review

Winters of Content by Osbert Sitwell

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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)

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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)

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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.

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

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

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

Justine by Lawrence Durrell

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Review by Ray Greenblatt
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No, not 18th century French pornography by the Marquis de Sade. Rather, modern realism written by an Englishman. Birth in the Punjab, India, and death in Avignon gave Lawrence Durrell a breadth of experience, which spurred him to write about many different kinds of people–with a rich and diverse writing style.
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 He could list interesting facts in a travel book, like Reflections on a Marine Venus: “The festival of Helios was yearly in September. His priest gave the name to the year. The Colossus was built in his likeness, and the coinage of the realm bore his image, while in the great yearly festival which honored his name white or tawny lambs, white rams, white horses and red honey were offered as a sacrifice; and the wrestlers, boxers and charioteers contended for a wreath of white poplar. So great were the festivals of Helios that neighboring States sent both their best athletes as competitors and their diplomatic envoys.” (45)
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On the other hand he could employ dry humor, as in tales of the Consular Service, Sauve Qui Peut: “In the Old Days before Time Was . . . diplomacy was a quiet and restful trade carried on in soothing inanity among a hundred shady legations and embassies all over the globe . . . Minted at Eton, moulded by Balliol, and mellowed to the sunset tone of old brick by a Grand Tour, the fellow was in clover, and he knew it. Handpicked, packaged, dusted over lightly with male hormone, he was delivered to his post without a bally scratch.” (158) However, Durrell’s intent in creating Justine was much more important to him than mere fact-finding or humor and became significant to the reading public. I was most impressed by his ability to poetically describe characters and setting.
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                                                          Major Characters
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The novel Justine focuses on human relationships; and the focal point is the woman Justine. Two men are bewitched by her. Yes, she is beautiful, but ironically not one clear picture of her is given, since each person imagines her in a different way. Let us meet those three people all living in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, just before WWII begins.
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Nessim is a wealthy Egyptian businessman: “He looked up at you with that pale almond face, the expression shuttered, withdrawn, almost pleading.  And yet somewhere through all this gentleness ran a steel cord, for his staff was perpetually surprised to find out that, inattentive as he appeared to be, there was no detail of the business which he did not know.” (25)
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Eventually Nessim marries Justine: “Her love was like a skin in which he lay sewn like the infant Heracles; and her efforts to achieve herself had led her always towards, and not away from him. The world has no use for this sort of paradox I know; but it seemed to me then that Nessim knew and accepted her in a way impossible to explain to someone for whom love is still entangled with the qualities of possessiveness.” (28)
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Justine has had a troubled life and is constantly restless, trying to find herself in many ways. Darley, the writer who narrates the story, falls in love with her too. As in the various views of Justine, we see Darley only through others, as in a figure-ground. As Justine is headstrong and mysterious, Melissa is frail and honest.  Darley loves her also. “We idled arm in arm by the sea that afternoon, our conversations full of the debris of lives lived without forethought, without architecture. We had not a taste in common. Our characters and predispositions were wholly different, and yet in the magical ease of this friendship we felt something promised us. I like, also, to remember that first kiss by the sea, the wind blowing up a flake of hair at each white temple—a kiss broken off by the laughter which beset her.” (53)
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Cohen is an older man who, spurning his wife and children, pursued a relationship with Melissa. Here is how Darley first observed him: “I for my part could not bear to look at that heavy pock-marked face with its bestial saturnine cluster of tormented features smeared on it—could not bear to think of his gross intimacies with her: those sweaty little hands covered as thickly as a porcupine with black hair.”(20)
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Now that Cohen is dying, Darley has another view: “The flesh had sunk down upon his cheek-bones exposing the long slightly curved nose to its very root and throwing into relief the carved nostrils. This gave the whole mouth and jaw a buoyancy, a spirit which must have characterized his face in earliest youth.” (94)
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                                                              Supporting Characters
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For the moment putting aside this roiling plot, what bewitches me the most is Lawrence Durrell’s powerful use of character description. Let us consider six additional but very extraordinary people.
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Capodistria is the man murdered for an unknown reason. “He is more of a goblin than a man, you would think. The flat triangular head of a snake with the huge frontal lobes; the hair grows forward in a widow’s peak. A whitish flickering tongue is forever busy keeping his thin lips moist. He is ineffably rich and does not have to lift a finger for himself. He sits all day on the terrace of the Brokers’ Club  watching the women pass, with the restless eye of someone endlessly shuffling through an old soiled pack of cards.” (29)
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A French attaché Pombal is a close friend of Darley. “He sits at his desk in the Consulate-General covered by a perpetual confetti of pasteboard cards bearing the names of his colleagues. He is a pegamoid sloth of a man, a vast slow fellow given to prolonged afternoon siestas and Crebillon fils. His handkerchiefs smell wondrously of Eau de Portugal.” (18)
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A wise man, Balthazar is the one to whom many go for advice: “He is thin, stoops slightly, and has a deep croaking voice of great beauty, particularly when he quotes or recites. In speaking he never looks at you directly . . . his yellow goat-eyes are those of a hypnotist. In not looking at you he is sparing you from a regard so pitiless that it would discountenance you for an evening.” (81)
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Mnemjian is not just a misshapen barber: “He is the memory man, the archives of the city. If you should wish to know the ancestry or income of the most casual passer-by you have only to ask him; he will recite the details in a sing-song voice as he strops his razor and tries it upon the coarse black hair of his forearm. What he does not know he can find out in a matter of moments.” (32)
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Pursewarden represents the dangers of artistic fame: “His freedom, gained through a modest financial success, has begun to bore him. He has begun to feel more and more wanting in true greatness while his name has been daily swelling in size like some disgusting poster. He has realized that people are walking the street with a Reputation now and not a man.” (102)
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Formerly a sailor, Scobie is now connected with the Egyptian police force: “Eyes like dead moons, a distinct curvature of the pirate’s spinal column, and a taste of quinqueremes. It was not blood which flowed in Scobie’s veins but green salt water, deep-sea stuff. His walk is the slow rolling grinding trudge of a saint walking on Galilee.  His talk is a green-water jargon swept up in five oceans—an antique shop of polite fable bristling with sextants, astrolabes, porpentines and isobars. When he sings, which he so often does, it is in the very accents of the Old Man of the Sea. Like a patron saint he has left little pieces of his flesh all over the world.” (112)
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                                                               Alexandria: Place
