Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Tag: Books

WITH AND WITHOUT OUR MASKS

Behind the masks of public life – our occupations, religious affiliations, social status, economic positions, family connections, educational accomplishments, and so on – each of us engages in another struggle, an attempt to find inner balance and direction for our own life. As we do so, we soon face a plethora of interior and exterior forces that must be reconciled. We get glimmers into this struggle – both within ourselves and within others – in statements that begin “I am” and “I am not,” as well as “I have been,” which recognizes the history and habits we accumulate and carry with us. There are also the voices – “he remembers” or “she insists” – that also recur in our lives, defining and redefining ourselves both within, as conscience or the angel or devil on our shoulders, and without, as any of a host of authority figures and friends or family members.

~*~

Village of Gargoyles

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

ALONG WITH A BREAKTHROUGH, FREE TO PLAY AND TINKER

Somewhere in writing poetry I turned to the concept of “working in series.” Quite simply, this meant investigating a subject repeatedly, often in a similar form. The process allowed multiple takes from different angles and in different lighting, as it were. In music, it could be seen as a theme and variations.

As I recall, the practice for me originated with Braided Double-Cross, itself inspired by The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan, and quickly led to Blue Rock and Long Stemmed Roses in a Shattered Mirror, each with its unique structure and inspiration. (Anne Waldman, for the former; Diane Wakoski, the latter.)

Village of Gargoyles is the latest, often with a specific structure for each of the 10 sections. Some forms run longer than others, which introduces variety. And within each, I’m free to play and tinker.

Admittedly, the 200 poems of my Village fall short of John Berryman’s colossal Dream Songs, but it’s still a prolific output.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

 

LOOKING FOR AN IDENTITY

How truly does anyone know himself or herself, much less others, in the end? The poems in Village of Gargoyles spring from experiments in self-identification that spread into human interactions.

While many of the individuals within this collection are identified by occupation, their confessions typically reflect the more intimate concerns of their lives – relationships, activities, even the weather. These are, then, overheard snippets more than public proclamations.

What began as an exercise in self-definition breaks out nonetheless into an entire spectrum of personalities. Do we know any of these people? Or are they somehow eluding us, masked by the bits that are revealed? Those we recognize, moreover, happen by accident – none of these are portraits of actual people, as the disclaimer would go, but rather the inventions of the poet’s imagination and craft.

Chaucer had his pilgrims. I have my village.

Like an actor, you’re invited to slip into each of these 200-plus characters.

Tell me. What makes a community?

~*~

Village of Gargoyles

To see the full collection, simply click here.

ALL FROM ONE WHITNEY ANCESTOR

With my interest in subterranean transit systems – remember my novel Subway Hitchhikers? – I found myself fascinated with Doug Most’s The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subways.

His 2014 book is an ambitious project, filled with some detailed but rambling asides as well as more than a few slips I wouldn’t expect from a Boston Globe managing editor. (I doubt the family ever settled into a 16-acre farmhouse, and I know that Springfield is more than an hour from Boston today while in the period he referenced the trip would have taken days. Etc.) But his description of the technological developments, urban congestion, corrupt politics, personal financial empires, and similar forces that led to the creation of what we take for granted in our largest and greatest cities can be a gripping tale.

Equally fascinating for me, though, has been a connection that emerges out of Watertown, a Boston suburb just west of Cambridge. Crucial to Most’s story is John Whitney, a 1635 arrival to the town, which was at one time the second largest settlement in Massachusetts. Two of his descendants, brothers born further west in the state, provide the “incredible rivalry” in Most’s history, but it’s the original Whitney I find suggesting yet another ambitious history. He’s the root of a most remarkable American family.

The Methodist church where my choir rehearses weekly in Watertown was founded by Whitneys, and when the current building was erected in 1895, no expense was spared. There are impressive touches. And when one of the boys from this line moved to Detroit, he became that city’s wealthiest resident by age 28.

The deep pockets that shaped the space we sing in came from the inventor of the paper bag, it turns out – and, more important, the inventor of the machine to make it.

He’s far from being the only significant inventor or investor in the family. Eli Whitney, for one, created the cotton gin that allowed slavery-based plantations to flourish in the American South.

