Monday, May 30, 2016

Swan: Poems and Prose Poems by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver has published about twenty books of poetry.  Each time I came across one, my admiration for her work grows.  The latest in my collection is Swan: Poems and Prose Poems.  As is true with most of her work, she spends a great deal of time thinking about and observing nature.  She has won the national Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.  The New York Times proclaimed her “far and away, this country’s best selling poet.  Mary spends her time between Provincetown, Massachusetts and Hobe Sound, Florida.

As is the case with every collection of hers I have read, picking examples is never easy.  Here is one about her beloved pet, Percy, titled “Percy Wakes Me (Fourteen)”: “Percy wakes me and I am not ready. / He has slept all night under the covers. / Now he’s eager for action: a walk, then breakfast. / So I hasten up.  He is sitting on the kitchen counter / where he is not supposed to be. / How wonderful you are, I say.  How clever if you / needed me, / to wake me. / He thought he would hear a lecture and deeply / his eyes began to shine. / He tumbles onto the couch for more compliments. / He squirms and squeals; he has done something / that he needed / and now he hears that it is okay. / I scratch his ears, I turn him over / and touch him everywhere.  He is / wild with the okayness of it.  Then we walk, then / he has breakfast, and he is happy. / This is a poem about Percy. / This is a poem about more than Percy. / Think about it” (13).  To me, the sign of a true pet lover is talking to the pets.  Guilty!

 Another interesting poem is about a teacher.  Oliver writes in “The Poet Dreamed of the Classroom”: I dreamed / I stood up in class / and I said aloud: // Teacher, / why is algebra important? // Sit down, he said. // Then I dreamed / I stood up / and I said: // Teacher, I’m weary of the turkeys / that we have to draw every fall. / May I draw a fox instead? // Sit down, he said. // Then I dreamed / I stood up once more and said: // Teacher, / my heart is falling asleep / and it wants to wake up. / It needs to be outside. // Sit down, he said” (21).  Reminds me a little of my days in elementary school, except I wanted to read.

Here are a couple of short poems.  The first is “Wind in the Pines”: “Is it true that the wind / streaming especially in fall / through the pines / is saying nothing, nothing at all, // or is it just that I don’t yet know the language?” (28).  I have spent many days wandering through stands of oak, pine, hemlock, and Douglas firs, I always imagined different sounds for the wind.  I don’t think it was the trees, it was all in my mind.  And finally, “How Perfectly” calls to mind our own rose garden, which bloomed wonderfully this spring.  “How perfectly / and neatly / opens the pink rose // this bright morning, / the sun warm / on my shoulders, // its heat / on the opening petals. / Possibly // it is the smallest, / the least important event / at this moment // in the whole world. / Yet I stand there, / utterly happy” (4). 

Mary Oliver is a splendid poet with her short, “skinny,” Zen-like poems.  I believe we are poetry soul mates!  5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/29/16

Five Points by Rocco Dormarunno

Anyone who recalls the 2002 Martin Scorses’s film, Gangs of New York or the BBC miniseries, Copper, about Irish immigrants to New York following the end of the Civil War, might enjoy the third piece of this puzzle.  New York was a near lawless and deadly place to live.  Corruption was rampant, with Boss Tweed running the city.  Police chased bank robbers and shot them dead.  They then confiscated the stolen money, destroyed the bodies, and distributed the cash.  The press said the criminals had escaped with all the money. 

A selection for my Book Club this year, Rocco Dormarunno’s short novel, The Five Points, will round out the story.  I was a bit suspicious about the book at first – it was self-published – but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality.  It was well-edited, and I saw only one glaring error.  Book One is titled “The Tramp: 1860,” while Book Two has the same date.  However, the first pages reveal the time is actually 1867.

Rocco describes the arrival of a stranger in New York.  he writes, “He jumped down from the train as it slowed into its final turn.  After regaining his composure, he gripped tightly the handle of his suitcase and hobbled east along 47th Street.  It was just after midnight, he judged, because he had stepped onto the train almost an hour earlier in Dobbs Ferry.  The grandfather clock in the house that he’d been in told him it was 10:55 when he left. […] // His name was Martine DelaCroix, a forty-two year old Canadian roamer.  He was wanted by the law on two charges of burglary in Toronto in 1855.  He was wanted on one charge of burglary and one charge of aggravated assault in Buffalo in 1856.  There was a warrant for his arrest in connection with a robbery and homicide in Oneonta in 1858.  In 1859, he was wanted on three charges of assault and battery and two charges of armed robbery in Wappinger Falls, and was wanted for questioning in connection with the murder of a school teacher in Suffern.  By the next morning, he would be wanted for the murders of a young widow and her two sons who had lived in the house in Dobbs Ferry” (1-2).  Nice guy.  Just what the city needed  He quickly sought out some of the more corrupt people in the city, and was hired as muscle for a storekeeper who used his business to traffic in stolen goods.

