's fearful sweat.

I struck in anger, sunk in fear
And said, "My life is overworn
I wish I never had been born
I wish to easily disappear.

Of Byronic, Romantic idylls in foreign lands;

I found my soul in lands forlorn
Saw noises in the slow retreat
Of day and grasslands good to eat
And those enlightened fields of corn....

Of the intoxicating influence of love;

I am possessed by something new
A glimmer like that youthful day
But stronger with a brighter ray
And my beautiful Love is too.
Of the depths of love, as eternal;

"And I can feel the holy hours
Build with restless ecstasy
And thus it feels, thus I am free!
And love in life in death is ours!"

**********************************

A wealth of poets throned above
Gaze upon our fledging love,
They gaze, they nod, and wisely see
How love grows to tranquility.

Of the awareness of mortality and potential aging playing against that eternity, signs and portents;

If you look you too will find,
You'll dream the year that you shall rot
You'll see the end of your sweet mind
You'll see the end of your sweet lot.

********************************

I went to the forest to weep,
Then on to the meadow to cry,
Then on to the hillock to sleep,
Then into the grasses to die.
For my Love was an angel I hurt.
I didn't know wherefore or why.
My passion belonged in the dirt.
So I went to the forest to die.

Of the coming of war and Covid, and yet....;

I turn inside.  I turn inside.
India and China go to war
And my dear friend to Covid died.
The world is rich, the world is poor.
I think that every genocide
Was born like this and I can see
And so I'd rather turn inside,
These savage brutes do not hear me.

************************************

I end my sleep
Despite my better judgement
And the pleading of my eyes.

Upon my street three emergency vehicles
Six emergency personnel
One man dead.  Well, everybody dies.

***********************************

Come my way and I will rest
Come my  way and I will lie
On your million-pleasured breast
With coolest fingers round your thigh,
And like an olive softly pressed
Above your touch my swelling chest
Come my way and we will rest
Come my way and we will die.

Of how other realities impact upon love's legislations;

For evil eyes announce that death is slicing soon
Then move with me in passion round this Moon
And fear the loss and fear the fading flame.

********************************************

Of Blakean-style hopes for a fairer world;

When work is a toil for goodness
And food is not murder or theft
And peace and religion are partners
Providing the starving bereft,

When beings of blood are the mirror
And fear and unusual sight
Then I will walk easy in daytime
Then I will sleep easy at night.

Of partings, at first temporary, then appparently more lasting;

My life I cannot lose but moan
For times to come now thou art gone
I lost thee yet we meet again
When there is no more grief or pain
When night exhales the dawn.

Of a final dedication of the poems in the verse;

Our flesh may travel on apart
Our hearts may proudly flee the Will
But where I go, whoe'er I know
I will love you still.

****************************************

The ghostly God is calling me
Clouds are bursting on yon hill
Although I go away to rove
I will love you still.

**************************************
**************************************

When you gaze with a wonderful glee
At Time's mysterious view
Then all your thoughts are with me
And all of my thoughts are with you.

And at last, a sort of realization, hard-won, about the infinity of all beings:

Today is the last of the dancing,
Sigh on, sigh on.
To wherever are we advancing?
Zion, Zion. 

This gives only the general outline of the whole volume of poetry; there is so much more in the entire book.  At some moments, it’s hard to realize, by the very depths of awareness, of the intensity of successfully communicated feeling, of the intoxication of having so many influences thoroughly combined into a neat whole, that the poet is a younger poet, with much time ahead of him still to compose.  True, he has another book out already published in 2021 (which book will be reviewed on this site as soon as I finish reading it, I hope over the winter holidays).  It’s a bigger book, which focuses more on the development of the poet, with all his generous, gentle, scintillating and perceptive poetical tentacles out during the world’s ongoing Covid pandemic.  The title of that book, in case you want to order the two at the same time, is Scarlet Land.  Just to give you a short taste of the continued loveliness of his work, here is one of the short poems therein:

Untouchable Hand

All nations go to the dogs,
The oceans size up the land,
The eyes are desolate nerve endings,
The rocks are grinded to sand.

The winds are endlessly blowing,
My heart is still overflowing,
And those joyous embers are glowing
In your warm, untouchable hand.

As an added attraction to this book of poetry, Poems for Susan, you can listen to a YouTube audio recording for free of the poet, who is marvellously trained as a reader, reading some of the key poems.  This is the link:  YouTube.com/playlist?list=PL2z5ZyeiuCJTM3XyTzrQyKx4T1EI9qaVM.  Or, if you’d like to hear this same poet read not only from some of his own works but also give his considerable talent to the deliverance of other poets’ works, you can seek him online at Poetry from the Shires.  If you wish to contact him, you can email at arthurwoodpoetry@gmail.com.  Last but not least, the shop address you correspond to online if you want to order either one or both of his books is: 

https://ko-fi.com/arthurlwood/shop

May all my and Arthur L. Wood’s readers have a wonderful season this year.  Some of us have already celebrated an early Hannukah this year, but there are still Solstice, Christmas, Boxing Day/Kwanzaa, and New Year’s to follow.  Please enjoy yourselves sensibly as regards not only your indulgences, but also your Covid precautions, so that as few of us as possible have things to regret when the season is over.  Be Happy!

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry and its forms and meanings, poetry as bardic speech, Topical poems--Covid-19, What is literature for?

