book review

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

maltese

-A Study in Style-

By Ray Greenblatt

We are familiar with the movie version of The Maltese Falcon (1941): the durable Humphrey Bogart, the seductive Jane Greer, and the evil-doers Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, along with their punk hit man and various flatfeet. We know that a script can delete a character or add a new one; that indoor scenes can be enlarged to the outdoors; that dialogue can alter greatly, etc.

However, unless you read the book, you don’t realize that Hammett specializes in a poetic Style: his rare descriptions of Things are powerful; yet his unique expertise is description of People, especially their faces and eyes. As a matter of fact, The Maltese Falcon (1929) could make a consummate drama for the legitimate stage.

I-Style

Like a poet Hammett employs strings of nouns: “The eyes—lids, balls, irises, and pupils—remained frozen, immobile.” (197); adverbs: “He cursed Dundy for five minutes without break, cursed him obscenely, blasphemously, repetitiously, in a harsh guttural voice.” (101) ; participles: “Probing, scrutinizing, testing with expert certainty.” (111) He uses fresh adjectives: “A lathy youth with salient ears ushered Spade into the District Attorney’s office.” (179) He even dares lewd words, whatever he could get away with in 1929:  “The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second ‘you.’”(116)

The humor of Hammett’s characters is dry:

“Cairo hesitated, said dubiously: ‘You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready.’

Spade scowled. ‘What do you want me to do? Learn to stutter?’” (119)

Not only dry but sardonic: “’Now I’ve got to remember to be polite to you. What did I do? Forget to genuflect when I came in?’” (143)

Hammett’s use of symbolism is subtle: “She spoke slowly, looking down at a pointed finger tracing eight on the settee between them.” (45) His psychological probing sharp: “Her air of personal indifference to the subject was flawless.” (121) “In the dissimilar eyes with which Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Joel Cairo looked at him there was, oddly, something identically reproving. The boy blushed, drew back his advanced foot, straightened his legs, lowered the pistol.” (218) “The appearance of Gutman and his companions seemed to have robbed her of that freedom of personal movement and emotion that is animal, leaving her alive, conscious, but quiescent as a plant.” (217)

Sam Spade is a man of action; Gutman seems to be the philosopher, but a hollow one. He pontificates: “’I do like a man that tells you right out he’s looking out for himself. Don’t we all? I don’t trust a man that says he’s not. And the man that’s telling the truth when he says he’s not I distrust most of all, because he’s an ass and an ass that’s going contrary to the laws of nature.’” (132) In contrast, through an anecdote Spade muses: “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” (78) “He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.” (78)

II-Things

Although Hammett does not often in his descriptions leave the human body, he forcefully at times brings objects to life. Outdoors: “Beginning day had reduced night to a thin smokiness.” (111) “A high thin moon was cold and feeble as the distant street-light.” (210) Around the house: “He tiptoed to a window and then to another. They, like the door, were uncurtained except by inner darkness.” (210) “The alarm clock perched atop the book saying two-fifty with its clumsily shaped hands.” (103) “The ashes on the desk twitched and curled in the current.” (4) Even a car is given emphasis: “An automobile popped out of the tunnel beneath him with a roaring swish, as if it had been blown out, and ran away.” (15)

III-People

Hammett’s literary revelation to me was his explicit description of a person’s features. First the entire man: “A man of thirty in clothing and hair of kindred unruliness.” (180) Gutman is obviously an extreme character: “The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown.” (129) Here the entire body comes alive: “He made angry gestures with mouth, eyebrows, hands, and shoulders.” (48)

Then the author concentrates on an arm: “Fist, wrist, forearm, crooked elbow, and upper arm seemed all one rigid piece, with only the limber shoulder giving them motion.” (56) Now a hand: “Held out a hand like a fat pink star.” (129) “’He went like that,’ Spade said, ‘like a fist when you open your hand.’” (76)

Now we start to focus on the face, Hammett’s eminent domain of expression. “The upper part of his face frowned. The lower part smiled.” (40) “His face was a watchful-eyed smiling mask held up between his thoughts and Spade.” (134) “His face was grey now, with jaw-muscles standing out like tumors under his ears.” (161) “His face while he smoked was, except for occasional slight and aimless movements of his lower lip, so still and reflective that it seemed stupid.” (58) “The indelible youngness of his face gave an indescribably vicious—and inhuman—turn to the white-hot hatred and the cold white malevolence in his face.” (228)

The mouth becomes a special area of expression: “Spade put the cigarette in his mouth, set fire to it, and laughed smoke out.” (27) Then lips and teeth come into play:  “She tortured her lower lip with glistening teeth and said nothing.” (5) But the voice with its significant words is most important: “His voice was resonant with latent power.” (180)  “His voice was too hoarse and gritty for the paternally admonishing tone it tried to achieve.” (228)  “It was a harsh voice and rasping with agony and with the strain of keeping two words from being smothered by the liquid bubbling that ran under and behind them.” (195) “His voice sank to a more impressive key and his words came out spaced and distinct.” (183) Often the mouth is linked to the eyes: “Spade stared through the girl and spoke as if using speech to arrange his thoughts.” (165)

IV-Eyes

Eyes are such a major motif I wonder if a psychological monograph has ever been written on this aspect of Hammett’s style. Sometimes the eyes are in league with the face: “His bony face—weather-coarsened, age-lined—was the color of wet sand and was wet with sweat on cheeks and chin. His eyes were dark and bloodshot and mad above lower lids that hung down to show pink inner membrane.” (196) Other times the eyes are mated with the mouth: “She laughed a clear merry laugh, dropped the mangled cigarette into a tray, and looked at him with clear merry eyes.” (69)

But on innumerable occasions the eyes alone dominate:

“His eyes were shiny in a wooden Satan’s face.” (68)

“The fat man’s eyes were dark gleams in ambush behind pink puffs of flesh.” (133)

“His eyes were dark holes in an oily pink face.” (161)

“His sleek eyes had borrowed merriment from his laughter.” (224)

“His eyes were warm green discs.” (24)

“Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers.” (69)

“Points of yellow lights began to dance in his eyes.” (114)

“His eyes were hard and shiny as the lenses over them.” (182)

“His greenish eyes were fixed on Spade in a peculiarly rigid stare, as if their focus were a matter of mechanics, to be changed only by pulling a lever or pressing a button.” (21)

“He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged her without pretense that they were not studying, weighing, judging her.” (66)

Even though the script was close to the book, Hammett’s descriptions of people could only be roughly interpreted by actors’ expressions.

My wife and I loved the blue harbor and golden cliffs of Malta. Here the Knights Templars established their main stronghold in the 16th century.  What more mysterious place in which to discover an objet d’art that brought such mayhem unto murder into our world.  Dashiell Hammett hit on a beguiling concept that sold innumerable books, produced a classic film, and made him internationally known. But the mystery remains—where is the real falcon encrusted with gold and priceless jewels?

