Monday, January 27, 2020

The Garden of Stories: Family Ties and Telling Tales



My short story "Uncles" is currently up on the lively, irreverent online journal "Unlikely Stories," edited by Jonathan Penton. Although a fantasy, the story takes off from the penny ante poker games my family used to have in the back room of my parents' house on Long Island. 
          While the story is a fantasy, it's also a homage to an older generation of my family that is all gone now -- to the poker-playing men of that family at least. 
           The setting is the penny ante poker games that took place either before or after, or sometimes both, "dinner," whenever that meal took place, whether it was a holiday gathering, or just a family gathering with no particular theme or reason. When the gathering took place at 54 Downs Road in Hempstead, the suburban town on Long Island that my parents bought with the help of a postwar GI loan -- a government program. Yes, the federal government used to help ordinary families buy their own homes. What an idea. 
          What makes this experience special is that families, siblings, even extended families, often lived reasonably close to one another. That doesn't happen so routinely any more, and I was the first in my generation to break away. So I have no basis for complaint today that my children live in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
           But back in the time I am writing about, both my mother's and my father's siblings lived and raised families in suburban Nassau County towns. My mother's mother and her elder brother Mark lived together in Queens County in the house where my parents were also living when I was born. They had a longer drive to the family gatherings in Hempstead, but it wasn't terribly long siblings -- and, a further inducement, Mark was the prime mover in getting the poker games going. He would walk around restlessly shuffling a deck of cards. 
            "Sit down, Mark," my Uncle Eric would tell him, "you're making me nervous. We'll play later."
             And we always did. 
             If my father's brothers were attending the same family party, they were likely to play as well. 
              This was how I got to know my uncles, in so far as I did. 
              As mentioned above, I have fantasized some circumstances here, and imagined how each of my uncles seated around this fictional table might respond. 
               Please take a look at my story "Uncles."
               Here's the link  
https://www.unlikelystories.org/content/uncles  


Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Garden of Verse: Verse-Virtual Back on Track


It's been a good first month in the year 2020. I'm speaking personally here, of course. What goes on nationally makes me weep, or rage, everyday. (End of subject; I promise.)
            The biggest blessing was the revival of the journal of the poetry community of which I am fortunate member, Verse-Virtual. Last fall Verse-Virtual's founder and editor Firestone Feinberg fell ill and could not continue to edit and produce the group's online journal, which has been publishing new issues every month for five years. That stream of publication ceased last October. Happily, Firestone is recovering and we look hopefully for his return.
             But in the meantime the members of the community recognized and acknowledged to one another that we were missing the frequent contact and communication that Verse-Virtual's journal stimulates and decided we needed to continue Firestone's work on an interim basis.
            Two of the publication's contributing editors stepped up and volunteered to do the editorial and production work to bring out a newon Jan. 1, 2020. We were fortunate to find in Jim Lewis someone who has the technical skills to create the necessary new web pages. And contributing editor Donna Hilbert volunteered to serve as guest editor, reading all the submissions and choosing the poems. 
            The only change is the while the journal's domain used to end with ".com," the new incarnation ends with ".org." 
            So all are invited to read the poems and other content at Verse-Virtual.org
              After saving the journal's archives by transferring all the material to the new domain, Jim had this to say about the history and make-up of the Verse-Virtual community in his editor's notes for the January issue:  
             "I learned a lot about this community and the people in it from reading random bio notes. A beautifully diverse group, but there's a strong commonality that is strikingly obvious when viewed "growing backwards". Passion and compassion are woven all through your poems. You are a group of people who experience life with intensity, and it shows in your writing."  

             So, I've been celebrating the revived Verse-Virtual all month (in addition to reading submissions for our next issue, in March). Here are some excerpts from a few of the many strong poems in the January issue:

Last year, trying to escape the cold—
we snuck off to the barn,
to hear the lowing of the animals.
But the dark with its mossy warmth
greeted us with another legend,
and the green holly man startled us
from his perch up in the rafters.
This night, we are cagey, fearless.

     [from "Visiting His Aunt, Christmas" by Laurie Bryo]


Unfold your fingers, if you can—
they are waiting to grow eloquent
and strong. They will move under mine
the first time you touch the watered silk
of an iris, or your mother’s face.

    [from Marilyn Taylor's "From a Dark Place"]

six newspapers
scattered across the porch
of my dead neighbor 

     [from "Five Haiku" by David Graham]


You wonder
that her near-
nakedness
means nothing,
that what light
can touch is
only surface,
that what you
can't enter
you can't be.

     [from "The Woman in an Imaginary Painting" by Tom Montag]



Occupied with my glass,
swirling and sipping the rough
country wine, I failed to observe
how green mountains slipped
behind the curtain of night
and how the river birch gleamed
a moment in the fading day.

