book review

In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

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By Lynette G. Esposito

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The fictional novel, In the Distance by Hernan Diaz, Coffee House Press , offers a unique twist on the old western theme.  The tale is presented in a 256 page book detailing perceptions of a legend-making main character who speaks little English in an English-speaking landscape.
           
The main character, Swedish immigrant, Hakan Soderstom, arrives in America with his brother to begin a new more prosperous life than the poor farming existence they lived in rural Sweden.. The brothers are separated enroute and Hakan ends up in California but believes his brother is in New York.  The irony of “go west young man” is reversed as Harkan struggles to go East. 
 
Hakan is an innocent in a strange land. He has weak communication skills because of the language barrier.  The lingual misunderstandings propel the storyline forward and give logical credence to some of Hakan’s wild adventures.
 
Diaz writes with a controlled stream of conscious that makes surreal episodes blend with reality
 
                After some pounding, the dry sinews from the larger animals split
               into fibers that Hakan separated and used as thread to stitch together
              disparate patches of cured leather with his surgical needles.
 
Imagine a man alone in the wilderness, catching, killing, curing and sewing.  It seems only a character larger than life, a legendary man, could accomplish this to survive. Yet, the image of using the fibers as thread gives such a logical spin to the process that the reader is pulled right into the scene and believes the actions of this character.
 
The story uses the universal theme of one lonely man’s survival in a wicked and dangerous world as he struggles in his journey to find the brother he loves. It is an epic journey in which Diaz presents his main character as a simple man whose adventures lead those around him to perceive him as so extraordinary, he becomes mythical. 
 
The novel is constructed in 24 chapters numerically named.  It progresses forward through telling incidents as Hakan matures from a naïve boy to an experienced man who survives his lack of money and extreme loneliness.  Hakan never loses sight of his desire to find his brother as his journey leads him through life’s many obstacles including love, honor, greed and betrayal
 
This is a good read of a nongenre “nonwestern” western exploring a foreigner’s complicated struggles in a foreign land while searching for a way to reach home.
 
Hernan Diaz Is the author of Borges, Between History and Eternity (Bloomsbury, 2012), managing editor of RHM, and associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University.
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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.
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Literature & the Great War by Randall Stevenson

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By Ray Greenblatt
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          I, an educated, middle-aged American, learned so much from this outstanding book. So many pieces of information filled in my spotty familiarity with the Great War. Prof. Stevenson has studied a staggering number of books about the War, as well as individual letters, military documents, etc. He also has a broad overview not only of literature written during the War, but of writing that preceded it as well as later literature influenced by the War. 
          The organization of Stevenson’s work is lucid: the uniqueness of the Great War; prose about the War; the poetry; and the influence of the Great War on culture generally. My discussion will follow those four divisions.
          Peace for Britain had lasted for a hundred years, with only distant skirmishes in the Empire. However, some more prescient writers, like H.G. Wells, sensed tensions growing in Europe centered in Germany. Once the War began, the government asked many authors to write encouraging comments about events taking place. Most agreed; individuals like G.B. Shaw continued to voice their own concerns. Before very long the press was censored; newspaper headlines—even cinema—were tilted toward the positive for morale sake.
          Letters from the front became a new and vital concept. What resulted was exposure in writing to the spoken word, local dialects, foreign languages, swearing, and especially “militarese.” Even then, many soldiers did not want to relate the horrors. Likewise, the older generation on the home front, who had lived more of a romantic ideal, did not want to hear the gruesome truths. Perhaps, suggests Stevenson, if the government and press had been truthful, the War might have stopped sooner!
          Since the Great War was truly titanic in scope with science developing gas masks, steel helmets, airplanes, tanks, and long-distance bombs, the average soldier felt diminished. Perhaps only the Air Force felt cavalier about one-to-one air duels. Time became meaningless in the trenches; time for those at home meant either a letter or a death notice.
          Prof. Stevenson cannily points out that lines blurred between the autobiography, memoir and novel. Coherency was often missing because that was how the mind worked during war. It was even difficult to use the right tense because under extreme stress time could freeze or rush helter-skelter.
          Siegfried Sassoon had his two selves talk in The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. T.E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom stated that soldiers felt dwarfed by Nature. R.H. Mottram‘s Spanish Farm consisted of multiple books: one about the War, another about a love affair during the War. Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End explored the inner consciousness of soldiers.
         Since I have been a working poet for nearly forty years, I think it fitting to include one of the most moving poems to come out of the Great War, since Prof. Stevenson did not have space for complete poems:
 
Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfrid Owen
 
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
 
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
 
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
 
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
 
          As Prof. Stevenson writes, poems by soldiers as well as civilians dominated the depiction of the Great War. Poetry is essentially a song that is an inherent part of mankind.  It represents emotion, exaltation, spirit, soul. Compared to a novel a poem can be quickly written; it can also be fragmentary. These qualities best fit the atmosphere of battle. Edward Thomas, a noted prose writer about Nature before the War, changed to poetry very successfully while serving in the War.
          Historically poetry had strongly been about Nature, so the tradition continued although the environment was no longer soothing. Down deep in trenches, men looked up to the sky and clouds and stars for inspiration.  But as the War progressed, idealism and heroism, as written about in many of Rupert Brooke’s poems, grew bleaker. After the battle of the Somme in 1916, the entire tenor of the War and literature as well became negative, as in Wilfrid Owen’s poetry.
          Prof. Stevenson writes that in Britain 40,000 war memorials were dedicated to the Great War. As an American I see WWI memorials fused with WWII, even the Korean and Viet Nam Wars. Many American monuments are raised to the American Revolutionary War and even more so to the American Civil War. The same horrors occurred, like tourists searching for souvenirs on the battlefield. Many say that the Great War caused history to break and progress to regress; that war will always happen.
          Without  the War no debts would have accrued and perhaps more schools and hospitals could have been constructed.  Women were offered more opportunities during and after the War. The working class man became the backbone of the army.
          Prof. Stevenson states that some things are sure, with which I agree wholeheartedly.  Poetry in English class, rather than in history class, brought the Great War vividly alive. What history disturbs, culture restores. More experimental and abstract writing was spurred by the War.  In poetry, specifically, varied line lengths and half-rhymes became more accessible. It took until well into the 1920’s for authors to be read without censorial interference. Indirect influences from the Great War can be seen in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1921), E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). And those literary changes caused by the Great War continue today!
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You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Literature-1914-1918-Oxford-Textual-Perspectives/dp/019959645X

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Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets.  His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.

Wolf Season by Helen Benedict

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Reviewed by Lynette G. Esposito

In Wolf Season, published by Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2017, Helen Benedict reveals lessons in interpersonal relationships of average people who have survived horrific war experiences.  Benedict addresses both the psychological and physical damages as well as changes inflicted on the survivors whose stories stay with you after you have finished reading the book.

Juney, veteran, Rin’s nine-year-old blind daughter, Tariq, son of Naema, the widow of an Iraqi war interpreter, and Flanner, son of a deployed marine, represent the innocent sufferers of wars from which their parents try to keep them safe. Beth, Rin, Naema, Todd, and Louis represent the damaged adults who try to protect the children from the aftermath reality of their complicated war experiences.  All the characters are well drawn and believable.  To accomplish this, Benedict follows the characters’ every-day activities of normal American living and their sometimes extreme reactions to seemingly simple things.

Rin, a widowed war veteran, tries to fulfill her husband’s dream of raising wolves in the woods outside of fictional Huntsville, New York.  Her PTSD and flashbacks from being raped by her comrades contribute to her paranoia and prevent her from normal interactions with other humans.  Naema, a doctor from Iraqi, tries to adjust to American life with her son who has lost his leg to a bomb in Iraq.  Beth, Flanner’s mother, suffers the loneliness of a deployed husband who comes back so changed, she believes he is two people—the before and after.  When a hurricane hits this small community, these characters are whirled in to a crazy soup that only mother nature can cook up.

The novel is divided into four parts each with a title that suggests the focus in each section. The wolves and other animals in the book provide a symbolic backdrop of interdependency on each other and the humans who love them.  Benedict’s use of nature and natural instincts gives readers a deep sense of what it takes to survive and the terrible toll war and loneliness extracts not only on those who go to war but also those waiting at home.

It is a good read and engaging on many levels.  It has a light touch of politics as all war stories do, but the focus is on the consequences to people and their stories of coping when back at home.

Benedict is a professor at Columbia University and is the author of seven novels. She has also written nonfiction and a play.  She currently lives in New York. For more information, visit www.helenbenedict.com .

You can find the book here: http://blpress.org/books/wolf-season/ 

 

Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.