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 The city seems to be a living essence unto itself. It can influence people as well as be a projection of their personalities.  Again, Lawrence Durrell is a master of powerful description. “Never had the early dawn-light seemed so good to Nessim. The city looked to him as brilliant as a precious stone. The shrill telephones whose voices filled the great stone buildings in which the financiers really lived, sounded to him like the voices of great fruitful mechanical birds. They glittered with a pharaonic youthfulness. The trees in the park had been rinsed down by an unaccustomed dawn rain.” (182)
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Likewise, the dusk is as significant: “The first blank lamps had begun to stiffen the damp paper background of Alexandria. The sea-wall with its lines of cafes swallowed in the spray glowed with a smudged and trembling phosphorescence.  The wind blew dead south. Mareotis crouched among the reeds , stiff as a crouching sphinx.” (83)  Mareotis is a lake just outside of the city.
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 The darkness adds a sinister dimension to the city: “ And then add screams in the night behind other shutters in that crooked street: the bey beating his wives because he was impotent. The old herb-woman selling herself every night on the flat ground among the razed houses—a sulky mysterious whining. The soft ‘pelm’ noise of bare black feet passing on the baked mud street, late at night.” (54)
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Each season offered a special poignancy. “I am recalling now how during that last spring (forever) we walked together at full moon, overcome by the soft dazed air of the city, the quiet ablutions of water and moonlight that polished it like a great casket. An aerial lunacy among the deserted trees of the dark squares, and the long dusty roads reaching away from midnight to midnight, bluer than oxygen.” (123)
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“In autumn the female bays turn to uneasy phosphorous and after the long chafing days of dust one feels the first palpitations of the autumn, like the wings of a butterfly fluttering to unwrap themselves. Mareotis turns lemon-mauve and its muddy flanks are starred by sheets of radiant anemones, growing through the quickened plaster-mud of the shore.” (40) Not being a writer of limited vocabulary, Durrell employs forms of the word “phosphorescent” multiply. Perhaps Alexandria’s climate held an intangible quality which intrigued him. Physics defines the word as “emission of radiation continuing after excitation ceases.”
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“The slither of tyres across the waves of the desert under a sky blue and frost-bound in winter; or in summer a fearful lunar bombardment which turned the sea to phosphorous—bodies shining like tin, crushed in electric bubbles; or walking to the last spit of land near Montaza, sneaking through the dense green darkness of the King’s gardens.” (126)
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Sometimes rain is heavy; the Pharos is the lighthouse :”Today, unexpectedly, comes a squinting spring shower, stiffening the dust and pollen of the city, flailing the glass roof of the studio . . . Prodigious archery over the parks where the palm-trees have been dragged back taut; a mythology of yellow-maned waves attacking the Pharos. At night the city is full of new sounds, the pulls and stresses of the wind, until you feel it has become a ship, its old timbers groaning and creaking with every assault of the weather.” (106)
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Or in the other extreme a sandstorm: “The harsh sobbing air dries the membranes of throats and noses, and makes eyes raw with the configurations of conjunctivitis. Clouds of dried blood walk the streets like prophecies; the sand is settling into the sea like powder into the curls of a stale wig. Choked fountain-pens, dry lips—and along the slats of the Venetian shutters thin white drifts as of young snow. The ghostly feluccas passing along the canal are crewed by ghouls with wrapped heads.” (131)
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A fitting conclusion to these descriptions of Alexandria would be a train station at night where one vividly feels life’s arrivals and departures. “The long pull of the train into the silver light reminds me of the sudden long pull of the vertebrae of her white back turning in bed. ‘Melissa’ I call out, but the giant sniffing of the engine blots out all sound. She begins to tilt, to curve and slide; and quick as a scene-shifter the station packs away advertisement after advertisement, stacking them in the darkness . . . The shadowy figure is sliding away down the steel rails into the darkness; a final lurch and the train pours away down a tunnel, as if turned to liquid.” (91)
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                                                               Philosophy
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So much happens in the novel Justine to so many persons. Each person seems to have a personal philosophy of life and is apt to discuss it in the course of the book. As a conclusion to a review of a book that offers a descriptive banquet, let us touch on some key philosophical strands.
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The concept of prayer is explored: “I caught the sweet voice of the blind muzzein from the mosque reciting the “Ebed”—a voice hanging like a hair in the palm-cooled upper airs of Alexandria . . . The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy consciousness like a serpent, coil after shining coil of words—the voice of the muzzein sinking from register to register of gravity—until the whole morning seemed dense with its marvelous healing powers, the intimations of a grace undeserved and unexpected.” (22)
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         Memory is a constant motif throughout the novel: “Far off events, transformed by memory, acquire a burnished brilliance because they are seen in isolation, divorced from the details of before and after, the fibres and wrappings of time. The actors, too, suffer a transformation; they sink slowly deeper and deeper into the ocean of memory like weighted bodies, finding at every level a new assessment, a new evaluation in the human heart.” (206)
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Here is a view of Art: “The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this—that only here, in the silence of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold—the meaning of the pattern. For us artists there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life; in this way, not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfill it in its true potential—the imagination.” (14)
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However, love is what all the characters are searching for and evaluating. Some people feel that love is limited quantitatively: “Love is horribly stable, and each of us is only allotted a certain portion of it, a ration. It is capable of appearing in an infinity of forms and attaching itself to an infinity of people. But it is limited in quantity, can be used up, become shop-worn and faded before it reaches its true object.” (115) This is certainly in opposition to Christian love which teaches that it can grow with usage like a muscle.
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A danger of love is jealousy: “But here too I was sufficiently detached to observe how much love feeds upon jealousy, for as a woman out of my reach yet in my arms, she became ten times more desirable, more necessary. It was a heartbreaking predicament for a man who had no intention of falling in love, and for a woman who only wished to be delivered of an obsession and set free to love.” (69)
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Here is a startling analogy of how we must work our way from a physical to spiritual love: “You climb through the physical body, softly parting the muscle-schemes to admit you—muscle striped and unstriped; you examine the coil ignition of the guts in the abdomen, the sweetbreads, the liver choked with refuse . . .You are searching for a co-ordinating scheme, the syntax of a Will which might stabilize everything and take the tragedy out of it.” (124)
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But we must happily admit that there can be joy and awe in true love. “We did not dare to link arms, but our hands kept meeting involuntarily as we walked, as if they had not shaken off the spell of the afternoon and could not bear to be separated.  We parted speechlessly too, in the little square with its dying trees burnt to the colour of coffee by the sun; parted with only one look—as if we wished to take up emplacements in each other’s mind forever. “ (77) I have not explicated the complex plot of this novel. My intent was primarily to show Lawrence Durrell’s powerful descriptions of character and setting. Yet, in this section we can observe the moral issues with which the characters wrestled.
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Lawrence Durrell worked in all literary genres: fiction, poetry, drama, essays;  also in letters, travel and humor. But especially in the novel he probed character and incident so deeply that in his writing career he was compelled to create multiply connected novels: two books made up the work titled The Revolt of Aphrodite; The Avignon Quintet; and The Alexandria Quartet.  In this latter series, for me, Justine fascinates and sparkles the most intensely.
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Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

