Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summer Begins in the Garden: Eveything's Still Perfect

            Of course it's not, but we can still pretend it is. No big disasters, dying specimen plants, that sort of thing. Any spring disappointments, or failures of return after a dry summer and a cold winter, have all been all grown over.
            Sunny June weather and enough water in the earth solves all problems. At least temporarily. And 'temporary' is where we live.
            Day lilies are opening up on the early side this year. The first stella d'oro blossoms preceded the summer solstice. The front garden is showing dark pink roses, a strongly lavendar crop of lavendar-- a color by far the best when it first comes out (second photo). A fresh second round of our explosion-purple clematis is also climbing the porch in the front garden (last photo).
            The yellow rose-shaped blossoms of the primrose (third photo down, taken of a colony of these flowers in the back garden) are everywhere. They spread themselves and I let them cover spots where other perennials find it hard to get a footing. The latest colony is glowing in the raised square of earth beside the front yard maple I keep trying to make bloom in the desert of tree roots and thin soil. This is unforgiving weed country. Even pachysandra struggles there. This year I'm enjoying the place's yellow period in early summer.
            White Shasta daisies (fourth photo) are having a strong year too. The blossoms look healthier. At times I think the entire local 'garden world' is a little healthier after a cleansing, snow-heavy winter. It's a theory. A few weaker plants, in some cases specimens that have barely managed to hang in there for years, were just put clean out of their misery. Possibly some plant diseases that take a bite out of certain perennials every year died back enough to make a difference. For whatever reason, the daisies are shining.
            Some seriously dark-red roses (sixth photo, taken by Anne with water drops on the petals), the mini-plants transplanted from a lingering decrepitude in a crowded situation elsewhere, are a shiny red this year. They managed to bloom this year even before the rose-eaters have taken an single bite out of their leaves.
            Other plants, even those not yet in flower, or already passed, are shooting their leaves up with chlorophyll. The scores of tints of green, and the variety of blossoms behind them (seen in the panorama photos).
            Caught in a sea of others, spiky red astilbe blossoms rise up from the crowd (group shot, top photo). The bi-colored leaves of the dogwood (healthier after a rescue intervention last year) hang over colonies of smaller folk (ninth photo).
             A thick crowd of low yellow blossoms of coreopsis moonbeam opened last week (fifth photo).
            The spirea shrub (seventh photo) grows behind the weeping cherry, its dense dark pink composite flowers leaning out over the brick path. We usually have to cut it back and then tie up to the tree to keep the circular path clear enough to have a prayer of walking around it.
            Meanwhile white flat-topped blossoms of achillea (yarrow) flower in the semi-shade border of the flower island (eight photo).
            Two potted varieties of a favorite annual, hibiscus (saving pics of these for next time), are also feeling their oats.
            After a rainy period last week, we got a new supply of bright, clear, dry air one morning and I ran outside to see what the light would tell us. The result was -- I took a lot of pictures. What a surprise.
            I can't help wondering if there's some synergy between the sky above and the plant energy below. Last Thursday's Boston Globe had a front page photo of northern lights glimpsed in Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Dark skies north of Boston apparently had a good chance of glimpsing this stunningly bizarre phenomena. The sports section front also had a picture of the deep pink cloud bank over Fenway Park.
            That cloud bank was everywhere. You could see it in the parking lot coming out of the Quincy YMCA. You could see it on the Hingham shore, on the shores of Kingston, in Hull.
              The skies, I think, are celebrating the long days of what an earlier agrarian society called "midsummer." 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Garden of Song: Quincy on the Front Lines of the Revolution

