Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Tag: Literature

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.

JUST HOW BIG IS THAT TOWN WITH THE MILLS?

When I began drafting Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider, I was coming off a two-year stint that had me traveling across the Northeast, including the Atlantic Seaboard from Maine through Virginia. I hunkered down in Baltimore to concentrate on a handful of major writing projects in a very intense year of self-imposed sabbatical. (No university support, if you were wondering.)

While Big Inca marked a sharp departure from my other works, moving into dark subconscious realms and mysterious meanderings, it did incorporate castoffs from some of the other projects. The prompt, though, was a vague dream of restoring landmark mills beside a river, a project that could have happened just about anywhere in the region I’d been traveling.

We think of them as textile mills, and many of them were. But the water power could be employed for just about any kind of manufacturing, as I’ve since learned, from machine-making itself to shoes to clothespins to locomotives, as well as the grain and sawmill operations I’d been introduced to on our trips to historic sites in my childhood, starting with the overshot wheel and grindstones in Carillon Park in Dayton and the reconstructed Spring Mill village in Indiana.

As a youth, I’d also owned a gorgeous volume the duPont company had published to celebrate its history, and my favorite parts were the illustrations of its early mills and supporting waterways and lands in Delaware.

So there was already a degree of romance in my thinking about the use of old-fashioned waterpower.

Then, in my first job after college, I was introduced to the ruins of cigar factories beside a dam in the Susquehanna River, a tangled patch I returned to frequently, as I describe in my set of poems, Susquehanna. Just how would the mills have looked, anyway? And how would they have shaped the adjacent neighborhood, a setting reflected in Riverside, another of my poetry collections?

My more recent employment had me calling on places like Fall River, Massachusetts, with its array of vacant stone mills, as well as towns incorporating the more common red brick versions, large and small.

Add to that mention of the entrepreneurial impact of the many mills that once stood along the Jones Falls in Baltimore itself, before the freeway wound through the sites, and I was quickly writing.

Since releasing the novel, though, I’ve been wondering about scale. Just how big a town are we dealing with? And, for that matter, how big a mill yard?

In the back of my head I’d imagined something along the lines of Binghamton, New York, a city of roughly 50,000 – large enough to move about in inconspicuously but not too big to be, well, anywhere in the corporate radar these days. Or, more accurately, the recent past when the action takes place.

That’s had me looking more closely at old mill towns, of course, and asking if this one or that could be the right setting. Security, by the way, adds another consideration – I wouldn’t want the novel’s mills sitting right downtown, as they do where I now live or in several of the neighboring towns. Somersworth, to the north, has train tracks separating its old mills from the rest of the town, and Binghamton had a freeway.

A smaller town, in contrast, might simply have too many nosy neighbors who would insist on knowing everything about a newcomer like Bill, and that wouldn’t do. Still, there are some beautiful sites for imagining as you move about.

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.

WHO INVITED INCA INTO MY NARRATIVE, ANYWAY?

Why Inca, anyway? For starters, when it came to conceiving my novel Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider, I seem to recall an attraction to the wordplay, Inca for Inc., befitting a story about corporate intrigue.

Maybe there was even a sense of llama and alpaca wool as raw materials for the abandoned waterpower textile mills that instead become the front for covert business activity.

I was already aware of how much indigenous lore remained lost or buried in the American inheritance and wondered how much more might be festering somewhere. Even before issues of illegal immigration entered the picture, I was curious about the alternatives lurking in the imagined jungles of Latin America. Maya and Aztec, for example, also had rich imperial cultures that contrasted with the Spanish invaders.

The novel takes on its own meandering along the edges of consciousness and subconscious currents. Just what are we doing in our careers, anyway, at least in the face of ultimate existential purpose? And what is the allure of corporate politics, strategy, and gamesmanship, at least in the higher offices? Bill may be out in the sticks, but he is a puppet of sorts for the Boss. A player. Or maybe just his apprentice. Either way, he’s green and supple.

Here we encounter, however dimly, a darkness conquered by another darkness, perhaps crueler under its Christian veneer. Yet a New World Native undercurrent runs counter the peasantry of Old Europe, and pagan influences infuse both sides in the millpond of Bill’s labors. As for the company paying his Bill’s bills? It’s at least as mysterious as the Inca itself.

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.

LET’S CAST THE SPOTLIGHT AWAY FROM POOR JOB

Could it be that the Book of Job isn’t so much about the suffering of Job, a man of faith, as it is a critique of conventional religion and religiosity itself?

In my volume Eden Embraced, I approach Job’s plight as if the text were a Hebrew Upanishad, one paralleling a type of classic Hindu writings. Yes, the thread holding the plot together follows one innocent man’s spiritual journey through unspeakable suffering. Blameless as he is – and uncomforting as God’s role is here – Job would have every right to turn in other directions, though he chooses to remain faithful.

