Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Garden of the Seasons: Little Pleasures of Spring

        The first weeks of May are the best of times in many ways. Including the pleasure of looking closely for that fine class of small blossoms that grow close to the ground on plants that hug the earth and take their share of sunlight before the bigger boys grow over them and tend to hog it all.
         One of these ground huggers (or 'covers') blossoms with the abundance of tiny purple circlets you see in the top photo. I have never been able to learn their name. Recently, the suggestion "Pennyroyal" was offered. Nothing I can find online has put the matter to rest for me.  
         Speedwell is another all-purpose name. Plants sold under that name include those in the second photo down, showing vertical stalks with lines of trumpet-shaped pale blue blossoms. But also the significantly different plant structure seen in the second to last photo on this page. A dense scatter of single blossom, again a light blue, among attractively shaped leaves. 
         The third photo down pictures a patch of lily of the valley with spear shaped leaves mixed in among the low mass of sweet woodruff. Both of these plants produce delicate white blossoms. The lilies blossom a single stalk with tiny bell-shaped flowers. The mat of white flowers of the sweet woodruff are shown in the sixth photo down. 
       Common violets range in color from dark purple to light violet to the nearly white flowers with purple spots pictured in two photos here.  
        Another prolific low growing, blue flowering, ground covering plant is the Forget-me-not, seen below growing amid the spear-shaped leaves of daffodils and daylilies.  
           The last photo in this group, and the only one with pink flowers is the low phlox which truly illustrate the concept of "ground cover" for a few weeks each spring. 
        






Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Garden and the Library: Where Flowers and Books Come Together

   
      Thank goodness for libraries. 
         Where else can you go as often as you want and it's always free? Sometimes they even have people standing up in the front of the room reading things for you. 
           That's what I'll be doing next month at Plymouth Public Library, introducing and reading some of the poems from my first book of poetry, titled "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty."
            We'll also be showing some slides taken of flowering plants grown in our perennials garden in Quincy. And offering refreshments. Maybe some the strawberries from the garden referred to in these poems will be ready by then.
             The reading takes place on Monday, June 12, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Plymouth library is located at 132 South St. The event is free. Paperback copies of chapbook will be available for purchase and signing for $15.

             Here's the "third-person" press release I've been putting about to promote my new slim volume of verses. You may have seen it before.



Globe Reporter's Poems Blossom in New Poetry Book



            Boston Globe writer Robert Knox, a Quincy resident, has published his first book of poetry, "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty."
            The book consists of 27 poems, many of them related to gardening, the outdoors, planting a perennial flower garden, and the environment. Other subjects include a father's brush with death in World War II, visits to Greece and Lebanon, a busy day on a Boston beach,family crises, a birthday party, a nostalgic glance at youthful dreams, and an encounter with Syrian refugees.
            The book received advance praise from Boston University poet and short story writer Robert Wexelblatt, who stated, "Knox's well-tended garden of verses furnishes readers with elegant borders, unexpected vistas, gorgeous blossoms, and insights as sharp as thorns. His themes are as local as the backyard and as universal as the weather."
            According to the publisher's description of the book: "The poems followed a backyard gardener's decision to dig up all the grass at his Boston area home and plant flowers, both perennials annuals, ground covers, shrubs, a small tree or two, berry bushes, and vegetables. To  be an amateur means to do something not for money, but for love. A few summers later the garden blossomed, and the poems grew from the voices heard while tending the plants, pulling weeds, trimming old growth, planting anew." 
            Knox is a freelance correspondent with a thousand bylines in the Globe South, other sections of the Boston Globe, and other newspapers. A former Plymouth resident and editor/writer for the Plymouth newspaper The Old Colony Memorial, Knox recently published the novel, "Suosso's Lane," based on the Massachusetts roots of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. He presented programs on the book and the history behind it at a dozen South Shore libraries and other regional settings.
            As contributing editor for the online poetry journal Verse-Virtual.com, Knox has published new poetry on a monthly basis on that site. His poems and stories have also appeared in other literary periodicals.
            The poetry chapbook was published in May this year by Finishing Line Press, an active independent publisher of poetry based in Kentucky.
            "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty" is available from the publisher's website, www.finishinglinepress.com, for $14.99.
 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Garden of Literary Biography: "Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart" by Claire Harman



