north of oxford book review

The Imaginative Prose of Peter Fleming

news

By Ray Greenblatt

–NEWS FROM TARTARY–

Peter Fleming’s younger brother was Ian Fleming—of James Bond fame—who idolized his older brother. Peter was a journalist for the London Times who had been assigned to investigate events in China in 1936. Information about encroachments by Russia and Japan as well as Communists vs Nationalists in China itself was not forthcoming in the world at large. These world powers would contribute to the explosion in a few scant years that would become Word War Two.

Peter had originally traveled from Moscow to Beijing; covered by his book One’s Company. Now he would continue from Beijing, over the Himalayas, to India in seven months at a distance of three thousand miles. This second book would be called Travels in Tartary; both books were combined under one cover titled News from Tartary. On this second adventure Peter would go with Kini Maillart, a Swiss Olympic ice hockey player, sailor, and skier, who worked for a French newspaper.

Landscape

If you consult a map of China, roughly drawing a diagonal line from Beijing  across the Himalayas to Lahore India, you will realize that Peter Fleming traveled the entire breadth of China.  Terrain, including parts of the Gobi Desert, were difficult, to say the least. “The sun was well up now; the heat seemed to us terrific and was in fact considerable. The world around us jigged liquidly in a haze.” (455) “The valley narrowed, and we found ourselves marching down a gully whose walls were pock-marked with smooth caves like the flanks of a Gruyere cheese.” (452) “A yellow country, streaked here and there with red. Everywhere startlingly terraced hills of loess, grotesquer than the most outlandish ant-hills.” (282) Yet some relief existed: “Everything was deathly still; only a little bird from time to time uttered a short and plaintive song whose sweet notes echoed anomalously under those frowning cliffs.” (453) “The melodramatic mountains and the lake which glittered with a vulgar, picture-postcard blue.” (432)

Night held different fascinations: “Smoke rose with great deliberation in the sparkling air. At night footsteps fell with a curious and sullen emphasis upon the frosty ground.” (266) “The sand was silver, and the dust we breathed hung like an emanation, as of steam, around the caravan.” (370) Then the environment could quickly alter: “The wind was the curse of our life; ubiquitous and inescapable, it played the same part on the Tibetan plateau as insects do in the tropical jungle.” (359) “A dun, vaporous, impalpable wall marched up across the sky and bore slowly down on us from the west. From the dunes pale writhing snakes of sand licked out across the dark grey desert, and almost before we realized what was happening the sand storm was upon us.” (413)

Some man-made creations grounded the travelers. Their tent “looked like an abstruse practical joke.” (332) “We walked behind the lorries over a precarious bridge whose architecture seemed to be an affair of mud and mass-hypnotism.” (291) A monastery: “The maze of buildings whose small trapezoid windows, wider at the top than at the bottom, seemed to frown down on us from under lowering brows.” (325) Some villages functioned: “From behind the mud walls of a farm unseen winnowers threw up a lovely rhythmic series of golden jets which spread into fine golden clouds, then settled slowly.” (257) Others not so: “As we arrived at the inn, the building next to it—an eating-house where we had breakfasted—quietly and rather sadly collapsed, crumbling into rubble in a cloud of dust.” (294) Another town: “An unsightly, unexpected cluster of walls and roofs which grew like a wart in the middle of a vast bare plain. “ (372)

Animals played an important part in their lives. “In our empty world the animals that served us, revealing their characters by tricks of temperament or gait, bulked almost as large as human beings.” (434) “If camels can appear Byronic. Detached and skeptical, he seemed always to be something more than a camel: perhaps a prince unluckily metamorphosed.” (440) “Shining like seals, with thick necks arched heraldically, they towered over us, two splendid Badakshani chargers from Afghanistan.” (460) “There is something about a donkey which keeps your mind and spirits earth-bound. On a horse, on a camel, even on a yak, your imagination soars without much difficulty.” (504) They even meet “ Marmots, their red coats very gay in the sunshine, whistled defiance and perplexity, then scampered into their burrows with a curious flouncing gait.” (441)

Personalities

Fleming learned many Chinese character traits: “I knew how swiftly the beanstalk of procrastination grows in the soil of Asia, and how easily another day, or two or three more days, could lose themselves in the intricate Chinese labyrinth of delay.” (290) “Harrows were being dragged along with a man standing on them like a chariot-driver.” (310) “The women hobble round the puddles on bound feet, their sleek heads shining like the shards of beetles.” (301) On public conveyances: “It had struck me as odd that a large crowd had gathered to see us off. I now realized that they were not seeing us off; they were coming too.” (296) “Making one cubic foot into two and turning the Black Hole of Calcutta into an only slightly over-crowded debating hall. Sixty-eight of the seventy-two people present were impervious to the lack of elbow-room, and except in our corner the intricate pattern of humanity had a surface as smooth and harmonious as a completed jigsaw puzzle.” (283)