The story is endlessly troubling, especially for those who read it from a legalistic perspective. From the outset, God is arrogant, even vain and cruel, rather than compassionate or even all-knowing. And Satan, a member of the sacred council, could be a favored golfing buddy arranging another wager.

The setup can easily lead to contortions as a believer attempts to reconcile other, more conventional, definitions of the Holy One with the action at hand, especially when Job’s buddies begin to weigh in with their platitudes. In many interpretations, Job’s faithfulness is held up as an example to emulate, no matter what. Fat lot of encouragement, right?

As a writer, though, I can see the axiom of trying to address a situation by taking an opposing, uncommon position, which is where I see the story of Job originating. After all, we are faced with the question of just where does evil originate, along with human suffering. Why not blame the Creator?

Is there even a large measure of humor in this? Take the events over the top, asking just what more can happen to poor Job? And that’s where his so-called friends step in, adding misery to his plight and their condemnation rather than comfort.

Would it be nearly as compelling if they did the right thing? If Mother Teresa had showed up instead?

By the way, I delight in the happy ending, which many purists object to as a later revision that doesn’t fit with the general thrust of the plot. Feel free to weigh in as you will.

REFLECTIONS ON MY POETRY AND FICTION

Maybe you’ve seen the adage that you can’t move on in your life if you’re stuck revising the past. (Well, it’s a variation of some more common versions.) I know the message is aimed at an individual’s emotional life, but it hits writers hard, too. No matter our subject or genre, the project in front of us draws on the past – even if it’s nothing more than research we did earlier or our previous drafts. It’s even truer when you’re heeding the counsel, “Write about what you know.”

For an author or poet, moving on typically comes when a project is finally published. Well, one usually moves on into promoting the work, even if the writer’s thinking and work are already on a new project.

Up to that point, the writing can usually be revised – and with poetry, there’s no end, you just have to let it go.

For most of my five decades of writing, my literary efforts – writing, revising, submitting to journals, and attending readings and workshops – came in my “free” time. And for a good portion of that, I was just getting a locale and its people in focus when my job would uproot me and I’d have to move on – just as one big project or another was coming into focus. I’d have to put work aside to complete later.

It also meant that much of my life was stuck in revising the past – meaning the unpublished projects – even I was adding more from the new encounters.

For me, blogging has freed much of that past, weaving it actively into my present. And the book-length releases at Smashwords.com and Thistle/Flinch, especially, have been emotionally liberating.

Seeing the poetry, in particular, as it’s appearing almost daily at the Red Barn gives me a fresh perspective. For all of my repeated honing of the work, compressing to some essence, I also sought a sense of jazzy improvisation and raw edges, an admission of working on the run in contemporary society. A recent essay on graffiti as public art, in contrast to the oil canvas masterpieces of earlier centuries, keeps echoing in my awareness. Yes, I can see many of my poems as graffiti or at least swift sketches or calligraphy.

Yes, there are things I’d revise and other points that leave me wondering just what prompted the line. But they’re up now, in your presence, and I can move on.

What a relief!

At this point in my life and career, I don’t even have to worry about what critics might say, though kind words from perceptive readers and fellow writers are always appreciated.

Not that I’m fishing for compliments …

AND KEY WEST

1

joining me as a bowsprit
on my usual whale-watch vessel
now wintering in Florida, a day trip
en route to Key West

a lonely teen evokes
my lover in college
the year before I met her before

two dolphins leap in front of us and

in his rounds, a crewman explains

“you don’t see that often, especially so far
from shore . you saw them, didn’t you?
you’re very lucky”

an omen, then, to the past

2

in town, roosters in banty yards
on back streets, warning

BEWARE
OF DOG

such a disappointing declaration
to swarming eyeballs
anticipating something more exotic
a gator, perchance, or snakepit
or open voodoo performed with hot sauce
please understand, you’re approaching Haiti

3

acknowledging this is an island of Biblical proportions
I stand outside Hemingway’s veranda
and shout prophetically

KELSEY SENDS
HER REGARDS

meaning her scorn
for required high school reading

this touch of sarcasm gleaned
teaching Sunday school
in New Hampshire

this day, when I’m my own old man of the sea,
is held in the tentacles of Genesis

4

again the Gulf waters roil
and the decision is announced
we’ll be sent back by land (one)
rather than any Paradise Lost
without moonlight
in the dark
road houses and health food
storefronts along the midnight
highway become fragments
of reggae notes, the songs of another
vanished lover, between mangrove

5

even on a subtropical bus
cockroaches climb toilet walls
mimicking addresses I’ve left

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
To see the full set of seacoast poems,
click here.