Thursday, March 31, 2016

First Days of Spring: Promises of Emergence on the Eve of Folly

          Let's start somewhere. Crocuses are winter flowers. We want to see them in early sick-of-winter March, if not February. You don't see them if the snow cover is heavy. If it's light, or just a dusting, they pop right up through it. We had one of those semi-serious March snows a few weeks ago. It was melting away by sundown on the same day it fell. The next day one final crocus emerged, so I took its photo and put it here.
            I have no name for these little blue guys who pop up in the last days of March amid last year's uncleared brown leaves and the green vines of the vinca. I simply call them star flowers. (second photo).
            These pink-tinted Lenten roses, so named obviously because that's the time of year they start new growth and show their color, are also known as examples of hellebores (third and fourth photos down). If Lent starts in February, in most climes you'll these blossoms then.
            Hyacinths (below) are one of my favorite bulbs. They make a good show and they'll bloom reliably for years, even without any special attention.
            The flowers of the vinca minor (right) love the first sunny days of March. They're not put off by a lot of dead leaves, broken stems, fallen branches twigs, acorns, the predations of squirrels. In some woodland areas they'll carpet the forest floor, thick as a medieval tapestry with an elaborate pattern. They're an allegory for growth, persistence, annual renewal.
            A daffodil or two arrives in the herb garden, stealing a march on the edibles. I don't remember putting it there. Someone should interview the squirrels.
            Three prominent perennials in the next photo. Lower left is the speedwell.  Center, closer to the bricks is one of the varieties of Campanula (little bells) I've planted in recent years. This one shows up for business every year. To its right the purple-leafed coral bells, which fare so well in partial sun. The definition of this back garden is partial sun.
            A couple of primroses, one with red blossom opening. Can't remember if this variety is the so-called English or so-called Japanese primrose. It's probably fighting for space, water and nutrients from a crowd of neighbors all of which will ultimately o'ertop it. But in April it will win the local beauty contest.
            The columbine. Again, an early bloomer. I'm happy to see its leaves looking so vibrant. I'll try to remember to cut down everything around it for a month or two to give this plant enough light to shine in early May when its wild-woodsy blossoms show and grow.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Garden of Philosophy: Finding Truth (and Inspiration) With Your Feet

            Apparently, it says here, if I wish to have creative thoughts, and then go write them down, I'd better get back to walking. In a piece on the website, Josh Jones writes that a body of thought in both the Western and Eastern traditions suggests that mindfulness, freedom from routine thought patterns, and what Nietzsche termed "all truly great thoughts" are generated by walking. (Here's the link to the complete piece: 
            "Many a poet and teacher has preferred the ambulatory method," Jones writes, to produce the meditative tradition's goal of mindfulness. Aristotle's school in ancient Athens was given the name "peripatetic" because (legend has it) he preferred walking while delivering lectures on, say, physical science, metaphysics, politics, ethics, poetics, cosmology and all those other subjects on which his teachings were long considered the last word until about the time of, say, Galileo. Of course, all that talking while walking might have made it a little hard on students trying to take notes. Our main sources for Aristotle's philosophy are (in fact) believed to be students' lecture notes.

            Among other thinking-walkers, Nietzsche is quoted as saying that walking is “the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.”
            Other candidates for the school of walking: Thoreau (who walked straight from Concord to Cape Cod, stopping in Plymouth where he almost drowned trying to walk across Duxbury Bay at low tide), the poet Rimbaud, the noble-savage philosopher Rousseau, the clockwork philosopher Immanuel Kant, who left his house at exactly the same moment every day for the identical stroll.
           Another take on creative walkers comes from a book titled "Wanderlust: A History of Walking" by Rebecca Solnit, who examined the role of walking in the lives of real and fictional persons such as the poet Wordsworth who hiked all over England and Scotland (sometimes accompanied by fellow 'Romantic' poet Coleridge), Jane Austen's fascinating independent thinker Elizabeth Bennett, and the 20th century zen-influenced American poet Gary Snyder.
            Ah, if only the legs were as young as they once were.
            Solitary walking in natural or 'wild' spaces was in fact the only sure release from the miserable, negative thought patterns that visited me in certain difficult, unhappy periods of ill spent youth. The best place for a walk was the most remote place one could reach. Since I was living in New England, remote was at best a relative term, but getting lost in a stretch of woods where you were unlikely to run into anyone at all for a good piece of time, released whatever agitated spirits, happy or sad, that needed to get out. I'm making this sounds more therapeutic, I know,  than creative, but for me these solitary exercises in locomotion were where the poems and the stories got started. The desk time would come later. You needed to release the pent-up spirits first. You need to get the mind and the body (the mind-body, perhaps) going.
            My walks are way more modest these later days. I live in a city. I initiate a nature walk by starting the car. Increasingly a creature of habit (Immanuel Kant's 6 p.m. outings don't seem so pathetic to me any more), I drive the few minutes to a salt marsh graced with a hillock and some tame woods, and maintained by the city just enough to keep a "nature walk" footpath open.
            The footpath through the marsh is a short walk through a place impossible to get lost in. Sometimes I run into another human, almost always accompanied by a dog. But for a little while I'm breathing air sluiced by the elements. Sky, water, vegetation, decay, renewal. Sometimes I meet a hawk. Occasionally a great blue heron pops up out of nowhere.
             At the end of it I drove home and go back to whatever I was doing. But I am always a little different -- a little aired out, pumped up, cleaned out, mentally re-set from the outdoor experience. What's good for the body is good for the mind.
            Recently I've been coming back, slowly, from a surgery that proved more complicated than anticipated. The weather's been a typically raw, unstable, changeable, teasing March; promising something, delivering less. It almost always feels too cold to go for a walk.
            But I have to get myself going again. It's time to go back to those walks. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Garden of Verse: Statues, Long Nights, Lilacs and Matthew