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Maltese-Falcon-Dashiell-Hammett/dp/0679722645

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).

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Red Rover Red Rover by Bob Hicok

red rover
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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One thing you notice about Bob Hicok’s poems is that so many of them have no stanza breaks, and when they do it seems a little arbitrary anyway since every one of them is a stream of consciousness, developing its own logic, as if the poet is thinking out loud.  Indeed, in an interview several years ago with Split Lip magazine, Hicok said, “I don’t really know where my poems are going; I almost never know where they’re going.” He goes on, “I wish in a lot of ways that I could plan poems out. A lot of people talk about walking around and they’re writing as they’re walking around, or they’ll build a sense of a poem over a period of time. And for me it’s so much about just sitting down and seeing what shows up. The first thing that shows up that has energy and catches my attention—I just start following where it’s going.”
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Take a poem in his new collection called “A lament, pep talk and challenge walk into a bar.” It begins
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Banjo. Zither. Carnegie Hall. The Four Tops and Seasons.
Greek chorus, Music of the spheres and triangles
and dodecahedrons.  The Kinks. The Mozarts
and Fats Waller and Puentes.  The Butthole Surfers.
My office is bigger and more flexible than my heart
and this is a weird way to critique my heart….
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And he’s off, musing about what it means to be a good person, helping others (“and do unto others goes from words / dropped in the suggestion box to law.”), the futility of good intentions, of wanting selflessly to bring clans and tribes together. And then, “It’s no accident I began”.
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this meandering with music: no two species
could come from more distant planets
than a Steinway and a sax,
yet listen to how well they get along
when they put their mouths where their fears are,
when they lend us our better-tuned selves.
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No accident that Hicok describes his verse as “meandering,” and yet it coheres in a heartfelt message. “Don’t just have but be a soul,” the poem concludes.In that same interview with Split Lip, Hicok laments, “One of the things that I am uncomfortable with as of late is that some people are looking at me as a funny poet, and I think that can pretty much be the death of a career.” Indeed, the title of the poem just quoted takes the form of the classic joke about three different characters walking into a bar, but there’s obviously a serious moral consideration at its heart.
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Make no mistake, Hicok can make you smile with his versatility with words. He is funny! In “Pedagogy,” a 55-line poem with no stanza breaks, he and another person are passing notes, “the most private genre after the shopping list.” You have to smile at such an observation. And later in the poem, “I try to make the word / ‘theater’ out of ‘hate her’ but need another t / and one less h.” But Hicok goes beyond “funny.” “If you make a joke,” he notes in the interview, “it usually stops the conversation, and that’s not my intention at all.”
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Indeed, so many of Hicok’s poems in Red Rover Red Rover concern themselves with how we humans are wrecking the planet.  It doesn’t get much more urgent than that. Poems like “On the Rocks” and “Weather Report” and “On the Other Hand,” which takes Greta Thunberg as its subject, directly confront climate change and human responsibility.
“Having our cake and being eaten by it too” addresses the thoughtless human greed at the core of this, as does “After you, or what would Whitman, Emerson, or Merwin do?” (The title is a jokey play on “What would Jesus do?”). This poem begins, “It’s not too late / to schlep water in a bucket to your sink.” It goes on with example after example of how the human urge for convenience has wrecked the ecosphere. It concludes,
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On the count of three, never use
electricity again. One, two, two
two, two, two
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This, too is funny, right? But of course it’s serious. And heartrending. Oy. How are we going to get out of this mess? “Looking in the mirror” has the same message. It’s a poem about the Amazon burning because Brazil is clearing the forest for cattle, because cattle provide beef for hamburgers, and so many of us love our Big Macs and Whoppers. If each one of us just stopped ordering cheeseburgers,
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the closer we are to being able to breathe
tomorrow and more importantly the day after
the day after the day after
the ten thousand years after that.
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While not prescribing a solution to the world’s problems, Red Rover Red Rover includes several poems about the Tao, the Way, living in harmony with the natural world. Indeed, the book’s title, itself a kind of joke as it plays on the simple childhood playground game, comes from the ten-page poem in the center of the volume, “My Tao”: “red rover, red rover, send good or evil over.”
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But Bob Hicok is just thinking out loud, not really suggesting or commending any social policy changes, not really. These poems are entertaining, first of all – yes, often “funny” – but they are challenging and thought-provoking at the same time.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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The Education of Henry Adams

education

By Ray Greenblatt

Henry Adams (1838-1918) lived through a very important period in the history of the world, from the American Civil War to the outbreak of WWI. He was a man with the most impressive social credentials: two relatives were John Adams and John Quincy Adams (his great-grandfather and grandfather). Henry is fascinating to me because he was very bright, educated, but shy throughout his life. He preferred to remain on the sidelines and mostly observe, as many writers do. As primarily an historian, Adams searched his entire life for a cohesive view of events in the development of humankind. He called this mental journey his “Education.”

I – Steps to Learning

Henry Adams “would have been astounded by his own luck. Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he. Whether life was an honest game of chance, or whether the cards were marked and forced, he could not refuse to play his excellent hand.” (4) However, he felt that Bostonians, he no different, had an attitude. “Resistance to something was the law of New England nature; the boy looked out on the world with the instinct of resistance; for numberless generations his predecessors had viewed the world chiefly as a thing to be reformed, filled with evil forces to be abolished.” (7)

Henry did not feel comfortable with religion. “Nothing quieted doubt so completely as the mental calm of the Unitarian clergy. In uniform excellence of life and character, moral and intellectual, the score of Unitarian clergymen about Boston, who controlled society and Harvard College, were never excelled. They proclaimed as their merit that they insisted on no doctrine, but taught, or tried to teach, the means of learning a virtuous, useful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvation. For them, difficulties might be ignored; doubts were waste of thought; nothing exacted solution.” (34)

He did not like school either. “His memory was slow, and the effort painful. For him to conceive that his memory could compete for school prizes with machines of two or three times its power, was to prove himself wanting. Not only in memory, but flagrantly in mind. He thought his mind a good enough machine, if it were given time to act, but it acted wrong if hurried. Schoolmasters never gave time.” (37) We shall later see that Adams as a professor tried to correct that approach in teaching  his students.

At Harvard College he enjoyed fellow classmates. “Distrustful of themselves, but little disposed to trust any one else; with not much humor of their own, but full of readiness to enjoy the humor of others; negative to a degree that in the long run became positive and triumphant. Not harsh in manners or judgment, rather liberal and open-minded, they were still as a body most formidable critics one would care to meet.” (56)

He chose to go to graduate school in Germany but learned its limitations. “The professor mumbled his comments; the students made, or seemed to make, notes; they could have learned from books or discussion in a day more than they could learn from him in a month, but they must pay his fees, follow his course, and be his scholars, if they wanted a degree.” (75)

However, on vacation in Rome with his parents, he met a great man Garibaldi, who helped to unite Italy in 1867.  “Adams had the chance to look this sphinx in the eyes, and, for five minutes, to watch him like a wild animal, at the moment of his greatest achievement and most splendid action. One saw a quiet-featured, quiet-voiced man in a red flannel shirt; absolutely impervious; a type of which Adams knew nothing. Sympathetic it was, and one felt that it was simple; one suspected even that it might be childlike, but could form no guess of its intelligence.” (94) As the years passed, Adams met many “great” men whose influences varied greatly.