Our journalist observes individuals in unique ways: “One was an oldish man with a fierce dignity and an abstracted manner which cloaked, at first, his ineffectualness.” (430)  “He wore a black three-cornered hat and a rusty bottle-green coat tied round the waist with a scarf which might have been a dirty tricolour; thus clad, he looked, as he slouched along, like a minor and unsympathetic character in a play about the French Revolution.” (492) “A crude young man with a pock-marked face, whose ungovernable passion for song found expression in a deplorably limited repertoire.” (494) “He used to eke out his meaning by closing his eyes, thrusting forward his face, and waving it blindly to and fro, like a snake in a glass case. It was impossible not to like the gawkish and pathetic dolt.” (521)

People came from faraway places:  “The assistant was a raffish but charming Afghan who, with his Homburg hat tilted wildly, his defiantly folded arms, and his over-truculent stance, looked exactly like a wag in a house-party snapshot.” (508) “A Russian ‘adviser’–-dressed for the backblocks but not in uniform, admirably mounted-–trotted down the street; the bulge in his pocket, his penetrating but evasive stare, his air of furtive consequence conformed splendidly to the standards of discreet melodrama.” (543)

Tibetans were especially interesting to Fleming. “Both races dressed in the Tibetan style. Huge sheepskin robes, worn with the wool inside, were gathered round the waist by a sash, above which, and concealing it, capacious folds overhung , making  a kind of pocket in which all personal possessions, from the inevitable wooden bowl to a litter of mastiff puppies were carried.” (316) “The women’s plaits of hair were burdened with superfluous silverware like a Victorian sideboard.” (368) Two priests: “The chief lama was a fat, merry man; he had rolling eyes and a little moustache and looked exactly like a Frenchman in a farce.  The other was much thinner—a jerky cadaverous creature who hooded himself with his robe against the sun and corresponded very closely to my idea of a Martian.” (387)

“We crawled down that endless valley, a string of small, jaded automata under  the dwarfing hills.” (444) “Presently the caravan arrived, long and deliberate, eating up distance as a caterpillar eats a leaf.” (367) The people who aided Fleming and Maillart the most were Christian missionaries from all over Europe. ”The Catholic Fathers gave us a riotous reception. They were nine enormous Spaniards, of whom the younger ones looked, in their large new beards and medieval habit, like supers in a Shakespeare production. They gave us cakes and chocolate and roared with laughter at everything we said.” (295)

Style

Peter Fleming recounts quite an adventure, but his vivid style brings all elements to life. We have been witness to a number of his writing techniques; now we shall try to define them. Word choice is often striking: “He had with him a white and equally venerable pony, and on its back, wrapped in a tattered greatcoat, he rode hunched in a coma, protecting us.” (323) Describing an ancient man in an ancient region, you would never expect a relatively modern psychological word like ‘coma.’ It also stresses the irony that this feeble man could protect them? Here is a more direct look at irony. As the group of travelers was descending a dangerously steep ‘S’ turn, the Chinese road sign was unusual: “As we hurtled downwards the recurrent ‘!’ atoned for its inadequacy as a warning by its charming aptness as a comment.” (297) Understatement is closely linked to irony: “Sitting in a small ornate room containing no fewer than eight far from unanimous clocks.” (329)

Fleming’s imagery is strong. Here is a reference to chickens not generally known but true: “Sinkiang seemed much farther away even than it had in Peking, and we had already become like a hen with its beak to a chalk line, hypnotized by the next step, blind to all beyond it.”  (288) A more direct use of simile: “The flames licked through the camp as swiftly as a striking snake.” (364) The author has used a snake comparison in different ways throughout the book. Sometimes an entire scene becomes a symbol:  “ A carter who was taking a very elaborately decorated coffin up the road, and for part of the afternoon we travelled behind this gaudy and impressive object, in company with a little boy riding on a donkey and carrying a white rabbit in his arms. It was all like some sort of fable.” (310)

The author’s beginning to a chapter is often powerful: “June opened with a villain’s smile.” (433) His closing is as striking: “It was a good moment: the last of its kind for a long time.” (313) Sounds: “Bugles brayed thinly.” (313) Not only is alliteration strong tying the bugle to its sound; but bugles are often played on the back of donkey or mule. Repetition: “We were sick of suspense, sick of unprofitably collating rumours, sick of the jungle of bureaucracy in which we were benighted.” (322) ‘Sick’ reinforces how difficulties had piled upon them.  And yet, through all these travails Fleming is not without humor.  His traveling clothes are filthy, but he has saved some clothes for visiting. However, the box containing them has fallen into green gutter water: “I had now to decide whether to enter Kashgar disguised as a lettuce, or looking like something that had escaped from Devil’s Island.” (534)