           Among my favorite poems in the March issue of, the online poetry journal that publishes a new issue every month... 
           A set piece poem for a set piece work of art that somehow humanizes and makes the "The Mendelssohn Statue in Leipzig," a project slow in developing in postwar German after the Nazis destroyed an earlier statue to the great 19th century composer, endearing and laudable despite its tortured origins. I've never been to Leipzig, or Germany, but I feel I've received a history lesson and a cultural one after reading Robert Wexelblatt's poem. The composer Felix Mendelssohn was the grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn.The poem teaches us of Felix's fathers anguished feelings over his decision to convert to Christianity and later change the family surname to something less Jewish. 
          Its poem's description of the statue is charmingly ambivalent:
A lyre-bearing muse, looking like a
foot-sore tourist, rests on the steps below
the Master.  On one side a pair of angels
scrape a violin, blow a flute; on the other,
a brace of cherubs work through a vocal score....
This thing looks echt Victorian
though it’s not yet a decade old. 

I admit to finding Felix a romantic figure, a better behaved Mozart perhaps who got jazzed up by places like Scotland. The poem sums him up better:
His gaze
is fixed. He could be looking back to the beloved
Bach or forward to a quasi-Jewish Mahler.

I feel learning the history of the dilatory replacement of the statue tells me something too about the culture that produced both the composer and this final reckoning. By the poem's end I find myself caring about the statue, wishing to know even more about the Mendelssohn family, and sure that if I ever go to this city I would look for this somewhat tortured recognition of a famous local son.

         A poem with a more directly religious theme, Laura Kaminski's "Confirmation: poem ending with Matt. 18:4 KJV" says things about religious belief that I've always meant to say, and says them beautifully:

All the complexities of creeds seem to me like sieves,
fine mesh strung to strain out heresy and apostasy,
wires stretched like prison bars to keep out questions
and their askers. And I've been challenged: do I not
strive to earn a place within the heavens? But how can
an infant pay the rent on such a lofty crib? What must
an infant do to earn a meal? I can only say that I am
racked with hunger, wail in poems, cry in silence
for the remembered sweetness, for a taste of the Beloved.

The absurdities of orthodoxy are "strained out" here in such fitting imagery. How would "an infant" -- or, for that matter, any solitary soul -- decide how to earn a spot in heaven? Are we not more likely to do as the poem puts it, "cry in silence/for the remembered sweetness, for a taste of the Beloved"? 
           "Confirmation" ends with the citation from Matthew, affirming as godly the stance of whoever "shall humble himself as this little child..." 
           That feels right to me as well. Doctrine matters not a whit. The heart is all. 

              In keeping with my admiration for (or vulnerability to) deeply felt poems, I responded to Michael Minassian's "On The Maryland Coast," a poem that captures an experience many of us can no doubt relate to. The poem recalls an evening spent with that rarely encountered ideal other, talking about writing and reading one another's latest poems:

you were so intense, your face a map
not too different from my own story.

              Sometimes we do see ourselves in another person; and perhaps we remember those moments forever. 
              I also admired the poet's sharply written "The Postcard on Reverse," a poem that describes time as "a group of islands/ & the wooden skeleton/ of a wrecked steamboat" and offers a picture of the stained glass windows of a cathedral 
 when lit by the sun/
like a row of teeth, sharpened." 
              Pretty pictures, the poem suggests, sometimes cover up a multitude of sins.
           Tom Montag's series of poems about  'elemental' conditions (to borrow from the title of one of these, "These Elementals") ring particularly true to me following a period of much waking during the darker watches of the night followed by long waits for dawn. At the end of "Day, Breaking," his poem offers this reward:

What we get is another
fragile day holy with

promise of farther light.

In a similar vein, I appreciated these lines lines from "Elementals":

We are not what we think we are.
The stars know that. All night they tell us
all things come again to nothing.

Lastly in a poem called "Lilacs" that begins 
O, let the lilacs
come like a dream,
the poet offers this just-right observation:
Not their color but
the frank scent of them...