II – Being a Diplomat

Henry greatly admired his father. “Charles Francis Adams was singular for mental poise—absence of self-assertion or self-consciousness—the faculty of standing apart without seeming aware that he was alone—a balance of mind and temper that neither challenged or avoided notice, nor admitted questions of superiority or inferiority, of jealousy, of personal motives, from any source, even under great pressure.” (27)

When his father was appointed Minster to England, Henry went along as a private secretary. “The very name of Grosvenor struck a note of grandeur. The long suite of lofty, gilded rooms with their golden furniture; the portraits; the terraces; the gardens, the landscape; the sense of superiority in the England of the fifties, actually set the rich noblemen apart, above Americans and shopkeepers. Aristocracy was real. So was the England of Dickens. Oliver Twist and Little Nell lurked in every churchyard shadow, not as shadow but alive.” (72) Henry was always strongly literary in interest and ability.

Henry learned what diplomacy really was. “The Governments and society of Europe, for a year at least, regarded the Washington Government as dead, and its Ministers as nullities. Minister Adams was better received than most nullities because he made no noise. Little by little, in private, society took the habit of accepting him.” (123) The initial stumbling block in 1860 was that England unofficially backed the Southern states.

Henry also learned the social side of diplomacy at soirees. “The people one met there were never smart and seldom young; they were largely diplomatic, and diplomats are commonly dull; they were largely political, and politicians rarely decorate or beautify an evening; they were sprinkled with literary people, who are notoriously unfashionable; the women were of course ill-dressed and middle-aged; the men looked mostly bored or out of place.” (134)

Representing the American government in England during the Civil War, Adams was shocked at the secessionists and deemed them treasonous. “The Southern secessionists were certainly unbalanced in mind—fit for medical treatment, like other victims of hallucination—haunted by suspicion, by idees fixes, by violent morbid excitement; but this was not all. They were stupendously ignorant of the world. As a class, the cotton-planters were mentally one-sided, ill-balanced, and provincial to a degree rarely known. They were a close society on whom the new fountain of power had poured a stream of wealth and slaves that acted like oil on flame. They showed a young student his first object-lesson of the way in which excess of power worked when held by inadequate hands.” (100)

Some Englishmen like Monckton Milnes, who supported American policies, he found noble. “Challenging ridicule with the indifference of one who knew himself to be the first wit in London, and a maker of men—of a great many men. A word from him went far. An invitation to his breakfast-table went farther. Behind his almost Falstaffian mask and laugh of Silenus, he carried a fine, broad, and high intelligence which no one questioned.’” (124)

Adams even met literary geniuses like the poet Algernon Swinburne. “Wildly eccentric, astonishingly gifted, and convulsingly droll, the Secretary could see; but what more he was even Milnes hardly dared say. They could not believe his incredible memory and knowledge of literature, classic, medieval, and modern; his faculty of reciting a play of Sophocles or a play of Shakespeare, forward or backwards, from end to beginning.” (140) A man like this, to Adams, was more stimulating than a score of politicians.

III – Living in D.C.

Some years after the Civil War, Henry Adams returned home to live in Washington and work as a journalist. The town was still quite primitive. “The want of barriers, of pavements, of forms; the looseness, the laziness; the indolent Southern drawl; the pigs in the streets; the negro babies and their mothers with bandanas; the freedom, openness, swagger, of nature and man.” (45) And dominant in that environment were the senators. “The type of Senator in 1850 was rather charming at its best, and the Senate, when in good temper, was an agreeable body . . . Southern pomposity, when not arrogant, was genial and sympathetic, almost quaint and childlike in its simple- mindedness.” (45)

On the sidelines at many high level meetings, Adams made observations. Massachusetts politicians had their problems. “New England standards were various, scarcely reconcilable with each other, and constantly multiplying in number, until balance between them threatened to become impossible. The old ones were quite difficult enough—State Street and the banks exacted one stamp; the old Congregational clergy another; Harvard College, poor in votes, but rich in social influence, a third; the foreign element, especially the Irish, held aloof.” (419)

However, Pennsylvanian politicians were a special breed. “Practically the Pennsylvanian forgot his prejudices when he allied his interests. He then became supple in action and large in motive, whatever he thought of his colleagues. When he happened to be right—which was, of course, whenever one agreed with him—he was the strongest American in America . . .When one summed up the results of Pennsylvanian influence, one inclined to think that Pennsylvanians set up the Government in 1789; saved it in 1861; created the American system; developed its iron and coal power; and invented its great railways.” (333)

Adams observed William Seward, who was Lincoln’s Secretary of State and now U.S. Grant’s. “A slouching, slender figure; a head like a wise macaw; a beaked nose; shaggy eyebrows; unorderly hair and clothes; hoarse voice; offhand manner; free talk, and perpetual cigar; offered a new type—of Western New York—to fathom; a type in one way simple because it was only double—political and personal; but complex because the political had become nature, and no one could tell which was the mask and which the features.” (104)

Then there was the mighty President Grant. “Men whose energies were the greater, the less they wasted on thought; men who sprang from the soil to power; apt to be distrustful of themselves and of others; shy; jealous; sometimes vindictive; more or less dull in outward appearance; always needing stimulants; but for whom action was the highest stimulant—the instinct of fight.” (265) But his administration was mired in corruption. “Society is immoral and immortal; it can afford to commit any kind of folly, and indulge in any sort of vice; it cannot be killed, and the fragments that survive can always laugh at the dead; but a young man has only one chance, and brief time to seize it. Any one in power above him can extinguish the chance. He is terribly at the mercy of fools and cowards.” (273)

What was Henry Adams final learning of Americans before he left Washington. “The American thought of himself as a restless, pushing, energetic, ingenious person, always awake and trying to get ahead of his neighbors . . .That the American, by temperament, worked to excess, was true; work and whiskey were his stimulants; work was a form of vice; but he never cared much for money or power after he earned them.” (297)

IV – Professor and Historian

Henry Adams’ memoir skips twenty-one years (1871-1892). Tragedies befell him that he did not want to talk about let alone write. His beloved wife Clover, a superb photographer, committed suicide from a bipolar disorder. The most he would write was a description of her elaborate tomb. “His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence. Naturally every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of St. Gaudens’s correctness of taste or feeling; so that as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say, he never once thought of questioning what it meant.” (329)

His beloved sister Louisa had also died in Europe. “The sick-room itself glowed with the Italian joy of life; friends filled it; no harsh northern lights pierced the soft shadows; even the dying woman shared the sense of the Italian summer, the soft, velvet air, the humor, the courage, the sensual fullness of Nature and man. She faced death, as women mostly do, bravely and even gaily, racked slowly to unconsciousness, but yielding only to violence, as a soldier sabred in battle.” (288)

And yet for several years Adams successfully taught history at Harvard. He tossed out rote learning of places and dates. Instead he concentrated his class on one specific area; his progressive theory of education is employed today. “The students read what they pleased and compared their results. As pedagogy, nothing could be more triumphant. The boys worked like rabbits, and dug holes all over the field of archaic society; no difficulty stopped them; unknown languages yielded before their attack, and customary law became familiar as the police court.” (303) Adams’ acute mind touched on the areas of psychiatry and even atomic power, although he didn’t quite know what to call it.

