Saturday, April 19, 2014

Standing in presence

Standing in presence
there is heaviness, abounding;
I turn, slightly, toward
the neon light but turn back,
the reality of what’s before
me overwhelming. To see
the face is fatal, even to see
the back is searing, bleaching
my face, my hair, my soul
as I hide in this cleft. Even
my breath is scorched.

Photograph by Junior Libby via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, April 18, 2014

John Bude’s “The Cornish Coast Murder”

John Bude was the pen name for Ernest Carpenter Elmore (1901-1957), a British theater producer and director. Beginning in the 1930s, he published crime novels under the name of John Bude, and managed to complete 30 of them by the time of his death. He also wrote fantasy novels and children’s stories.

The British Library has republished two of his crime novels, The Cornish Coast Murder and The Lake District Murder. In the introduction to The Cornish Coast Murder, crime novelist Martin Edwards said that the novel had a small print run when it was published in 1935, but Bude occupies a place in the golden age of the mystery and crime novel genre.

The story is fast-paced and intriguing. Julius Tregarthan, who occupies a home called The Greylings in Cornwall, has been murdered, shot in his study with a World War I service revolver. the crime doesn’t lack for potential suspects, including Julius’s niece Ruth and the man she’s in love with, Roland Hardy. Inspector William Merritt leads the investigation; he’s assisted by the local vicar, the Rev. Dodd. They soon discover that Ruth is hiding something and Roland Hardy has dis appeared.

The story isn’t exactly the classic country estate mystery; Julius Tregarthan has lived there year-round with his niece Ruth. But it has enough of the elements of the classic country estate mystery to make one expect to see Miss Jane Marple show up at any moment.

But it’s not a clich├ęd story. Actually, The Cornish Coast Murder is well written, with Bude keeping the reader engaged and intent upon learning where all of this is heading. A few minor quibbles the reader might have don’t detract from the overall story. It is of its time, the 1930s, but the writing quality keeps the story current and fresh.

And now I’m turning to The Lake District Murder.

Photograph: A Cornwall beach, by Mike Coates via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The alleyway

He sat in the alleyway
oblivious to the smell,
familiar, to the filth,
familiar, to the open sewer
flowing in the center
of the stones, familiar,
to the cries of children,
familiar, the dogs full
of sores and mange
chasing the rats
familiar, the cockroaches
crawling over whatever
was in their way, familiar,
his legs. He sensed
the presence kneeling
next to him, unfamiliar,
the hand offering a burrito,
unfamiliar, a bottle of water
fresh, unfamiliar, the light,
unfamiliar, the sun rising,
unfamiliar, the light softening
the lines and creases
of his ten-year-old face.

You will go to Babylon
there  you will be rescued.

Photograph: The Micah Project, Honduras.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

William Faulkner’s “Soldier’s Pay”

William Faulkner wrote Soldier’s Pay, his first novel, during the first six months of 1925. He was living in New Orleans, in a ground-floor apartment on Orleans Alley in the French Quarter. The house had been built in 1840 on what had been part of the Spanish colonial prison, located at the rear of the administration building known (then and now) as the Cabildo.

Today, Orleans Alley is called Pirate’s Alley, in the very heart of the French Quarter. Faulkner’s ground-floor apartment is now occupied by Faulkner House Books. A plaque on the wall outside notes that this is the place where he wrote his first novel. The story is that Faulkner, who had considered himself a poet, wrote the novel at the urging of novelist Sherwood Anderson.

Soldier’s Pay is the story of Donald Mahon, an American who became a captain in the British Royal Air Force in World War I. He had supposedly been killed when his plane was shot down; but he is on his way home, severely injured, his face scarred, and not much of his mind left. He has a relatively small part in the story, but there is no question he is the character around which the entire story revolves.

Donald is engaged to Cecily Saunders, a hometown girl who is known as something of a flirt. She is shallow, somewhat vain, and in love with another man. Donald doesn’t recognize or his father, an Episcopal priest. Nor does he recognize Emmy, the family’s servant.

The wounded soldier is accompanied home by a fellow veteran, Joe Gilligan, and a woman they meet on the train, Margaret Powers. And there is Januarius Jones, whom Donald’s father meets early in the story and becomes in a way the narrative’s anti-hero, if not the villain. It says something of Faulkner’s writing ability that Joe and Margaret move in with the family, Joe to dress and care for him, and Margaret is some of a protective role, and it doesn’t seem odd.

As these characters respond and react to each other and what is clearly Donald’s declining health, secrets begin to play themselves out. Even Donald had at least one secret of which he and the other characters are unaware, and that is how he got his terrible injuries. But the secrets are of lesser importance; what is happening here is a theme that Faulkner will return to again and again in later novels, and that is the impact of modernization on family, relationships, love, and the social structure.