Hawthorne Predicts the Future! in The House of The Seven Gables

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By Ray Greenblatt
          In his Preface Nathaniel Hawthorne clearly lays out what he proposes to do in his novel: “The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.  It is a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist, which the reader, according to his pleasure,  may either disregard,  or allow it to float almost imperceptibly about the characters and events for the sake of a picturesque effect.”
          Thus, Hawthorne had no intention of writing a Realistic novel. Within his rubric his characters could be ideal or totally debased; his plot could involve many coincidences and a pat conclusion; his writing style could be ornate, wandering—even bordering on the supernatural. But I observe that the floor supporting this dreamland has many realistic planks that reveal actual life in 1851 when this story was first published and into the possible future. He delves into diets, diversions, professions, inventions, and more.
          Let us begin our discussion in the kitchen, for a person’s breakfast can reveal his heart, caloric or aerobic.  The cooks are perusing an old recipe volume that features: “Venison, turkeys, capons, larded partridges, puddings, cakes, and Christmas pies.” (“The Guest”) However, their reality is a bit more humble. They fry an egg with a fresh broiled mackerel, mocha coffee, a golden Indian cake and fresh churned butter smelling of clover-blossoms.  As moderns we say Bravo! to the fish broiled, and hope the butter is used sparingly.
          We also know today that “presentation” contributes greatly toward a satisfying meal. So they selected from among their many antiques: “a small and ancient table, supported on its slender and graceful legs,” a damask jug, old china cups and saucers, crested spoons, a silver cream jug, and fresh roses in a glass pitcher.  The table sat beside a large window looking out on the garden where “the early sunshine came twinkling through the branches of the pear tree.”
          What can a young woman’s elbow grease do to save an old house, in this case a two hundred year old mansion. “The grime and sordidness of the House of the Seven Gables seemed to have vanished since her appearance there; the gnawing tooth of the dry-rot was stayed among the old timbers of it skeleton frame; the dust had ceased to settle down so densely, from the antique ceilings, upon the floors and furniture of the rooms below . . .the shadows of gloomy events that haunted the else lonely and desolate apartments; the heavy, breathless scent which death had left in more than one of the bedchambers.” (“Clifford and Phoebe”)
          We have to remember that the House of the Seven Gables is a real structure in the old port town of Salem, Massachusetts. It was owned by Hawthorne’s cousin whom he visited many times. Over the years the building has been preserved since it is the oldest surviving 17th century wooden mansion in New England. But no cement foundation nor sump pump, no weather-stripping nor thermal windows, no non-flammable shingles nor smoke detectors.
          Let us stroll into “The Pyncheon Garden”—which can scarcely be called that—for that is where the egg and the roses came from. In one section there are squashes, bean-vines, currant bushes, bees and hummingbirds, and a well for water. The remainder of the plot was badly overgrown with weeds. A rooster, two hens, and a baby chick are all that remain of the flock . Certainly they can’t compare with Mr. Perdue’s hundreds of thousands on his chicken ranches.   If this garden were better cultivated, it could provide sufficient protein and vitamins from fruits and greens in our dietary pyramid for a family.
          Now that we have sustenance under our belt, let us observe what family-run cent-shops were selling. In “May and November” a young woman has given her much older relative new ideas for items to sell: raisins, apples, flour, thread; and gingerbread cookies, molasses candy, and toys like Dutch wooden milk-maids, whistles, trumpets which are mostly for children.
          These shops cannot compete with the newly rising large-volume stores: “Groceries, toy-shops, dry-goods stores, with their immense panes of plate-glass, their gorgeous fixtures, their vast and complete assortment of merchandise, in which fortunes had been invested; and those noble mirrors at the farther end of each establishment, doubling all this wealth by a brightly burnished vista of unrealities! On one side of the street this splendid bazaar, with a multitude of perfumed and glossy salesmen, smirking, smiling, bowing, and measuring out the goods.” (“The First Customer”)
          It’s starting to sound a bit like Dickens with that extended string of present participles. Ironic that in this admittedly unreal novel Hawthorne is branding the department stores of the early 19th century as “unreal.” The mom & pop stores always had a difficult time. Today polyconglomerates like Walmart are bestowing the final deathblow.
          Let’s go to a parade. So many novels have had parade sequences in them, perhaps circus parades, mummers parades, Easter parades, etc. Hawthorne’s parade is not a gaudy one. It is for elders with idle time; it brings life to them when they can’t actively pursue it. From “An Arched Window” a man can view over the course of a day: a horse cab, omnibus, water-cart, butcher’s cart, fish-cart, a cart of vegetables, baker’s cart, scissor-grinder, barrel-organ with monkey.
          Now comes what we today consider a more typical parade, a political procession “with hundreds of flaunting banners and drums, fifes, clarions, and cymbals, reverberating between the rows of buildings, marched all through town,  and trailed its length of trampling footsteps, and most infrequent uproar . . .He can distinguish the tedious commonplace of each man’s visage, with the perspiration  and weary self-importance on it, and the very cut of his pantaloons, and the stiffness or laxity of his shirt-collar, and the dust on the back of his black coat.”
          Fortunately there is no sound amplification to send those with sensitive ears scurrying. However, in another decade (Hawthorne was to die in 1860 prematurely at age sixty) there would be veterans’ parades of Civil War combatants as the years rolled on; those participants eventually dwindled so that Southerners and Northerners commingled and marched in a more brotherly manner together.