THE MANY GENRES OF CANNERY ROW

(Click on title for full screen)

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By Ray Greenblatt
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Geoffrey Chaucer’s fifteenth century Canterbury Tales consists of various literary genres: the Quest, Fabliau, Parable, Mock Autobiography, Legend, Beast Fable, etc. John Steinbeck was a medieval scholar in his own right; at the time of his death in 1968, he was writing a modern interpretation of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. Some critics suggest that Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat was created in a medieval vein although the characters were Hispanic. In addition to that, I have noticed that his novel Cannery Row (1945), although in prose, offers a different genre in nearly every chapter, as if he were thinking of Chaucer’s writing style.
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Since Steinbeck only numbers his chapters—not giving titles which could shed thematic light—my discussion will be chronological to save readers the annoyance of leafing back and forth through the book. Cannery Row is a real place along the waterfront of Monterey, California. In the Depression 1930’s many sardine fishing boats harbored in and miscellaneous people lived in the town.  Steinbeck creates Doc who was a biologist, Chong the grocer, Mack and his pals who were local roustabouts, Dora and her “ladies of the night,” etc. No one character dominates; all of them represent human aspects of Monterey.  The different genres, through which Steinbeck relates his story, add resonance to the recounting.
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The prologue to the novel opens with a Prose Poem: “Cannery Row in Monterey is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honkytonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.” (1) The “stink” and “grating noise” obviously describe the sardine factories. Steinbeck is especially taken by “a quality of light” at the dawn of each day over the Pacific Ocean.  This town, where for a number of years Steinbeck first married, lived and started to publish, became “a nostalgia,” “a dream” to him as the years passed. In Monterey through the 30’s he wrote almost yearly some of his most significant works: The Pastures of Heaven (’32), The Red Pony (’33), To a God Unknown (’33), Tortilla Flat (’35), In Dubious Battle (’36), Of Mice and Men (’37), The Long Valley (’38), The Grapes of Wrath (’39).
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All of chapter one was a Biography of Lee Chong the grocer, being the most important person in town who deserved a biography. “The top of the glass was his desk. His fat delicate hands rested on the glass, the fingers moving like small restless sausages. A broad golden wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand was his only jewelry and with it he silently tapped on the rubber change mat from which the little rubber tits had long been worn. Lee’s mouth was full and benevolent and the flash of gold when he smiled was rich and warm. He wore half-glasses and since he looked at everything through them, he had to tilt his head back to see in the distance. Interest and discounts, addition, subtraction he worked out on the abacus with his little restless sausage fingers, and his brown friendly eyes roved over the grocery and his teeth flashed at the customers.” (6) Lee’s grocery store was the mainstay of the town; it offered not just food but was a general store jammed with staples to which everyone came.
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Chapter two was a study in Symbolism, describing the essence of the men out of work in the Depression who clung together for some kind of security. “Mack and the boys, too, spinning in their orbits. They are the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey and the cosmic Monterey where men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them. Mack and the boys are the Beauties, the Virtues, The Graces. In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row.” (15)
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Chapter three is a Mystery story. William was a watchman in the town but strangely the type of person no one liked. Very depressed, William moped about spewing his feelings. He told a cook, Lou the Greek, that he felt like killing himself.  Tired of hearing his bellyaching Lou offered him an ice pick and dared him to do it: “William’s hand went out for the ice pick and he held it easily in his hand. His eyes looked deeply into the Greek’s dark eyes and he saw disbelief and amusement and then as he stared the Greek’s eyes grew troubled and then worried. And William saw the change, saw first how the Greek knew he could do it and then the Greek knew he would do it.  As soon as he saw that in the Greek’s eyes William knew he had to do it. He was sad because now it seemed silly.  His hand rose and the ice pick snapped into his heart.” (21) Could this really happen? Why did he do it? Is there a point where one does not turn back?
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Surrealism has been used in prose, poetry and even painting. In chapter four a boy named Andy has made fun of a mysterious Chinese man: “What happened then Andy was never able either to explain or to forget. For the eyes spread out until there was no Chinaman. And then it was one eye—one huge brown eye as big as a church door. Andy looked through the shiny transparent brown door and through it he saw a lonely countryside, flat for miles but ending against a row of fantastic mountains shaped like cows’ and dogs’ heads and tents and mushrooms. There was low coarse grass on the plain and here and there a little mound.  And a small animal like a woodchuck sat on each mound. And the loneliness—the desolate cold aloneness of the landscape made Andy whimper because there wasn’t anybody at all in the world and he was left.” (24) This is like a Salvador Dali , Giorgio de Chirico,  or  twentieth century Francis Bacon painting come to life.
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Steinbeck can smoothly transition from the macabre to Romance as in chapter eight the story of people living in Monterey evolves:
         “’ I like things nice,’ said Mrs. Malloy. ‘I always did like to have things nice for you,’ and her lower lip began to tremble.
          ‘But, darling,’ Sam Malloy cried, ‘I got nothing against curtains. I like curtains.’
          ‘Only $1.98,’ Mrs. Malloy quavered, ‘and you begrutch me $1.98,’ and she sniffed and her chest heaved.
          ‘I don’t begrutch you,’ said Mr. Malloy. ‘But, darling—for Christ’s sake what are we going to do with curtains. We got no windows.’
          Mrs. Malloy cried and cried and Sam held her in his arms and comforted her.
          ‘Men just don’t understand how a woman feels,’ she sobbed. ‘Men just never try to put themselves in a woman’s place.’
          And Sam lay beside her and rubbed her back for a long time before she went to sleep.” (49) Often Steinbeck’s writing consists of passages very close to dialogue in a play.
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Josh Billings was an American author of comedy next only to Mark Twain in the nineteenth century. In chapter twelve Steinbeck outdoes Billings by putting him—at least part of him—into a Tall Tale:
          “’ Did you embalm Josh Billings?’
          ‘Why—yes.’
          ‘What did you do with his tripes?’
          ‘Why—I threw them in the gulch where I always do.’
          They made him dress quickly then and they hurried down to the beach. If the little boy had gone quickly about his business, it would have been too late. He was just getting into a boat when the committee arrived. The intestine was in the sand where the dog had abandoned it.
         Then the French doctor was made to collect the parts. He was forced to wash them reverently and pick out as much sand as possible. The doctor himself had to stand the expense of the leaden box which went into the coffin of Josh Billings. For Monterey was not a town to let dishonor come to a literary man.” (73) Notice the humorous understatement that goes with a Tall Tale.