He was one of the few historians to tour Russia before their revolution. ”From the car window one seemed to float past undulations of nomad life—herders deserted by their leaders and herds—wandering waves stopped in their wanderings—waiting for their winds or warriors to return and lead them westward . . . Their country acted as a sink of energy like the Caspian Sea, and its surface kept the uniformity of ice and snow. One Russian peasant kissing an icon on a saint’s day, in the Kremlin, served for a hundred million.” (409)

For him the world was going through a cataclysmic phase. “For him, alone, the old universe was thrown into the ash heap and a new one created. He and his eighteenth century, troglodytic Boston were suddenly cut apart—separated forever—in act if not in sentiment by the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad; the appearance of the first Cunard steamers in the Bay; and the telegraphic messages which carried from Baltimore to Washington.” (5) These were the elements that first signaled to him vast changes coming.

For him the Virgin, representing women, had been the driving Force since the Middle Ages. He quotes Thomas Aquinas: “Christ and the Mother are one force—Love—simple, single, and sufficient for all human wants; but Love is a human interest which acts even on man so partially that you and I, as philosophers, need expect no share in it. Therefore we turn to Christ and the Schools who represent all other force.” (428) Adams seems to be touching on the idea of the women’s movement that wanted full equality with men in his era.

Adams continues. “Passing from one century to another without break. The centuries dropped like autumn leaves in one’s road, and one was not fined for running over them too fast. When the thirteenth lost breath, the fourteenth caught on, and the sixteenth ran close ahead. The hunt for the Virgin’s glass opened rich reserves.” (470) Adams claims that through the power of the Virgin the church created powers that stimulated: architecture, art, sculpture, poetry, printing, exploration, even war and science like astronomy.

Now this age depends on what Adams calls the Dynamo (what would soon be known as atomic energy). “This huge wheel, revolving within arm’s-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power—while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.” (380)

Teddy Roosevelt was the human equivalent of this power. “Power when wielded by abnormal energy is the most serious of facts, and all Roosevelt’s friends know that his restless and combative energy was more than abnormal. Roosevelt, more than any other living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter—the quality that medieval theology assigned to God—he was pure act.” (417)

Numerous times throughout his book , Henry Adams humbly claimed that he learned nothing., because history was always so unpredictable.  His final statement was: “Every man with self-respect enough to become effective, if only as a machine, has had to account to himself somehow, and to invent a formula of his own for his universe, if the standard formula failed. There, whether finished or not, education stopped.” (472)

In my book reviews I usually attempt to find “poetics” in prose works, ranging from novels to memoirs. In The Education I noticed some other things that were just as fascinating: Henry Adams had the ability to comment trenchantly on outstanding people and events. His diffidence toward life often muted his insights; I hope I have highlighted them.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Education-Henry-Adams-dp-1438297173/dp/1438297173/ref=mt_other?_encoding=UTF8&me=&qid=

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).

Inculpatory Evidence: The Covid 19 Poems by Eileen R. Tabios

inculp

By Neil Leadbeater

Inculpatory evidence has, in its title, a legal reference frame which underscores the gravity of the subject-matter. Tabios presents the evidence. It is up to us, the readers, to draw our own conclusions.

The cover photograph of the author wearing her mask is a sombre reminder of just how contagious this virus is. Traditionally, masks were worn by actors as a means of transferring the wearer into a different character. More recently, they are considered to be a form of deception, a facade that obscures the truth. With regard to the present global pandemic we view them as a necessary part of everyday living. The covering over the nose and mouth is not without a cruel irony for we are short of breath due to polluting and dangerous pathogens and we are muted in expressing the truth because certain sections of society are fuelling us with misinformation, the so-called “fake news” that endangers us all. Wearing masks, we all lose a little of our facial identity and, to those who are hard of hearing, and who rely on lip-reading, our means of communication.

Four poets and translators have collaborated on this volume of ten poems by Eileen R. Tabios. John Bloomberg-Rissman has written an afterword and commentary on them, Natthaya Thamdee translated them into Thai and Susan M. Schultz provided useful feedback subjecting one of the poems to her Oulipian N+7 process in which a writer takes a poem already in existence and substitutes each of the poem’s substantive nouns with the noun appearing seven nouns away in the dictionary. This added a surreal touch to what many of us feel is a surreal situation. Some notes about issues that arose in the course of translating the poems into Thai are included at the end.

John Bloomberg-Rissman gives a chilling factual account of events (from November 2019 to June 2020) relating to the spread of Covid 19, the nature of the virus, and the attempts that are being made to curb its spread. His essay focusses on the complete denial, by certain sections of the population, that there is any need to take any precautionary measures, such as the wearing of masks and social distancing, at all. The account then widens to incorporate other global issues that are equally serious, if not more so. He lets the keepers of the Doomsday Clock sum it up: “Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers – nuclear war and climate change – that are compounded by a threat of multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond.”  Will we never learn? It seems that a proportion of the human race is hard-wired to self-destruction.

The ten poems in this volume employ a range of different styles appropriate to their subject matter. Two poems, for example, are written in the reverse hay(na)ku form (a sequence of tercets comprising lines of three words, two words and one word each) and there is also a poem written in couplets, and a list poem. In others, there is some experimentation with the way the lines are presented on the page, the size of the typeface and, in one poem, one or two words are typographically represented by a strikethrough to give an additional meaning to the text. Several poems are dated by month and year of composition. Interestingly enough, the year 2020 is adjusted to 2563 in the Thai translation to accommodate the Buddhist calendar which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar.

In the opening poem we are reminded, among other things, of the power of the word and how a single word, (corona), when it suddenly acquires a new meaning can change our perception of it forever, and that poetry has the power to foretell, to warn, of things to come.

The subject matter in this volume goes wider than Covid 19: ‘Regret’ focusses on the environment, ‘Triggered’ on hunger, ‘Not My First Mask’ on xenophobia and racism and ‘What I Normally Would Not Buy’ on panic buying, consumerism and survival. This is not just physical survival but also survival from domestic abuse.