I get the sense that the list of inventions and inventors is a long one.

More recently, the investor John Hay Whitney owned the New York Herald-Tribune in a period when it evolved into my favorite newspaper ever, even if it was the paper’s final five years. (He also owned the Sunday newspaper supplement Parade magazine.)

Don’t overlook the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, another family legacy, or Joan Whitney Payson, an acclaimed collector who left the Portland, Maine, art museum rather than New York’s MOMA a marvelous trove of Impressionist paintings, a move that shocked much of the art world but, well, we live only an hour from Portland – we celebrate her independence.

Come to think of it, there’s one twist of note here. Watertown is still not served by a subway.

OUT IN THE STICKS AND STONES

Reflecting on the locations of my novels reminds me of the out-of-the-way places I’ve lived. Apart from Baltimore (which shows up in my poetry but none of my fiction), I landed in generally obscure locales.

Fiction, of course, lends itself to abstraction and generalization, and sometimes to a blending of several particular models.

Thus, Prairie Depot in Promise as well as Peel (as in apple) and With a Passing Freight Train of 119 Cars and Twin Cabooses reflects any number of farm centers across the Midwest, not all of them county seats, either. They’re once-thriving communities that have been left behind in the shift to the big cities and global economics. Sometimes there’s a factory or two, plus the rail yards and crossings.

The countryside around the campus in Daffodil Sunrise is more rolling and wooded, a landscape that also appears in sections of Promise, St. Helens in the Mix, and my newest novel-in-the-works. Actually, it’s not that different from the rural places in Ashram, Hippie Drum, and Hippie Love, either. While these, too, are economically and politically bypassed, they are more scenic and present more recreational opportunities to explore.

Rehoboth in Hometown News represents the industrial cities hard-hit by globalization and the loss of unionized labor job – places aptly described as the Rust Belt, from Upstate New York and Pennsylvania westward across the Mississippi.

Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider takes place in yrUBbury, a derelict but sufficiently remote mill town somewhere in the Northeast.

Naturally, Subway Hitchhikers and Third Rail run through the big city.

And the desert interior of the Pacific Northwest is the culmination of Promise, Peel (as in apple), St. Helens in the Mix, and Kokopelli’s Hornpipe. It’s a landscape I initially found alien but eventually came to love.

Essentially, I’ve regarded these places as characters in my fiction – as much as the people who move through them.

Popular culture takes place largely in Manhattan, Hollywood, London, Paris, Chicago, or Nashville – with dashes of San Francisco, Seattle, or other trendy backdrops thrown in. I believe the communities where we live influences our outlooks and actions. I want to hear much more from the other places, ones as overlooked as the ones I explore.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE BLACK SPREAD EAGLE ON LUDGATE HILL

Sometimes in exploring a niche of history, you come across an unexpected incidental detail that significantly alters your previous perception. For example, many of the earliest Quaker tracts and books bear the imprint of Giles Calvert, a publisher and bookseller at the Black Spread Eagle on Ludgate Hill near St. Paul Cathedral in London.

So extensive is his Quaker role that I’d assumed Calvert (1612-1663) was a member of the Society of Friends. For one thing, he was the elder brother of Martha Simmonds, an early Quaker convert and a central character in the notorious Bristol Controversy of 1656 that led to the blasphemy trial and conviction in Parliament of a leading Friends’ minister, James Nayler. The connection intensifies when you discover that two years earlier she had joined with Friends and the next year married Thomas Simmonds, who (according to one account) took over the shop from Calvert, by then the leading publisher of Quaker literature. And Martha Simmonds (1624-1665) was hardly shy about public protest and witness on behalf of her faith. She’s a controversial figure in her own right as she challenged much of the male leadership of the emerging Quaker movement.

One earlier connection I’d come across was Calvert’s role as publisher of Gerrard Winstanley’s True Leveller (or Digger) writings from 1648 to 1652, the year the Quaker works begin appearing. Winstanley was a radical religious and political thinker and leader, one who later had an influential role among Friends even if he drifted away for a while – his life leaves many questions and holes for the curious.

Still, it’s enough to strengthen Calvert’s position as a Quaker vanguard.

