Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Garden of the Unknowable: 'Ancient Light' by John Banville

            "Since it seems that nothing in creation is ever destroyed, only disassembled and dispersed, might not the same be true of individual consciousness?" John Banville's narrator, an aging actor, asks himself this question in his 2012 novel "Ancient Light." And continues:
            "Where when we die does it go to, all that we have been?"
            Don't we all ask ourselves this question?
            There really are no suitable answers, are there? Perhaps, even, no 'reality.'
            And maybe thinking this way is something of an occupational hazard for the profession of 'fiction writing.'
            The Irish novelist (and also literary journalist, writing book reviews and literary articles for an Irish newspaper) -- has written so many remarkable, beautifully phrased and thought-provoking sentences that's it's a mistake to get hung up on any one sentence or  passage (or even one book) as the quintessential Banville.
            Still, I particularly love the concluding phrase in this perfectly formed question: "all that we have been."
            If I had to come up with an answer to a question on the subject of this, or any, of this author's novels, this might be it. What are John Banville's novels about? 'All that we have been.'
            Or, perhaps, might have been. Since, as many others have pointed out, his narrators are always of the unreliable sort. And their tales have been skewed, undercut, overlaid, wrapped and themselves, with a trail of little time bombs going off here and there with the effect of blowing up any confidence that what we are hearing is intended as the 'simple truth.' There is no simple truth.
            Given this author's freedom with the post-modernist philosophical -- one might almost say 'post-Einsteinian,' or 'post Quantum Theory' -- skepticism that abounds in the storytelling of our times, it is almost a naive question to ask of his book "what happens?"
            Yet I can't escape a brief attempt to summarize the plot of "Ancient Light."
            In the book's most beautiful passage the dawn light enters the room as just the right angle to create a perfect reflection of itself on the bedroom ceiling: a mirrored or twin universe. Is this the "Ancient Light" of the title? Or does the title simply acknowledge that source of some of the light reaching our solar system originates from galaxies millions or billions of light years away. From the distant past, that is, of other worlds. 
            That passage follows the novel's opening in which we learn that the narrator spends his nights walking the dark passages of his ancient house in search of his endlessly weeping wife. Are we in the House of Usher? Or the House of Atreus where some ancient tragedy is afoot?
            In fact, the cause is that both parents are unreconciled to the death of their daughter by apparent suicide in circumstances that could be judged mysterious, but which reason would simply term 'unknowable.' The daughter, we learn, was always a little disturbed.
            For seemingly unrelated reasons, our narrator has chosen to examine in detail all of his fully fleshed-out memories of his teenage initiation into adult sexuality by the mother of his best friend. Their enigmatic affair (why should she do such a thing?) persists for many months, leading to inevitable discovery and the Mom's ruin. Or so the boy believed. I remain astonished by the author's detailed reconstruction of a fifteen-year-old's state of mind and conduct during these Rabelaisian backseat and abandoned-hut encounters; perhaps because at that age I was still working on my first kiss.
            I am less assured these revisitations have anything to do with mourning or investigating the death of his daughter, or his own current life. Ah, we think, but the connection is thematic, philosophical, having to do with the nature of time, the role of memory, the possibility of ever knowing 'what really happened.'
            In the third stand of the novel's action, our narrator, a retired stage actor, is summoned out of the blue by a Hollywood producer to play the lead in a film about a morally compromised European literary critic of the post-structuralist 'critical theory' school. I cannot find words to express how unlikely it is that an American film company would make a movie about a 'critical theory' academic, however compromised. Still, a troubling coincidence connects this figure to the time and place of the daughter's death.
            Yet it almost beyond the point -- and sometimes wholly pointless -- to worry about the plotting of Banville's novels.
            In an interview with Paris Review, the author himself states that the central concern of his fiction is the construction of beautiful English sentences. He says:
            "It’s only now and then, maybe once every three or four days, that I manage to write a sentence in which I hear that wonderful harmonic chime that you get when, say, you flick the edge of a wine glass with a fingernail. That’s what keeps me going."
            The art lies, that is, in the way you put the words together. The play of the syntax. The rhythm of the phrases winding through the resources of Banville's sometimes head-scratchingly wide vocabulary. The sound of the words melding finely with the changing and always nuanced tone of their narration.
            For me, the singular 'chime' in Banville's unrivaled prose is the boffo, self-mocking play of words weaving themselves into a fully intelligible declaration, the various possible meanings of which can be expressed in no other words than those still resounding in the reader's ear and mind.
            Here's our narrator recalling his 15-year-old self 'in love' -- can that be the fitting phrase? Well, contentedly busy, at least, with the occupation of enjoying the charms of his adult mistress.
            "Certainly she granted me full freedom of her body, that opulent pleasure garden where I sipped and sucked, dazed as a bumble-bee in full-blown summer."
            I have seen such bumble bees in their capacity as eager visitors to the flower garden of my own full-blown summers. At times they appear dazed indeed by the wealth of opportunity offered them; for the most part they show little hesitation in getting on with the job. And, yes, I sometimes envy them. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Garden of Verse: Where Do the Poems Come From?