   
         Queen Victoria, then a young woman, stayed up late reading "Jane Eyre."
            Much of the reading public did so too. Its author was the fictional Currer Bell, since actual author Charlotte Bronte, the reclusive elder member of a household of extraordinarily inward-looking siblings, was worried that the work of any woman, much less one of relatively low social status, would not be taken seriously. A reasonable assumption.  
            The above information comes from "Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart" by Claire Harman, a recent biography timed to the bicentennial of the subject's birth.
            If you've read "Jane Eyre" but, like me, knew nearly nothing of the author's life, this account of her life and what the book tags 'the story of the Brontes' makes for fascinating reading --  generally sad, often bizarre, rising to a triumph rare in any lifetime, and unique in the author's own times and circumstances. If you haven't read "Jane Eyre," reading this account of the author's unlikely life will surely prompt you to do so.
            To put Charlotte Bronte's accomplishment in perspective, "Jane Eyre" was a 19th century literary sensation rivaled only by Dickens.
            To explain its originality, biographer Harman describes the book as the first realistic novel written from the point of view of a child. The character grows up in the course of the book, but her early life, with its losses and traumas is told in the voice of the defenseless, but courageous child who experiences them.
            Dickens broke ground in bringing to serious writing the concerns of the lower classes, common people, life's "unfortunates," orphans. "Nicholas Nickleby," a devastating muckraker, exposes the cruel treatment afforded poor orphan boys. Bronte upped the ante -- ground-breaking, new, implicitly shocking -- by exploring circumstances, hardships, and the gamut of human emotions from the perspective of an abused, neglected, but smart and determined girl.
            Readers, including the era's literary lions such as William Thackery (author of "Vanity Fair") were transfixed.
            To add further degrees of phenomenal to this sensation in the history of publication, the book was a first book by a writer no one had ever heard of. And, of course, the publishers had no idea that "Currer Bell" was a pseudonym.
            Only when some other nefarious publisher tried to pirate 'Currer Bell's' work, did Charlotte Bronte come forward, traveling unannounced to London with her sister Anne for courage, to announce her existence in the public room of her publisher's offices and demand that they take actions against infringement of their rights.
            The publisher stares at the strikingly, small, quaintly dressed woman. Literary surprise of the century!
            "You are Currer Bell?"
            This moment was recently captured in an otherwise disappointing recent Masterpiece Theater film, "
To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters,” a striking example of missed opportunity. For, as Claire Harman's book demonstrates, the unique (a word that actually applies in this instance) story of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte is still an incredible tale.
            The Bronte family was poor, isolated, fantastically literate. Their father was an Irish-born Church of England vicar, with a parish in barely civilized Yorkshire (the word 'rude' comes to mind), lacking English relatives or local connections. He was mostly interested in tutoring his only surviving son in Latin and Greek. His wife died after a delivering a seventh child. He sent two daughters, including the elder who at age 10 had assumed the 'mother' role for the younger children to a cheap school with brutal conditions, where they proceeded to die.
            His son Bramwell and the three surviving daughters then created a fantasy world of characters sometimes modeled on real figures -- military and political figures they read about in their father's newspapers -- whose explorations and exploits they wrote about in tiny books made of tinier writing (legible only under magnification). A shared world, that is, into which it would be inaccurate to say the children 'withdrew' since there was virtually nothing to withdraw from.  
            To get the rest of the family details, both stirring and sad, read this well written and researched book -- a biography plus one or more. Suffice it to say that in addition to Charlotte's novels, the family produced a major English poet in Emily Bronte. England in the 19th century did not have a category for female poets (outside, perhaps, a famous poet's wife); recognition for Emily Bronte's poems came in the 20th century. Emily also wrote one of the canonical English novels, "Wuthering Heights," a work that still strikes many of us as alternately brilliant and amateurish. And a book that gave us archetypes of a passionate connection too strong for life, or death.
            Charlotte's "Jane Eyre" was a sensation, a cultural gut-check, a new and deeper exploration of society and the individual. In a time before movies, it spawned theatrical exploitations of its popularity.
            Emily's "Wuthering Heights" too was a sensation, but also a scandal. Too much candor for the English public to accept from a woman.
            Outside of the shadow of her talented sisters, Anne Bronte's fiction and poetry makes the sort of interesting early 19th century 'women's writing' that PhD candidates study.
            What happens to their sad brother and the three Bronte sisters rewards any reader's attention, though it won't make us happy. I need add only one significant fact about their father. Reader, he outlived them all.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Garden of the Seasons: Maypole Dance of the Tulips