In my recent reading of Douglas Gwyn’s Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience (Pendle Hill Books, 2000), a broader portrait emerges.

Gwyn makes a critical connection that begins with Parliament’s attempt to impose Presbyterianism on the Church of England. “One factor that doomed the project to failure was the suspension of censorship of the press,” itself a parallel to the suspension of mandatory church attendance amid the waves of civil war. “Religious ideas that before 1642 had circulated only below the surface, if at all, now reeled off presses in exponentially expanding numbers. Propaganda pieces, ranging from one-sheet ‘broadsides’ to tomes hundreds of pages long were printed and sold at low cost.”

This had my mind leaping backward to the sense that many underground religious and spiritual streams had somehow survived in Britain for centuries, in part because of valiant efforts that kept the Roman Catholic Inquisition at bay. Queen Mother Joan of Kent’s influence at the trial of John Wycliffe and the Lollards in 1378 remains a pivotal moment in the history of freedom of religion. We were a long way from tolerance, but it was far superior to the terrors of the papal machine.

Gwyn, though, introduces Calvert at this later point beginning in 1642, “One of the most notorious publishers of dissenting literature … among the first publishers in England who was not also a printer.” (That, in itself, is a fascinating detail. I had assumed he handset the type himself, placed the paper and ink of the flat press, and collated and bound the pages. Instead, he served as a go-between.) “Over the course of his career,” which began in 1643, “he published more than 600 of the most radical tracts and books written in England during that period. … Calvert was questioned, fined, and imprisoned briefly on various occasions for his publishing activities, but he was never really silenced. Once the door was opened for a free press, it was never to be effectively closed again.”

It was enough to send me back to Christopher Hill’s classic The World Turned Upside Down (Penguin, 1975), where Calvert gets two mentions, the first for his Quaker service. In the other, a longer overview, Hill observes, “The printer Giles Calvert’s shop perhaps came the closest to uniting the radicals in spite of themselves – ‘that forge of the devil from whence so many blasphemous, lying scandalous pamphlets for many years past have spread over the land,'” as one critic put it. Hill then notes that A.L. Morton, the leading scholar on the Ranter movement, “stresses the importance of Calvert as a unifying force.” Hill has Calvert working as late as 1662 “still inciting the publication of seditious literature, and after his death in 1663 his widow continued his policy.” Unclear is whether Calvert was still with the Black Spread Eagle or working more independently; either way, he was a force who’s largely unknown today.

It’s heady stuff, of course. Here we have a champion in the history of freedom of the press and the circulation of revolutionary ideas itself. At the moment, Giles Calvert gets a single sentence as his Wikipedia entry – and that notes his publication of John Saltmarsh, another important influence on Quaker thought, as Gwyn delineates.

As a writer and editor, I am as fascinated by the idea of a bookstore that also showcases its own line of books and pamphlets as I am by the existence of a bold publisher of revolution, political, spiritual, or even literary. Think of City Lights Books in San Francisco in our own time, with its line of poetry from the Beat and Hippie years. No doubt there are many others over the centuries.

I wonder, too, about the bookstore itself. Was it more like a newsstand, with the latest blast hot-off-the-press as must-have material? (That has me thinking of record stores back in the Beatles era!) Think, too, of the audience hungry for the most recent release – in contrast to our surfeit of information today. What were the discussions like, too, in deciding whether to publish a piece or edit it or, perhaps, in gathering customers around a table to debate the merits of the most current issues? Who frequented the shop, for that matter?

Imagine, if you will, the movie version. I want the key characters to be ink-stained, for starters, and maybe tobacco smokers.

Actually, I’m beginning to wonder. Would this be more like a porn shop? At least before the Internet took over? Customers entering surreptitiously, hoping not to be seen? And then slip away again?

Well, Quaker was a term of derision. As well as one of scandal. Bear it as we may.

OUT OF A WHIRLWIND IN A GUST OF PASSION

Composing my Braided Double-Cross collection marked a turning point, one that came as I was getting my feet back on the ground as a poet after getting sidetracked into the demands at a shirt-sleeves management level and later focusing on novel-length fiction. Up to this point, my poems and, for that matter, much of my fiction focused on place – the outdoors, especially.