          Since various trades and professions have been mentioned, let us investigate what jobs were open to a 19th century man. Of course, a woman was almost exclusively relegated to the home. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance if a man from a family of position was fortunate enough to be the oldest son, he would inherit the entire estate, becoming essentially a gentleman farmer. A younger brother—short of begging some property or financial settlement from his oldest brother—could enter the military (the cavalry was often a dashing choice) or enter the clergy. As time went on, becoming an attorney was also a gentleman’s option.
          The young man in our novel was flexible and daring for those times. Since America was still on the frontier in the 19th century, perhaps this was not so unusual in comparison with Europeans in a more rigidified society. Although Holgrave was just twenty-two, here are some of the positions he had already held with a limited amount of education but with keen intelligence and excess energy: schoolmaster, salesman in a store, newspaper editor, itinerant pedlar of perfumes, a dentist, hand aboard a packet-ship, member of a Fourierist community, lecturer on hypnotism, and presently in the novel a photographer, thus the chapter title “The Daguerreotypist.”
          These jobs had enabled him to travel not only throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic states but to France, Italy and Germany. Many younger people today get varied experience by working in summer jobs. As college tuitions soar, they are forced to think of many more creative ways to make a living. The future dictates that a worker of any age—up to his or her retirement—will change positions every four or five years in the natural course of an adult working life. Holgrave was ahead of the curve.
          In this novel we can even look at a man who has made it to the top; perhaps in a questionably ethical manner. This is naturally the villain of our piece, Jaffrey Pyncheon. What does a wealthy man’s day consist of? Visit an insurance office or bank directors’ meeting, meet a State Street broker, attend a real estate auction, buy a horse (today read that as a car), sit on the board of a charitable society, consult a family physician and ironically purchase a new tombstone for the long deceased wife.   Did Michael Milken or Bernie Madoff also do things like this recently?
          But truly his major goal is to meet with a political committee where the possibility is strong that Judge Pyncheon could be nominated to become “Governor Pyncheon.” ”Five-and-twenty years for the enjoyment of his real estate in town and country, his railroad, bank, and insurance shares, his United States stock—his wealth, in short, however invested, now in possession, or soon to be acquired; together with the public honors that have fallen upon him, and the weightier ones that are yet to fall! It is good! It is excellent! It is enough!” But for a greedy, immoral man it is never enough.
          Amid this Romance’s shadowy settings, complications of a half-dozen characters, and strokes of the Gothic, in one of the culminating chapters, “The Flight of Two Owls,” many controversial topics contemporaneous to Hawthorne’s time are raised. He posits through a character that perhaps we live too much by routine and rote: “The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousand-fold variety, gather about hearths, and pollute the life of house-holds. There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old house, rendered poisonous by one’s defunct forefathers and relatives.”
          In its most positive light our two major characters consider a train:  “It was novelty enough, indeed, that there were fifty human beings in close relation with them, under one long and narrow roof and drawn onward by the same mighty influence that had taken their two selves into its grasp. It seemed marvelous how all these people could remain so quietly in their seats, while so much noisy strength was at work in their behalf . . . sleep; sport; business; graver or lighter study; and the common and inevitable movement onward! It was life itself!”
          Hypnotism has its merits in that it might reveal things not known in conscious life. Electricity can transform all of us in ways not yet understood. Hawthorne feels that the telegraph by making the world so much smaller can also limit man’s privacy. What would he think of computer chips implanted in our brains!
          In 1854, three years after The House of the Seven Gables, H. D. Thoreau from an opposite direction but not less critical, wrote in Walden about the vapidity of the telegraph: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing to communicate.” About trains he was even more cynical: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man!” And perhaps we rue the fact that when trains were largely discontinued in the mid-twentieth century, the ties were pulled up. Critics now say that we should have developed rail service rather than encourage autos with their concomitant pollution of gasoline.
          As a coda since Dickens was mentioned earlier in this writing, let us examine Dr. Manette from A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The poor old man served fifteen years in the Bastille, unjustly sentenced by evildoers.  When he emerges, he is barely a shell of a man but slowly heals physically and emotionally. Nearly a decade before Dickens’ novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne had Clifford Pyncheon leave a prison term of thirty years perpetrated by our villain, cousin Jaffrey Pyncheon.  He, too, so close to insanity and death, slowly recovers due to those who love him. Hawthorne was ahead of his time in many ways, as well as ahead of the other major authors of his era.
          Hawthorne’s explanation of Romance, the style in which he wrote The House of the Seven Gables, is full of words which create a certain mood: “bygone, flitting, legend, gray, distance, mist, float, picturesque.” And yet, in a book he suggests far removed from the reality of the day, he has provided for us a very realistic look at major elements that define the society of his time, indeed, a civilization for our 21st century.
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You can find a copy here: https://www.amazon.com/House-Seven-Gables-Thrift-Editions/dp/0486408825

Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

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Seek the Holy Dark by Clare L. Martin

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Review by Karen Corinne Herceg
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A FIERCE HEART
 
            It may feel a bit unnatural to combine the words holy and dark, but all one needs to do is turn on the news and see well-intentioned people navigating a world of violence, and the realities of lives poised continually within antithetical forces, to realize it’s not such an unusual merger. This extends to our interior being as well since it reflects, on a microscopic level, what exists in a macroscopic equivalent. Clare L. Martin’s latest book Seek the Holy Dark: Poems was written with an intrepid pen and a fierce heart that knows all too well the many unbearable burdens of existence. A 2017 selection of the Louisiana Cajun and Creole Series by Yellow Flag Press, it embodies the inheritance of a melancholy, mixed history of those particular southern sensibilities, specifically the Franco-American descendants of colonial Louisiana, centralized in the legacies of New Orleans. It’s a rich blend of exotic architecture, authentic jazz music and Mardi Gras frenzy that belies a region fraught with ghost histories, voodoo stories, poverty and struggles evoked most recently in the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The region was always susceptible to natural disasters, rising back up on the strength of its people, its colorful history and its almost supernatural resilience. Clare L Martin seems very much a child of these legacies, internalized in unrelenting examination.
            The cover of the book is evocative, and artist Agnieszka Nowinska compels with deep reds and rich, vivid colors despite its ominous depictions of inverted imagery and swirling whirlpool warnings, and represents the poems well. Martin opens with the title poem of the book written “after Jo Ann Tomaselli’s ‘Birds & Fence’” (P. 8, epigraph). If you search this photograph, you will find a stark black and white picture of birds strung along a wire affixed to a weathered, wooden fence against a gray horizon. But the most remarkable thing about the photo is that these birds appear apart from one another, each perched in its own spot, together yet isolated. Martin states, “We only surmise the fence/contains a breadth/for one impenetrable/moment” (P. 8, ll. 4-7), the illusion of support and kinship evident. This is at the core of where these poems reside. There is a deep desire for meaning and connection that continues seeking despite overwhelming discouragements. Martin knows there are hidden answers within our shadow selves, and she searches for them relentlessly but, ultimately, with little resolution. From the sparse “The Hanging Woman” to prose poems like “Embellishments,” we see the futility of false absolutions for our transgressions. Deep catholic influences migrate from poem to poem in the disappointing promises of religious icons and symbols. In “Come, a Love Poem” she pleads, “Touch my brokenness/with your miracle/with your spit and mud, and I shall be healed” (P. 24, ll. 27-30). The plea is not to any deity but to a lover, in sexual union, a human connection, the poem inspired by photographer Brian Baiamonte’s “unclouded,” where clouds rest at the bottom of the photo like violent ocean waves with rays of sun breaking through above them. But these saviors rest on the surface and not in the depths of where we need to go to rescue ourselves. She observes, “We drop through this world/into dark awakening/we, the strong –hearted” (P. 13, ll. 19-21). And it takes a strong heart to plumb the subterranean wounds of our existence. Martin continues to search less than optimistically but forges ahead nevertheless while “Sobs bully our throats/Unique fears squirm in the gut/Only sex dispels the hour” (P. 25, ll. 18-20). And these poems are candidly sexual in shattering, visceral expression. These are no romantic visions. Martin fixes us with stark, vivid images such as “A dress is silent on the floor” (P. 14, l. 11), “…bruise-colored garments” (P. 17, l. 15) and perceived losses as in “Aftermath” when she states, “My old-woman womb/flutters with illusory children” (P. 19, ll.17-18) and “crown of thorns/my own heart/brambles and thorns/jag the aorta” (P. 21, ll. 23-26). Earthy and organic, the poems are palpably anatomical in references to bodies, blood and breath, the tools by which we interact and often measure meaning.
These are poems of mourning, regret, and loss. In “Phoenix,” a prose poem with an epigraph “for Kelly,” we have a woman as “Huntress, seductress, heathen and whore made new in body, new in word” (P. 39, ll. 15-16). We all return to the earth but, for Martin, it is as if we continually bury ourselves piece by piece even before our last breath. She has a way of seeing things in the present as already past and disappointing as she states in “Refuge” when she pleads: “Please, tonight, hold me/with the remembrance of light” (P. 43, ll. 8-9). In “Of the Gone Woman” we find a clue to Martin’s despair, the poem buried within the midpoint of the book. She names her mother “the Gone Woman” and remembers her mythological legacies and “bad magic” (P. 38, l. 14), stating almost accusingly, “Mother/you skimmed your finger/along my bone/and left a print/inside” (P. 38, ll. 18-22).  This poem is a scathing indictment of injurious maternal bequests and segues into further generations as in the poem “All This Remembering” where we meet a daughter:
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 My only child
stares me down
with hatred
while a tube is snaked
down her throat. A black
foaming slick of pill
fragments
drains out of her mouth— (P. 50, ll. 11-18)
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            It does not get much darker than this. Loss in subsequent relationships permeates the work in deep, thematic ways, expectations undercut by failure and bereavement: “We named ourselves after mountains/but forgot what shifted beneath us” (P. 40, ll. 17-18). In “Eiffel Tower, a Recollection of Paris, 1986” the iconic landmark is never visited as the narrator remains in bed with a stranger during her visit, resting in the shadows of the city, a reminder only “of what I missed” (P. 41, l. 3). And in “Refuge” she pleads, “Please, tonight, hold me/with the remembrance of light” (P. 43, ll. 8-9), the transitory, sad expectation of loss already anticipated. People appear as translucent outlines, not wholly flesh and grounded, gone before they actually leave as in “Seeing Through” when she observes, “Your shape embosses/the far line of the horizon” (P. 45, ll. 7-8). And in “The Artist and His Model” there is a cold, removed interaction between painter and subject, as if the replication of the model is more accessible and vivid than the actual woman.
            Poems such as “Thunder found me” are somewhat less original in expression but are more than compensated for in pieces like “What We Carry” that are sparse yet rich with imagery. There is a sense of constant opposition between people, desires and even the way Martin perceives the natural world as in “How it comes,” where she observes: “Today it came to me/as a bird; its wingbeat/light as a whisper, pecking/fruit in a verdant heart” (P. 36, ll. 21-24). We are alone yet still together like those birds on a fence, and our “shared transformation” seems to occur at the very point we leave our bodies. The poet “constellates with discorporate multitudes in harmonic undulations” (P. 61, ll. 29-30), as she states in “End Note” that concludes with “Holy holy holy” that is ultimately more of an imperative than a deterrent. Beyond the constant insistent hopelessness, there is “the Christ/that I need to believe in/that I am begging to take/a Lifetime’s desperation” (P. 21, ll. 17-20). But it is disconcerting, as if the narrator recognizes the shallowness of needing to believe as opposed to any genuine confidence or optimism.