            Quincy history is all about the Adams family. John and Abigail Adams remain America's all-time power couple: John as the single most effective advocate for the nation-birthing break from British rule and a player of essential roles in establishing an independent United States. And Abigail as "founding mother" because of her advocacy of the rights and claims of women in political, moral and human terms in letters to her diplomat/absent husband and to others.
            I knew something about those letters. But it took a powerful work of art, a recently composed opera called "A Distant Love: Songs of John and Abigail Adams" performed last weekend by Chelsea Opera at the Adams National Historical Park, to make me realize how important, and universal, the letters still are.
            Anne and I know Adams country in Quincy, a municipality that back in Revolutionary days was known as East Braintree. We know Penn's Hill, the site Abigail took young John Quincy to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill is; we know that Dorchester Heights (where captured guns lugged across New England by Henry Knox drove the British out of Boston) overlooks the old city of Boston.We know where to find the more modest homestead the Adamses lived in before acquiring the handsomer estate where the national park is located today.
            So we figured we were on top of the subject of the English language opera commissioned by the John Adams Institute (music by Gary S. Fagin, libretto by Terry Quinn), based on the famous letters exchanged by John and Abigail during their lengthy separation as John served his newborn country in public ways, as men did, and Abigail kept the home farm going and the family safe even though the war at her doorsteps in the first years of separation and deprivation her family's constant companion until its end.
            But I not prepared to be as moved, patriotically and in all other emotions, as I was by the opera's ability to drive Abigail's passionate words into our hearts.
            After the performance I told Victoria Tralongo,who sang Abigail's role, how moved I was by her singing of the lyrics taken from the letters.
            "She has all the great lines," I said.
            "Yes," the singer replied. "But it takes the music to make you feel them."
            For 11 years, from 1774 when he left for the Continental Congress though his wartime service raising money and support for the revolution in Europe, John Adams' life was all about politics.     Politics of the international diplomatic variety meant painstakingly cultivating support while living among foreigners and enduring their customs is the subject of his letters. Adams despised the French appetite for courtly manners and the play-acting of the aristocracy. He came to admire the Dutch, from whose outwardly skeptical tight-fisted, but essentially "open-hearted" persona he won an absolutely essential loan to keep the America cause alive in dark days. His letters speak of getting used to life in Amsterdam, of canals, bridges, "shaking on a horse" (the Dutch view of exercise), communicating with the Dutch who spoke a language, called Dutch, "spoken only by -- the Dutch," the nastiness of a North Sea winter, a city turned to ice, and "skating, skating, skating."
             The letters reflect his sense of duty to the nation and the depth of his longing for his soul mate wife and his home: "When, oh when, shall I see those fields... and when shall I see them... with you?" 
            But it is Abigail's letters that have all the good lines. In 1775 when the fighting had begun around Boston, and the reality of war, and the fears for what that reality might prove to be for oneself and one's loved ones had become her new reality, Abigail writes of "canon mounted on Beacon Hill, entrenchments dug upon the Neck..." And of human consequences: "Warnings, rumors, Mothers hoarding goods, whisking children from the streets./ All males from fifteen to sixty hauling muskets to the training ground... Our once so placid lives in disarray! ... Refugees from Boston seek asylum at the house... Try to imagine, husband, how we live!"
            But the threats of an aggressive enemy only intensify a determination to resist. Once the shooting starts, these letters tell us, there goes the olive branch, and out come the bloody thoughts. To the Brits' offer of clemency to those who quit the fight, she responds, "They know not who we are! Once we have cut them down -- like grass before the scythe -- then, yes, we shall cease to fight."
               Even, she says (in a song the opera titles "Women"), if the "men" of the Patriots' army are ordered to withdraw from the Boston theater of war, "and we should be attacked, our common foe would find a race of Amazons in its path!/ No clutch of shuddering wives -- a race of Amazons in America!"
            I can't shake the power of that image: Amazons in America! OK, I tell myself, the country's in deep trouble -- bring out our Amazons!
            Abigail takes aim at Tories too, particularly those members of the Church of England who fill the pews "and pray for the king! A man whose boot presses on their necks!"
            And she has words to regret that original sin of the American nation both she and her husband are struggling to bring forth. In a song called "Slavery" she concludes: "We'll vow to die before we cede our freedom/ then turn and clap another's wrist in chains."
            I don't know if you can sum up the contradiction any better than that.
            And in a final song, "Avowal," Abigail promised that given her awareness of the importance of his task, she will never plead with John him to end their separation, in words such as these: "Come home, my love, come back to me./ The stars above wait no less faithfully..." 
             Ms. Tralongo is correct. I can share the words on the page, but not the impact of the music. If you get the opportunity to attend this musical production, whether or not Independence Day is just around the corner, be sure to go. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