      [from "Inattention" by Steve Klepetar]

He stepped out of the sea
at precisely 4 p.m.
He wore a dark suit,
and it didn’t appear to be wet.
Barefoot,
he ran his hands through his hair
and asked me what shore
he’d washed up on.

     [from "Shelley" by Kareen Tayyar] 


Where are the dead of the flood
who missed the ship
who lost their grip
who were not picked
to go below the rainbow’s arc?
Where are the dead of the flood
the ones who swam, the ones who float
in indigo waters beyond their depth,
beneath our vision, begrudged their breath—

      [from "Noah's Arc" by Betsy Mars] 


The parties have ended.
Confetti has been swept up and thrown away.
Headaches have disappeared.
And maybe that’s why I’ve always preferred
the second day of the year.
Because it’s ordinary, unassuming.
The streets are quiet.
Stores are open.
There are no parades or football games.
You can walk without feeling lonely. 

     [from "The Second Day of the Year" by Clint Margrave]

I tumble into the chair, while Arik,
born and raised in Soviet, and stoic as Putin
set to interrogate yet another poet,
unfurls the cape over my head

and makes me feel what it’s like to disappear. 
[from "The Kremlin Barber Shop" by Alan Walowitz]


You can read the rest of these poems, and find many more like them at 
http://www.verse-virtual.org/poems-and-articles.html
     





 



ne,

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Plymouth Poet Laureate Finalists Poetry Reading at the Plymouth Public Library









I'll be reading poetry Thursday evening (Feb. 20) as one of four finalists for the position of Plymouth Poet Laureate at Plymouth Public Library. 
The four finalists for the newly created post of Poet Laureate will be reading our poetry and making some poetic fuss over Plymouth and its 400th anniversary celebration. The event takes places at 7 p.m. and there's a "meet the finalists" pre-game reception beginning at 6 p.m.
To come for the reception enter through the library's side door, starting at 6 p.m. The reception offers hors d'oeuvres by Mallebar Braisseries and a cash bar. 
Each poet has 15 minutes to read, following an introduction. I am planning to squeeze in four poems: "The Long Descent," a nature and place poem, recently published by The American Journal of Poetry. "One Sky," an apocalyptic climate disaster rant; followed by "My Dad's Ship But One of Three," an old favorite about father's World War II brush with disaster. And, finally, my new 'Plymouth poem,' titled "A Shining Village By the Shore."
The other finalists who will be reading are Stephan Delbos, Miriam O'Neal, and Tzynya Pinchback. 
Please come, if you can. If not wish me luck.   

 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Garden of Verse: "Seasons Impeaching!" ... "First the Knitting, Then the Guillotine"

Three years after misled voters, Russian bots, a nationwide scheme by the Republican Party to suppress voting and disenfranchise Black and other minority voters, and the manipulations of the undemocratic and archaic Electoral College voting system ... combined to put a moral monster in the White House, the US Congress is getting around to trying him on Impeachment charges. 

This should be a cause for rejoicing. We all know, however, that barring a political miracle, the moribund, regressive and entirely anachronistic US Senate will not muster the two-thirds super-majority required by the Constitution to remove the filth from office. 

Nevertheless we should rejoice in the ignominy of "Impeached!" headlines and the recognition that the current moral midget will bear the stamp of Impeachment on his permanent record throughout history.... hoping always, that is, that American political history continues for at least a little bit longer. 

I celebrated the partial victory of Congress's vote to impeach with a couple of poems, which I am going to reprint here in this blog posting because -- given that (at least for the moment) freedom of speech still exists in this country -- I can.  

In the first of these poems, published earlier this month in NewVerse.News, a journal dedicated to literary responses to public issues, I applied my version of a holiday greeting to a title, 
calling this poem "Seasons Impeaching." The poem is a response to watching the Impeachment hearings, or listening to them on the car radio, or even reading about them in the news coverage -- during, of course, the holiday season. 
Here's the poem. 



Seasons Impeaching

On the third day alone
I begin talking aloud to myself

Or, perhaps, I will eat myself to death
I wake at night
with the word necrosis
in my thoughts

What is it, oh what,
country of my soul
who will you eat yourself out of
given such rot?
Will you smell yourself
dying with putrefaction?

how can anyone be left alone
with their thoughts,
such thoughts,
when the rats nibble
at our toes

and bandits make
for our heart?




The second of these poems was published last weekend by a journal that originates in India, called the Bengaluru Review. Bengaluru is a city of 10 million people located in South India, the heart of that nation's technology industry. 
The review kindly published five of my poems online in its January issue, headlining a web page with the first line from a poem on the national spectacle ("The Hearings") that begins this way: "This is why you hold hearings."
Here's the poem:


The Hearings

This is why you hold hearings.
Anyone who hasn’t noticed what he is yet
gets to see it,
and hear about it
every day.
He condemns himself with his own tongue
making nasty
to one he has already
sought to destroy.