Tabios uses food in this collection as a metaphor for survival. Food, in its various forms, appears in at least seven of the ten poems. We cannot survive without it. Witness the panic buying that took place as soon as news of the outbreak spread. Maslow was right when he included it within his hierarchy of basic human needs (although he seems to have overlooked toilet paper altogether).

Deception is another theme that weaves its way through this collection: things are not necessarily what they look like or what they seem to be. In ‘Sudden Asian Prepper’ Tabios uses references from hair colouring and make-up to illustrate her point about the deeper issues of deception, not just those that are follicle or skin-deep, but ones to do with race, misinformation and denial.

dye for turning

hair blonde,

tape

for double-lidding eyes,

Eyelid tape and other similar products are hugely popular in places like Korea where having “double eyelids” is considered to be ridiculously desirable.

Despite the gravity of the subject matter there is dark humour at work in some of these poems. Take ‘Faith in the Time of the Coronavirus,’ for example, which opens with these lines:

The President proclaims

-nay, guarantees! –

BETTER DAYS AHEAD!

WE SHALL BOUNCE BACK

HIGHER THAN BEFORE!

 

I respond faithfully

 

with an item I’ve never experienced:

a box of 100 MREs*

My tastebuds cringe –

[*Meals Ready to Eat].

‘Kapwa on Covid’ opens with a quotation from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’. So much depends upon that word. If we can stem the virus, if everyone can adhere to social distancing, if there is another wave, if an effective vaccine can be found, if the virus mutates…different trajectories will ensue. There was a framed copy of Kipling’s poem in our home when I was young. I used to read it often and I can still recall the opening line: ‘If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs…’ In it, the speaker advises his son about how to perceive the world and life’s challenges so that he can both learn from his experiences and resolutely overcome barriers. It is something we all need to do in these difficult times.

——————

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017),  Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019).  His work has been translated into several languages.

Cuban Health Care – The Ongoing Revolution by Don Fitz

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By g emil reutter

I am not a fan of the oppressive government of Cuba where there is no vote, no guarantee of freedoms we here in the United States take for granted. As with all the revolutions in the last century based on Marxist philosophy the Cuban revolution devolved into a cult of personality. Unlike the others, Russian elitism and Chinese embrace of corporate identity to support the establishment as opposed to utopia, Cuba did establish two elements foreign to other Marxist revolutions. Cuba established an outreach of medical care for the poor and rural and a literacy campaign to educate the population.

The United States began to assert care for the elderly and unemployed with Social Security and Unemployment Insurance under Roosevelt, morphed into Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid and finally the Affordable Care Act under O’Bama. Yet health care remains out of reach for millions of Americans. For profit health care seems to dominate the nation as drug companies charge outrageous prices for medicine although most all appear to be produced overseas at cheap rates. Health insurance rates remain high. Political attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid continue even as the programs continue to assist millions and for those who have forgotten we do pay our share for these programs through taxes.

Fitz provides a fascinating read of the history of Cuban health care and its outreach to the poor and needy. It is one of only two bright lights of Marxism in Cuba and coupled with the literacy program should be deemed replicable in other nations throughout the world and yes here in the United States. Health care and literacy are basic human rights.

Through a series of essays, Don Fitz lays out the amazing story of Cuban health care from its infancy, elimination of disease on the island to the export of health care to poor nations around the globe. In this time of corporate and university medical systems control of health care in the United States; the lack of basic health care and hospitals in rural areas, unaffordable care in urban areas, Fitz’s essays are timely and an essential read.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Cuban-Health-Care-Ongoing-Revolution/dp/1583678603

g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. He can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

This is How He Learned to Love: Stories by Randall Brown

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By Thaddeus Rutkowski

The very brief stories in this collection by the founder of Matter Press are related by theme (many focus on family relationships) and by their consistently surprising points of view. Randall Brown’s poetic descriptions of ordinary occurrences are juiced up, squeezed together, and laid out in passages that open one’s mind to what might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Even the book’s cover art reflects this magnified approach: Over a blank-beige background, we see the enlarged, almost abstract head of a grasshopper or praying mantis whose eye pupils point in different directions.

In the micro story “Deliberately,” near the beginning of the book, the main character (a boy) finds a relic in the ground: a cone-topped beer can. The odd-shaped can provides a link to the past, when the boy’s mother, as a teenager, might have buried the can in the ground as “a time capsule.” Was the boy’s mother a drinker? Possibly. In the present, the boy becomes aware of “a pen of guinea pigs left out in the sun.” Do the neglected pets have anything to do with the lost beer can, with the boy himself? The boy’s mother denies responsibility, but it is implied that she should have watched the animals—and perhaps the boy himself. All of this comes in a “story” that is about eighty-five words long.

If there is a narrative arc in this book, it follows the protagonists/narrators as they move from childhood to adulthood. In “A Slight Adjective Used to Describe a Sound,” the main character has a wife and a daughter, and teaches online. (The piece is prescient in that many college teachers lecture online in these days of quarantine.) The husband/father/teacher goes away to “the sea” for a few days. Here, the main issue arises: Why does Robert Frost characterize the din of waves as “misty” in the line “The shattered waves made a misty din”? (The line comes from the poem “Once by the Pacific,” which is not named here.) The waves, the protagonist thinks, “not the din, should be misty.” The piece ends with an encounter with an unidentified woman who talks to the man, then throws her lit cigar into the water, where supposedly it will make a “rusty sizzle.” The story ends as the mystery of another “misty din,” that of the doused cigar, is about to unravel.

Most of the thirty-seven stories in this collection, which was first runner-up in Sonder Press’s chapbook contest, are less than a page long. But as a result of the interior design (where all pieces start on a right-hand page), the book is ninety-two pages long. This Is How He Learned to Love could be a quick read, but I recommend lingering over the stories. Rereading brings the rewards of discovering new meanings below the chiseled surfaces.

You can find the book here: www.thesonderpress.com

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his memoir Guess and Check won an Electronic Literature award for multicultural fiction. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Gathering View by Jack C. Buck

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By Stephen Page

A couple of years ago I traveled with my wife to my home state Michigan, north of the city of Detroit. We were to stay there during the last week of March and the first week of April. The last few times I went to Michigan it was either in June, August, or October. And even though I grew up in Michigan, I had not been to Michigan in March or April in quite some time. I packed a couple of cotton sweaters and a rad waxed-cotton motorcycle-style jacket with a picture of Steve McQueen imprinted on the lining. It had no snap-in wool lining and I thought that I would not need it.  After all, March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Right? As the plane carrying me and my wife was descending for a landing in Detroit Metropolitan Airport, we looked out the fuselage window and saw what looked like at least three inches of snow on the ground. The pilot came on the air and announced that the wind chill was 5 degrees Fahrenheit. I looked at my wife.