Philosophy

For a young man in mid-twenties, Peter Fleming was not only courageous to take on this assignment but wise beyond his years. Here are some observations he made on a wide variety of topics in his unique manner:

“Here everything that was not of local manufacture had a history behind it, a long itinerary and an outlandish pedigree of owners.” (489)

“We were always hungry all the time.” (367)

“We were on our own; the odds against us had lengthened fantastically, but from now on, every stage, every ruse, every guess that helped us towards the west would be a very personal triumph.” (309)

“A hard journey makes you curiously tender to even your most maddening companions.” (392)

“There had been a long prelude to this comic expedition, but it had yielded a sufficiency of far-fetched generalizations couched in three-pile, fire-proof, Printing House Square prose.” (258)

“To pose rigidly before a faded, tattered, manorial back-cloth on which segments of unimaginable architecture framed startling gouts of boskage.” (318)

“A large crowd, most of whom had for us—I liked to think—the ephemerally proprietorial fondness which menagerie elephants inspire.” (332)

“There are times when this base craft, this pushing of a pencil across a piece of paper, stands suddenly justified.” (336)

“You fell sometimes into a meditation which blotted out a segment of the march, so that when you returned from the far-off things and places that had filled your mind you remembered the country you had passed through hazily.” (360)

“Just outside, our horses munched their barley, making as charming and soporific as the sound of running water or of waves upon a beach.” (363)

“We were both adaptable and fairly phlegmatic; and we were both fatalists, as all travelers, and especially travelers in Asia, ought to be.” (398)

“You knew by now the technique of enduring long marches—how helpful is a train of thought, how it pays to have a half-remembered quotation, a half-worked-out idea, as iron rations for the intellect: something on which the mind can dwell, ignoring the body.” (447)

“They stood for freedom and backblocks; they stood for the luck which had always dogged me while I wore them. And it is not, after all, every pair of boots in which you can travel, sockless, for several months without discomfort.” (589)

“Anglo-India, starched and glossy, stared at us with horror and disgust.” (594)

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/News-Tartary-Journey-Across-Central/dp/1838600345

Peter Fleming (1907-1971) wrote a book, Brazilian Adventure, about exploring Brazil in 1933. He then wrote two books about traversing China in 1936. He went on to fight bravely in World War II as a captain receiving an OBE. In the 1950’s he wrote articles for the Spectator Magazine, collected into four books of essays. All of his writing offers poetic insights into the world at large. Ironically, he died of a heart attack at age sixty-four while hunting in Scotland.

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.

.

.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Playlist: A Poem by David Lehman

