Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Garden of Verse: Joys and Regrets in August's "Verse-Virtual"

            I'm looking at the calendar with a certain shock and awe-gee, since it appears that August is dwindling down to a precious few days. Something a lot like this happens every summer. It goes away a lot faster than we can ever imagine, and those last few weeks are particularly slippery.
            This year it also means waving farewell to the galaxy of poems in the August issue of Verse-Virtual, the online poetry journal that publishes scores of fine new poems every month -- most journals publish twice a year, maybe four times if we're lucky. And of course (redundant disclaimer) I am particularly fond of this monthly pleasure because it is publishing my poems among such good company.
            Here's a last look at some instances of that pleasure and beauty in Verse Virtual's August issue... 

such as the quiet depth of Sarah White's "Blessed Be the Unforeseen" in which the poet traces a family genealogy beyond a tragedy, through her own place in the family, to a new blessing. Her mother, she write, never foresaw the continuation of her line, a happy development the poet sums up in a few beautifully direct chosen words.
Nor did she ever
imagine you, sweet Alistair Hart,

her great, great grandson.

In Joan Colby's poem "What Takes Us Down," a tragic death by drowning stands in for a world of humankind's losses of the mind and the spirit, leading to the striking concluding image:
... how quickly joy
Can upend; the craft
Of imagination stall in a welter
Of thrash and silence.

In a different mode, Sydney Lea's "Victory Garden" wittily pairs the news of the day, "the freight of awful news from everywhere on earth," with the little disturbances of his own day, especially his spouse's fresh acquisition of an old family heirloom:
...a desk that once belonged to her vanished grandma
and looks to be as heavy as fifteen anvils
and it’s 90 sopping degrees outside

the globe burning up and I’ll be sweating lugging that load
my hands both useless against the deerflies’ blitz 

Emily Strauss's "Reward" captures the kind of moment that can come when you're alone in a wild place and able to let go, longer than you think you can, of all the items on your life-list agenda. Stopping to take in
a pale sandstone mesa
cross-hatched like a frozen
bee hive rising hundreds of feet 

the poet hears the song of the canyon wren, whose voice somehow replicates the landscape:
seven falling notes
ending up, again tripping
down the scale
down the sheer walls
pure invisible notes

In Charles Rossiter's poem of personal remembrance "National Gallery Days," a lesson is learned about the importance of beauty and contemplation at a difficult time. "I didn't know it then," the poem concludes, "but looking back/  I can see how the National Gallery saved my life."

David Graham's "Love," a re-working of William Carlos Williams' well-loved poem "This is just to say," pays homage to the humble gift of half a banana left on the kitchen counter "for me to find."
(Full disclosure: my wife does this every day.)

Margaret Hasse's recollection of the joy of physical work in the cause of self-sufficiency ("Shouting from the Rooftop") is vividly portrayed in images like this:
Boards wrenched from their nail-anchored
niches squawked like chickens.

Steve Coughlin's two beautiful love poems, "Adam's Thirst," imagines the first man's (and everyman's) struggle to put love into words:
Tonight you’re reading National Geographic, 
and I find myself, like Adam,
without a definition for this thirst

But in the poet's s "Winter Refrain" the house of love disappears in a siege of brutal weather:
But each day the front door was gone from its frame, 
the frame gone from your blue-shingled house.

Robert Wexelblatt's "In August" contains a whole month's worth of images and ideas, from allusions to a series of songs lamenting the death of children by Mahler (called Kindertoten Lieder), to the "little art" of a woman's terrarium (an example of a German term for vignettes and miniatures, Kleinkunst) to the dangers of radon, and a world growing too warm. A husband finds his wife grieving for a lost child:

Each hair like a spring
her t-shirt sodden, foul as
my back, barefoot
on her Via Dolorosa
crucified for that Kleinkunst
the petty dirtcraft
she never explains

            The month of August may be ending, but you can keep on looking at the poems in this month's issue, and all the previous issues, because they're available in the archives. Unlike one's experiences with some other digital sources, Verse-Virtual's archives are easy to use.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Crisscrossing Paths in the Garden of Fiction: Those Who Walk Away, and Those Who Don't