The shuttle bus drove us to a car rental and we chose to pay for a mid-size car.  The cashier told us we would get a Ventura.  We stood outside shivering, clenching our teeth, hugging each other while we waited for the valet to arrive with the car.  The valet drove up in front of us in a brand new Charger. He said he took one look at my cool jacket, and new I would need a sporty ride. I thanked him and gave him tip.  We leaped in the vehicle, drove to the first shopping mall we saw alongside I-94, ran inside, and bought wool sweaters, down jackets, Detroit Lions beanies, and gloves.  Sorry McQueen, you would have looked very cool in that new Charger.

Driving to my sister’s house, I remembered that when I was a kid I walked one mile every day to school and one mile back. Sometimes during January or February, no matter how many layers of clothing I wore, the cold bit all the way down to the marrow of the bones.  The cheeks on my face felt like they had been scorched with ice.  And then the cold would grip my lungs and heart and I thought I was going into cardiac arrest.

Reading Jack C. Buck’s “Gathering View” harked back those times.  I had again forgotten that winter in Michigan can last well into May.  Mr. Buck has kindly reminded me. I wish I had read this book before that expedition with my wife.  Winter in Michigan is either chilly, cold, freezing, polar, bone-chilling, face-peeling, or heart-stopping. There is no warm, cuddly, soft-fleeced March lamb. Mr. Buck encapsulates this face-blistering phenomenon in his vivid collection of short poems. In his book, warmth comes only in human contact, literally and lovingly. His succinct poems paint the grandeur of Michigan in all its beauty—rivers, lakes, forests, flora and fauna.  He also alludes to the Michiganders penchant for football.  The book is divided into three sections: one is the late autumn and first few months of winter (including references to football); two, the long bitter middle of winter; and three, the ending of winter and the beginning of spring (which can still be quite nippy).  In this book, Buck has produced empathetic poems about loneliness, solitude, and those ever-saving Persophonic graces, acts of humanity.

You can find the book here:

https://www.amazon.com/Gathering-View-Jack-Buck/dp/0998890235/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533473293&sr=1-9

Stephen Page is the Author of The Timbre of Sand, Still Dandelions, and A Ranch Bordering the Salty River. He holds two AA’s from Palomar College, a BA from Columbia University, and an MFA from Bennington College. He also attended Broward College. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Full Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant. He loves his wife, reading, travel, family, and friends.

Winters of Content by Osbert Sitwell

winters

By Ray Greenblatt

The Sitwells were an aristocratic and talented family; they were eccentric but all accomplished writers. Sister Edith (1887-1964) wrote poetry; younger brother Sacheverell (1897-1988) became an art critic. Osbert (1892-1969) was multi-talented as a poet, art critic, novelist, and best-selling autobiographer of five volumes.

The Sitwells loved the Arts. They attended gallery openings, concerts and hosted what became historically famous artistic soirees. They financed the young musician William Walton; Edith, especially, encouraged the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew.

When Osbert wrote travel books, he was able to break free from any cloying family pressures to write in his most free style, a richly poetic one. In Winters of Content (1932) he takes the fresh approach of traveling in Italy in the winter months, often comparing the northern and southern climates. First he gets us onto the train.

“Men in blue uniforms push trolleys, deal in clean, white pillows for night-journeys; pillows that are suspended in rows from a rod of a hand-wagon . . . drag behind them rattling tables on which are hot macaroni, under a silver shield, cold macaroni, grey railway chickens, every kind of sausage, edible and inedible, and bottles of red and white wine, all the time loudly hymning the names of their delectable commodities.” (112)

“The mind of the train-goer, therefore, must employ itself in other, interior directions, engage itself with remembrances, hopes, or the material difficulties of keeping clean, since to look out of a rattling and dirty window, through the smoke of a fast-moving, mid-nineteenth-century factory, quickly palls.” (15)

This gives him time to muse about northern winter in his city of Scarborough, Yorkshire: “Day followed day, and the ice still spread its flat, colourless flowers at the edges of the drive. The grass all round had been struck, as it were, by winter, that doleful magician, into the blades of knives and scissors . . . The empty flower-beds, frosted mounds, resembled freshly dug graves in the foreground of this dead expanse of country, and the frost could be seen lying white on the farther, bigger hummocks wherein are thrown together the bones of the first Danish invaders, killed so long go, when this land was all forest and fen.” (31)

In stark contrast he remembers grapes on sale in Italy during the winter: “A display of grapes, for instance, at the time of the vintage was a thing never to be forgotten; grapes of a thousand different species, unimaginable in their beauty, of every shape, round, oval, or pointed like the ears of fawns, showing an infinite variety of invention, even in the way the fruit was clustered on its wooden stalk, while in colour they ranged from emerald and azure, to dark blue and purple, mauve, maroon, and almost primrose yellow, but all translucent, and thus conveying a warmth of tone denied to all other fruit save red currants, until one wondered why they were not grown, like flowers, for their beauty as much as for their flavour?” (95)

He, likewise, finds beauty in an Italian winter garden: “The garden, deficient in summer qualities, acquires a fresh merit in this patient, spiritual waiting for new birth, while the trees, although bare, except for the cypresses, have assumed a more intricate beauty. Now, as we passed on our way to the picture gallery, ice crackled round the feet of the goddesses in the wide fountains, and the last, few, yellow leaves drifted slowly down through the still air, turning over and over, and seeming to flash as they fell. “ (198)

He then compares the Palladium architecture used in England: “Not only must they Palladianise their homes, but the very landscape itself. And in this respect, with their parks and groups of trees, their canals and statues, they were more successful. They must build their grottoes along the river, their stucco, pagan shrines on a knoll, their pillared bridges across the end of a lake.” (74)

While in Italy even though the Palladian villa is old, “The original mouldings of window and door, the ceilings, garlanded and vaulted, and all of the most exquisite order, the painted balustrades and painted columns, have been allowed to remain in the state to which time has reduced them, and in the world which these things frame, unhindered by furniture and bric-a-brac, exists a whole mythology called back to being after a century’s neglect” (78).