The novel does have some dark humor.  A pair of con artists ply their trade with a series of stings that seem improbable; however, they worked nearly every time.  Dormarunno also sketches the women and their difficulty surviving in the city.  One place mentioned several times was “The Suicide Hall,” where desperate women went to end their miserable lives.

Corruption is nothing new these days, and I would venture a guess that it is as bad – if not worse – today.  Martine heard all the rumors of New York, and he left a trail of victims from Toronto on his way to New York to continue his criminal endeavors in what he saw as the best place to hide and act as he would.  He ends up killing a prominent citizen and his family before robbing them, and this became too much for even the most corrupt individuals.  An exciting story about our past, might induce some to take a closer look at the state of our country today.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/21/16

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

Philip Roth wrote that “The great Edna O’Brien has written her masterpiece.”  As an admirer of Roth, I take his opinion as of high value.  O’Brien is a recent discovery for me, and her first, and most well-known novel The Country Girls, set me on a path to making her one of my favorites.  Her latest novel, The Little Red Chairs, tells the story of the genocide which occurred following the breakup of Yugoslavia, which came into existence in the aftermath of World War I.  It was invaded by the Axis powers in 1941.  The monarchy was abolished in 1945.  The country was broken up into 6 independent provinces, but old wounds were re-opened, and eventually a war broke out with one side utilizing ethnic cleansing on Muslim enemies.  In 1998 a siege of 1,425 days of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces began.  On the twentieth anniversary of the siege, 11, 541 red chairs were laid out in rows on the high street.  Each chair represented a Sarajevan killed.  Six Hundred and forty three small chairs represented children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired on the city.  O’Brien’s novel, The Little Red Chairs, details the lives of individuals who escaped the bombardment, and one war criminal who left the city in secrecy and traveled to Ireland to avoid prosecution.

O’Brien begins her novel in a sweet, simple, and pleasing way. but one day, a mysterious stranger appeared.  She writes of, “the visitor’s card, with the name Dr. Vladimir Dragan, in black lettering, plus a host of degrees after it.  Further down, [it] read Healer and Sex Therapist” (9).  At first the townspeople were suspicious, but after a few women found relief for arthritis and other ailments of age, he became an accepted member of the community.  Finally, his true identity is revealed, and Dragan is arrested.

Part Two of the novel deals with the trial and the suffering recounted under Dragan.  Although his real identity was never revealed, many victims of his regime came forward to testify.  The actual man arrested and tried was Radovan Karadžić, and he fits many of the descriptions of Dragan.  I could not find any evidence that Karadžić ever visited Ireland.  Part Three actually details the trial at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.  When the prisoner is brought into the courtroom to confront the accused, O’Brien Writes, “When Vlad entered the trial chamber, she shook uncontrollably, as if he was someone come back from the dead.  Inconceivable that he was still alive, or had not descended into madness or infirmity.  But there he was, in a smart suit, a nondescript tie, courteous, disarming, still in possession of those insatiate powers that made him so feared.  His guard stood stock still behind him, girt around his waist a belt with a set of keys and a revolver and he seemed curiously roused as he gazed about.  From the corner of her eye, Fidelma saw how the four women seized the moment.  It was as if a sudden energy possessed them, an urgency, as they stared unequivocally into that trial chamber, making their abhorrence known.  He did not look out at the court and as he sat, one of his team, a young woman, crossed and whispered something to him, to which he gave a slight, affirmative smile” (259).


