Sunday, December 31, 2017

Dec. 31, 2017 Is the Seventh Day of Christmas: Remember, There Are Twelve

            Christmas is only half over. Today may be the last day of the year 2017, but it's only the seventh day of Christmas. As the song says, those days number twelve.
            The first day of Christmas did not begin auspiciously. A brief flurry was in the forecast, with some more substantial snow, maybe a few inches, predicted for further south. But just as we were finishing breakfast and packing for the mid-morning drive to make a ferry reservation to cross the Long Island Sound, the sky clouded over and those brief flurries turned into a blizzard. I have subsequently been assured that this was "a fast-moving storm." And in fact about the time I had given up on that ferry reservation and re-centered our hopes on finding an unreserved spot on a later ferry, the puffball snow drop shut off as if someone had turned a spigot and the sun came out to take a good look at the sky's recent accomplishment.
            "We're going!" I announced. Making the reservation might be a long shot: It's a two and a half hour dash under normal conditions, and the interstates might not be fully plowed, or plowed at all. But -- as I said -- it had stopped snowing.
            The highways were far from fully plowed, at one point we were trapped behind a trio of enormous snow removal tractors, one for each lane. And even when we had left the snow zone behind (Connecticut barely had a sugaring), the traffic that had been unable to get off early as planned because of the snow -- like us-- was now jousting for road room. When we reached the Bridgeport exit, I declared an optional traffic-laws zone, ignored a half dozen red lights, and arrived at check-in only a few minutes late. With the ferry still at the dock, I was told by a kid with a radio to get in line -- behind people who did not have reservations.
            "But we have a reservation!"
            "You're late."
            "There was a snowstorm in Massachusetts."
            "You're way over the cut-off time."
            Cut-off time? The phrase was new to me. Is that the time when I cut off your ear?
             Somehow we made it onto the boat, the last of the small cars in the small-car spaces, our back bumper licking salt from the Long Island Sound. We didn't rock the boat, but the boat rocked us, lifting its flanks to the sky from the swells produced by that fast-moving storm.
            Still, we reached our destination, had a great Christmas dinner, sang the old songs... And his was only the first day of Christmas. What was the day like? It was sort of like a partridge in a pear tree.
            On the second day of Christmas we drove from Suffolk County on Long Island to Riverdale, at the northern tip of the City of New York. My son driving, it was pretty much a vacation day for me. Anne's parents were waiting for us, perched in their comfortable armchairs like two turtle doves.
            We 'ordered in' for dinner -- is that the expression? the other expression is 'nobody cooks in New York City' -- from a Chinese restaurant and a sushi place. I have noticed that no group of American diners numbering more than two (and some fewer) can agree on eating the same thing. A couple of years ago we watched an endless parade of bike-riding delivery guys streaking down Lexington Avenue to bring Saturday night chow to all the apartments on the East Side. 
            For entertainment we watched, for maybe the 20th time, an incredibly sweet and clever short film version of Dylan Thomas's incredibly nostalgic and brilliant memoir, "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Sometimes family groups are able to watch the same thing.
            On the third day of Christmas (and the second day in Riverdale) a longtime family friend of my wife's clan, a world traveler and bearer of tidings, paid a holiday call to Anne's parents. A trio of their house guests, my wife, daughter and self sat in on our visitor's this state of the world and brooded over this mixed report (families growing; cities sinking) like -- you've guessed it -- three French hens.
            On the fourth day we were on the road again. Departing New York after the morning commute but not quite soon enough, we arrived back in the Boston sphere of commuter influence at an hour early enough, one would hope -- especially on Christmas week! -- to escape the 'evening' commute. But no, evening starts early (well before the hasty departure of the winter sun), and plenty of that metro-traffic was waiting for us. We arrived home in time to feel the deep New England freeze, and I was surprised to find the bird feeder not completely empty.
            If there were four calling birds about, I did not see them.
            On the fifth day of Christmas, we went back to our routine, a day of work and a visit to the gym afterwards,even though the ancient course of the holiday still had a week to run. 
            What did we have to show for the day? Five gold coins?
            On the sixth day of Christmas, the weekend had arrived so we did not work, but the glowering sky and the persistent cold kept us from whatever festivities might be on offer. Our outings were of the accumulative short. Between shopping for our screen appetites, movies and TV series at the library, and healthy food at the expensive food store, I have no doubt we acquired the equivalent of six geese-a-laying. Actually, we roasted one of them for dinner.
            On the seventh day, the punishing and enduring cold promises to have us once more swimming upstream. Not only is today Sunday , but the widely celebrated folk holiday of New Year's Eve, so we venture forth despite the cold to dine with a friend. With our children absent, that still leaves us four swans short of the necessary social swim. I suspect, however, if we watch the silly descent of the infamous ball, there among the crowd we will find our swans swimming along nicely, their long graceful necks pointing to the future, assured of their personal charms, and their happy white tails trailing obediently behind.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Garden of Eternal Voices: Poet Dick Allen Passed Away on Christmas. We'll All Miss Him

