Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Garden of Poetry: 'My Dad's Ship But One of Three'

Hello Everybody, 

            Guess what? It's poetry time again.
            The new, February issue of the online literary journal Verse-Virtual, my home away from home (poetically speaking) has published a new group of my poems. This bunch is about family history, and personal history, insofar as poems are ever about anything but themselves. 
            The first poem in the group, "My Dad's Ship But One of Three," comes from a true story Dad told us about the World War II embarkation of his regiment from England to France and the disaster that befell one of the transport ships. Here's the beginning:

My Dad's Ship But One of Three

Three ships left English port that evening
Out of sight is out of mind
Who would spy them cruising, steaming, transporting precious cargoes warm
across the dark cold waters, killing North Atlantic waters
Who could see through deepest night
bodies of a breathing cargo, men and mostly young ones likewise
bound for the shore of wartime heroes, horrors, lost hurrahs
bound for the continent, La Belle France, country of culture, wine, fashionable women, les belles dames
some reduced to eating garbage left behind
by lords and masters, four long years in darkness bowed them,
liberation on its watery way 

  Here's the link for these poems:

            You can see from the list of author's names on the current poetry page of this site (http://www.verse-virtual.com/current-poetry.html) that this journal publishes a lot of new poetry every month. It's a labor of love, but a lot of work, for the editor.
(FYI, here's the link to the sequence is called "Garden Lover" in the January issue of Verse-Virtual: 

(And here's the link to the poems published in the December issue (a poem about a hummingbird, one about my daughter Sonya's birthday, and a poem about walking on Wollaston Beach):

   (Another online journal, Bombay Review, recently published a garden-inspired poem titled "My Aching Back." It's a site with an attractive layout. Here's the link:              

          I hope everyone is well. It's been snowing like the end of the world for most of the day here in Eastern Massachusetts. But, actually, the snow appears to be lessening, and the world's still here.  

Monday, January 26, 2015

Memories of Summer: My Poem in The Bombay Review

 My poem recalling the sufferings of keeping your garden watered in a dry summer was published in the December issue of the online literary journal The Bombay Review. Here's the poem. I posted the link to the journal below, if you wish to take a look at the journal online. It's a very attractively designed web product, with good stuff to read.

My Aching Back – Robert Knox

Bees dart between the streams of spray —
They don’t like my rain delays

Bare-stemmed, burned out by the long dry spell
The plants wait patiently for rain

I bend to the task, patience my name
Bearing the heavy pail through twisty garden paths
Aquarius with a sore-point shoulder

A summer day too late for the name
I cheat with the sprinkler
The weary tomatoes rejoice,
flapping their yellow palms and withered phalanges in the spray

A time-worn rain machine
I sit on the borders of my storm
My fountain arcing to the blue

Patter of little foot-drops tom-toming across the hard paths,
stone slices louder than the parched and particled soil

In dreams I chastise my civilized oppressors
begging them at last to step out of doors
and lift their faces to the sky
to drink of the balm that must some day come


Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Garden of Imagination; A Lifetime Achievement for Ursula Le Guin