Lehman_playlist_comp-1-380x570
.
By Charles Rammelkamp
.
Reminiscent of his 2000 collection, The Daily Mirror, which is a kind of daily diary of poems, Playlist is also a collection of daily poems, these written from November 20, 2017, through January 15, 2018.  But more so than the previous collection, these poems are conceived of as a single work, a single poem in homage to and an elegy for his friend, the poet A. R. Ammons (“Archie”). As in the previous collection, but perhaps with a greater emphasis, more in the foreground – as indicated by the title – jazz and classical music form a sort of soundtrack to his thoughts and impressions. Movies, the weather, and poets are also recurring themes in both works.
.
Lehman explains his long acquaintance and collaboration with Ammons in a foreword. Indeed, the form of Playlist is itself an homage to his mentor, whose 1964 Tape for the Turn of the Year is also a long diary poem. Like Ammons, too, Lehman uses punctuation sparingly, basically just commas. This style mimics the free flow of jazz notes, a musical style to which both were devoted. Ammons taught at Cornell, in Ithaca, NY, and Lehman a hundred miles away in Clinton, where he is on the faculty at Hamilton College.  They met in 1974 and enjoyed a long, warm, collaborative friendship until Ammons’ death in 2001.
.
Several of Lehman’s verses directly address his friend, starting with the first, 11/20/2017, which begins:
.
Dear Archie, today
I drove past 606 Hanshaw Road
where you haven’t lived
since 1993…
.
Noting Archie had “left us // in February 2001, a week before / you would have turned seventy-five,” Lehman goes on:
.
I thought of your coil
of tape for the turn
.
of the year while I was driving
and listening to the radio
and deciding I would write
this poem to you, old friend.
.
Ten days later he writes, on 11/30/2017
.
Hey Archie,
I thought of dialing your phone number today
257-6181
to see if I can still make you laugh…
.
He goes on to recall a joke they’d shared.  In 12/4/2017, there’s another joke, following a direct, loving poetic invocation:
.
Archie you must be my guide now
be to me what Virgil
was to Dante, what Rousseau
was to Shelley. I made you laugh
today we were talking about Lolita
the movie, with Shelley Winters
as the poor mother of the nymphet
and I said, “If Shelley Winters comes,
can spring be far behind?”
Archie, your guide was the wind
Mine is the voice
of Cecile McLorin Salvant, “Nothing
like you has ever been seen before”
.
Lehman refers to other female jazz vocalists throughout. On consecutive days, 11/24/2017 and 1/25/2017, it is Peggy Lee. Subtitled “Comes Love,” 11/25/17 begins:
.
I’d be a beggar or a knave for you
Peggy Lee, “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
and why Lee Wiley?
you’ll find my reasoning is logically sound
and if that isn’t love it’ll have to do
.
Ella Fitzgerald, June Hutton, Rosemary Clooney, Billie Holiday and others make appearances, as do movie stars. December 15, 16 and 17 are meditations on Alfred Hitchcock films and their stars. “I Live in Hitchcock’s America,” begins 12/17/17 . “Hitchcock’s America” is the title of an essay Lehman once wrote:
.
As one who has written on “Hitchcock’s America”
I keep waiting for a magazine editor to ask me to write
“Hitchcock’s Blondes”
who was the most beautiful of all
Stacey says Grace Kelly and I guess I agree though Ingrid Bergman…
.
The poem goes on to mention Kim Novak in Vertigo, Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Janet Leigh (Psycho) and Tippi Hedren (The Birds and Marnie).
.
Similarly, The Godfather is alluded to in several poems (11/26/17 and 12/26/17). “‘One O’Clock Jump’ with Count Basie now / that’ll grab your attention…” the latter begins before muting the sound to listen to dialogue from The Godfather, and we can hear Marlon Brando: “I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman. / Blood is a big expense….”
.
On 1/8/18 and 1/10/18, there’s a focus on the stock market. “Jazz is the music of the stock market / As it zigs and zags…” in 1/8 and in 1/10: “and the Dow is now / in positive territory / erasing earlier losses”: ah, there’s the reason for the interest! That poem goes on: “The two most boring words / in the language are / ‘Russia investigation’”
.
Is it any wonder that the next day’s poem, 1/11/18, is subtitled “Fake News”?
.
On the last day, 1/15/18, Lehman laments he is
.
happy to be alive
sad to bring this
poem to an end,
propose a toast to Archie
.
and concludes sweetly
.
the music was great
from Ithaca to New York City
with you beside me.
.
On top of an impressive knowledge of music and movies, though never in the form of “lecture,” Playlist entertains and engages the reader and is a sweet accolade for a dear old friend.
.
.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf
.
.

Or Else By Diana Loercher Pazicky

or else

By Frank Wilson

The first poem in this collection, titled “Else” — not “Or Else,” as the book is — explores the implications of said modifier (it can be either an adverb or an adjective). An epigraph reminds us that the word derives from the Old English word elles, meaning “other.” The exploration is anything but academic. “Else,” the speaker tells us, “encompasses the unknown / the alternatives that impinge / upon our constricted lives.” It is “an enchanted island … inhabited by sirens singing, / Where else? Who else? What else?”
A couple of pages later there is “Meditation on the Pencil, While Grading Papers” (Diana Loercher Pazicky is a former English professor at Temple University). “The pencil allows one to reconsider,” the speaker tells us, “stop time and go back, / undo that hasty judgment ….” Moreover,
.
Erasers are soft, forgiving,
leave only a faint smudge,
a chance to correct oneself
         before presuming
         to judge another.
.
This is whimsy segueing into the humane, and is characteristic of much in these pages, leading one to suspect that Pazicky’s former students remember her fondly. She wears her learning lightly as well. Most of the poems in the second of the three suites gathered here make reference to the gods and goddesses of mythology, though in ways that are far from solemn. “Venus Redux,” the first of these, is really about the speaker’s mother. “Venus had nothing on you, Mom,” it begins. The thought of her mother’s perfect body calls to the speaker’s mind the works of Praxiteles, Botticelli, Titian, and more. But in those she sees “only the memory of your body … as you paraded naked through the house, / and I hung back in the shadows, furious, / knowing such perfection could never be mine.”

This poem comes poignantly to mind when one arrives at the third suite. “Seaside Victorian” tells us that “The house she inhabited / slowly inhabited her. / Memories yellowed, hardened, / like the doilies and antimacassars ….”

“As she sank into solitude / the house acquired breath, /even speech, children’s voices, / and her husband calling her ….”