We never met face to face, but over the last couple of years Dick
Allen's poetry and emails meant a lot to me. I was very grateful for and encouraged by his comments on my work. And I loved both the skill and humanity, and the wisdom, in his poems. I felt he had a true, deep ear for the lives of others and the song of life we are all part of. And a wonderful touch with the registers of the American language.

         Dick Allen suffered a heart attack at his home in Connecticut on Christmas and died the next day, at age 78. He was poet laureate of the state of Connecticut from 2010 to 2015 and one of the regular contributors to, the online poetry journal and community I became a member of two years ago. 
         I don't know how many poetry books Dick published. In his bio on Verse-Virtual, he notes the last two, "Zen Master Poems" published last year, and "This Shadowy Place: Poems," published in 2014 and awarded the New Criterion Poetry Award for works concentrating on traditional forms. He described his life this way: "Now, my wife and I quietly write poetry by the shores of Thrushwood Lake, in Connecticut, and struggle daily to find calm in these surreal days."

           I didn't know who he was when I sent him a note pointing out what I liked about a poem he published on Verse-Virtual. If I had known, I probably wouldn't have taken the initiative. Clearly Dick Allen did not need to hear the virtues of his poem explained by me. Nevertheless, he responded in a collegial and kindly manner, and so I made it a habit every few months of initiating email exchanges about our poems.  

          I didn't realize that everybody else who published regularly in Verse-Virtual was likely doing the same thing. Somehow he found time for all of us. 
          Verse-Virtual editor Firestone Feinberg has solicited comments and tributes from poets who knew Dick Allen or, like me, developed an email relationship. He plans to publish these in an upcoming edition of the online journal. Here is what Firestone had to say about Dick:

A brilliant poet and an extraordinary person, Dick was good, kind, wise, compassionate — and so much more — a man full of love and care not only for his family and friends but for humanity itself.

A letter written by Dick Allen's daughter about her father was published by the Hartford Courant. You can find that here:

         Finally, a poem, originally published in "Poetry" magazine and later in Verse-Virtual.

Almost Nowhere in the World, as Far as Anyone Can Tell

It is pleasant, very pleasant, to sit at a wooden booth
surrounded by parrots, wheels, right-turning conch shells,
the victory banner and the endless knot,
the lotus, the treasure vase, the golden fishes--
is this not so? Is it not pleasant
to sip Tsingtao beer, or Zhujiang, or Yanjing,
and tap your fingers on the bamboo mats?
After we’ve drunk enough, there will be Buddhist Delight,
Mongolian beef side dishes, a whole host of sauces,
even some pizza and chicken wings if children are present,
as well as the small ice-cream machine, lotus paste, pears,
smiles and bows all around. It is pleasant, is it not,
to linger outside the door that opens to the parking lot
of this small strip mall beside this secondary road
and look upon the scattered cars all come to rest here

After the Newtown school shooting in Connecticut he wrote a poem titled "Solace." The final stanza reads:

No voice once heard is ever lost
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No voice once heard is ever lost.