            Ursula Le Guin is one of a few writers whose work is so good that I hesitate to read too much of it out of fear that I will never attempt to write anything again myself. Pigeonholed for decades as a science fiction or fantasy writer, she is a reigning master of the entire arc of the imaginative art of fiction, a member of the first rank of her discipline.
            In her acceptance speech in November on receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Awards, Le Guin pointed out that writers such as her -- "my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination" -- have been excluded from the ranks of serious literature for the past 50 years in favor of what she called, with invisible but palpable quotations, "so-called realists."
            "I think hard times are coming," she said, "when we will want writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and obsolete society to other ways of being... We will need writers who can remember freedom."
            She described "poetic" and "imaginative" writers as "the realists of a larger reality."
            In the crises almost certain to come as human society continues to lay waste to the planet's resources and accelerate the pace of rapid climate change already well on the way, it seems to me that human beings may well seek guidance from those pathfinders "of a larger reality." When we are forced to make fundamental changes, find new ways to live, human beings may come to regard visionary artists such as Le Guin among its prophets.
            Le Guin's acceptance speech also bemoaned the reduction of the art of literature to a product, a means to make a profit. "Books are not just commodities," she said.
            "We live in capitalism," Le Guin told her audience. It's a 'reality' that appears inescapable, she added, "but so did the divine right of kings... Any human power can be changed by human beings."
            I suspect that to the folks who chose the National Book Awards, the works of writers of speculative and highly imaginative fiction have been as examples of escapist genres rather than serious literature. Serious literature should address the 'real' conditions of our lives. But just as our machines show us bigger and bigger slices of the universe (or 'verses') we're part of, speculative fiction expands our notion of the real.
            When it's written by an artist like Le Guin, scifi and fantasy can show us both what is, and what may be -- or, in the words of Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium," offer us a vision of "Of what is past, or passing, or to come."
            In books such as "The Dispossessed," "The Left-Hand of Darkness," "The Earth-Sea Trilogy" and "The Lathe of Heaven" that's exactly what she does.
            In "The Lathe of Heaven," written way back in 1971, Le Guin offers us a character whose dreams retroactively alter reality. After her protagonist (George) dreams that his aunt, who is very much a part of his reality went to sleep, has died, he wakes to discover that she has died in a car accident six weeks before.
            Poor George later asks his shrink to consider whether other people might be able to dream the way he does: "That reality is being changed out from under us, replaced, renewed, all the time - only we don't know it?"         
            In "The Left-hand of Darkness," the author features a race of people who naturally change gender in the course of a lifetime. Absurd -- a mere chimera? But if you're a man who takes estrogen to treat proste cancer, you may find this "speculative" notion remarkably close to home.
            In "Rocannon's World," she invents a world where winter lasts for seven years. Will human beings on Planet Earth ever be asked to adapt to a radically different and more extreme notion of "climate"? Don't look now, folks.
            In "The Dispossessed," my favorite of her politically speculative novels, an entire society trains its young to think and behave and live as "anarchists." The interestng hypothesis is that this society, while no utopia of ease, is far better organized -- in addtion to fairer -- than any political structure currently on earth is ever likely to be.
            So, yes, we may in fact turn to the fertile imaginations of the most speculative and poetic writers among us to point the way on.
            Le Guin's thinking in her talk to the National Book Award people is in fact not far from the oft-quoted and apparently revered notion of the poet Shelley two hundred years ago, who in his essay "In Defense of Poetry" called poets "the the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
            This is a rich notion indeed. When we think of the way modern, Western, free-thinking, individualistic, autonomous man and woman has evolved, we may agree with Shelley that, well, yes, the models were found in the arts -- romantic poetry, imaginative fiction, the English novel, essays of Votaire and Rousseau, the opera of Mozarts and the symphonies of Beethoven -- before they were routinely encountered in the flesh of our societies.
            The most profound of our arts have always pointed the way on. The greatest artists have always been thinking outside the box. Ursula Le Guin is one of them. We can never have too many. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

January Pleasures: Indoor Birdwatching in the Adriondacks

            So what did we do on a three-day weekend in the middle of January in the Adirondack Mountains. We hiked some beautiful backwoods lanes around frozen lakes.We warmed the place up, apparently, by the simple fact of our warm-hearted arrival since the temperature went from minus18 on Saturday morning, while we were still in bed in comparatively balmy Eastern Massachusetts, to the high twenties by the time we called it a night at Gwen and Dave Eichorn's camp.
            We walked out onto the lake in twilight to search for brilliant stars, though by then clouds had begun to roll in, and stared at an amazingly fat, yellowish light lingering in the east, which I am unable to identify as either a spectacularly conspicuous planet with an expanding mid-winter waistline or a brazen alien spacecraft intent on abduction. Is anyone missing in Vermont?
            Still, despite all this outdoor winter warmth we also spent a lot of time indoors watching the snow-clad world. Especially the suet bird feeder hanging kissing-cousin close to the porch window (top photo.) While I'll readily admit, number one, it's mainly the birds that fascinate me; and, number two, the spectacular placement of the feeder so close to a window that we're barely a few away when we sit and stare at the avian feeding line cinches the deal; still, the essential third point in this happy conjunction is the suet. Apparently, birds love it.
            While I've known about it for decades, I've never actually seen birds zoom up steady numbers -- buzzing each other, wings aflutter, to hurry up and get out of there and give the next guy a chance -- peck-peck-pecking away at the stuff.
             So while I'm still all atwitter over seeing so many close-up birds in their mostly-natural state, I'm also intrigued by the bait. What is suet?
            Suet, sources say (my principal one is birding.about.com/od/Foods/a/Birds-That-Eat-Suet.htm), "is rendered fat, typically kidney fat from sheep and cattle, that is offered to birds as an alternative food source."  Apparently it's particularly important during in the fall and winter seasons when birds need extra helpings of both fat and total calories to survive the winter. Birds eat, sometimes it seems eat constantly, to keep up their body temperatures during cold weather. Bird species that stay with us in northern climes -- remember that minus-18 Adirondack mornings -- don't freeze their little avian tail feathers only because they can find enough calories and nutrition to keep their fires burnings. That's one of the reasons backyard birdfeeders have been a factor in keeping more birds to winter over rather than fly south.