The “she” in that poem is never named. But we soon read, in “Actively Dying,” that “My mother is ‘actively dying’ / as opposed to passively dying, / which is what the rest of us / are doing every day.”  The speaker elaborates:
.
Actively dying really means
the body has staged a coup
against the arrogant mind,
that delusional tyrant
twirling and whirling
his hollow scepter
like a child spinning a top,
who thinks he’ll live forever
until the body revolts,
brings the old fool down.
.
“Ashes” makes things even more plain:
.
The marble urn is heavy,
its contents weightless.
I unscrew the lid, pour
my father into a bag,
turn my head away
to avoid inhaling the dust.
.
That last image seems to say it all, but not quite. “Next I open the wooden box / containing my mother … I empty the box into the same bag.” And then, “I take them / to the bay they gazed at every day /from the windows of our house ….”

All is united — husband and wife, father and mother, daughter and house.

There is a surprising range of thought and feeling encompassed in these few pages, all of it expressed with the sort of clear-eyed unsentimental observation one gets from someone like Basho. Do read it. Or else you’ll be missing out on something really worthwhile.
.

.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com

Playground by Joe Benevento

play
.
By Charles Rammelkamp
.
The themes of regret and longing are so potent in Joe Benevento’s work. From his rueful observations about his father’s life and mortality in “Stay-at-Home Dad” (“At 89, a cane reliant diabetic”) to his memory of a girl he had a crush on in school (“Marilyn Meshak”), you can feel his heart aching:
.
Maybe she lives like me an anonymous life,
maybe she died young and is all the more my ghost,
either way, we are as far from our days
sharing a school building, a bus stop,
a neighborhood as it’s possible to be,
more time past only making my dreams more
redundant, pained, to wake up and uncover
how I’ll never tell her
what I felt, and, so, still feel,
how I’ll never know her, and, so
somehow making everyone unknowable,
unreachable, whether awake, alone
or, finally,
asleep together.
.
The poet recognizes this penchant for grief and remorse, with some ambivalence. “Miami Night with Marjorie and Todd” concludes:
.
            a suspension of my disbelief in the magical
            realness of my future possibilities, from this city
            with too much music, friendship and night
            life for me to insist any longer
            on my regret.
.
Life is so fleeting; how do we not regret its losses? Indeed, this is so succinctly spelled out in his sonnet, “Loser,” which begins with an epigraph from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “Battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.”
.
The qualities of loss often conceal
how winning is a limit and a lie,
since human nature would much rather deal
with touchdown dances than with kids who cry
their disbelief we just want them to try
their best. They know better, they know too well
winning gets parades, applause, proud eyes
that say well done, instead of damn it, hell,
how did you miss that pitch, that pass, oh, well,
            we’ll practice more, or send you to a camp,
some place where they do all they can to sell
you on the notion that there’s just one stamp,
one way to court the dark drug of winning,
to hide how life is loss from the beginning.
.
And so we feel the sting of his awareness that nothing is permanent, in another poem prefaced by a line from Whitman, this time from “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d”: “In the day, in the night, to all, to each, / Sooner or later delicate death.” In this poem Benevento is walking his ancient dog on the rain-dampened streets that are crawling with earthworms; it is his father’s 91st birthday, and the poet is “derailed by the near / certainty Dad will never see ninety-two.” The dog’s imminent mortality weighs on him as well; “and a tear trickles down for my dad, my dog, / myself, even for the worms I may be running over.”
.
As in his 2015 book, Expecting Songbirds, another sweetheart from his youth, Sylvia Ramos, makes an appearance and provokes his yearning. Even more than Marilyn Meshak, Sylvia’s memory fills him with longing and a sense of missed opportunities. In “After Driving to See Sylvia in Nebraska,” the poet encounters his ex-flame from his youth in Queens, a “mixture of beguiling beauty tempered by modesty,” and struggles with his feelings of what might have been but resolves “to remain // the faithful knight to her maddening Dulcinea,” a reference to Don Quixote’s ideal in Cervantes’ novel.
.
Another kind of regret is humorously expressed in “After I Realized I Didn’t Have Enough Money,” a poem about college tuition for his children, in which his longing and lament come back to haunt him when his daughter wants to go away to college: “she has spent her first eighteen years listening / to my nostalgia for a larger world.”  Call it poetic justice! The poem’s ending likewise brings a smile:
.
…I’m wishing I was bankrupt
enough to become an administrator,
or foolish enough to believe in the lottery,
some other magic means to protect my long
.
cherished claim money doesn’t matter.
.
There are eight “After” poems in this collection (“After Zoraida Martinez Saved Me from Divine Word Seminary” is an example); the very construction of such a sentiment, regarding an event in the rearview mirror, is likewise a trigger for misgivings and second guesses.
.
Poems, such as “No Competition,” “‘I’m never going to dream of fairies’,” and “After Math” are ones in which Benevento’s heart aches for his children, their expectations and future, let alone their well-being. In “Unsettled” he observes, he “never underestimates / the odds of disease, accident, or, at least / the predicted contempt of their teenaged years.”
.
 But in the final poem, “Physical Therapy,” the poet acknowledges his good fortune in the midst of all the inevitable loss that life entails. He’s getting help from a young therapist for “a right ‘shoulder impingement’” whose “shooting pain” is bearable, but in the long-run, compared to his siblings and mother-in-law, afflicted by various cancers, he’s been pretty lucky. He concedes:
.
I can live with the pain, or better still,
avoid it almost entirely, if I remember
evermore not to reach too far above
or for anything behind.
.
Keep your expectations low, and don’t go rooting around in the past for things you can never change? Is this the cautionary message? Physician, heal thyself!
.