Many other poems can be found at Dick Allen's website and  blog:

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Garden of Verse: Confessions, Commentaries and Some Home Truths in Young Poems

My thoughts on some poems that speak truth and summon memory in the December issue of Verse-Virtual:
         "Botched Job" by Donna Reis employs the structural device of using the key words in the second line of a stanza to build the first line of next stanza. Along with rhyme and other kinds of repeats, the music of this poem blows like a chilly wind through the stages of a painful tale of a spouse's manipulative cry for attention. I can almost hear a sad Spanish guitar between the stanzas. A very affecting poem. 

        Poet Ceri Eagling watches the world in her "Reflections," a poem based on a Paris street scene:
Madame wields her shopping basket like a weapon
splitting the knots of Brits who picked the Sunday market
option over the Ch√Ęteau on their visit to Versailles.

       In a back-handed tribute to her worldliness, those 'Brits' dismiss Madame's discourtesy as "a case of bloody Gallic cheek " -- one of those wonderfully tangy phrases that could only come from England's English. The sharp-eyed poet tells us that the tourists are
choosing that interpretation over "the craven
tribute paid to crabbed old age." I think I will remember that 'crabbed old age' and remind myself not to be crabby.

          In what we may safely call a confessional poem given its title "On the Drive Home from the Jolly Party a Young Mother Confesses," Donna Hilbert offers a riveting vignette with an enduring message. After the 'young mother' confesses the heavy consequences of "no sex education" on her thwarted ambitions, the men in the car turn to stone, and the car's other young mother reveals that "her candor scares me." Readers may meditate on whose confession is referenced by the title.

          Many of the poems in the December issue of Verse-Virtual connect to the theme of early works. It's hard to believe that many of these were written so young. Kate Sontag's evocative poem "Scenes from an Apartment in Hollywood (with Dogs)" tells
how the blue hour enters
through the balcony windows
like a silent screen hero
from across the boulevard
and slowly blackens for stars

          The poems captures the way certain experiences go so deeply when you're young. I still notice the 'blue hour' of fading light and blackening silhouettes as sunset fades to darkness, but I think those hours were even bluer back then.

           David Graham's "The Elusive American," written when the poet was 20, creates a lasting impression of a famous American character out of biographical research and empathetic intuition: Harry Houdini, who knew that all the world was a stage and he always belonged at its center. The illusionist, as the poet tells us,
... knew the counterfeit ease of a hustler in rented clothes
but walked through walls anyway
and when his mother smiled turned muscles to keys,
his devotion dissolving knots into rags...

          The poem captures the revealing peculiarities and the enduring elusiveness of this great escape artist. The poet was young, but there is nothing 'young' about the poem. 

         Joan Colby contributes the first 'Clio poem she wrote as a young woman: "Ah Clio -- Muse of History." The muse of history is surely a winning notion for poems, and this poem suggests its universal appeal, as we run into Clio
Walking all the breakwaters and levees
On observation decks staring
Out over all cities, chewing gum

In every Mobile comfort station,
Washing your hands.

          Mary McCarthy's "Madonna Song," written in the poet's twenties, imagines a commitment to great age, personal time merging with creation itself. As in the memorable lines:
I will be patient as stone
until wild men come
to beat war dances
on my bones

          In her youthful poem "The Scene," Tricia Knoll  connects The Pieta to the tragedy of a contemporary war.
In the black silken lap of Meurtra La Fois
Lies the drooling quiet head of Cornelius, her son,
Whose eyes slowly spin in rhythm
With the gray curls of his dusty hair.

          Unhappily, the lesson of this youthful poem is no less relevant today.
              You can read the rest of these poems and many others at

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Garden of the Seasons: Home for the Holidays, the Travel, the Over-stimulation, the Roadwork... Can't Wait!