     Poets in the June 2017 edition of Verse-Virtual took on the mystery of where poems come from.

            "Writing the Poem," a fabulous poem by Dick Allen (fables galore in here), is a bravura response to the never-stated theme of writer's block. The answer? You let the poem write itself. Things just happen, but they happen in so lively and picturesque, and unexpected, a way that the reader can't wait to see what happens next: 
".... The poem
will start singing 'One bright morning, I’ll fly away'
or jump from a Walmart roof...
the poem will make friends with furniture salesmen,
and eat avocados just arrived from Monday."
            I'll take my avocados from Monday any day of the week. I liked every high-jumping, sky-dying line here, but I also wish to pay special mention these:
"Poet naïf, poet of the corner store
with your mind set upon camera lenses and canary yellow,
are you in your right mind
            'Poet of the corner store' strikes me as a marvelous image. Next time I go to the corner store, I'll try to see where it takes me. 
This is a poem that demonstrates by its own construction where poems come from. Sometimes the 'wrong' mind might be the right one.

            The mystery of inspiration wafts over some other poems I admired in June's Verse-Virtual. CJ Clark introduces us to the enigma of the Skogmo Cafe, accompanied by a black-and-white photo that made me think "JFK." The poem asks, "Wasn't this once called the Skogmo Cafe?" Neither party knows the answer.
"Instead we order soup
And sip the chowder, the broth
Of our separate winters..."
            I love this poem for the image of spooning up "the broth
Of our separate winters..." Not the bread of affliction, nor the shortcake of romance, yet a piquant and, I suspect, highly personal taste.

             I don't know the "Line From Merwin" alluded to by the title of Judy Kronenfeld's poem, but I don't need to in order to feel myself surrendering to the sensations of ephemeral beauty and sorrow evoked by the language of this poem.
"Each day on the long drive home
how easily the sky
soars into profundity,
like silent music."
              The profundity of "silent music"? Another mystery, perhaps But we probably know in our own hearts what the phrase means. This is a poem built on short lines of exactly right words.

              Jim Lewis offers a wise and clever interpretation of a painting by Firestone Feinberg (pictured above) in "the color of your songs." The poem repeats lines, or parts of lines, from the end of one stanza to the first of the next, echoing the repetition of imagery in Feinberg's paintings. I particularly admire the alliterative music in this stanza that renders the whole more playful in tone than a literal summing up of 'meaning' could possibly do:
"sonata for serpent
where bass clef crawls
along the floor
and treble spreads its trouble
all across the couch cushions
below watchful eyes..."