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Farce stretches a situation to the extreme mostly through exaggerating the actions of humans—and in this case also amphibians—in the frog-catching scene from chapter 15: “Every frog leaped, plopped into the pool, and swam frantically to the bottom. Then into the pool plunged the line of men, stamping, churning, moving in a crazy line up the pool, flinging their feet about.  Hysterically the frogs displaced from their placid spots swam ahead of the crazy thrashing feet and the feet came on. Frogs are good swimmers but they haven’t much endurance. Down the pool they went until finally they were bunched and crowded against the end. And the feet and wildly plunging bodies followed them. A few frogs lost their heads and floundered among the feet and got through and these were saved. But the majority decided to leave their pool forever, to find a new home in a new country where this kind of thing didn’t happen. A wave of frantic, frustrated frogs, big ones, little ones, brown ones, green ones, men frogs and women frogs, a wave of them broke over the bank, crawled, leaped, scrambled. They clambered up the grass, they clutched at each other, little ones rode on big ones. And then—horror on horror—the flashlights found them. Two men gathered them like berries.” (94)
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Melodrama is a counterpoint of black and white values: evil is underscored while good is idealized. In chapter sixteen a house of prostitution reveals its “heart of gold” during an influenza epidemic: “And the girls did their work and then took their pots of soup and went to sit with the Ramseys, with the McCarthys, with the Ferrias. The girls slipped out the back door, and sometimes staying with the sleeping children the girls dropped to sleep in their chairs. They didn’t use makeup for work any more. They didn’t have to. Dora herself said she could have used the total membership of the old ladies’ home.  It was the busiest time the girls at the Bear Flag could remember. Everyone was glad when it was over.” (99)
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On a trip Doc headed from Monterey to southern California. Chapter seventeen is a miniaturized example of the Picaresque in which the hero has many varied adventures, in this case eating: “Doc didn’t stop in Salinas for a hamburger. But he stopped in Gonzales, in King City, and in Paso Robles. He had a hamburger and beer at Santa Maria—two in Santa Maria because it was a long pull from there to Santa Barbara. In Santa Barbara he had soup, lettuce and string bean salad, pot roast and mashed potatoes, pineapple pie and blue cheese and coffee, and after that he filled the gas tank and went to the toilet. While the service station checked his oil and tires, Doc washed his face and combed his beard and when he came back to the car a number of potential hitchhikers were waiting.” (104)
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In chapter eighteen Doc encounters by the ocean a corpse, which transforms this chapter into a story of the Supernatural: “Between two weeded rocks on the barrier Doc saw a flash of white under water and then the floating weed covered it. He climbed to the place over the slippery rocks, held himself firmly, and gently reached down and parted the brown algae. Then he grew rigid. A girl’ s face looked up at him, a pretty, pale girl with dark hair. The eyes were open and clear and the face was firm and the hair washed gently above her head. The body was out of sight, caught in the crevice. The lips were slightly parted and the teeth showed and on the face was only comfort and rest. Just under water it was and the clear water made it very beautiful. It seemed to Doc that he looked at it for many minutes, and the face burned into his picture memory.” (109)
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Theater of the Absurd usually takes place on stage. However, this excerpt from chapter nineteen is a dialogue that could easily comprise part of an acted scene:
          “Dimly on top of the high mast he could see the lonely figure of the skater. He took another drink. He cupped his hand and called huskily, ‘Hey!’ There was no answer. ‘Hey!’ he called louder and looked around to see if the cops had come out of their place beside the bank.
          Down from the sky came a surly reply: ‘What do you want?’
          Richard cupped his hands again. ‘How—how do you—go to the toilet?’
          ‘I’ve got a can up here,’ said the voice.
          Richard turned and walked back the way he had come.” (115)
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Steinbeck sustains this light-hearted tone in the following chapter twenty which we can only call Slapstick: “The noise could be heard from the boat works to La Ida. A group of customers from the Bear Flag mistook Western Biological for a rival house and charged up the stairs whooping with joy. They were evicted by the outraged hosts but only after a long, happy, and bloody battle that took out the front door and broke two windows. The crashing of jars was unpleasant. Hazel going through the kitchen to the toilet tipped the frying pan of hot grease on himself and the floor and was badly burned.
          At one-thirty a drunk wandered in and passed a remark which was considered insulting to Doc. Mack hit him a clip which is still remembered and discussed.” (125) Considering that the plot of Cannery Row is basically planning a surprise party for Doc, this burlesque chapter is the climax of the novel.
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Steinbeck’s range is very broad. The Realism of works from Of Mice and Men to The Grapes of Wrath is hard-hitting. In Cannery Row he can match that style as well. From chapter twenty-one: “’ She got out of hand,’ said Mack . ‘It don’t do no good to say I’m sorry. I been sorry all my life. This ain’t no new thing. It’s always like this.’ He swallowed deeply from his glass. ‘I had a wife,’ Mack said. ‘Same thing. Ever’thing I done turned sour. She couldn’t stand it any more. If I done a good thing it got poisoned up some way. If I give her a present, they was something wrong with it. She only got hurt from me. She couldn’t stand it no more.  Same thing ever’ place ‘til I just got to clowning. I don’t do nothin’ but clown no more. Try to make the boys laugh.’” (131) Notice the realistic speech patterns: repetition, fragments, incorrect usage; but sincere emotion permeates the speech.
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We will conclude our discussion by using another technique that not only Chaucer but also Aesop and others have used, the Beast Fable. In chapter 31: “But as time went on the gopher began to be a little impatient, for no female appeared. He sat in the entrance of his hole in the morning and made penetrating squeaks that are inaudible to the human ear but can be heard deep in the earth by other gophers. And still no female appeared. Finally in a sweat of impatience he went up across the track until he found another gopher hole. He squeaked provocatively in the entrance.  He heard a rustling and smelled female and then out of the hole came an old battle-torn bull gopher who mauled and bit him so badly that he crept home and lay in his great chamber for three days recovering and he lost two toes from one front paw from the fight.” (192)
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I could offer further examples of genres used: Naturalism, Tragedy, Scientific writing, Cataloguing, et al.  John Steinbeck must have had much enjoyment employing these various techniques; and yet, they all contributed to the richness of Cannery Row. We could argue that Steinbeck’s best known books are focused on a realistic attitude toward life. However, throughout his career he was always experimenting with topics and literary approaches. From his writing of both short and long fiction, drama and non-fiction, Steinbeck went on to write a diary of his European travels after World War II in A Russian Journal (1948) and a memoir Travels with Charley (1962) which probably confirmed for him the Nobel Prize which he received just a few months after the book’s publication. Even at the time of his death in 1968, he was reentering the medieval world, always curious, always exploring.
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You can find the book here:

https://www.amazon.com/Cannery-Row-Centennial-John-Steinbeck/dp/014200068X/ref=la_B000AQ2D1I_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1478913825&sr=1-7

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

Amber Necklace from Gdańsk

 

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Reviewed by: Diane Sahms-Guarnieri
 
 
Linda Nemec Foster reiterates this real and imagined theme of yearning and self-discovery throughout the four sections of Amber Necklace from Gdańsk.
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In poem after poem of sculptured landscapes of Old World and New, of Poland (before WW I) to USA of today, Linda Nemec Foster yearns for wholeness, yet knows that this severance of self the “she” (“the other self”) from the Old World will be never be found “in the New,” as in the appropriately titled poem, “Doppelgänger” she writes:
                            …A mere roll of the dice that I’m here
                            and she somewhere else
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                            …because a simple act of birth that place me
                            in suburbs south of Cleveland and
                            not in a town across the river from Oświęcim
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The last line of the poem puts the reader at a screeching, yet realistic halt:
                             …may we never recognize each other on street.
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 Is this an acceptance of harsh reality, of being born in Cleveland, Ohio “on the opposite side of the world” to first generation parents (whose grandparents left Poland) and the realism that she will never be able to experience or have lived the life of “the other self.”   I believe the last line of the poem is realistic; however, within every artist/poet there is imagination; there is the “what if” question; there is the wishful desire to have that which you know you can never really have.  As if, perchance, there could have been a meeting of the “other self,” that is if Fate could have allowed her to live a different life (she never knew), a life she could never truly know. Yet, the fact is she was destined to live here in Ohio, in the New.  It is this longing that exists – to have known a different life, to have been given an opportunity to be a different self “other self” in this opening poem that stays with the reader especially because of the powerfully ironic last line
                            …may we never recognize each other on street.
Can one re-unite the two? No, never, and if we could then would we be better off not knowing what life would have been like anyway.  A bit paradoxical? Absolutely!  The “longing” to be someone we could never be, yet at the same time thinking we should have at least had a “chance” at it. A choice, perhaps This is the unknown, the not knowing (that can never truly be satisfied); and that which a second generation girl/woman ponders, especially when one is blessed/cursed with a creativity poetic mind. A mind that questions.
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This is a book of interconnected narrative poems with an undertow of longing for a life we can never have. Therefore, the second poem, “Doppelgänger,” has set the stage for the remainder of the poems in this collection.  The fact is she was born here, but her love is reflected in poems about a family she knew and a family she will never really know.
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The poems roll into and out of each other with a constant pulling undertow of longing, which is never understated in her poems about people and places.  Each poem beautifully written, beautifully sad, hurts the reader deeply, because there’s a void which cannot be filled. Especially evident in the poem,
“The Immigrant’s Dream” where each of the three stanzas begin with “a recurrent dream” and ends with a woman’s voice whispering two very strong final words: “You’re home.”
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This wise archetypal dream woman trying to offer closure tells the immigrant “you’re home” to give the disconnected speaker peace, resolution.  Yet, there really is no peace, no closure for three generations of women, who must live without a sense of true peace; and it’s not just the woman speaker, who is displayed but it is her grandparents, parents, and her own son that carries the burden of loss. 
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This sense of loss, in more detail, is also relevant in the poem, “Young Boy in a Tenement House, Holding the Moon.”
                                He is anonymous as a fairy tale.
                             His bare feet could be my father’s
                             or perhaps my son’s…
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the speaker’s father and / or son’s feet, and as the poem continues it includes the boy’s mother –
                            his mother five flights up
                            keeping six kids at bay, waiting
                            for that basin of water…
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So it is at this turning point of generational weariness that a child sent for water for an awaiting mother and a large family of siblings that the poet allows the boy to express his inner feelings.  The boy in this poem uses his imagination to cope with the un-copeable and this is where Nemic Foster has the young boy’s basin become the moon.  The reader knows a round basin resembles a full moon, but what is so poetically crafted here is that the boy
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                            …smiles/ not for the camera, but to himself, as if he’s holding a captured moon