            So I'm thinking thank goodness for suet, whatever it is. Suet, in fact, "is rendered fat, typically kidney fat from sheep and cattle." The preparations available int the stores "include seeds, nuts, insects or bits of fruit."
            The suet we saw hanging in a wire cage beside the porch window seemed to be seeds embedded in a grayish bar of some unfamiliar substance that must be what they say it is: rendered fat. As our source puts it, "Suet is most commonly found as basic cake shapes, but is also available as plugs, balls, shreds, nuggets or crumbles depending on the manufacturer or feeder type." Ah, the wonders of the free market.
            Now for the next question: who were these birds we were watching dance around the cage, take turns, sweep in, swoop out, hang and peck, hang and peck, or just peck-peck-peck -- the tipoff of a likely woodpecker. According to what we read, the candidates including starlings, downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers, bluebirds, brown thrashers, black-capped chickadees, cardinals, and blue jays.
            Mostly we observed those chipper little visitors backyard feeders everywhere are likely to find among their lunch gang -- chickadees. I particularly enjoyed their feeding approach. They turn their head to the side and peck through the gaps in the wire at 90 degree or even deeper angles.
            We also saw woodpeckers, which we confidently identified as downy woodpeckers. Having since learned that the downy and hairy woodpecker are almost impossible to distinguish, I'll stick with downy because I like the name better.
            We saw some other birds too, but I'm not sure they fall within the list of candidates above. We settled on 'nuthatch,' but confirmation awaits further research.
            According to another source, " Energetic and excitable, the red-breasted nuthatch is often a favorite backyard bird... With its bold personality it can easily become tame enough to be hand-fed by patient birders."
            I don't expect tame, eating out of my hand relationships with feeder birds. But getting to watch them go at it up close and personal is a dining pleasure.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Hobbit Forming: After Seeing 'The Battle of Five Armies'