June in Bloom in Verse-Virtual: A Garden of Verse

            The days of June go flying by. Why does this happen when the the 'days' are actually longer? Sometimes things move too fast to pose them for a picture and get the details right. Then we try to reconstruct the good moments, and the sad ones, looking back.
            However, as David Graham says in his poem in the June issue of Verse-Virtual, "Home Movie 1930," when too much time passes the images we keep have "gone historical." 
            The poem continues: 

          we cannot trust the past to tell us

            anything anymore, or even to speak
            in the same language.
            I particularly admired the poem's closing evocation of the lost time of home movies: "as toddlers stagger after balls on the gray lawn— all still moving their mouths as if underwater."
            WF Lantry's poem "A Season's Requiem" has a similar looking-backwards address. The poet remembers a singer's voice in a time of grief with these beautifully paced lines:
          grafting her harmonies across my pain,
            changing my loosened tethers into bonds,

            her voice, like shifted days, answers my thirst
            with early rain, and brings to mourning, ease.
            Still on the subject of lost times and remembered persons, I felt a personal pang on reading Alan Clark's poem "For My Father." The poem seemed to express the desire for a closer connection in a better place -- beautifully encapsulated in the lines --
          Where all the little wars we didn’t want to fight
            Are forgiven, are as if they’d never been, were only
            A few minor discords in the sovereign light of love
             If we wish to fly away to that better place, perhaps we can follow the birds. In Barbara Crooker's poem "The Green Blouse" (written after a painting by Bonnard reproduced in the journal), the poet tells us of two bluejays "bluer than the sky/ and they know it." These fortunate creatures have the perfect attitude toward the passing days of June of any other other month:
          ....Every day, there’s another cup of sunlight.
            They tilt back their heads, and they drink it all in.
             One the subject of birds, Emily Strauss's delightful "Index of Western Birds of North America" consists of 18 photos and accompanying one-line poems. I was particularly intrigued by a bird named "phainopepla: dictionary black crested help."
            Yes, I thought, the name "phainopepla" certainly makes one run to a dictionary.
             On a similar note, Kevin Heaton, a poet who enjoys whimsical words, concludes "Poet on Cannabis" with reference to "epiphytics in tall osmunda" to describe "an immaculate collaboration between maximum greens." Epiphytes are plants that grow from other plants without parasitically drawing on the host (saw some recently in a Florida everglade growing off of trees). Osmunda, I learn after help from the Internet is a genus of temperate-zone ferns. Thanks, Kevin, for the vocabulary expansion.
            Robert Wexelblatt gives us a trio of poems that cycle around the music of Bach and the closely related question raised by the title of the first poem, "Was Bach an Alien?" The poem begins in Olympus.
          When I first read the Greek myths, those sacred
            scriptures shrunk to fairy tales, I noticed
            how captivated the gods were by us,
            how they couldn’t resist mingling with us,
            meddling, impeding, even copulating.
            I pictured how tedious it would have
            been without us whose meanest village is
            livelier than Olympus.

            He then takes us to outer space where Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier is being beamed to any or all minds out there capable of listening to music. (Are we cheating? I thought on reading this. Shouldn't we be sending 'Sweet Caroline' to give them an idea of who we really are?) Some finely tuned lines later in which the poet raises this very question -- "Lewis Thomas cracked, 'That’s bragging.'" -- the poem works back to the Olympians with beautifully expressed conclusion.          
          ... I too like imagining
            those aliens, brainy enough to construct
            a phonograph, rapt, listening to Gould’s
            warm C-major prelude, struck dumb by the
            ensuing fugue, and jealous as the gods.

            Luis Neer's poem "No Shadow #1" also offers a fresh connection to the universe.
          By rising from your bed
            in the morning
            walking out into the wind

            you have entered outer space
            "The universe is here," Neer's poem concludes:  "You have held it in your hands."