 Tulip time in Eastern Massachusetts is the last week of April and early May. In the top photo here, see also the low ground covering Vinca Minor well along in its blooming season. 
In the background the low, yellow- flowering plant is a Saxatile Alyssum (aka Basket of Gold), getting a little better every year.  
Second photo down, a pale daffodil with a complicated blossom structure. Also pictured the green thumb of daughter Sonya, who took these photos.
In the last two photos below, a few feet away from the spot pictured in the top photo, a row of dark pink tulips, who have found a place they like. 
The third photo down: a yellow tulip with red arrows comes in close for her close-up.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Garden of Verse: A Birthday Celebration With a Brand New Book

          My copies arriving by UPS serendipitously on Wednesday, my birthday, my chapbook "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty" has been released. My thanks to editor Christen Kincaid and Finishing Line Press: The book looks great. 
          My first poetry book, it's filled with poems that were originally published on Verse-Virtual.com. So thanks even more to V-V editor Firestone Feinberg and fellow V-V poet Robert Wexelblatt for their recommendations. Some of the poems here were first published in other journals.

           For anyone interested in obtaining a copy, the books are available at https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/gardeners-do-it-with-their-hands-dirty-by-robert-knox/ The price is $15.

           Here's the 'full description' of the book's contents written for the use of the publisher in its publicity releases. The description is written in the third person in my usual modesty: 



          The poems in "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty" discover a universe in a perennial flower garden. A reporter and a novelist, Robert Knox's poems are as immediate as today and as universal as the weather. The characters in these poems are May and September, roses, asters, morning glory, anemone, honey bees, squirrels and hummingbirds. These poems followed a garden lover's decision to dig up all the grass at his Boston area home and plant flowers, both perennials annuals, ground covers, shrubs, a small tree or two, berry bushes, and vegetables. To  be an amateur means to do something not for money, but for love. A few summers later the garden blossomed, and the poems grew from the voices heard while tending the plants, pulling weeds, trimming old growth, planting anew. 
            While Knox is an amateur gardener, he's a professional writer, with a thousand bylines in the Boston Globe and other new newspapers and periodicals, writing news, features, op-eds, book reviews, and arts and entertainment columns. His fiction and creative nonfiction stories have appeared in various literary periodicals. He is a contributing editor for the online poetry journal Verse-Virtual, and his novel on the Massachusetts roots of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, "Suosso's Lane, has won praise from readers and reviewers.
            When the gardener goes indoors, he remembers history: a father's wartime brush with death, family crises, his own slow dance with youthful dreams. In poems dealing with the greater world, preschoolers dash across busy roads, adult children have childlike birthdays, and Syrian refugees beg on the streets of Beirut. 
             The poems in "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty" also visit idyllic Greek islands, take a journey along the Sacred Way to ancient Delphi, discover an old wooden wall that survived a decade and a half of ruinous civil war and the furious reconstruction of Lebanon's capital city, and reflect on winter nights filled with silent buses and Chinese spices... while the stars go on telling stories of their own. 
              As his lines saluting an urban balcony garden (from "The Leaf Washers") proclaim, we celebrate our own lives when we cherish the leaves in our garden: "They mediate the base of things, the fundamentals,/ Molecules, waves, atoms, energy-matter – the rain in Piccadilly,/ The fountains of Beirut, the voices of the stars."