            Reactionary, deeply conservative, nostalgic for a golden age, medieval. That's the world of fantasy. In Tolkien's world, and all its imitators, people believe in blood.
            Blood is why people -- or, more inclusively, the members of all these tales' imagined races -- are the way they are. A dragon is a dragon. An orc's an orc. Thorin Battlequack (or whatever his name is) is a dwarf who must lead his people back to their true home, their kingdom "Under the Mountain," because he's the direct descendant of the last true ruler. His people were driven out by evil invaders; the Dragon moved in and sat on all their gold and jewels, infecting it with greed cooties, for a couple of generations. The quest that the Hobbit Bilbo joins to generate the plot for Tolkien's "The Hobbit" is Thorin Axthwacker's quixotic quest to oust the dragon and return the ancestral "home under the mountain" to his people. That's how Tolkien's "The Hobbit," the children's story that grows wings and goes cosmic in one book -- and which Peter Jackson has just completed turning into three long movies -- got started.
            Everybody on board with that? Because if the Wampanoag, the Algonquian, the Nipmucks, the Mashantucket Pequot, the Micmacs, and the Last of the Mahicans took the same approach to their lost homeland, Massachusetts could be in for some serious trouble.
            Quests to repossess lost kingdoms are a pretty common motif in literature. In the real world they're not pretty at all. After Europeans deprived the native populations of their land, various groups among the newcomers threw each other out of the homes they established in this 'new world.' We have the popular 19th century poem "Evangeline" to remind us that the French Canadian population was forcibly removed from Nova Scotia -- the word means 'new Scotland'; but the French migrants who lived there called it "Acadia"-- and repopulated not only in Louisiana, but in dribs and drabs all along the East Coast, including the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where unfortunately they immediately forgot how to cook. French-speaking Separatists in Canada still have issues about their lost 'New France.'  
            Texas was usurped from the citizens from Mexico, a country then recently liberated from New Spain, who of course had wrested control of Meso-America from the Aztecs and other natives. English speaking Americans proceeded to take the rest of the Southwest and much of the West Coast from Mexico, following a war of naked territorial greed fought under the banner of "Manifest Destiny." People of Mexican descent were later "deported" from California during the Great Depression even though they and their ancestors had never lived within the current boundaries of Mexico.Who are the legitimate rulers here?
            The Anglo-Saxon covenant with its self-ascribed destiny also removed the Spanish from Florida in the early 1800s, in part to keep African slaves from escaping the Carolinas and finding sanctuary there. Expansionists then turned their eyes on Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispanola. Who has a "right" to return to Cuba today? The Spanish? The Cuban exiles who repatriated Florida as their own home. The indigenous Carib populations, whom the Spanish exterminated in short order 400 hundred years ago in an ill conceived project to make plantation slaves of them?
            The Irish want Ireland (despite internal disunity) for their own, the Scots are taking back Scotland, the Kurds want someplace to call their own, and ISIS is seeking through its own despicable and genocidal methods to restore a First Millennium caliphate, in lands long controlled by European empires, who took them from the Ottoman Empire. France and Germany fought three wars over whether a couple of border provinces at the bloodroot were more essentially 'French' or 'German'? 
            In the real world, reclaiming a lost land, an ancient homeland, is inevitably a dirty business.
            Blood is also spilled in Tolkien's fantasy tales, where a desire for rightful restoration of 'legitimate' rule is often at work. Thorin Oakenhead is one of those "true" rulers. Aragorn, the battle hero of LOTR and the blood descendant of kings, is another: the final book of that trilogy is meaningfully titled "The Return of the King." Yet unlike what happens in the real world, these crusades are romantically appealing and on some level, emotional or otherwise, make sense. We want some finer, higher, more moral "order" returned to the world. In the trippy, late 60s version of this myth, we want to get ourselves "back to the garden."
            I find it hard to explain why I find this old "call of the blood" so compelling. In my rational, real-world way of seeing things, all societies should be based on the principles that the United States was in theory founded on: membership open to all. No national, religious, ethnic, racial or gender privileging. All 'men,' so the founders' scripture sayeth -- taking that term to mean 'human beings' -- are created equal.
            Still, I was eager to go to see "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" and found it reasonably satisfying. The landscapes and sets are still appealing, the music recalls the moods and leitmotifs of LOTR. The action scenes are lively and filled with cleverly choreographed action. Heroes behave heroically. Wizards are wise. Over-dressed Orcs die conveniently; somehow all that armor never turns a well-truck blow. Elves are peevish; but Legolas, recruited from the LOTR films, flies acrobatically through his battle-rescue scenes. The elf-chick who falls for the handsome dwarf kicks butt in the manner of today's cutting-edge female heroes. Bilbo the Hobbit behaves in the clever, perceptive, loyal, solid-all-the-way-though way Tolkein wants his Hobbits to behave: avatars of bedrock rural values. It's Bilbo who wakes Thorin Thickskull from his dragon fever in time to help save the larger day, though Thorin himself must pay for his fall. In the end nature itself, in the form of creatures with claws, rises to expel evil from the land... though, as well we know, not for long.
            All this makes me hearken for a return, a restoration, of my own. A return to that great 20th century backward-looking fantasy epic that goes by the name "The Lord of the Rings." I can't wait to for Peter Jackson to make some films out of that. Oh, right, he's done it.
            Don't tell me I've got to see those movies again.