Stark, unrelenting and uncensored pleas and imagery define these poems. Martin leaves nothing on the table, asking us to see the skin, bones, organs and very heart of darkness. She resides in the demi monde of duality, committed to the search, where those of us with resilient hearts and resoluteness will resolve to join her. .

You can find the book here: https://www.yellowflagpress.com/_p/prd15/4592458541/product/clare-l.-martin—seek-the-holy-dark

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Karen Corinne Herceg graduated Columbia University where she studied with David Ignatow and Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Schultz.  She has featured at major venues with such renowned poets as John Ashbery and William Packard. Her new book of poems, Out From Calaboose, was released in November 2016 by Nirala Publications with edits by Linda Gray Sexton, bestselling author and daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton.  Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com.

A WEEK ON THE CONCORD & MERRIMACK RIVERS

a week

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Review by Ray Greenblatt

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Henry Thoreau made a week’s boating trip with his brother John in 1839. Henry was a mere 22! This voyage in a sailboat with oars would be a forerunner to the classic Walden; in it we see so many elements that reappear in the latter work. However, the former book was not published until 1849 and did not sell many copies. Henry’s brother would die at age 27 in 1842; Henry would succumb to tuberculosis at age 45. If in some obscure New England attic stacks of A Week are discovered, what would they now be worth!

.                                                                          STYLE

During his voyage Thoreau refers to many eras: Chinese, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Hindu, Moslem, etc. He concentrates on all aspects of Greek civilization: Orpheus, Jason, Pythagoras, Plato, Aurora. He philosophizes about astronomy, early American history, friendship, politics. He even discourses in detail on certain famous  individuals from Persius to Chaucer to Goethe.

Let us first consider the bare bones of Thoreau’s writing; later we will add the flesh. He often relies on a series of adjectives: “The few dull, thumping, stertorous sounds which we heard impressed us.” (200) Also, nouns, verbs, and even sentences are written in triplicate for emphasis. He often inverts his verb before the subject: “So have all things their higher and their lower uses.” (185) This puts stress on a key word. We notice metaphors and similes, but his analogies are subtle: “The fisherman, meanwhile, stands in three feet of water, under the same summer’s sun, arbitrating in other cases between muck-worm and shiner.” (21) Comparing a fisherman to a lawyer is unique. He also coins many original adages. Using the concept of money figuratively he writes: “The truth is, there is money buried everywhere, and you have only to go to work to find it.” (208)

Critics often write about Thoreau’s dryness and fact-oriented analyses. Yet, close reading discloses whimsy: “Some will remember, no doubt, not only that they went to the college, but that they went to the mountain. Every visit to its summit would, as it were, generalize the particular information gained below, and subject it to more catholic tests.” (197) Sometimes the humor holds a bite: “Perchance, after a few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their summers elsewhere meanwhile, nature will have leveled the Billerica dam, and the Lowell factories, and the Grass-ground River run clear again.” (32) This ecological statement still applies today!