First the knitting,
then the guillotine.




Here is a link to the page with all five poems. Please take a look. 
https://bengalurureview.com/2020/01/18/poems-robert-knox/







 


Monday, December 30, 2019

The Garden of History: Sacred Spaces in the Religion of American Democracy


The first time we visited Philadelphia, Christmas week of 2018, Trump's intransigence over the federal budget had shut down the city's historic attractions under federal government control. Uniformed security personnel stood in front of Democracy Hall, roping off the long brick building, its adjacent museum and the closed admission tent, where non-uniformed process visitors, give you a free ticket (on days when tickets are needed), and divide all comers into tour groups of seventy.
             This year, when we visited the historic district on Christmas Eve, the building was open and no tickets were needed because the tourists weren't that thick on the ground. We still waited, but only twenty minutes.Visitors are not allowed to walk through the building alone. You have to be part of a tour group led by an official guide. 
               But the tour proved to be fun and informative, and superbly guided.  
               We were led into the hall's courtroom first and told that the building was never officially named "independence hall." It was the capitol building of the Pennsylvania state government, and chosen for what would become the two most important gatherings in American history because of the city's mid-coastal location. And, apparently, no one called it "Independence Hall" until the French Revolutionary War volunteer and friend of Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, came back to the US in 1826 for a 50-year reunion and said, "Take me to Independence Hall." 


                The hall, our capable, outgoing tour guide told us, was not an 'American building.' It was a British building, built by the Imperial government that ruled the colonies. It became the meeting place for the "Second Continental Congress," in 1775, at which  representatives of the 13 British colonies discussed their grievances against the British government, decided how to respond, and took a unanimous stand. Representatives, including some of the famous names among the "founding fathers" -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin -- spent a whole year there, as a deteriorating situation in Boston worsened and the first battles were fought. For most delegates "The Declaration of Independence" was something of a last resort and universally regarded as a dangerous roll of the dice when it was, finally, endorsed unanimously.
                  The first of the building's two large meeting rooms, the courtroom, featured three chairs behind a dias for the three magistrates who would hear a criminal trial. And, following British practice, a metal cage for the defendant who would 'stand' trial and face the accuser and his judges throughout the length of the trial.  
               Our guide, an older gentleman with a gift for engaging a live audience (smiling the whole way, though who knows how many times he has done this) pursued an interactive, 'dialogue' approach with his 70 interested but not terribly well informed visitors. Before the Revolutionary War, he told us, another war was fought in North America. 
              Called? -- an inquisitive look: waiting for an answer. 
               The French and Indian War, we told him. 
               And wars are expensive, he said, choosing a nearby young fellow as an interlocutor -- "you have an honest face," he said, "you'll be the king. So after this war you have a problem, because you're -- what?"
                 "Broke," the young king volunteered. 
                 Right. So what do you do? 
                 "Taxes." 
                 When the taxes on the colonies came -- Anne and I readied our replies for the next questions: The Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, The Tea Tax, the Intolerable Acts. But, no doubt wisely, none of these particulars were summoned by name by our guide. Instead he went straight for the dramatic crises. 
                   "Three events took place," he called, holding the appropriate digits in the air, "that led to a crisis." He then compellingly narrated the details of the infamous Boston shoot-out -- the nervous, outnumbered sentries, the rowdy street rabble seeking a target for their complaints with the city's occupiers --
on the night the frightened British guards discharged their muskets into a crowd of mocking demonstrators...
                    Called, he prompted, "The Boston --"?
                    "Massacre!" some of us chimed in with the
famously telling noun.
                    Our leader was fully possessed of the details. A couple of British soldiers were put on trial, and were defended, in fact, by Colonial lawyers, including a famous Patriot "who became our nation's second President..." He waited.
                     Second President! 
                     "John Adams," I called, managing to get the name out before he gave up on us and supplied it himself. How could any resident of Massachusetts fail to insert the name 'John Adams' into a discussion of the Declaration of Independence? ("Mister Adams, Mister Adams," I heard tunefully echoing in my thoughts.)
                     Then came the famous incident of "The Tea--" ...
                     This proved the single piece of Revolutionary history most of our batch of tourists appeared familiar with: "Party," all responded. 
                      Our guide was once again full of interesting details. The colonists dressed for this party as "Mohawk Indians." In Colonial days the warring parties would note this irony: Mohawk Indians, the most powerful nation in New England, were traditionally allies of the British.  
                       The third precipitating incident was the battle of Lexington and Concord, described as an 'American victory,' since the British raiding party was obliged to skedaddle back to Boston. Then followed another big battle, called -- Our guide puts his hand to his ear to await a response. 
                        "Bunker Hill." The Massachusetts in me had to come out. The battle of Bunker Hill, in Charlestown, MA, was technically a British victory, but a pyrrhic one (as our guide pointed out), since British casualties were much higher -- their commanders having ordered their soldiers to mount a bayonet charge into a fortified position. It was a battle that made British commanders more cautious in the future, because now they knew from sad experience that American soldiers, however ragged they might appear, knew how to shoot. 
                         Our guide then took us through the date issue. The delegates actually voted to approve Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence" on July 2, 1776. It was shared with the public on July 4.
                         Only then did we move to the second large room in the hall, the actual assembly room where delegates sat and spoke and openly debated the issues that led to the Declaration; and then, a dozen years later, a different body of delegates, met in the same hall to draft the US Constitution. We were queried about the three branches of government, and the election of a head of government known as the "President."
                         "What is a president?" he said. "Nobody in the whole world knew what a President was." The world had only kings, sovereigns by birth. But the American plan of government would call for an elected leader.
                          When our expert told us that the Constitutional "framers" drafted the document that still governs us in only three months, it gave me pause. (And we still expect to find the answer to every single question we come up with now there?) My mind wandered as he posed his next question. The states could not agree on every point, he says. When that happens, he asked, when two sides have a serious problem?
                          "It begins with a 'C'" he prompted
                          "Compromise!" I realized. 
                          Suddenly we were up to the most famous (or infamous) of Constitutional compromises. The "three-fifths rule" that enabled the Southern states to gain more representation in Congress by counting a percentage of other "persons" whom their "owners" considered property toward their state's population.
                           And just as abruptly, our tour was over, the heroics of the 18th Century fading in the early winter light as we snapped final photos and exited the famous building. 
                           I'm kind of thinking that everyone in America ought to go there. And maybe more than once. As a refresher course in the birth story, and fundamental values, of the American experiment.             
                           And a reminder of all we have to lose... If we keep on going in the direction in which we appear to be heading.