            My Christmas story "Christmas in the City" -- Christmas season story, actually -- is up this week on, a busy online story journal that's becoming one of my favorite sites. The story has a lot of traveling in it. If you're a couple you go to see one partner's family, then the other's. If the two families live reasonably close to one another, both in the New York City area, say, you try to do all the traveling and visiting in one trip. It's a question of how much "relativity" can you pack into a few days.
           Here's the beginning of the story:

On the night before the night before Christmas we drove down from our home by the ocean through the rain forest of Connecticut, watching the sky turn to moist, violet hues as we pushed into the ambient light pollution of denser realms. Human settlements: cars and houses and shopping centers. The rain passed, we were home free, or so we thought, but somebody had reorganized the highway since our last visit and we found ourselves staring the Tappan Zee Bridge in the ominous face before choosing the desperate extremity of “last exit.” Last exit deposited us into a bedroom community where Santa tiptoed on cat paws, but neither of us had ever set foot.
“Hastings-on-Hudson,” I marveled. “What kind of a name is Hastings-on-Hudson? If you see Jacob Marley hitchhiking, don’t pick him up.”

          The story includes my take on what the news media insisted on calling "the December Dilemma." The tired premise for these Living Page feature stories is that Jewish-Christian interfaith families are supposed to have difficulties deciding which of the December holiday traditions to follow. Do we celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah? Whose family should we visit, your Jewish one with those nine-candle Menorahs and that funny-sounding prayer? Or my Christian one, with my non-churchgoing Dad, the live tree in your living room with all those colored lights, and the December electric bill from all that extra lighting?
           Seriously, folks, where's the dilemma? We do them both, naturally. The kids get more presents, more candy, more attention from the grandparents.
           The parents get to drive all over creation, going from one house to another, taking in the sights in Midtown, Rockefeller Center and the Metropolitan Museum. Christmas dinner and carol singing on Long Island. My wife, as "Christmas in the City" points out
 ...hates the December Dilemma. We solved the so-called, over-hyped bi-religious dilemma at home by putting the Hanukkah candles in the dining room and the sacrificial tree, symbolical axis mundi of the pagan solstice festival, in the living room. The kids get twice as many presents. We eat latkes on the first night of Hanukkah, seasoned with a little blood via hand-grating the potatoes. We exchange Christmas presents some evening, or morning (never on December twenty-fifth), whenever it’s convenient to our travel schedule. We travel to nostalgic New York to spend the day of days with my parents in the house where I grew up and seem unable to get away from, at least far enough to have an excuse not to go there for Christmas. But we also go to the Bronx, to see Sharon’s parents and watch a video treatment of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” which is exempted from Sharon’s core values because it goes beyond mere warm-and-wonderful nostalgic to non-denominationally entertaining. So she says. Actually, I think she’s jealous.
             As one of our friends pointed out after reading "Christmas in the City," the story is really a disguised memoir with "the names changed to protect the innocent." 
              Yes, it is. You'll note that my name is on it, because I'm not one of the innocent. I'm the perpetrator. I wrote the story about ten years ago. It was fun to see it again.
               To read the rest of it, go to:

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Garden of Honey Bee: Pass the Dandelions, Please