You can find the book here: http://www.unsolicitedpress.com/store/p212/playgroundJB.html

.

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.

Howling Enigma by Rustin Larson

howling-enigma
.
By Hélène Cardona
.
Rustin Larson’s Howling Enigma begins with a cornucopia of fruit and flowers amid the snow filled landscape of Iowa, where “Beowulf lives.” He describes it at times welcoming, in bloom, with “herbs / the Gerber daisies, the fall violets, the dandelion greens” and “mulberry seedlings,” and at times stark, with “pale frost on the window,” “the snow’s endless and cascading curtain” and where “sitting / in the sun is just a fantasy. / It’s six above zero.”\
.
A deeply moving tribute to his parents and ancestors, this is a haunted collection where Larson spends “time with those who have gone on before me.” Memories, photos and dreams bring his kin back: “I still talk to my father in dreams. / Sometimes I see my mother from a distance.” Emotions are sparse yet hit you hard: “My grandmother hugged me / the way a mountain hugs stone.”
.
Like a leitmotiv, underneath it all, solitude.
.
“I wind up in places
that just seem to underline
the nature of solitude.”
.
And what a treat for the reader to share Larson’s solitude, which echoes Rilke:
“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”
.
Larson has gifted us a book of mournful love, filled with nature and animals, a far-reaching goodness that permeates all in spite of the darkness he embraces.
.
GOLDEN BUDDHA
.
You are Golden Buddha. You are the light
Of the world. I say this in my head to
Everyone. A fine electrical night
.
Hums with water, carbon molecules, through-
Out the Eastern Seabord. Computers fail
In the morning, a cool day, a brilliant blue,
.
For miles. I don’t see you much in the pale
Light. You are my other soul. In the night,
We lie next to each other for hours: ale
.
Bottles, groves of trees dripping with light,
A waterfall lit by lanterns: babies
Cry in their own language lit by the tight
.
Hooks and loops of alphabet, flower dyes
Soaked to color the body, soul, and sky.
.
Such an ode keeps the darkness at bay.
“At night, I sit on my lawn an stare into the darkness.”
.
Larson’s poems are bridges, hovering between the living and the dead, light and dark, where the past and the future are intertwined, and a guitar plays in the background. Like Berryman’s ghost, Larson casts a spell with poems full of “imagination, love, intellect—and pain.”
.
The poet’s meticulous observations of his surroundings and every day life, such as the “patterns in the wind” read like tender – at times disquieted – unfolding stories, his vast spirit and benevolence permeating everything.
.
Naomi Shihab Nye wrote that Larson’s words “always ring true” to her. They do. There is never a false note in Larson’s poetry. They slow time to a more propitious pacing, acting as a balm. What a wondrous meditation, from which the reader returns soothed, and vibrant.
.

You can find the book here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/howling-enigma-rustin-larson/1128895309

.

Hélène Cardona is a poet, actor & translator, the author of 7 books, including the award-winning Life in Suspension and the translations Birnam Wood (José Manuel Cardona), Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac), winner of a Hemingway Grant, Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb. She wrote her thesis on Henry James for her masters in American Literature from the Sorbonne, taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University, and worked as an interpreter for the Canadian Embassy in Paris. Her work has been translated into 16 languages. She has contributed to The London MagazineWashington Square Review, World Literature Today, Poetry International, The Brooklyn Rail, Asymptote, The Irish Literary Times, Los Angeles Review, The Warwick Review & elsewhere. http://helenecardona.com/

The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene

law

By Ray Greenblatt

Graham Greene did not have much time to be poetic when writing his novels; he knew that a fast-moving plot was what held the reader. However, in his book reviews, essays, travel books, other elements could be expanded. In THE LAWLESS ROADS Greene explores the dynamics of Mexico in 1938, wandering many byways where he had the space to be descriptive as well as contemplative.