            "This is what it's like," the main character in The World Before Us (the novel I am currently reading) observes, "when you walk away from your life." She's run away from both her job and her closest personal connections, which we know are few. But while she is fleeing her adult identity, she is also returning to the site of the great inexplicable tragedy that has marked (and marred) her subsequent life.
            In Kate Atkinson's 2013 best-seller "Life After Life," a book I greatly enjoyed, it's the author who walks away from events in her characters' lives that her narrative has already shared with us. Her heroine steps onto her roof to retrieve a younger sibling; she slips, falls fatally. Well, no she doesn't, as we find out in the next chapter. It doesn't have to happen that way. Let's imagine the episode turns out differently and no one gets hurt.      
            Later, one of those pre-antibiotic child-killing infections is brought back from London to the family's suburban home. Her heroine's baby brother, the darling of the entire family, catches the bug and passes away. Unbearable gloom everywhere. But a little later the author offers us another treatment of the same events, and baby Teddy survives to become the best beloved of many. Women in particular adore him.
            That's the way things go in "Life After Life," a book that rated high with both the reviewers and the best-seller list.
            In Atkinson's follow-up novel, "A God in Ruins" (which I recently finished), little brother Teddy, already spared in several plot revisions in "Life," looks to be in need of saving from the first page to the last. Unlike the traumatized heroine in Aislinn Hunter's "The World Before Us," he never tries to walk away from his life; it's the life he's forced to live that keeps trying to kill him.
            When World War II comes to England he enlists in the RAF. Sister Ursula, the central figure in "Life," now an air raid warden by night and a code-cracker by day, knows lots of government secrets. She knows the odds of a bomber pilot surviving his tour of duty are below one out of ten. But since his country needs bomber pilots to win the war, Teddy volunteers, becomes a good one, and is promoted to wing commander. One of his crewmen calls him 'the best man I ever met,' and that judgment does not seem out of line. Teddy survives his tour and then volunteers for another one.... Death beckons, again and again and again.
            But having resigned himself to his own sacrifice in the cause of a just war, a war that has to be fought, our hero somehow makes it out alive. Without giving too much away, Atkinson once again offers alternative story lines. Was Teddy forced to abandon his failing craft over the North Sea? Or did he ride it down into the ocean in the wild hope of aiding a crewman trapped in the tail of the burning plane? Or survive two years in a German prison camp after being given up for dead by his own government?
            After seeing how effectively this novelist uses the technique of jumping around in time in "A God in Ruins," a reader can wonder whether anyone will bother with straightforward chronology again. Do we not understand why character X is behaving abysmally in her own youthful days, the apparently peaceful and prosperous postwar years? Well, let's go back and see what happened at some crucial pass in childhood. Why is Teddy's daughter, Viola, such a shallow, wholly self-absorbed person that I almost put the book down out of frustration with this hackneyed, cliche-ridden depiction of  a spoiled, dissatisfied boomer?
            And why is she the only person in the world who appears not to like her father? Further, why would the child of such an exemplary human being as Teddy have so much trouble behaving decently to her own children? Most satisfying of Atkinson's many clever exchanges -- Viola: "Was I really such a terrible mother?" Daughter: "Why the past tense?"
            By its close Atkinson's mutable world manages to find justification and the peace that passes understanding for oft-loathsome Viola, as well as an almost unearthly salvation for Viola's emotionally abused and neglected son. The son relies on the nurturing he drew from Grandpa Ted to walk away from his own pain and find a wholly unanticipated new life for himself as an example of a better way for others.
            I confess, though, that this book stirs me most in its brilliantly detailed accounts of Teddy and his crew's brave, but hellish night bombing runs over occupied Europe. These flights are feats of physical endurance amid constant fear and the firm belief in the real possibility of momentary extinction -- exemplified by those occasions when they watch their peers explode into flames from enemy air defenses -- all in the cause of seeking to preserve a decent way of life from a positive evil by the instrumentality of dropping fiery death upon others.
            After reading these passages, I don't think I'll ever be able to walk away from the knowledge that such things really happened to flesh and blood human beings much like ourselves. There is no end to what we owe to the sacrifices of others.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Naumkeag: Fixing Up a Fine Old Country Cottage for a Mere $4.5 Million