Personally, recovering from the collapse of a marriage and what I thought was better tomorrow on the horizon, I hunkered down back in the ranks of my career rather than trying to climb the proverbial ladder. I needed to catch my breath and nurse my wounds. This included a deep review of my life, the nature of relationships, the meanings of being male, connecting in contemporary society – and somehow, that all came into play when I came across an announcement for a book-length poetry competition by a university press. In some flash of intuition, I decided to do a 60-page collection based on notes I’d been gathering. Two weeks later, I was exhausted – but the draft was done.

It wasn’t the first time I’d done a poetry manuscript based on a focused theme. My American Olympus, conceived as a longpoem, had earlier tackled the Olympic Peninsula. But this was the first time I chose to work with individual poems of a general length and style, and it was a leap into love, not in the traditional vein but of a more brutal, realistic take on today’s interactions.

While I had already drafted a novel that would break out into Promise, Peel (as in apple), St. Helens in the Mix, and Kokopelli’s Hornpipe, its focus was more on marriage and trying to work as a couple or with other couples.

Now I was venturing into fresh territory. With Braided Double-Cross – and the subsequent Blue Rock and Long Stemmed Roses in a Shattered Mirror, each of which tackles the same subject in its own unique structure – you could say I was taking the “inner child” concept a step further. These look at love and loving from the perspective of an “inner teen” – one full of adolescent passion, defiance, anger, hunger, raging hormones, overwhelming loneliness. I wanted to record it in its fullness.

At the time, readers and editors under the age of 45 seemed to rave about the work. Those older were largely appalled. Somehow, I still find that telling.

Over the years, the material has also worked itself into many of my other poems; I do have a fondness for Baroque and a respect for the way Bach and Handel recycled so much of their composition. I think, too, that much of the graffiti mosaic or jazz infused energy found in my poetry takes off from this point.

Well, about three decades have transpired since all that. I’m glad I wrote the poems when I did, the way I did. Today would be a different story.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

TRACING THE BRAIDS

In the early 1990s, when my writing focus returned with a vengeance to poetry, I found myself drafting in a fevered few weeks the 60 pieces that span the Braided Double-Cross collection.

Soon, I was drawing on many of the images and phrases for two alternative series, one of them being Blue Rock, with its own structure and style, and the other being Long Stemmed Roses in a Shattered Mirror, released last year.

Many of the poems, presented as “Crossings,” have appeared widely in small literary journals around the world. Now, for the first time, they’re presented complete, as originally intended.

~*~

Braided Double-Cross

Braided Double-Cross

Enjoy this collection and more at Thistle/Flinch editions.

 

OUT OF OBSESSION INTO THE BLAZE

Words or appearances often mask deeper, contradictory currents. Sometimes, as they tangle, each knot becomes an aching triangle.

In the throes of romantic passion, a participant will choose one line of argument over the evidence of another. To call him or her a victim is hardly accurate, no matter the pain, even after the heart and mind conflict.

The poems of Braided Double-Cross arise in such obsession, the white-hot tension rather than in some cool quietude years later – the pursuit of a golden ideal and then falling. Call them love poems if you dare.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

IN THE OVERLAPPING KNOTS

What the heart hears and sees may be quite different from what the mind observes and records, much less decides. These may be considered two strands in a braid, into which a third is woven. As for the third? It may be the beloved Other or some Unknown factor or even the undisclosed Rival. Each possibility leads to some distinct  tension in the series of overlapping knots.

The poems of Braided Double-Cross move through sexual attraction and passion into obsession, rejection, even betrayal. In the heated accusations and arguments between lovers, the dialogue – reaching into childhood, history, geography, career aspirations, and the future – invokes an absent, silent third participant, a recognition of the inequality emerging in the core relationship itself. Details of confession mount quietly. Truth becomes unbearable. At times a scream is silent. The braid ultimately becomes a whip. As Diane Wakoski has observed, “Rapunzel and the witch were always one / and the same.”

It’s what Ted Berrigan, in the American sonnets this set emulates, called belly-to-belly white heat.

~*~

Braided Double-Cross

Braided Double-Cross

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.