Here the “moon,” may appear subtle, but to Nemec Foster it not subtle at all, rather the skilled use and choice of the word “captured.” It is not used as a verb here, rather an adjective, and not a “capturing” moon,” but a “captured moon,” as if the child and his entire family residing in a tenement were in a “captured” state of existence, as new comers to a foreign land (America in lieu of Poland).  The moon is metaphorically alone in the darkness and “captured” (involuntarily) in a gravitational orbit.  Poland is now dead to him as the moon, as the “captured moon.”  Captured defined is “to take into one’s possession or control by force.”  Now, pushing the envelope further, the boy whispers to the moon,
                             and whispering to it, his breath
                             lost in its silver and dust:
                             księżyc, księżyc, latać,  latać, daleko.
 .
And before the translation, the poem is interrupted by an foreign language (Polish), not English, because the boy and his siblings, mother, and possibly his extended family (grandparents, great-grandparents) are all displaced in America, not only by their residence in a tenement house, but by language itself. Now, the last two translated lines in English, as the last to lines of this poem:
                             Moon, moon, fly away, fly away,
                             and please, take me with you.
Here, the child’s plea, “please take me with you” to my real home, because the moon can see all, Poland and America, and the child is homesick for something he cannot have.
 .
The aforementioned poems are in the very beginning of Section I – Conjuring Up the Landscape and in continuing in that section Nemec Foster writes poems about her father learning to count in English; immigrant child at school; “The Old Neighborhood”; her mother, “The Silent One,” etc.  and ends the section with the poem, “Sitting in America at the End of the Century” with these last very painful lines (both in Polish and English) addressing her grandparents (Maria and Tomasz, Zofia and Franciszek)in the poem’s last stanza:  
                             … A distant granddaughter surrounded by cars,
                            longing for a language that’s more akin to damp
                            earth than linguistics, stuttering in a tongue
                            so natural to them they know what she’s trying
                            to say, even before the halting words
                            leave her lips.  Bardzo mi przykro,
                             nie wiem. I am sorry, I know nothing.
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A real page turner, so captivating that you, the reader, become engrossed with each poem, as I have; but you must continue onward with a reverent, dirge-like pace through the remaining three sections, as they will hypnotize you as well.  She is allowing their voices and her voice to be heard, so you can learn of the honesty, integrity, and beauty of each lived life. These narrative-memoir poems tell the familial immigrant stories of her grandparents and parents and also Nemec Foster’s very own second-generation story of, mentally and physically, crossing the Atlantic from America to Poland and then back to America again.
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Since I have elaborated in Section I, I will try to consolidate the remaining three sections, and this is not to diminish those sections, no, not at all, but in order not to make this – a too long review. 
Section II – The Rivers of Past and Present;  Section III- Dark Amber of Regret; &  Section IV – To Smile at the Closed Mouth of Loss will keep the reader totally engaged.  I will pick one poem from each section to focus upon, as briefly as I can, in order to do justice to both poet and poem.
 .
Section II– The Rivers of Past and Present has four prose poems, with the exception of the poem, “The Two Rivers in My Story.” Once again these poems do not spare the reader their emotional empowerment, with an intense flow of prosaic images, narratives, and truths felt by a transplanted poet.  America’s Cuyahoga River aligns, yet conversely misaligns with Poland’s Vistula River – just as the past aligns, yet conversely misaligns to the present, at least in Nemec Foster’s telling of rivers and time in her prosaic poem, “The Women with the Two Rivers Growing from Her Hair” (wonderful title). Here, Nemec Foster recounts a “true” story told to her by her mother about her grandmother, Maria.
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                  …I know it’s true because my mother told me that her mother saw it with her own two  eyes.                  
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Interestingly enough, oral history imagined or true is prevalent among immigrant families and serves as a connective thread often linking one generation to the next, especially in this story of women.
 .
     Maria, my mother’s mother with green eyes who died long ago, whom I never knew, but could only imagine.
 .
Without giving the total story away here are some lines of her grandmother’s story told by Nemec Foster’s mother to her, whereby the flow of the women of her family and the flow of rivers align and misalign with each other.
 .
              One day she decided to leave her mother, her father, all her sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends and come to the New World and live in America.
 .
Her grandmother settled in Ohio in a boarding house near the Cuyahoga River and it took her weeks to pronounce the river’s name.
 .
She especially loved the sound of the city’s river, Cuyahoga, even though it took her many weeks before               she could even begin to pronounce it. …As if trying to will the river into her tiny bedroom on the third                    floor of Mrs. Okasinski’s boarding house.
 .
The grandmother’s dream of the Vistula River in Poland, where she turns into a mermaid.  A straight up metaphor, why, because oral tradition and the imagination usually go hand-in-hand.
 .
           She was a mermaid swimming in the deep, clear waters of her homeland, the Vistula River.  Her legs had              turned into one huge fin, her beautiful hair had become filmy seaweed.  Even her green eyes had turned                into the blue-white of mother-of-pearl.
 .