Our author is excellent in description. Here the wind drives their boat under sail: “The mountains like school-boys turned their cheeks to it . . .The north wind stepped readily into the harness which we had provided, and pulled us along with good will . . .with our wings spread, but never lifting our head from the watery trench.” (384) He employs all his senses: “All these sounds, the crowing of cocks, the baying of dogs, and the hum of insects at noon, are the evidence of nature’s health or sound state.” (40) And “I see, smell, taste, hear, feel, that everlasting Something to which we are allied, at once our maker, our abode, our destiny, our very Selves.” (182) This will lead us to Thoreau’s views of nature.

.                                                                   NATURE

Thoreau fully believed that man was part of nature and could see transcendental things and the universe through it. Something as simple as a flower: “I have passed down the river before sunrise on a summer morning, between fields of lilies still shut in sleep; and when, at length, the flakes of sunlight from over the bank fell on the surface of the water, whole fields of white blossoms seemed to flash open before me, as I floated along, like the unfolding of a banner, so sensible is this flower to the influence of the sun’s rays.” (19)

Trees like the linden have been working partners with man: “It was once used for carving, and is still in demand for sounding-boards of piano-fortes and panes of carriages, and for various uses for which toughness and flexibility are required. Baskets and cradles are made of the twigs. Its sap affords sugar, and the honey made from its flowers is said to be preferred to any other. Its leaves are in some countries given to cattle, a kind of chocolate has been made of its fruit, a medicine has been prepared from an infusion of its flowers, and finally, the charcoal made of its wood is greatly valued for gunpowder.” (166)

The bream holds a special delight for him: “Seen in its native element, it is a very beautiful and compact fish, perfect in all its parts, and looks like a brilliant coin fresh from the mint. It is a perfect jewel of the river, the green, red, coppery, and golden reflections of its mottled sides being the concentration of such rays as struggle through the floating pads and flowers to the sandy bottom, and in harmony with the sunlit brown and yellow pebbles.” (26)

He admits to having killed and roasted a pigeon somewhat reluctantly: “We obtained one of these handsome birds, which lingered too long upon its perch, and plucked and broiled it here with some other game, to be carried along for our supper; for, beside the provisions which we carried with us, we depended mainly on the river and forest for our supply.” His philosophical reasoning: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.” (236)

Nature is so much older than man: “Here is the gray dawn for antiquity, and our tomorrow’s future should be at least paulo-post to theirs which we have put behind us. There are the red maple and birchen leaves, old runes which are not yet deciphered; catkins, pine cones, vines, oak leaves, and acorns; the very things themselves, and not their forms in stone,–so much the more ancient and venerable.” (266) Its beauty has a correspondence: “Undulation is the gentlest and most ideal of motions, produced by one fluid falling on another. Rippling is a more graceful flight. From a hill-top you may detect in it the wings of birds endlessly repeated. The two waving lines which represent the flight of birds appear to have been copied from the ripple.” (338)

Thoreau sees in nature a combination of exigency and the fanciful: “There seemed to be a great haste and preparation throughout Nature, as for a distinguished visitor; all her aisles had to be swept in the night by a thousand handmaidens, and a thousand pots to be boiled for the next day’s feasting,–such a whispering bustle, as if ten thousand fairies made  their fingers fly, silently sewing at the new carpet with which the earth was to be clothed, and the new drapery which was to adorn the trees. And then the wind would fall and die away, and we like it fell asleep again.” (355)

.                                                      LITERATURE & THE POET

The essayist and poet states that he likes quality books: “Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing institutions,–such call I good books.” (99) He wants nature woven into the literature: “The sentences are verdurous and blooming as evergreen and flowers, because they are rooted in fact and experience.” (107) Conversely, he condones bad books in which a man “finds himself reading a horse-rake, or spinning-jenny, or wooden nutmeg, or oak-leaf cigar, or steam-power press, or kitchen range, perchance, when he was seeking serene and biblical truths.” (99)

He highlights the value of the classics: “I know of no studies so composing as those of the classical scholar. When we have sat down to them, life seems as still and serene as if it were very far off, and I believe it is not habitually seen from any common platform so truly and unexaggerated as in the light of literature. In serene hours we contemplate the tour of the Greek and Latin authors with more pleasure than the traveler does the fairest scenery of Greece and Italy. Where shall we find a more refined society?” (239)