This is the time of the year if you live in the northern half of the United States, or anywhere in the northern hemisphere, to remind yourself that the sun will return, the light will lengthen, plants will pop up out of the earth spontaneously (I know I didn't plant them all), the green will return to the trees, and the color to lawns and gardens. Also birds will sing and bees will buzz.
            Or will they? The last item on this happy roll call of nature's bounties has been the least certain of earth's annual bounties in recent years because of a frightening loss of bee population, almost certainly related to the use of chemical fertilizers, called "colony collapse disorder."
            Bees are not primarily the nuisance creatures that we worried about stepping on in our bare feet, during the unsteady paradise of childhood. They are an essential partner in human food production.  
            Bees pollinate fruit trees, nut crops, berries, and many other of the plant foods we rely on.
            After writing that sentence I wondered how many so I looked up www:// and found...   Alfalfa   Okra   Strawberries   Onions   Cashews   Cactus   Prickly Pear   Apricots   Allspice   Avocados   Passion Fruit   Lima Beans   Kidney Beans   Adzuki Beans   Green Beans  and....
            The list rolls down the screen -- and down and down and down... My finger grow tired scrolling. I literally cannot count them all. A few other favorites that catch my eye: mangoes, lemons, carrots, coffee -- what was that last one? Coffee?
            Has everyone got the point?
            Now let's focus on another item on the happy-thoughts-of-spring agenda, the category of common wild plants found, in field, farm, residential yards and public lawns that are abused under the misapprehension that they are "weeds." A weed, of course, is merely a plant in a place where we don't wish it to be. The word has no scientific definition. One of the most widely victimized of these wild common plants, under the libel of 'weed,' is the common dandelion.
            Given the problematic decline of honey bees, it's time to turn our attention on the role of the dandelion in the 'balance of nature.'
            Writing a couple springs ago, Kate Bradbury of the newspaper The Guardian put the case this way:
"A few weeks ago I walked past a lawn which hadn’t yet had its first spring cut. It was awash with bright yellow dandelions, and each one was peppered with several pollen beetles, perhaps enjoying their first meal of the year. A week later the dandelions were buzzing with bees, but a few days after that, this little patch of wildflowers had been razed – what happened to the pollen beetles and the bees?"
                 Experts on the subject tell us dandelions are simply the honey bee's most important spring flower. In fact beekeepers traditionally look to the timing of dandelion season as an important marker of honeybee success. After a hive survives the winter, as the beekeeper surely hopes it does, the keeper knows the bees won't starve if they can manage to hang on until dandelions bloom in early springs. That means May, in Massachusetts, with some early starters hoisting those yellow petals in April.
            "Each flower consists of up to 100 florets, each one packed with nectar and pollen," Bradbury writes. "This early, easily available source of food is a lifesaver for pollinators in spring."
            Dandelions are a lifeline for honey bees, whose continued survival largely depends on wild flowers.
            Unfortunately,in the minds of many property owners dandelions are seen as the enemy of the perfect lawn. And they're a determined and resourceful enemy. Their deep tap roots are hard to remove -- you fail to 'get all of it' and the thing grows back -- and the plant has the ability to plant itself in cracks in the pavement, rock piles, cement walls, or your neighbor's yard, from which stronghold its seeds come wafting back into yours.
            There's yet another libel from which dandelions suffer. Calling them 'weeds' is bad enough, but some elements of the native-plant police consider them "invasives."
            Dandelions, and a host of other Old World plant colleagues, arrived in this continent along with the Pilgrims, the Boston Puritans and all the other English-speaking colonists; plus the Dutch, Swedish, German, Scottish and Irish settlers of the European migration.
            Pointing out that the dandelion had settled in America by 1672, scientist Peter Del Tredici challenged the rigid notion of "invasives" in a recent article in the Boston Globe that raised the idea of "a statute of limitations for plants" that have clearly settled in (along with us) to become part of the local landscape:
"Can the ubiquitous dandelion ever achieve native status or will it forever be considered an alien? Adding a layer of complexity to these questions is the fact that modern molecular research has demonstrated than many European weeds have undergone genetic adaptation under North American conditions, and are now measurably distinct from their European ancestors."
            He proposes that any plant growing successfully here before 1800 -- wildflowers and herbs like the dandelion, plantain and curly dock, along with basic European imports such as grains, flowering ornamentals, fruit trees and shade trees -- should be considered a naturalized “American archaeophyte.” Plants brought later can be classified as neophytes, he says, and 'non-native' until their statute of limitations is reached.
            So here's the message for lawn lovers, backyard gardeners, lawn care companies -- lighten up on the weeding. We are all part of a natural inter-dependency: humans, plants, bees, birds, wildflowers, 'weeds.'
            Your yard is part of some other living thing's habitat.
            We have all grown up together in North America. Dandelions have been here since 1672. They are as native as we are, part of the American landscape.
            And honey bees, who have adapted to their presence, depend on them. Just as we depend on bees.