 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Garden of Verse: Celebrating the Freedom to Create in This Month's Verse-Virtual


The new month's issue (May 2017) of Verse-Virtual proclaims the freedom of the imagination. An umbrella becomes the Eiffel Tower, a map flies out of a car like an origami bird, angels make emergency calls, a memory turns a man into a shadow.
             In Sylvia Cavanaugh's dancing-in-the-rain recreation of childhood's imagination, "There Was This Original Me," that early version of "me" discovers the charms of the umbrella:

A thin silver stem
rose from the hooked handle
to unfold into a complicated
metal frame, delicate

and elegant as an Eiffel Tower
I could hold in one hand.


         In Catherine Wolf's "Ode to All Birds," the poet performs an emergency wildlife rescue in cruel weather --"You know black capped chickadees are hours away from death in icy blizzards" -- dashing outdoors to fill a bird feeder, and her poem turns the birds "into refugees at sea." The poem then catalogues eight different birds swarming the feeding station (I wish I could be that certain of what I'm seeing at our feeder), and ultimately extends the comparison, pointing out the diversity of winged creatures "all eating from the same table."

       In Donna Hilbert's poem "Angels," we learn that angels are people too. They lounge about until needed, "watching the world like mid-season TV," but leap into action when emergency calls:


Occasionally one is requested

to stop a train in its tracks,
pull a child from a river,
or lie down with a hiker
lost days in the snow—
the angel equivalent
of a triple A call.
It’s the rare angel who’s asked
to stop a war.



Rescue accomplished, the hero then returns to the clubhouse "insufferable with accomplishment" to proclaim "over bingo,
'You should have been there, seen/ the way I put my shoulder to the train.'"

          All I can add is we so want that rare angel on our side. 

          Joan Colby deploys her imagination with painful accuracy in "Podiatry." After the doctor removes a disablingly damaged toenail, we are asked to picture this brilliant, if painful, image:  

Your toe, page of erasure,
A fat white grub. Underneath
It’s all gore like the untold stories
Of the podiatrist’s mother and father. 


          It turns out the podiatrist's tale is tougher than the poet's description of her surgery. His parents, the poem tells us, were

Holocaust survivors. The day they walked
Out of the abandoned barracks.
Living skeletons, their feet
Wrapped in rags,
what a day that was!


          The imagination of size impresses us in  Michael Minassian's poem "A Family of Giants." The poet is treated by an older relative to"an Armenian/ folktale about a family/ of giants who lived in caves..." The point of this story? Jack, the older relative, answers with a question:

What do we call the world?”
he asks, “When the giants
no longer reveal themselves?”


"Diminished," we think, providing an answer of our own. The comparison is implicit when the Armenian immigrant Jack speaks of shaving his mustache and trimming his eyebrows to fit in to America, but is unable to hide his accent. But perhaps the 'giants' do reveal themselves, in time, when Jack and the poet head for home. Read the poem's last lines containing the words "long shadows" and decide for yourself.  

         Final credit for the subject of Ryan Warren's poem "By the Wind Sailors" belongs to nature. But the poet gets a strong assist here. The poem's strong rhythms, short lines and exotically Latinate scientific terms produce an incantation. Or a praise song.

We have named you

Velella velella.

We have named you

By-the-wind-sailor.