           Strong words in these poems, for strong emotions. 

          Kathleen Brewin Lewis's poem ​"Re-turning," also touched a nerve. It's a poem about beach memories, probably we all have them, and I found a particular moment evoked strongly and irresistibly in the line "the sand liquescent dribbling through our fingers." The poem's evocation of such moments is so right that I was both surprised and completely satisfied to be asked to imagine it last line: "the sea flings sheets upon the shore."

See all these poems and others at

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Garden of Old Friends: Big Night for "Suosso's Lane" in Plymouth

          Plymouth Public Library gave me and "Suosso's Lane" a big hand up a week ago when folks packed the library's meeting room for my program on the book. Lots of folks I haven't seen for years -- some of them remembering me from my days working for the Old Colony Memorial; others remembering Anne and me from our years living in Plymouth and asking after Sonya and Saul -- showed up for my talk spiced with a few excerpts. Many came up to say hi afterwards.
            I spoke on stumbling on Vanzetti's history in North Plymouth, looking up the local newspaper coverage of the world-famous Sacco-Vanzetti case (not much) in the library's reference room. And being shown by the late Lee Regan, the library's crackerjack reference librarian, where the library kept its books on the case in its local history collection.
            After taking questions, we gave away a few of the not-for-sale copies through a bookmark lottery. Anne gave a power-point demonstration on how to buy the book from the publisher's website:
            Folks ate up all the Italian cookies and pastries we brought. Had we anticipated the size of the crowd better, I would have brought more.
            Library staff also took event photos, a couple of which I've posted here.
            All and all, a great night.
            To top it off, the next day "Suosso's Lane" received a new review from a fellow writer. Robert Wexelblatt is the author of the recently published short story collection "Heiberg's Twitch" and two other story collections. He's also a widely published poet and a Boston University professor. Here's the review:
            "The book is exemplary in so many respects:  for the keenness of its informed historical imagination, an inventive structure in two periods separated by 80 years, for conveying a vivid sense of place, managing storytelling that is both intimate and epic with the invented story as involving and moving as the well-retold historical tale of injustice.  It’s a mystery; it’s a love story; it’s a family story; it’s a young person’s story and an old one’s too.  Romance, arson, murder, Plymouth, Boston, economic history, political intrigue, real-estate shenanigans.  Points of view in great variety, from children to aging widows, young college instructors to a Ghanaian immigrant.  It’s an ethically sensitive story that slights neither cynicism nor idealism.  And it’s so well written – prose, but prose from a poet." -- Robert Wexelblatt.

            Talk about good writing! Thank you, Wex.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Garden of Verse: Floral Visions Afloat on "Houseboat"

          As of Friday, March 18, I've had the happy experience of being "Featured Poet No. 58" on Houseboat, an online journal that sees itself as an "amalgam" of the arts. 
          I've been happily floating on this metaphor (and on the host website ( ever since. Six of my garden poems have been paired with luscious photos for my tenure as "feature poet." (All the photos are by Rose Mary Boehm.) Five of these poems were originally published by, the online  journal for which I've been writing on a monthly basis.
        In my mind, at least, the poems hang together well as a group. Putting them in the same 'boat' with some lovely flowerful photos accomplishes, in my opinion, just what the editors are trying to do -- putting the two arts "in the same boat" in a mutually beneficial way.
         "A houseboat is an amalgam," the Houseboat Team states. "Not just a place to live, not just a water vessel. It is both—stable, yet allowing movement. The arts are often viewed in separate boxes...There aren't enough artistic outlets that truly cross boundaries." This site does.

           And as you can tell from the above, many other Houseboat combos of words and pictures are there to be explored on this innovative site. After all I may be the presently featured passenger, but I'm only number 58. All those other happy poet-passengers are still available for a cruise. 

        Here's my direct link:

         I'm also happy to report that the March 15 issues of Scarlet Leaf Review has published three of my poems, including a poem ("Sidewalk Madonnas") about Syrian refugees trying to make ends meet by begging on the streets of Beirut. (
You can't fault Lebanon, a very small country that by now is sheltering an estimated 1.5 million displaced Syrians. While European countries are freaking out over taking in a few thousand, and in the US politicians aren't even willing to discuss the possibility of accepting Syrian refugees here. 
           Worldwide, everybody else decided not to get involved -- except for Russia, perfectly content to kill more civilians, and create more refugees, by bombing rebel districts in behalf of blood-thirsty tyrant Bashar al-Assad -- with the result that an entire nation has been torn apart, with millions running for cover. 
            And I am not happy to report that the Scarlet Leaf Review is ceasing publication after the current issue. It's a well put-together, diverse, free-wheeling journal that was certainly good to me. And editor Roxana Natase was more than typically responsive to questions and comments by contributors. She also volunteered frequent updates on traffic by readers: the journal was typically receiving more than 3,000 visits per day. 
            But it's spring. We'll miss the "Scarlet Leaf," but new growth will take its place