Nemec Foster hits the comparisons hard: Old World – Poland vs. New World – America; Vistula River vs. Cuyahoga River; the Past vs. the Present; and then with her brilliant choice of poetic language, the Simile
 – “like” for comparative purposes. 
 .
              The Vistula flowed around her like scattered diamonds.  For the first time since leaving  Poland, she felt homesick.  In the morning when she awoke, the rain was still falling, like  drops of a river from the sky.
 .
In finishing this comparative poem, there’s unification and /or a blending of the two separate entities into the one identity, separate but united in the poem’s summation:
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 Her long, golden hair had explicably transformed into the two rivers she loved so much:  blue Vistula of the fish-maid; green Cuyahoga of the exotic song. They flowed from her head like twin cascades of the past and present, the old and the new.
 .
And finally Nemec Foster’s heart wrenching metaphors provide hidden similarities between her grandmother and / or immigrant women and their descendants, directly and poetically equating them to river/water images:
 .
                 Some say the woman disappeared into the rivers that claimed her.  Some say she  walked into the rain and became the rain. And some refuse to believe that a woman’s hair can change into the waters of two rivers by mere act of a strange dream.  But then,  they don’t know the woman.
 .
Section III- Dark Amber of Regret succeeds II, but not with prosaic poems, rather 13 shorter poems. These poems – move the reader along the high wire of regret and longing, looking at each side Old – New, Poland – America, as if the speaker, a high wire walker were treading very carefully in a world where a fine wire-thin-line exists; and they must forever walk the path of an “examined” life with no real resolution, one always existing alongside the other.  This disconnection between two world’s trying to connect is stated in the first lines of the poem “Moje Rozwiane Włosy” where the East is separated from the West:
.
                            Beyond any control of the East /West border,
                            Oder/Neisse line, the arbitrary demarcations
                            of free market and fixed economy, my hair
Here the speaker, I, uses the image of her “hair” to connect her.
At the beginning of the poem:
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                             …my hair
                             my hair has become wild, electric halo that refuses…
and at the end of this poem:
                             …My hair, my wild hair,
                            wanting to be a braided rope that connects the two.
 .
The hair image of the “I” speaker resonates back to the grandmother, Maria, and her “long, golden” braided hair (Section II, above). The speaker (probably Nemec Foster, herself) using a very womanly image of her hair is trying to connect the disconnect.  Actually the braiding of three long individual strands (daughter, mother, grandmother) into one braid connects the three women together in their two distinct worlds.
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I would be remiss not to state that Section III’s poems are extremely musical as a whole.  Many stanzas like verses of songs binding many voices together, as if each poem the voice of an instrument, a symphony playing melodiously together. Lovely musical titles too, and poems enriched with naturalistic settings containing names and colors of flowers and trees, such as “Mazovian Willows – Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 9” (Chopin exiled from Poland); “Song of Sorrow – On Listening to Gorecki’s Third Symphony “ (written as a rhythmic Villanelle);  After the War: Purple Flowers Spilling from the Window;” etcetera.  There is one very daunting poem, “Chapel of Skulls – Czermna, Poland” that does not fit the uplifting musical category of many of the others in this section.  It is realistically and humanistically devastating, more funereal.  I believe this poem a silent reminder to Nemec Foster that despite her families disconnect from Poland, there would be nothing more terrible then for her family to have been in Poland during WW I and WW II.  Not just our own deaths, as the poem reminds us in America and Europe, but the reminder of the
                             …mass graves at Katyn
                             or the empty crematorium at Auschwitz
                             can prepare you for this.
 .
Nothing can ever really prepare you for “this” meaning death.
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Further, the last poem of Section III is the book’s title – “Amber Necklace from Gdańsk” and this poem echoes back to the braided hair, but this time three
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                             strands of the past braided around my neck.
                             White amber of memory, gold amber of song, dark amber of regret.
 .
So, three colors of amber as memory, song, and regret are braided appropriately, as title of this book of poems.
 .
Section IV – This last section moves through character and place poems, but the reader is struck by the last three lines of the last poem, “Dancing with my sister.”  Here the poet not only echoes back to this Section’s title – To Smile at the Closed Mouth of Loss –but concludes the book appropriately as follows:
                             We glow because we came from the same burnt-out dream
                             of second-generation immigrants and learned to smile
                             at the closed mouth of loss and dance, dance, dance.
 .
Linda Nemec Foster and her sister have truly learned to smile despite loss and the reader gallops along with Linda and her sister “to the Beer Barrel Polka” with “RESPECT” for the glowing women they have become in America.  In the second-generation immigrants’ fight for recognition, Linda Nemec Foster has won the braided Amber Necklace from Gdańsk glowing with three “tears (tiers) of the sun” around her neck.