           Joan Mazza's poem "On Being Asked How I Write a Poem Every Day" provides another answer to the question posed implicitly by the theme of a writer's block.
           Like some of these others, it's a poem that demonstrates in its own creation the 'point' it appears to be making. The way on, the poet tells us, develops from a seamlessly sustained comparison for working a vein and digging in an earth that is always there:
"Some days I wear a hat, boots, and work gloves,
and push the wheelbarrow over logs and mud,
ruts and roots that trip along the way..."
            We all know about that mud, those 'ruts and roots' (two words that call to one another). And if there are indeed logs lying across the floor of your personal forest, you have my deepest sympathies. I have entered such forests and gone nowhere in them. But Mazza's poem takes us swiftly to black soil "under old oaks," and we sigh with remembrance and know that we're onto something now.
            June V-V is onto something too. It's simply more fine poetry.
             These poems and many others can be found at

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Garden of the Irrational: What 'Julius Caesar' Tells Us About Killing the Hero of the Masses Who Would Be King

            Julius Caesar may look to some people like POTUS No. 45, but his enemies were not 'democrats' (large D or small).
            Democracy -- from the Greek word 'demos,' meaning 'the people' -- is the belief in rule by the many, as opposed to the few. A democrat, therefore, has always been the term for someone who believed in that theory.
            But the word people like Caesar, in Caesar's Roman Republic, used for the people was "the mob." The common people  are easily swayed, so the Roman upper class believed. And that is their role -- mobbish potential turning into actual mob mentality and mob violence -- in Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar."
            The Roman Republic appointed "Tribunes" to be the spokesmen for the people's interests. In Shakespeare's play, the Tribunes oppose the movement to make returning war hero Caesar into some sort of dynastic monarch: a ruler with a crown. A crowd of plebs (the Roman term for the common people) seeking to fawn over Caesar and give him dictatorial powers is denounced by one of the Tribunes as "you clods, you blocks, you worse than senseless things."
            Caesar actually holds the office of 'consult,' or 'chief executive' in the Roman government. The Roman Republic elected two consuls at a time, so they could keep an eye on each other, and their term lasted only one year.
            The supporters of Caesar's elevation to some kind of kingly sovereign-status are not looking for commoners' vote. The plebs don't vote. Caesar's party is looking for traditional form of commoner support, as understood in Classical times -- mob rule. A big city riot provides good cover for a coup.
            Politically, Rome was a 'republic' in the Classical meaning of term; before it turned into a world-dominating empire. A republic means a government with an elected head: those consuls. But real power lay in the Senate. The Senate elected the consuls and appointed the generals. But the Senate was not itself an elected body. It was an exclusive club you joined for life when (here's the fun part) you had accumulated a million dollar -- more accurately to the period, one million 'sesterces.' But I love the notion that Romans were hung up on the idea of 'a million.'

            Even back in pre-capitalist Rome people believed that power came from money.
            So in some ways the Senate was closer to what we call an 'oligarchy,' a body of wealthy property owners the Romans called 'patricians.' The body's importance is conveyed in the republic's abbreviated signature for the Roman state: SPQR. Senatus Populous-Que Romanus. 'The Senate and the Roman People.'
            The ambitions of some Patricians however were too big to be contained by the Senate -- men such as Caesar and Pompey, a pair of victorious generals with a naked will to power. Talk about political factions and polarized parties. These two ended up embroiling Rome in a civil war. When Caesar won, his party argued 'let's just put an end to all this destructive political in-fighting and make Caesar 'king.' 
            "Anthony offered him a crown," Casca tells Brutus in Act I, Scene ii of Shakespeare's play. "(Caesar) refused it the third time, and as he refused it the commoners hooted and clapped their chapped hands, and threw up their sweaty hats, and let loose such a great deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown that it nearly choked Caesar..."