Friday, December 27, 2019

Poetry and Song in the Garden of Human Rights: "Boston City Singers"



Some time last winter Anne and I attended a concert in a big old New England church in Milton, Mass., performed by an incredibly talented and painstakingly rehearsed ensemble called "The Boston City Singers." 
         I had never heard of this chorus of student singers, but I was blown away by the performance the young singers delivered. 
         On their web page, the chorus states:  "We learn discipline and celebrate diversity." 
         Here's a slightly longer self-description from the page: 

"Boston City Singers is an El Sistema-inspired program founded 20 years ago in Boston’s inner city neighborhood of Dorchester. We train and inspire the musician, student, and ambassador in each singer by providing the highest level of musical instruction and wide-ranging performance opportunities to support personal development, celebrate diversity, and foster good will."

        And here's a link to their site: 
https://bostoncitysingers.org/
          I was both impressed and moved by the performance of these school-age singers and also intrigued by the songs selected for this program. One of them, "Make Them Hear You," from the musical "Ragtime," addresses injustice and the the roots of the civil rights movement. 
           Another song makes use of the word "Madiba," Nelson Mandela's clan name. The clan or family name represents a person's ancestry and is used as sign of respect.  
           I used references to both songs -- the song title "Make them hear you" and the African word "Madiba" -- in the poem I wrote shortly after hearing that concert. When, months later, I considered entering a contest sponsored by two organizations, "Poets for Human Rights" and "Poets Without Borders," I remembered the poem I had written about the feelings this concert had stirred in me and submitted it for the award. 
           A few weeks ago -- "On the eve of the 71st Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," as the sponsors put it -- I received word that my poem, titled "Boston City Singers,"
had been chosen for the first prize. I was delighted that the singers and songs that had so moved me, and inspired a poem, had been recognized by the two organizations that celebrate and mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It felt like the circle was complete.
             The poem was read at the groups' celebration of the  
Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Dunedin, Fla., and then published on two online subscription groups. 
              Since those online groups did not archive the postings, I'm posting the poem here, for anyone who cares to read it. 
               I'm pleased (and proud, of course) that the poem won a prize and for the causes the contest supports. But the contest also gives me an opportunity to share a poem that stirs the emotions aroused by the inspiring performances of these songs by the young Boston City Singers. 

 


                        Boston City Singers


You unsettle my soul
Sing to the pain in my limbs
And loose the ice in my heart
“Make them hear you!”

This old white building enclosing the songs of a life
that would make of earth a heaven
if we let it
Will we let it?
Tell me, “Where is Madiba?”
“We have not seen him.”

Spirit does not die
It gets to the bones
Wakes the thing that tingles
as if striking a gong
calling to worship the birds of the tree,
the trees with their upswelling
branching and leafing once again,
songs to clear the air, stir the blood and
make the sap run
in spaces slow and gloom-ridden
like the clay toes of the stumbling tyrant

The songs of the children raise
the soul
in old flesh.