Sitwell posits an important factor why fine art was so abundant in Italy: “An enlightened discernment in such things then increased the prestige of a royal person more than any individual prowess in the killing of beast and bird; and an eye that at once detected a fine picture or a rising artist was recognized as being of more value to the State than one which, with an alarming and blue-rolling rapidity, immediately discovered any aberration in the matter of buttons upon a single uniform in the whole army corps.” (294)

.                                                                     2

Venice is such a unique city built upon the water: “Composed of gigantic stone rafts, weighed down with marble and white, cut stone, as it floats on the green, flat surfaces of the lagoons, of necessity Venice supplies its own landscape and offers no other. Here slender towers and top-heavy Venetian chimneys replace trees, domes compensate the absence of hills, and the facades of palaces form the most shining and precipitous of cliffs.” (17)

“Although it may have been an exception for this time of year, Fortune sent a series of golden days, sequined with sunlight but cold enough to make walking a luxury rather than a fatigue, while in the narrow streets the crowds, inspired by the weather, jostled and laughed, and even in the smaller canals there would be little green waves, flopping and fluttering with bird-like wings under the gondolas and traghettos.” (48)

Sitwell sits at Florian’s café where winter alters the scene:“Here it was very pleasant. The café had reverted to being Italian. There were no foreigners, but Venetians of all ages sat hunched for hours over a small cup of coffee, or played draughts or chess in corners. The little rooms, which with their painted glass panels so delicately resemble Victorian bon-bon boxes—and are thus most appropriate to their use—could, now that the glass doors were closed and frosted by breathing, be admired in all their minute and delicious proportions.” (58)

Many mysterious buildings wait to be explored: “That exquisite little patrician Casino which lies just off the Merceria; a place which, though so near, is hard to find and difficult to see. Here the rooms are very small and of the finest, jewel-like workmanship. One lovely little apartment bears, high up on a wall, over the space between two diminutive doors, a bellying gilded grating, behind which the musicians—two of them at the most—could ensconce themselves.” (53)

Churches play a special role in man’s life, like St. Mark’s:  “They created this great church, set in the white spray of fretted stone that so well expresses its origin, to protect and assure them. And this fabric contained in it every colour of the earth and of the sun, and was full of growing things—trees, leaves, and flowers—but ones enduring day and night, winter and summer, because fashioned of gold mosaic, agate, alabaster, or marble; and singing, light, and incense were no doubt exhaled from it unendingly, then as now, into the void outside.” (90)

So many buildings in Italy are superb like the Castel del Monte: “The rooms are high, and the vaulting of their marble roofs is most graceful, for it springs lightly from above groups of three slender marble pillars clustered together. The windows, both the larger ones facing the country, with the smaller ones, giving on to the court, are exquisitely lovely. The walls are, again, lined with a square pattern of dark marbles, while the floors are composed of alternate grey and black marble, or of slightly contrasted stone.” (138)

In another palazzo: “The paintings match the architecture in a truly amazing fashion, for they represent arcaded galleries, from which people of a past age and of the utmost verisimilitude are gazing down, in front of niches in which stand tall statues, upon the interlopers of today. These frescoed figures, although they must be considerably over life-size, appear completely natural, absolutely real.” (48)

Sitwell theorizes why elephants are included in the architecture in southern Italy: “Fifty or so miles away is the site of Cannae, where Hannibal, doubtless with the aid of his African elephants, inflicted a fearful defeat upon the Roman troops. And the sight of these fabulous beasts, imported by the Carthaginian armies, may well have abided, between dream and nightmare, for many centuries in the folk-memory, and thus, after a period of digestion, have found its strange perpetuation in stone.” (130)

He also intuits how the painter El Greco was influenced by the landscape: “From the window of his house, noticing how the ashen and cinder-coloured hills, so improbably streaked and dappled, altered the shapes of the muleteers, of the townspeople strolling into the country, and even of the beasts that were trying to find pasture on these bare humps; and how, further, the strong light, pouring down, changed utterly in its turn the forms of the hills and of the crenellated walls and sharp, dog-toothed towers of the city.” (226)

Books of that era were also superlative: “Nearly all of them contain, in addition to countless full-page engravings, often the work of the most distinguished artists of the day, other ones which open up from the centre of the book, leaf after leaf, growing and diminishing like an ancient dining-room table . . . Because of the talented artists employed on it, because of its massive, even cumbersome, proportions, exquisite binding and the lavishness of its printing, the expense of any volume of this kind must have been very heavy.” (236)

.                                                                  3

Sometimes touring was a chore and a disappointment:  “Not a soul stirred. Across the side-streets, a line or two of patched and mended clothes gaped on the air. The sky above, too, betrayed in its tone a peculiar blue vacancy, the sun, round and distinct, appearing to be its sole inmate, just as, below, the Renaissance warrior prince, posturing so solemnly—and quite alone—in the centre of this deserted square, would seem to be the only occupant of his realm: a realm frozen by some curious plague.” (273)

Sitwell wonders what Dickens, whose books are his sole companions, would do: “Rising from my chair, I looked out of the window down into the long and empty street, wondering how he would have begun a story here, with the footsteps sounding out far away under a distant arcade in such a staccato and frightened pattern; footsteps walking briskly for the comfort of their owner, in the same way a man may sing to himself to ward off the terror of empty places, and only muffled for an instant in the moaning of a bitter wind.” (109)

Wind can play tricks on a traveler: “Sweeping up here, high into the air, a piece of paper, and here lifting a journal out of one traveller’s hand and dashing it in the face of another, snatching the breath suddenly out of one man, or ventriloquist-like, carrying some word spoken by him many yards away, so that his companion cannot hear it, and then depositing it of a sudden where it will startle and affright a stranger.” (112)

“Every now and then comes a spell of the particular clattering, jingling rain of these latitudes, its long, grey strings dangling past the windows of the bedrooms down into the high, narrow street for three days at a time, until they seem to form one of those curtains, composed of hollow portions of bamboo, alternating with beads threaded upon a number of cords, that are peculiar to jugglers, mediums, and the cheaper kind of public-house.” (156)

But one day it clears: “The extraordinary and unexpected vision of this enormous range lying so lightly over the blue and marbled sea, so distinct, each mountain veined where the streams flowed down it, the contours so plainly marked, and the snow appearing from here as though stained to various intensities of colour with spilt wine, almost compensated us for the wasted weeks.” (163)

Sitwell has learned to relax, unlike others: “What ideals of sport inspiring the rich young Englishman to face the tsetse-fly and malaria in order to kill animals, striped, elegant and lovely, or armoured and grotesque, in their native swamps and jungles, and to wonder what hardships they will endure, what sandstorms, siroccos, and agues, what typhoons, monsoons, and hurricanes? . . . All these reflections lend a contrasted serenity to the onlooker.” (119)

In peaceful contemplation, memories are triggered: “Rings of light, moving with the particular fluttering, as of butterflies, that is their rhythm, flickered in swarms across the low, painted ceiling of the dining-room next morning. The presence of these tangible, golden insects in itself repays the longest of cold journeys: for, wherever you are sitting—let us say, with your back to the window—each of them is a continual and instant reminder, just as much as would be the most exquisite view of canal or church, gondola or lagoon, of the city in which you are staying.” (36)

He revels in the fact that real life is never far away from the past captured in art: “Thus, while I looked round, examining doors and widows, plaster reliefs and painted ceilings, and realizing with delight the subtle, melodious planning of this house, the golden afternoon was slipping away outside, so that sometimes it called me to the window, to watch the lengthening shadows of the trees, or the tall, thin-waisted, Paleolithic shadows of the gardeners.” (79)