            Trish Hopkinson's poem "Corked" opens a structurally adventuresome form that I learned (after inquiring) was a villanelle. The poems begins by pulling the cork on a battle of wine ("Bordeaux, it fills the bowl on stem on base.") for the first glass and ends with pouring the final one.
          Bordeaux, it fills the bowl on stem on base.
            Glass four emptied, no cork put back in place.
            Another of her poems, "Footnote to a Footnote" builds on itself like a spell or an incantation. "Jacuzzis are holy./ Garage door openers are holy..." Any further attempt to excerpt would lose the power of the poem's music.
            "The Last Days of My Life" Mark Jackley writes in the poem of that name -- one more turn on the theme of looking back -- may resemble the last days of high school.
          The days are long, the nights are sweet
            and if you lived by the sea
            you sat on the sea wall, which held back
            everything except
            your laughter and all the delicious,
            insane, intoxicating
            talk of holding on,
            of staying there forever.

            I never had such days in high school (college was more fun), but Jackley's poem makes me feel them.
            I also feel the days, or places, or stops along the way evoked by Firestone Feinberg's poem, an untitled lyric that begins:
          And along the way were shining souls
            Who came to walk beside me as I traveled through the land
            But little did I see them -- ...
            The poems sent shivers through me. I think we're all still walking that way, and through that land, and I just hope we can glimpse those "shining souls."

            Here's the link to the June issue of Verse-Virtual:

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Sky Above, the Blooms Below: the Beauty of the Ramadan Moon

           According to Aisha Gani, writing in The Guardian on June 17, the holy month of Ramada officially began Wednesday evening, meaning the first day of a month of fasting began at dawn on Thursday morning. Or, to be more exact, she wrote "depending on the sighting of the crescent moon," the month began Wednesday evening. 
            (Here's the link:  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/17/ramadan-guide-to-islamic-holy-month-muslims-fast)
            The Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar. Each new month begins on the evening of the first sighting of a new crescent moon. The moon appears on the first day of a new cycle as a tiny sliver of reflected light in the evening sky, and clouds can get in the way. So to be sure of your calculations, you set the members of your community with the best eyesight on a high place with an unobstructed view of the sky and you hope to gt an actual sighting when the calendar calls for the month to begin. I don't know if this search ever fails. I'm told the ultimate 'go' has to come from Mecca, where the dry air of the Arabian climate makes it likely that if a tiny fingernail sliver of moon is visible, you'll see it.
            Because the lunar calendar doesn't match up exactly with the earth's revolution around the sun -- the solar year -- Ramadan begins about 11 days earlier each year. Since those observing the fast refrain from eating during the daylight hours, the fast is shorter or longer depending on what time of year Ramadan falls. This year, the beginning of the month of Ramadan in mid-June, close to the summer solstice, makes for long fasts -- about as long as the fast period will ever get.
            Muslims observing the fast get up before daybreak, eat a meal and drink as much as water as they can, and then refrain from both eating and drinking until sundown, when they break the fast with a family meal called an Iftar meal.
           Having read in the newspapers Thursday that Ramadan had begun, Anne and I wondered if the new crescent moon would be visible in our neighborhood. We live in a neighborhood with lots of houses and some tall trees, all of them in full leaf now,  so the horizon is cluttered and we seldom see very far. We walked through the neighborhood up to a somewhat busier street where houses were built close to the road, trees fewer, and we could see a little more of the sky. We saw the two bright evening stars we've been following in recent weeks, actually the planets Venus and Mars, that astronomers are telling us are moving closer together this month and will actually cross near its end.

            Watching these stars as we walked homeward on the sidewalk, I looked back between the rooflines of two houses and caught the shiny slip of a crescent moon, a few degrees below the brighter of the planets, Venus. The crescent moon looked brand new to us, very shiny, and refreshed by its period of absence from our evening sky. This was actually the second night, according to the scholars, of the Ramadan moon. But, as I say, the first sliver of moon we have seen in some time and a very welcome sight.

            Meanwhile, though I can claim no special significance for these developments or any spiritual connection to the holy month observed by millions of people, our perennial plants continue to flower in their season. Those pictured here include, from the top down, a late-blooming yellow bearded iris; the reliable mid-June mountain laurel; the traditional old red rose vine blooming in its traditional month; and a colony of foxglove varieties with smaller blossoms.