First, he reasons “to some extent, mythology is only the most ancient history and biography.” (60) However, he centers in on the worth of the poet: “Everything that is printed and bound in a book contains some echo at least of the best that is in literature . . . What would we not give for some great poem to read now, which would be in harmony with the scenery,–for if men read aright, methinks they would never read anything but poems. No history nor philosophy can supply their place.” (93)

The poet’s “words are the relation of his oldest and finest memory, a wisdom drawn from the remotest experience.” (101) To illustrate an idea, Thoreau would quote a poem or part of one, often his own. “The poet is no tender slip of fairy stock, who requires peculiar institutions and edicts for his defense, but the toughest son of earth and of Heaven, and by his greater strength and endurance his fainting companions will recognize the God in him. It is the worshipers of beauty, after all, who have done the real pioneer work of the world.” (362)

.                                                                       PHILOSOPHY

Thoreau’s philosophic views are grounded in the real. Take travel: “The cheapest way to travel, and the way to travel the farthest in the shortest distance, is to go afoot, carrying a dipper, a spoon, and a fish line, some Indian meal, some salt, and some sugar. When you come to a brook or a pond, you can catch fish and cook them; or you can boil a hasty-pudding; or you can buy a loaf of bread at a farmer’s house for fourpence, moisten it in the next brook that crosses the road, and dip into your sugar,–this alone will last you a whole day.” (325)

His views on government are more profound: “When I have not paid the tax which the State demanded for that protection which I did not want, itself has robbed me; when I have asserted the liberty it presumed to declare, itself has imprisoned me . . . Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.” (135) “Herein is the tragedy: that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery.” (136)

About religion he is even more accusatory: “The church is a sort of hospital for men’s souls, and as full of quackery as the hospital for their bodies. Those who are taken into it live like pensioners in their Retreat or Sailor’s Snug Harbor, where you may see a row of religious cripples sitting outside in sunny weather.” (77) He even rebuffs evangelicals:  “Tell me of the height of the mountains of the moon, or of the diameter of space, and I may believe you, but of the secret history of the Almighty, and I shall pronounce thee mad.” (71)

His religion rests in the mystical: “This earth was made for more mysterious and nobler inhabitants than men and women. In the hues of October sunsets, we see the portals to other mansion.” (403) What is our life: “We linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they are half forgotten ere we have learned the language. We have need to be earth-born as well as heaven-born.” (406) This leads us to Thoreau’s emphasis on the man of the earth, the countryman.

“The wilderness is near as well as dear to every man. Even the oldest villages are indebted to the border of wild wood which surrounds them, more than to the gardens of men. There is something indescribably inspiriting and beautiful in the aspect of the forest skirting and occasionally jutting into the midst of new towns, which like the sand-heaps of fresh fox-burrows, have sprung up in their midst. The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature. Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.” (179)

“How few circumstances are necessary to the well-being and serenity of man, how indifferent all employments are, and that any may seem noble and poetic to the eyes of men, if pursued with sufficient buoyancy and freedom. With liberty and pleasant weather, the simplest occupation, any unquestioned country mode of life which detains us in the open air, is alluring.” (220)

A man in nature is in touch with his soul: “Yet these men had no need to travel to be as wise as Solomon in all his glory, so similar are the lives of men in all countries, and fraught with the same homely experiences. One half the world knows how the other half lives.” (227)  “These are stirring autumn days, when men sweep by in crowds, amid the rustle of leaves like migrating finches; this is the true harvest of the year, when the air is but the breath of men, and the rustling of leaves is as the trampling of the crowd.” (359)

Our author also puts up with a certain type of rudeness among these men: “I therefore did not repel his rudeness, but quite innocently welcomed it all, and knew how to appreciate it, as if I were reading in an old drama a part well sustained. He was indeed a coarse and sensual man, and, as I have said, uncivil, but he had his just quarrel with nature and mankind, I have no doubt, only he had no artificial covering to his ill-humors.”

About these hearty men he says: “Men fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain, than a chestnut is of meat, who were out not only in ’75 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives . . . Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what they have not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.” (6) And this figurative “writing” brings us full circle in Thoreau’s philosophy.

In his fine book The Geography of Imagination, the renowned American critic Guy Davenport wrote about Thoreau: “He was clearly an ecologist; he was also a student of time, of cyclic movements in nature and of the miraculously synchronous organization of plants and animals. Hence his daily inspection of one woodscape, knowing every detail of its life . . . Thoreau’s love affair with the scrub-oak, homeliest of trees, began to have the qualities of myth, the Greek feeling for the olive which we find in Oedipus at Colonus.” (242) Even at such a young age as 22, we can see that Henry Thoreau had developed the skllls to write Walden years later.

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You can find the book here: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7720.html

Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets.  His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.