Sitwell observes the people with as much interest, such as an ancient waiter: “This wizened, whiskered old man was so much the epitome of his profession that it is impossible to summon up his image unless one allows it to materialize, as might a spirit, out of the steam issuing from the dishes he uncovered; an amiable but obstinate little phantom, thus for a moment drawing sustenance from the food he carried but never ate.” (247)

Or a mock argument between two old friends: “They were immensely enjoying a row; nothing dangerous or vital, but a delicious, forensic quarrel, packed with rhetoric and gesture, a tear melting in the eye, a sob, or, more rarely, a snarl of anger. Either of them, moreover, was liable suddenly to interrupt his pace, and stand stock still, as though rooted to the spot by the fervency of his own argument, and  would then proceed to harangue his friend with passionate eloquence.” (150)

He even loved the sound of the names of towns: “Cremona, a bone-thin, lemon-coloured city of music, assuming in the mind the shape of a three-arched bridge, of which the middle syllable forms the chief span; then follow Guastalla, like Gonzaga, the prouder of sumptuous Spanish names, cities of tents, pitched, it seems, for conquering grandees, of black and sepia velvet heavily encrusted with gold; Mirandola, most perfectly balanced of musical sounds, associated for ever with poetry.” (269)

Osbert Sitwell wrote three other travel books, all with poetic sensibility: Discursions on Travel, Art and Life (1925), Escape with Me (1939), and Four Continents (1954). Being the men of the family, Sacheverell’s son inherited the English family house “Renishaw.” Osbert Sitwell was given the Italian palazzo his father had renovated “Montegufoni,” in a country where this book Winters of Content proves that he was most at home.

You can find the book here:

https://www.amazon.com/Winters-Content-More-Discursions-Travel/dp/B000OKVPOQ

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.

Leaning into the Infinite by Marc Vincenz

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By Larissa Shmailo

I am not a fan of the unadorned vernacular in poetry, no matter how sincere its sentiment or pertinent its message. In my book, what a poet should do is invent wonderful turns of phrases, new syntax, head-turning semantics. There should be a dialectic of differences which interacts to ­­create the magical, entirely new, entirely necessary synthesis. A poet should bring brilliant LANGUAGE to the reader, by which I more nearly mean semiotics, meaningful, culturally rich, innovative signs that the reader gets to deconstruct time and time again. If you are tired of reading monosyllabic laundry list poetry, then you will be delighted by Marc Vincenz, a poet who trucks in the unpredictable and unexpected, and who conjoins words like gems for jewelry.

In Leaning into the Infinite, Vincenz displays a magical imagination that mines from three continents and a dozen cultures. The language is literate and sparkling. Look at a typical title: “When Uncle Fernando Conjures Up a Dead-Bird Theory of Everything,” where Fernando is “Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa and his many alter egos . . .  written under more than seventy heteronyms.”  Other inspirations are Li Po, Wang Wei, Kafka, Paracelsus, Heraclitus, and Robert Bly. If Auden multitasked, if cummings studied alchemy, if Borges reincarnated into a Hong Kong-born British-Swiss living in America on a green card, you might get a Marc Vincenz.

 If Auden multitasked, if cummings studied alchemy, if Borges reincarnated into a Hong Kong-born British-Swiss living in America on a green card, you might get a Marc Vincenz.

Vincenz’s Infinite is a poetry of mind, a garden of images and ideas and characters that is uncannily aware of its reader. Perhaps all good poetry has this in common, this drawing of the reader in, like an accomplice to its art. Vincenz’s poetry engages and questions, implicitly and explicitly: “How?” “Should I?” “Who?” In “Unreliable Narrator,” he asks “Should I be / stumped / by the greatness / of God . . .”

Who then is

the protagonist

when trillions

of single cells

all think

for themselves?—or together?—

The poet asks and the spare Basho–like verses —and rich longlined poems later in the collection—wait for answer. The poet’s elegant use of line breaks and sculpted white space seem to invite readers to reply, to mark Leaning into the Infinite up with all kinds of marginalia.

We have a tradition in the European canon of the philosopher-poet, in which a poet offers insights into the human condition. Modern poets do so ponderously as a whole. Vincenz’s touch on this is so light and his language so original that you scarcely know you are being enlightened. His temporal range is from the nascent prehistory of cave paintings to the post-relativistic twenty-first century. His worlds are populated with extraordinary beings, including the aforementioned Uncle Fernando and his interlocutor, the oracular Sibyl. In “Uncle Fernando & Sibyl Exchange Curt Words,” Fernando asks for “that mythical moment” and the oracle replies, “Hush,”:

Carbon first.

Then light.

Sibyl, Vincenz’s untamed muse, also appears in dialogues between Prometheus and Orpheus:

 

Orpheus:                                             Prometheus:

The voice                                             & what

of time                                                 is that perfume—

 …                                                       . . .

within the planes                                 the word made

of being                                               Thing

…                                                        . . .

Sibyl:

whenever I start

to try & explain it

I forget words

altogether

My favorite characters in Leaning into the Infinite include a finch singing to his mate from a tree-top which he thinks is a mountain, the Tree God Saluwaghnapani, and Milen, a Filipino wet-nurse who sings a song she “claimed drove off demons that grew within Javan / smog clouds: Ai-Li-Ma-Lu-Ma-Nu — . . . “

Leaning into the Infinite ranges from Olympus to “The Penal Colony” and is vivid and visceral:

Not from the gagged mouth—it knots & tangles in the larynx

& the chain simply groans: ‘Have done it.

Have it etched to the bone.

 It’s all in the pointed nib of the writers’ dark truth.

 In an enlightened moment the Bewildered gasps alone—

The Orwellian/Kafkaesque boot stamps:

Just                 Be                     

             a        

      good Citizen 

Be                    Just

And then the poet escapes to his natal Asia:

O to be born reforested in Borneo

 where water doesn’t run off in disappointing sloughs,

 but cascades & careens within the bejeweled heart

of a single fruiting tree, where a child is a rambutan

(or the fleshy dumpling-pulp of a mangosteen)— . . .

Vincenz speaks to the childlike longing in us to have a storyteller/mentor introduce us to the world’s mysteries, to share its secrets:

If only I had a good uncle to sit me down at an uneven hearth

with a hot cup of mulled wine, a twinkle in his eye

& this background whiff of ancient pine:

To hear how the world begins green, fresh, tabula rasa:

& late at night or early morning through air still as glass,

to eavesdrop upon the grasses & their endless philosophizing.

You have this uncle in Marc Vincenz. Drink up.

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You can find the book here:

https://www.dosmadres.com/shop/leaning-into-the-infinite-by-marc-vincenz/

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Larissa Shmailo’s latest novel is Patient Women and latest collection of poetry is Medusa’s Country. www.larissashmailo.com