            We drive past the sign for the Naumkeag Estate about a dozen times each summer. It's on the road between Stockbridge, Mass., and Anne's parents' summer cottage, but we haven't stopped in for a visit in decades.
            Last weekend a local newspaper reported that the 46-acre estate has nearly completed a $4.5 million restoration of its gardens. That seemed worth a look. As somebody who's always thinking about garden improvements, I was curious to see what you could for $4.5 million.
            First the history. This Berkshires summer place was built in the 1880s as an escape from New York City by attorney Joseph Choate and his wife, Caroline, described by the estate as an artist and "a women's education activist." The estate was designed by architect Sanford White of the famous firm of McKim, Mead & White. The couple's daughter later donated it to the nation's first land preservation organization, The Trustees of Reservations, in 1958.
            Time wore out some of the graces of this pleasure dome and to restore features such as the "Blue Steps," the Chinese Temple Garden, the Venetian style afternoon garden, and the graceful Linden Walk to their former glory (and to put a new cedar shingle roof on the 40-room 'cottage'), somebody raised a lot of money. In phases, over the last three years, most of the work has been completed. The Chinese Temple Garden, with its divinely blue-tile roof, is still in progress and under wraps.
            But visitors can enjoy the rest of the estate's transformation, and revival, as we did last Saturday morning. We had lots of company, since the story in the Berkshire Eagle had just run that morning.
            The roof of the three-season house (seen in the top photo) is a forest of gables and chimneys.
            The upper terrace, giving views of the estate's lower gardens and open fields, is lined with a double row of strappingly healthy green giant arborvitae. All the new trees on the property, for that matter, looked stunningly happy to be there. They can't believe their luck.
            We walked down to a lower lawn surrounding a pool [photo], with one of those European-style fishy fountain pieces in the center, and some members of our party took their first break on a bench nearby.
            I went off by myself, dropping down another level to transverse a freshly laid out and planted rose garden. The curved, crisscrossing pattern of the pebbled paths was interesting, but the rose plants looked brand new and in need of time to bloom. We have about ten times as many roses blooming in our front yard; so does our neighbor across the street.
            The famous blue stairway distinguished by a steady flow of water streaming down its center -- and back up again, through the marvels of science -- is a tribute to pipes and modern engineering. And, I suspect, fund-raising, since replacing the original hardware and machinery no doubt consumed a big hunk of that impressive restoration budget. You can't capture the effect in a photograph. First, you walk a declining paved beside a narrowly channeled  artificial spring. Then you descent the actual zig-zag stairway, Interrupted by landings, where water gathers in scooped-out, painted grottoes. 
             The blue stairway is the site's signature feature, the jewel in the estate's expansive  grounds. It takes you down to the bottom of a hill where you're greeted by formal plantings, backed by open meadows with their wildflowers and cows; and beyond that the rising profile of the Berkshires, canted toward Monument Mountain.
            I confess to being a little disappointed that the namesake 'blue' was painted concrete rather than stone.
            The formal garden of flowering perennials have a just out of the box look to them as well, though the ranks of delphinium, a gay sky-blue bloomer, and white-flowering tall phlox will some day make a striking wall of color.
            Other highlights include the Venetian style afternoon garden, cool, shady, paved, ornamented by petite formal plantings and brightly colored gondola poles. Its corner piece is an artistic something that looks like square urn ornamented with hieroglyphs.
            Also, moving away from the house, a Chinese pagoda ringed with trees and large sculpted seashells.
            And, the last look for me, the classical but airy linden walk or 'allee,' ringed with young trees, set off by a green bank lit in the August with flowering with purple Echinacea.
             I can't wait to go back next year and see what's been added, what's grown in, and whether they actually do finish the Chinese Temple on schedule. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

History's Tangled Garden: '1776 the Musical'

            John Adams is obnoxious and disliked. So he persuades the colony of Virginia's representative Richard Henry Lee to make the motion for Independence, which this scion of Virgina's most aristocratic family does "grand-Lee," "delicate-Lee" and rather more "successful-Lee" than Adams could have because delegates from other states find his harping on the subject "obnoxious" and pig-headed.
            The year is 1776 and the state of Massachusetts has already been fighting the British for a whole year, from the guerilla warfare of in Lexington and Concord to the bloody battle of Bunker Hill, the British occupation of Boston, and Washington's siege of Boston, which ended victoriously when Boston's own Henry Knox retrieved the captured canon from Fort Ticonderoga (in upper New York) and dragged it all the way through the woods and mountains of New England to a placement in Dorchester Heights that forced the British to withdraw from the city.
            But in Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress has been meeting for a full year, absolutely nothing has been decided. This is the troubled status quo that the musical "1776," currently in production at Norwell's The Company Theatre, addresses as Adams and his allies (including Ben Franklin) try to manipulate the Congress into declaring war on the world's most powerful empire. The task becomes more difficult when the Congress's chairman, John Hancock, rules that a motion for independence must be approved unanimously. (Photo of Doug Jabara as Benjamin Franklin and Erin McMillen as Martha Jefferson:-photo by Zoe Bradford) 
              What could there possibly be to sing about? Well for a start there's the catchy "Mr. Adams, Mr. Adams" refrain in the ensemble piece in which an exasperated Congress joins in begging (or demanding) "For God's Sakes, John, Sit Down." There's the humorously courtly puffery of the song about the Virginia aristocrats, titled "The Lees of Old Virginia."

            And the show-stopper has always been the dark-side-of-American-independence anthem "Molasses to Rum" in which the Southern delegate Rutledge (Andrew Giordano) exposes the hypocrisy of Northern colonists who condemn slavery while directly profiting from the slave trade. The song's rousing performance drew cheers from an  audience savvy enough to recognize a home truth. 
            And while only two female characters appear in the piece -- big surprise: no female delegates were selected for this 18th century gathering -- the play's authors make full use of their presence in the tale. Drawing on Abigail Adams's presence through her famous correspondence with her husband, "1776" has the eloquent Adams couple join in a couple of duets about missing each other. And Thomas Jefferson's wife, the only female character who actually appears in Philadelphia, takes part a charming tribute to Renaissance man TJ, "He Plays the Violin."
            These performers (Stephanie Mann and Erin McMillen, respectively) have impressive, trained voices. The Company Theatre's male cast, particularly the leads, can sing as well as act, and the theater's 16-piece stage orchestra does a boffo job of realizing the show's musical capabilities without overwhelming the singers.
            Whether you've seen (and enjoyed) the popular movie version of "1776" or not, The Company Theatre's polished live performance of "1776 the Musical," an always-relevant shaping of a messy, but thoroughly crucial episode in national history, provides a large helping of pleasure with a tangy after-taste of inspiration.