                                                       The Shadow of Hemingway

          Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway both began to write in the 1920’s. As the years evolved, Greene developed a philosophical, psychological style; while Hemingway’s remained essentially the same—basic word usage, spare sentences—growing stylized over time. But Hemingway’s almost immediate and worldwide effect on writing was a phenomenon. The writers especially of detective fiction employ his style to this very day. Greene’s “Entertainments,” his name for the six thrillers he wrote, were influenced by Hemingway; even to a degree this early travel book about Mexico. This style was apt for expressing what Greene experienced.

Greene uses a series of nouns loosely joined by “and.”  “In the market flowers and flies and ordure and sleep.” (90) “They were full of scent and sunlight and quiet and desertion.” (200) “This was real—the high empty rooms and the tiled and swarming floor and the heat and the sour river smell.” (126) Notice the high number of negatively charged nouns.

Perhaps with further nod to Hemingway, Graham Greene also uses strings of simple sentences. “The hammocks creaked and something fluttered in the roof and a child wailed.” (135) “This small place wedged in among the mountains round its locked decaying church, and time just going by and the aeroplane always coming tomorrow. “ (157) Sometimes that all-purpose “and” joins adjectives, even sentence fragments: “No one could resent it: he was so pink and old and he had so many introductions. And a police badge under his lapel. “ (32)

The tone of his writing can be blase: “He was like the tough case of something labeled fragile.” (105) Or the author himself steps into the scene: “I had taken him already and made a character of him and I had got him entirely wrong.” (33) Also the use of ironic humor: “A few bright blue birds mocked one with other people’s happiness.” (185) Selectively, the Hemingway style can be liberating and focus the reader on each word: “He hated Mexico with a little refined adder-like hatred.” (42) Not only is “hatred” repeated for emphasis; unique adjectives—“refined” and “adder-like”—can be more easily observed and enjoyed.

                                                            Meet The People

          The 1930’s, with a worldwide depression, were a sad time for the people of Mexico. Graham Greene shows us some happy folk. At a cockfight: “They had plump mild operatic faces.” (43) In a cantina: “Nothing one could say failed to feed that enormous flame of mirth: it roared like a draught in a chimney, sucking up words like scraps of paper.” (96)

But for the most part life was serious if not tragic. A rebel general: “One gold tooth like a flaw in character.” (50) “Many people had a kind of affection for him—an affection for an animal whose cage you enter with caution.” (51) Even the soldiers had a hard life: “I passed the poor huts of the soldiers—just twig and mud, like birds’ nests, on the bank.” (205)

The educated suffered similarly to the poor. A philosopher: “The old professor had thin white hair, a long white moustache, and blanched and bony hands. He had an air of melancholy breeding; he was very clean and very worn; he was like an old-fashioned vase standing among the junk at the end of an auction.” (47) A school- teacher: “He was benevolent and patronizing, he knew everybody, but unlike the priest he knew nothing at all. He sat there like a poster advertising something of no value to anyone at all.” (204)

An ancient peasant: “His hands were like last year’s leaves.” (161) Beggars at a railroad station: “They came up around the train on both sides of the track like mangy animals in a neglected zoo.” (58) Even children were afflicted: “Two small boys boarded the train at San Marco with guitars and played in the middle of the coach for centavos—sweet melancholy voices and large brown actors’ eyes.” (88) “A little blonde girl of two lay wearily asleep in her nurse’s arms. Washed out and fragile as a shell, with her tiny ears already drilled for rings and a gold bangle round the little bony wrist.” (95)

During this Mexican persecution priests were not spared: “In the mortuary, lids not quite closed and the obstinate mouth dropping open to show the big stony teeth, and the vacant face like a mask taken off and ready for any wearer.” (75) Greene gives most of his time to describing men; women were usually involved with the church, as we will later see. However, here is one tragic woman: “Through an open door in one of the little houses I came suddenly on a tall tragic woman with hollow handsome features and a strange twisted mouth—like an expression of agony.” (147)

                                                     Mexican Flora and Fauna

          Graham Greene is skilled in depicting people. Let us now see poetically how he brings the landscape to life: “The rough, friendly, complex hills.”(49) “An oriental flat-roofed town under the leonine wrinkled hills.” (192) Mountains from the air: “The mountains came nearer—heavy black bars one behind the other—and a silver horizontal gleam upon the ground was a waterfall.” (128) “The mountains crouched all round like large and friendly dogs.” (169) “The volcanoes were there, moving half submerged like icebergs along the horizon.”