            In times of trouble the Romans had a habit of seeking to turn their heroes into kings. When the Roman farmer-general Cincinnatus left home and hearth at a time of great danger to lead an army and save his country from an enemy, a grateful populace tried to make him ruler. But Cincinnatus won lasting fame by waving off the offer and going back to his plow.
            This conduct is the model for what later centuries called "republican virtue," the willingness to sacrifice personal good for love of country, but to seek no glory for oneself. It is the model George Washington invoked when his soldiers sought to turn him into a a ruler -- tyrant, king -- at the victorious close of the Revolutionary War. Washington said no thanks and went home. Years later he again answered his country's call and agreed to become the new nation's first President; but after two terms he said, that's it, I'm done.This country is not about one man, not even George Washington.

            The politician-general known to history as Caesar has already fallen a good deal short of this standard when Shakespeare's play begins. In fact, Caesar wants the crown -- but he wants it not just from the plebs, but from the Senate.
            We see him in scenes subsequent to his pretense of turning down the crown offered by Anthony already acting like a monarch, speaking of himself in the third person, listening to petitions for favors from members of his own class. We hear Brutus, 'the noblest Roman of them all,' agonize over how to preserve the republic from the danger of tyranny. I have nothing against Caesar, Brutus reasons, but what if all this new power people desire to give him causes him to change. In short, power corrupts.

I know no personal cause to spurn at him

But for the general. He would be crowned.

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

It is the bright day that brings forth the adder

And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,

And then I grant we put a sting in him

That at his will he may do danger with.

            Following this logic, Brutus -- the natural leader of the 'Republican' wing of Rome's political class and the true central figure in the play -- decides to join the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar before Roma gives him the absolute power of rule that kings, emperors, pharoahs and brigands enjoyed everywhere else.
            It's hard to read (or hear) Brutus's soliloquies without sympathizing. He's the play's sympathetic character.
            However, the act of political assassination by itself leads to even worse consequences than Brutus fears from one-man rule.
            Violence is like that. "They that sew the wind shall reap the whirlwind."
            The consequences, in Shakespeare's play, include mob riots whipped up Caesar's followers against the conspirators, killings in the street, the murder of innocent bystanders. 
            Then the division of the country in yet another civil war.
            And finally the ultimate defeat of the republican faction and the death of its leaders. Brutus takes his own life.
            Nobody who has read or seen this play to its end is likely to conclude that it makes a good case for assassinating a dangerous political tyrant.
            The would-be tyrant you kill paves the way for a still more capable tyrant to come. That's what happened to Rome. Caesar was followed by his grand-newphew, Octavius Caesar (known to history as Caesar Augustus) as the first Roman emperor. While Julius Caesar was a successful general and an ambitious politician, Octavius was the cold-blooded CEO of an empire built and maintained by reliance on force. Crucifixions were a specialty.  
             Rome was never a republic again.
             Works of art such as Shakespeare's plays are not propaganda. They're not prescriptions for behavior or incitements to a certain action. They don't necessarily have any moral that can be explicated in a sentence or two. 
             What they do is enable and encourage human beings in any society to confront in the realm of the psyche and the imagination -- (the soul, perhaps) -- issues, ideas, questions and crises similar to those they experience in the cold light of their own reality. 
              "Julius Caesar" cannot tell us, and doesn't try to, how to act in the deplorable era of POTUS No. 45. It does offer some warnings, based on the history of a famous long-ago republic that served as thought-provoking precursor to the thinkers who established a constitutional republic in the United States. But what we choose to do, and how we think about our situation, is still up to us.  

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Gardens and Verse: On the Reasons, and the Seasons, for Writing About Your Own Home Garden.