A.S. Byatt and Professor Jeffers–My Essay on Their “Big Historical Books” That Can’t Seem to Find a Publisher (Here It Is)

Some time back, I revised an essay on A.S. Byatt which I had written some years ago because at last I had found another book which I find equal and commensurate to it in stature and able not only to carry on the tradition Byatt established but to ring such changes on it as need to be rung for a different society and such disparate traditions in this country as need urgently to be united. On the basis of having read about 100 pages of Professor Jeffers’ book The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois, I presumed to decide that this was the proper “inheritor” of the tradition Byatt had written in. There may possibly have been some inequity in the fact that I had not finished Professor Jeffers’ book, but I am continuing to read and will naturally do a full review on it when I have been able to finish, as I do with every book of stature which I have an opportunity to read. In my own defense, I would offer such personal facts as that I have also been reviewing other works recently, some of which I took up before Professor Jeffers’ book, others of which were easier to proceed with due to the simple fact that, whether prose or poetry, they were shorter. Also, I am almost certainly going to be forced to move before Christmas or shortly thereafter, and I have been getting ready and packed for that, and have been looking for Senior Housing. Perhaps I should have waited, but I was so eager to share the insight that I went ahead and revised the essay to include the prediction, no, the insistence, that the United States now has a book (there may somewhere be another, but this one is truthful about so many things, and it is a book of our contemporary centuries, too).

This book seems to me, at least, to be not only as enjoyable as Byatt’s book (all mysteries to end soon, I promise), but to be as informative if not more so, and as representative of a people’s culture, whether one is discussing that of the African-American citizens of this country or of our country as a whole, because it doesn’t leave the country alone and hanging, but speaks well for our culture as a cultural artefact. We should be just as proud of it as the British are of Byatt’s book (here it is), The Children’s Book, which only has as much to do with children as any historical book does, as it is a great deal more about the history and mores of the time. I have peeked ahead into Professor Jeffers’ book, but I didn’t want to do this too much before I wrote my final article to come in the future, because I didn’t want to take the risk of possibly issuing a spoiler and ruining it for the many readers who are still reading around me, as I don’t want to hear ahead of time either. And, this book also has a group of children as main characters. I say this in a certain amount of bewilderment as to why I haven’t been able to publish this article, aside from whatever my own skill with words may or may not be, which I leave to my readers. It may only be one of a host of other essays about the new book from a better variety of writers, or perhaps the difficulty has to do with simple editorial lack of space in previously committed journals. I don’t know. But I feel I don’t want to wait longer to cast my vote for the new book, always bearing in mind that I will review it again at better length later on.

It has occurred to me, that even in the two or three revisions this essay has gone through, I may be guilty of some oversight or intellectual injustice. If so, I am willing to hear the fault, from whomever feels they are qualified to tell me what it is. I want to know if I am in the wrong, because these are important issues: the societal issues raised about the status and well-being of a young black citizen and her family and associates in the United States are just as important as the looming issue of WW II was in Byatt’s book, and in my reading judgment are as well and interestingly handled. So, here is the essay: I invite comment, as always. [Thanks to D. L. Keur of the now defunct online journal thedeepening.com for printing the first version of the original Byatt essay, and for original permission to reprint.] Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

3 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, fiction examining societal inequities, What is literature for?

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)

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles/reviews, Poetry and its forms and meanings

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)  

Leave a comment

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

“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)

2 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, lifestyle portraits, writers of the LGBTQ+IA2 community

“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)

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles/reviews, lifestyle portraits, writers of the LGBTQ+IA2 community

“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.

Leave a comment

October 2, 2021 · 8:10 pm

“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)

Leave a comment

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

The REAL Author at Work, and Her Poem

Dear WordPress and Twitter followers, Sometimes an author or poet has to allow someone else to take credit for her work, due to prejudice and an inability to use the keys of the keyboard. This was so in my case, so I had to allow my human companion and servant to type this poem for me, and unfortunately also to take credit for it. Please excuse any irregularities; I found myself so excited to be given my due attention at last that I couldn’t prevent myself from walking on the keys, which may have occasioned a blank page at the very beginning. Please, advance past it and go on to my poem. Most sincerely, Dr. Lucie-Minou “Kitty” Bennett, C.A.T., P.U.R.R., F.U.R. (My picture below, wrapped in contemplation…)

As I do not smoke, or drink anything but water, you see me here

with only my superior sensibilities in evidence (no pipe, no whiskey).

An Eccleisiastical Furball
(To Christopher Smart and the author of Pangur Ba'n)
copyright Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2021 Olympia Publishers
Why does the kittty cat purr so?
Why does the kitty cat purr?
Because she's feeling so fine, bro,
Because she's licking her fur.

Why does the kitty cat hiss thus,
Why does the kitty cat hiss?
Because she's getting her teeth brushed,
Because she doesn't like this.

Why does the kitty cat stare so,
Why does the kitty cat stare?
Because the birds are outside, love,
Because the birds are out there.

Why does the kitty cat meow thus?
Why does the kitty cat meow?
Because she's been taught not to cuss, friend,
And she's in such a tight spot, and how!

Why does the kitty cat roll there,
With her belly up in the sun?
Because she's joyous and fine, lad,
And her troubles have all been outdone.

Why does the kitty cat sit there
So high up where she can't get down?
Because she was off on a lark, boy,
And wanted to see the town.

Why does the kitty cat fold her paws
Under in front when she sits?
Because she's refraining from slapping you
For asking so much just like this!

Why does the kitty cat look so profound
When it is time to pray?
Because she already knows her god
And has been in prayer all the day.

For her stare and her meow and her purr
And her rolls and her perch and her stance
And her hiss,
Are all celebrations of god's holy name,
So she needn't ask questions like this.

Leave a comment

Filed under What is literature for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles/reviews, lifestyle portraits, What is literature for?