In Soldier’s Pay, modernization takes on the guise of war and its aftermath. It is not so much deadly as deadening, eroding what have long been the foundations of social and family life. Donald’s father seems to move through the story in something of a trance, his faith not rejected but forgotten and almost irrelevant. Joe Gilligan and Emmy are the characters who represent faith at work, as Joe ministers to Donald’s basic needs and Emmy feeds him. Margaret Powers is the hard, perhaps hardened, realist in the story, her own husband killed in the war and Donald offering a kind of atonement.

What Faulkner will later produce in a series of remarkable novels is foreshadowed here – the tantalizing secrets that shape so much of what the reader can see but not all at once, the complexities of the story, and even some of the circularity of the narrative. Soldier’s Pay may not be quite in the same league as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, but in many ways it is the father to those children, and the resemblance is there to see. 

Image by Karen Arnold via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Poets and Poems: Charles Wright’s “Caribou”

I started reading Charles Wright’s new collection of poem, Caribou, and immediately was reminded of something that happened 20 years ago.

I was on the board of the World Bird Sanctuary, an organization on the preservation of raptors (think birds like hawks, falcons, great horned owls, and eagles). We met monthly at different locations. One month we met at the ranger’s station at Lone Elk County Park in far western St. Louis County.

Our meeting began at 4 p.m. and spilled over into the evening hours. I had to leave at 7:30, and as I stepped outside to go to the parking lot. I instantly realized two things: it was pitch black, with no outside light; and I was in the middle of something large and alive.

I froze in place, not knowing what to do, until the ranger’s car appeared on the road and I could see by his headlights. I was in the middle of the elk herd, which liked to come down to the station at night to sleep. Some were already asleep; others were standing on the sidewalk, blocking the way to my car. The park, by the way, was misnamed. There was no lone elk; there was actually a herd of about 100 elk.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Humanity of Listening to Light

This article was originally published at The Master’s Artist.

In 2003, Cyra Dumitru published a volume of poetry entitled Listening to Light: Voice Poems. The poems are divided into three sections: the first in about Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel; the second is about the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris; and the third is about the characters of the gospel story – Mary, Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Peter, Judas and Joseph, among others.

While all of the poems are about “myths” (in the sense of archetypal stories), they have one thing in common – Dumitru focuses our attention on the flesh-and-blood people who are Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Jesus and Judas. (I’m reminded of Anne Rice’s “Christ the Lord” books – Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana.)

She does what can be done well with poetry – forcing us to consider Biblical characters in three dimensions, as individuals with recognizable hopes, dreams, problems and challenges. We see more humanity here than we’re used to reading. And the effect is immediate – we understand these characters as recognizable, and we experience Mary’s visit by the angel and Judas and his betrayal as events happening just as if we ourselves were the characters involved. Consider the dilemma Mary’s mother faces with her daughter:

Mary’s Mother

What does a mother do with such a daughter?
She’s not interested in marriage, having children.
Says she’s too busy listening to God.

I’ve watched Mary sit with her back against a fig tree,
eyes shining, fixed on somewhere I can’t see.
For hours she sits heedless to flies, dust, heavy sun.

Then suddenly she stands, shakes herself
breathes deeply and opens
her arms to the fading light.

When she embraces me
sparks flow from her fingers
down my arms and back.

I am afraid for Mary.
She speaks f hearing a voice deep within
of seeing angels at the well.

I tremble because I believe her
but I am only a poor woman
who sees the way men look at her.

Judas and his betrayal become familiar not because the story is familiar but because we can see ourselves in his place: “Before his greatness my spirit shrinks. / The others speak of God’s voice enlarging them. / Inside me – silence. / His radiance – shadow…”

My favorite poem in the collection is “Joseph Recalls.” Joseph is one the pivotal characters in the story of the birth of Jesus, and yet we know so little about him. Dumitru positions him as remembering Jesus – we don’t know whether it’s before or after the crucifixion (presumably before) but it is clearly a time when Joseph knows he is unlikely to see Jesus again. He recalls what happened the day Jesus laid down his hammer and told Joseph “It is time now / for me to build / a house within / for God.” Joseph knows it is true as soon as Jesus utters the words and understands the sacrifice that is to come. And then Joseph says:

I have always
felt his light
see it streaking

the grain
of this table
he made as a boy.

It is all
I have
left of him.

One feels the pain of a father who has physically lost a son, a son he raised and trained, a son he knew was destined for other things.

It is this poignancy that tears at our hearts, that helps us understand that these Bible characters are people like ourselves. Poetry can help do that.

Photograph by Lynn Greyling via Public Domain Pictures. Used with Permission.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

It was a yellow day

It was a yellow day,
the light slanted
with its yellow scent.
She followed him as
he walked through
dirty streets, asking
him to come home,
no more drugs
no more drugs
to the baby they created,
to the baby she was holding.
no more drugs
no more drugs
A turn; his angry eye
silenced her, just as the bullets
tore through their bodies.

Last Sunday, we heard a sermon by the director of a street outreach ministry in Honduras. This poem, and the one yesterday (The photograph) are based on a true story. If you’d like to learn more, please visit The Micah Project.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.