           I've written about this subject before. Quite a bit actually. Recently, however, I was following a National Poetry Month poem-a-day program that offered an interesting prompt on the subject of land use. And one which invoked one of the oldest traditions of poetry in Western Civilization.
            The prompt called for writing a "Georgic," that is, a poem dealing with practical aspects of agriculture and rural affairs. This is the subject for a major poem by Virgil, generally judged the greatest of the Latin poets, titled "The Georgics," a term drawn
from the Greek word “Georgicon.”
            I never studied the Greek language, so I'm relying on secondary sources for an idea of what Virgil was up to. According to the Ancient Literature website, “Georgicon” translates to "agricultural things." A Georgic, I'm told, is a didactic poem in the tradition of the Greek writer Hesiod, and the ostensible subject of the verses is rural life and farming. "Part farming manual, part hymn of praise, part allegory ['The Georgics'] contains some of Virgil's finest descriptive writing, with patriotic overtones and rich mythological allusions."
            In the third and last part, however, Virgil wanders off from a discussion of bee-keeping to give readers an account of the story of Orpheus and his attempt to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the underworld. The tale is one of those unforgettable myths that human beings in succeeding centuries, countries, and civilizations keep coming back to.
            The agricultural (or pastoral) subject material of Virgil's great poem called to poets writing in English many centuries later. English poets in the 18th century wrote their own "Virgilian styled Georgics and country themed pieces with an emphasis on withdrawal from city life, the rustic arts, and an embrace of a happy life on the country estate," according to the Wikipedia.
            And yet again in the early 20th century, the term "Georgian poetry" was applied to the work of lyrical poets who "took inspiration from the countryside and nature," including Hilaire Belloc, Edmund Charles Blunden, Rupert Brooke, William Henry Davies and Robert Graves.
            Among these, Brooke and Graves are still widely read, though the tag 'Georgian' came to be applied to merely conventional, backward-looking writing and was widely applied as a pejorative term.
            Well, we can't have that. I'm happy to take on the role of restorer of the "Georgic" in contemporary verse. And since the only form of 'agriculture' I know anything about is the style practiced in residential backyard (and front yard) gardens -- as you may just possibly have heard me say before -- here's my introduction for the kind of poems collected in my recently published chapbook "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty."
            Many of the poems in this book, especially those that relate to its title "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty," spring from a decision, following our move to a house with no garden and precious little lawn to dig up all the turf grass on the property and plant flowers, perennials, ground cover, shrubs, a small tree or two, berry bushes, potted annuals, and vegetables. My first title for poems about the garden project was "The Amateur." From its Latin roots -- the word means "lover." I have no training, no claim for expertise, I'm not a professional -- I don't even belong to a garden club -- I just began digging things up and planting. So, to be an amateur means to do something not for money, but for love, or desire.
            We hired a company to remove the surface, level the earth, add topsoil (which they didn't). Then Anne and I laid out a design, I spend a lot of money (for us) in a garden shop, and we started digging. And planting -- sort of, before we realized how little soil we had. We had truckloads of soil dumped on our parking area and then transported it by wheelbarrow to the planting beds. Then came more digging. Then some more planting. We laid out brickwork paths. Our plants grew, most of them were successful from the start. It took a few years for the plantings to fill the spaces. 
           I loved the development stage. I like learning by doing things, and try to learn from experience. I love to see things growing. I love the idea that when we step outdoors, we are in nature. The "environment" begins at the doorstep. Open the door; breathe the air; listen... One day a cardinal sat on the head of a sunflower, bobbing and calling, looking for all the world as if he had just lost something. (A mate?) I noticed he ate a few sunflower seeds while he was there too. There is always something to see...

            My latest offering on this subject, currently up on the June Verse-Virtual, reverts to the theme of what to do with our own good patches of earth, though in a more baroque, occasionally self-mocking, and frankly over-the-top style.
            The title itself is kind of a give-away: "Snarky George and the Georgics: New England, New Jerusalem, New Lawn."

            Here's the first stanza:

Land should be used for growing things that are beautiful or useful, or both.
A case may be made for parking lots, but it's an ugly one
Better to park our cars in the sky,
especially on gray days
when we would hardly notice them above the clouds
Land is too precious to suffer pavement,
significantly reducing its earth-given ability to nourish life.
Sure, cracks will appear, all works of man eventually giving way to water,
biota, and eventually sun-seeking plants.
Why fight it? Love your mother, and ask forgiveness...


            Please take a peek at the whole poem at