We have named you

Cnidaria,

Hydrozoan,

Anthomedusae,

Porpitidae,

Velella. We have named

your blue jellied bodies

your sea-worthy sails,

rigged on ridged backs.
There's a lot more to this poem worthy of reflection, including its depiction of how plants communicate (a subject, personally, I can't get enough of). The act of imagination lives in the science, the natural fact, the thing in itself and transcends it as well. 
          The poem entire, and lots more magic, can be found in this month's Verse-Virtual: http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html          



 

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Garden of Song: The Genesis Chamber Singers Offers New Music For Old Words




The delightful concert by the Genesis Chamber Singers we heard Saturday night at The James Library & Center for the Arts in Norwell, titled "William The Bard" offered modern musical settings of texts by Shakespeare, including the world premiere of a work by composer Adria Stolk. Adria Stolk happened to be sitting behind us to hear her new piece, commissioned by -- no coincidence -- The Genesis Chamber Singers, and engaged in a brief Q&A with the audience shortly after the last note. The interaction appears typical of the group's fresh approach -- new music, young singers, and a willingness to engage.
            The new ensemble of singers and director possessing beautiful voices and superb musicality was created to bring high quality chamber music specifically to South Shore venues like The James. Their next performance takes place in Cohasset. They've also performed in Hingham and Quincy and other local communities.
            According to the group's mission's statement, the "vibrant and engaging performances of a wide variety of choral chamber music [seeks]to enrich the lives of south Shore communities and makes connections with new audiences."
            Judging from what we heard, the mission is well served.by director Joseph Young and the ensemble's highly trained singers. Saturday's concert was titled "William the Bard" and included musical settings of texts from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets by 20th century master Ralph Vaughan Williams and a flowering of 20th century composers from diverse backgrounds. The music is modern in the best sense -- fresh, original, daring, strong, and also clever, charming, and challenging.
            The group performed Vaughan Williams' setting of "Full Fathom Five," one of the most familiar and often set-to-music of Shakespeare's songs from plays (this one from The Tempest). The lyrics begin: "Full Fathom five thy father lies./ Of his bones are corals made./ Those are pearls that were his eyes." Two other pieces by the 20th century English titan followed.
            Stolk's piece, titled "Doubt," sets perhaps the most original choice for a text, four lines from "Hamlet": "Doubt thou the stars are fire/ Doubt that the sun doth move/ Doubt that truth be a liar,/ But never doubt I love."
            The composer said that she tried to make the music reflective of the word "doubt," because the words is so prominent in the four lines and also because the concept is central to Hamlet's tragedy. She did that by setting the middle two lines well outside of harmony, and then returning to a minor key for the final powerful line. The piece is short but moving, and the beauty of the last line the greater for the musical distance traveled to get there.
            For me, part of the work's power comes from remembering the Prince of Denmark's tragic renunciation of the very pledge he made in that final line. The four-line text is taken from a letter the prince wrote to Ophelia before his father's murder. After the murder he chillingly tells her "I never loved thee" -- punishing the daughter for the sins of the fathers. And making a liar of himself. 
            Other works performed include fours songs by Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjavi in the 80s (including another setting of "Full Fathom Five") and a rousingly dark and lively rendition of the witches' dialogue in Macbeth, titled "Double, Double Toil and Trouble."
            "Three Madrigals: by Emma Lou Diemer" strikes me as a classic evocation of the Elizabeth sensibility, since people did sing madrigals in Renaissance times. The first of these "O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?" is one of the most familiar songs taken from the plays, often set, recorded and performed. The song was written for "Twelfth Night," one of the richest of Shakespeare's comedies and (I believe) the play with the most songs.
            The concert also featured several versions of Shakespeare's sonnets, including two settings of "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" by Swedish composer Nils Lindbergt and George Shearing, respectively. Shearing is famous for his song "Lullably of Birdland" and his collaborations with 'song stylist' Mel Torme. All his s settings here sounded like elegant-school jazz to me, an effective contrast to some of the denser textures of the other pieces.
            The concert also included works by Romanian born Gyorgy Orban and Ward Swingle, who founded the Swingle Singers in the early 60s and of whom Young writes in the program "Swingle essentially invented the modern contemporary a cappella style 'where the whole point twas that we use our voice instrumentally.'" 
            And that in a nutshell is what The Genesis Cantata Singers did so well in this program. 
            The group's gala fund-raiser, "Gift of Music" offering wine and hors d'oeuvres along with your music, takes place Saturday, June 10, 7 p.m., at First Parish Church in Cohasset.