The land ran the gamut from aridity to fecundity. “This was the dry season: you could see the hollows—like thumb-marks—waiting for the rains.” (128) “All the vegetation died out into a black and hopeless soil.” (94) “It was like the grave, the earth taking over before its day.” (152)  “You can’t open a book without some tiny scrap of life scuttling across the page.” (120) The ancient temples in the jungle: “You can see them on the point of being swallowed again by the forest; they have looked out for a minute, old wrinkled faces, and will soon withdraw.” (137)

The villages and towns were often run down. “It was like a place besieged by scavengers—sharks in the river and vultures in the street.”(103) “ In the yard a whirlwind, small and domestic, raised a pillar of dust.” (50) “The turkeys—those hideous Dali heads, with the mauve surrealist flaps of skin they had to toss aside to uncover the beak or eyes.” (142) “The cocks crowing for miles around, an odd Biblical rhapsody at dawn.” (35) And in the local river  “the carcasses of old stranded steamers held up the banks.” (102)

Yet the natural beauty could be stunning: “The sun dropped out of sight, the forests became black below their gilded tips. The world was all steel and gold, like war.” (160) “Only sunset cast some kind of gentle humanizing spell over this rocky cactus desolation—a faint gold, a subjective pity, as if one were looking at the world for a moment through a god’s anatomical and pitying eye.” (38) “The last pale golden light welling across the plain, dropping down over the ridge which ended it as if over the world’s edge, so that you thought of the light going on and on through quiet peaceful uninhabited space.” (166)

Greene traveled by local train: “We were like an overgrown fossil as we bumped at seven in the morning along the hideously familiar way to Istapa.” (189)  Also by train: “It moves in great loops to summer, the seasons change as you watch, the air thickens, and exhilaration stirs in the flaccid lungs.” (89) Here is an overview of the landscape: “At the top of the ridge above the Mexican plain one emerged far above the sunset, which poured out between the mountains—a pale green under-water light shading into gold across the Mexican plain towards the volcanic snows, over more churches than you could count of fake pink stone, over haciendas like broken toys, and the wrinkled hills, a hundred luminous miles.” (205)

                                                           The Greene Theology

          Graham Greene, a Catholic himself, was commissioned to evaluate how Mexico was surviving. For a decade the dictator President Calles tried to eradicate Catholicism from the country; many churches had been closed and priests killed. However, the people’s faith would not be stamped out. “The cathedral sails like an old rambling Spanish galleon.” (61) “The churches still stand, great white shells like the skulls you find bleached beside the forest paths.” (141) “Everywhere churches lift up their bruised and antique heads above the walls and trees.” (75)

It is mostly women who sustain the faith. “With their cave-dwellers’ faces and their long staffs they might have been Stone Age people emerging from forgotten caverns to pay their tribute to the Redeemer on Resurrection morning.” (185) If a church was unavailable, they would go to private homes: “All day you could see women hurrying with ostrich secrecy towards the house in the side street where the body and blood of Christ was reserved in the little room off the balcony.” (178)

Some might not take the faith seriously: “Three girls doing the Stations of the Cross, giggling and chattering from agony to agony.” (35) But an innate feeling abided: “During the Calles persecution God had lain in radio cabinets, behind bookshelves. He had been carried in a small boy’s pocket into prisons; he had been consumed in drawingrooms and in garages. “ (36) “A great bare pulled-about church hummed gently and continuously with the prayers of the people.” (36)  “They were like relays of labourers making a road up Calvary.” (36)

“Perhaps this is the population of heaven—these aged, painful, and ignorant faces: they are human goodness.” (40) “You would say that life itself for these was mortification enough.” (40) “Even if it were all untrue and there were no God, surely life was happier with the enormous supernatural promise than with the petty social fulfillment, the tiny pension and the machine-made furniture.” (45)

To conclude, let us have Graham Greene poetically offer some of his wisdom:

“Death dictates certain rites. Men make rules and hope in that way to tame death.” (44)

“Guns on their hips, the holsters and the cartridge belts beautifully worked, a decorative death.” (49)

Dictators “under their pretence of freedom have left so many chains.” (58)

Socialism “like an electric train gone wild, sparkling and jabbing down the Embankment.” (87)

“That Mexican façade of bonhomie—the embrace, the spar, the joke—with which they hide from themselves the cruelty and the treachery of their life.” (163)

“Despair has its own humour as well as its own courage.” (42)

“The little villages go up on the wounded clay with garages like tombs.” (46)

“It is before you cross a frontier that you experience fear.” (100)

“There is always something exhilarating about moving inward from the sea into an unknown country.” (104)

“It was like being forgotten in a maze when the ticket man had gone home.” (47)

“Man has a dreadful adaptability.” (137)

“Human kindness withering out like a flower in a vacuum flask.” (93)

“I suppose the love of life which periodically deserts most men was returning: like sexual desire, it moves in cycles.” (144)

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Lawless-Roads-Penguin-Classics/dp/0143039733

This review will be published by The Graham Greene Newsletter in print August 2019.

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.

.