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Diane Sahms-Guarnieri, a native Philadelphian, is the author of three full-length poetry collections: Images of Being (Stone Garden Publishing, 2011), Lights Battered Edge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2015), and Night Sweat (Red Dashboard Press, 2016) – available at Amazon. Her poems have appeared in a number of online and print publications.  Awarded a grant in poetry from the AEV Foundation in 2013, and named the winner of the Working People’s Poetry Competition, 2015, she has served as Poet in Residence at Ryerss Museum and Library and as Poetry Editor of the Fox Chase Review.

Visit her at http://www.dianesahms-guarnieri.com  and https://dianesahmsguarnieri.wordpress.com/

Gimme Five- Poems by Philip Dacey

Stephanie Dickinson advised us that the Poet Philip Dacey passed away on July 7th. You can learn more about the poet by visiting his website http://philipdacey.com/ In his memory we are posting 3 reviews of his books first published at The Fox Chase Review.

gimme-five

Review by g emil reutter 

Philip Dacey is a quiet and subtle poet. In his latest collection, Gimme Five, Dacey weaves images and words from his life and middle America throughout the collection. If there were a Poet Laureate for middle America, Philip Dacey would surely be at the top of the list. He is above all a realist whose poetry reflects who he is and where he came from coupled with a fine use of language.

Gimme Five, winner of the Blue Light Press Poetry Prize, gains its title from Dacey’s use of 5 stanzas of 5 lines each that he calls 5X5. The poems date from 1975 to the second decade of this new century. Dacey describes his use of this format as similar to a sculptor’s standard armature of which one can build up an unlimited variety of shapes and configurations.

For example, the poem Rosary, he describes the beads in the first and second stanzas as:

So many mad ants/ forming a loop, my childhood’s/black border/ This is all about the fingertips/how a god can be held thus.

No, a lariat to twirl/at a religious rodeo/lovers’ toy for trying wrists/found object d’art to drape/over Duchamps urinal.

Ending with:

The Crucifix at one end/is like a river’s source/to which the river returns/Hand-warmer in the casket/Girdle abandoned by the bride.

Dacey weaves images around an object in a refreshing, original manner.

Her Fingers, is a sweet and loving poem to his mother who was a secretary in the age of typewriters he ends with:

…I have my mother’s hands and fingers/ their dance on the top of letter/like a pair of tap-dancing feet/the bare ones on hot coals/getting everything said/before the soles burn up

In Homage to John Ashberry, Dacey hits stride in the middle of the poem:

Familiar words/strange now//with odd protuberances/and little dents/To take notice anew/is to remember the chainsaw-like

Danger of language. To build or destroy. Whose fingers that/ in the dirt? Lay your tongue lightly/ athwart the tasty metal of syllables/lest in the cold your skin stick. 

You can get the book here: http://www.amazon.com/GIMME-FIVE-Philip-Dacey/dp/1421886618/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1366282154&sr=1-3&keywords=philip+dacey

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

 

 

Strike Sparks – Selected Poems, 1980-2002 by Sharon Olds

stirke

Paperback: 208 pages

Publisher: Knopf (September 28, 2004)

Review by Diane Sahms-Guarnieri 

If Plath and Sexton were the roots and trunk of Confessionalism, then Olds would be the branches and the fingertips of those branches always reaching for a better understanding of self and others, including lovers, friends, teachers, children, father and mother, in an unyielding and unforgiving universe.  Olds, unlike Plath and Sexton, loves her husband in an intimate and refreshingly poetic way.  In her poem, “The Wedding Vow,” Olds writes of love with a spirit of equality.

Though not very musical, she unshamefully tells it all, as if her readers were her best friends.  There is no distance she will detour or barriers she’ll hide behind.  Sometimes it’s TMI (Too Much Information) by the all powerful “I,” who never comes up short.  She will not shy away from expletives and takes full liberty at self-expression (like it or not).  Courageous and comfortable she writes freely as one who would have sex with a stranger at Woodstock (or would she?).  One of her poems is not truthful.  In the poem, “The Window” Sharon’s daughter is upset with her for writing that she’s Jewish, when in fact, she is not. All in all, poem after poem will keep you turning the pages, as if you were allowed to read someone’s diary, namely Sharon Olds’s diary.

You can find Strike Sparks – Selected Poems, 1980-2002 by Sharon Olds at Amazon at this link: Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002

 

Diane Sahms-Guarnieri, a native Philadelphian, is the author of three full-length poetry collections.More about Diane can be found athttp://www.dianesahms-guarnieri.com/ &https://dianesahmsguarnieri.wordpress.com/