While part one did have an air of suspense, it did not compare to the horror stories some of the victims described in the final chapter.  As we must never forget the perpetrators of Holocaust, slavery, and all instances of genocide, we must add the “Beast of Bosnia” to the list.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/19/16

God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction by Dan Barker

Although most books like Dan Barker’s God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction are almost exclusively read by skeptics, agnostics, and atheists, it most certainly should be read by believers.  An interesting forward by Richard Dawkins connects this book with Dawkins’ best seller, The God Delusion, and Barker begins his introduction with a quote from Chapter Two of God Delusion, “The God of the old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capricious malevolent bully” (1). 

Strident yes, but Barker then breaks down each of these charges with extensive quotes from the Bible.  Every rational, literate, and open-minded person – regardless of beliefs – should exam this collection and think about what they truly know as completely separate from what one believes.  Belief should be a personal and private set of vies of life, death, and everything we experience in between.  Knowledge is entirely another matter.  If you can read this and come away with your belief system intact, fine.  If you reject all of Barker and Dawson, also fine, but perhaps you might learn one lesson and that I take from Matthew 6:5-6, “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.  Verily, I say unto you, They have their reward (5).  “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward they openly” (6).  Amen.

--Chiron, 5/10/16

Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo

I first discovered Roland Merullo after reading Breakfast with Buddha.  He has now published two sequels.  Lunch with Buddha continues the story of the relationship between Otto Ringling and his sister Cecelia, who has now married Volya Rinpoche.  They have a daughter, Shelsa.  In Breakfast, Cecelia urges Otto to allow the Rinpoche to ride with him to North Dakota to settle the estate of his parents killed in an automobile collision with an intoxicated driver.  Otto is a skeptic of the first order, and is suspicious of Volya’s intentions toward his sister.  However, Otto begins to understand them during that trip. 

In Lunch with Buddha, the family gathers in Seattle to scatter the ashes of Otto’s recently deceased wife, Jeannie.  Many parts of this novel deal with Otto’s handling his grief.  On the return trip, Otto and Volya take delivery of a used truck, which an admirer has donated to Volya for use at his retreat house in North Dakota.  Cececlia convinced Otto to donate the farm in North Dakota to Volya. 

On the drive from Washington State to North Dakota, Otto and Volya meet a wide variety of characters, from seers and fortune tellers, to oil field workers, to bigots, who assume Otto and Volya are some sort of couple.  Otto has begun a three-quarters-hearted attempt at meditation, and is much more open to Volya’s teachings, despite the fact he fails to understand some aspects of his philosophy.

At one point, Volya compliments Otto on his parenting.  Volya says, “‘All the goodness has power with it, see?’ // ‘No.’ [Otto says.] // He threw back his head like a man laughing, but he didn’t laugh.  There was a small smile there, a wrinkle of a smile, almost a wince.  ‘Walk now,’ he said, ‘with me.’ // In his tone, in the suggestion, I recognized the start of one of what I thought of as his ‘mini-lessons.’  And I wanted a mini-lesson then.  More than anything I wanted some new word, some serving of wisdom to change the way the world seemed to me at that moment.  If it really were true that Shelsa was in danger, or would be down the road – and I wasn’t completely convinced -- then it was just more evidence of the unfairness of this life.  A good woman, a mother, dying at age forty-eight.  An innocent girl, hated by ‘bad men.’ Crucifixions, assassinations, bigotry in a thousand reptilian forms.  Why didn’t good prevail?  Why, if a person did, indeed, accumulate some power from being a good father, a good soul, or a great teacher, why didn’t that protect him or her from the hatred that grew everywhere on this planet like weeds in a hot lake?” (110-111).  Ah, yes, the problem of evil.  The insoluble mystery which has haunted Homo Sapiens for hundreds of millennia.  

I have taken many long trips, and experienced some of the same wonder at the beauty of our country – the land, the mountains, the lakes, and the landscape.  Otto and I share such an experience.  Merullo writes, “what often happens when I’ve made a long drive into the later hours is that my body cranks itself to stay awake, and then needs some cranking-down time.  There was a bar at the Bighorn, a modest little place with sports on the raised TV and a small selection of local beers.  I decided I’d have one solitary Moose Drool, watch fifteen minutes of the Olympics, and head upstairs to the room” (241).  Otto is approached by a woman, and they begin a conversation.  She invites him to her home, and he declines.  He reviews this incident a couple of times in the novel, and I found his penchant for introspection highly interesting.

Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo is a thought-provoking, insightful, wonderful examination of the journey we are all on.  The third volume in this series, Dinner with Buddha is near the top of my TBR pile.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/28/16