Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Vivian Shipley and the Catapult

Vivian Shipley is magnificent!  Here is her poetry feature, up today on Escape Into Life! Images by Anne Faith Nicholls, as is the horsewoman you see here, Lady Lade, oil on canvas, 24" x 24".

Background music, "Rainiest Day of Summer," by Elizabeth and the Catapult.  Listen here!  It's fantastic! Yet another piece of my daughter's wonderful music, discovered on the ride to school.

You will want to read Vivian Shipley's amazing life story about the sudden discovery of a brain tumor while pregnant, and how this led to writing poetry.  The parallels in that first poem, then, to Red Pollard, the physically-challenged jockey who rode the horse Seabiscuit, shimmer and ripple again.

Speaking of Seabiscuit, a fellow Kenyon College alum, Laura Hillenbrand, wrote the book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, on which the film Seabiscuit, was based! And here is Seabiscuit as a statue. Yes, yes, it's another Random Coinciday in blog, and a Poetry Someday on the Hump of the Week, too!

It's not really "The Rainiest Day of Summer," but do listen to the song! It's another glorious blue-sky day in the Midwest. Fortunately, it did rain last night, a gentle, nurturing rain.

But Elizabeth of Elizabeth and the Catapult won't need her rain jacket and boots!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rosy-Fingered Dawn

I saw rosy-fingered dawn this morning, and I don't mean this documentary on the films of Terrence Malick.  I mean the pink strands of light in the eastern sky.

I mean the Homeric epithet on this kind of early morning light. I mean the dubious image that is somehow wrong and right at once, as in this blog discussion with cartoons!

Speaking of cool stuff, take a look at this Weatherburn Gallery page, scrolling down for Marina Dieul's painting, When Rosy Fingered Dawn... (which I can't show you, as I don't have permission for this image). Cherubs on a ledge.

Instead, I offer you a rosy-chested bird.

And this pink candy heart.

As you can see, it's a Random Coinciday on a Fat Tuesday in the blog.

To continue the random coincidii, I came across the term "wierd" this morning (another spelling of "wyrd" and referring to that which rules our fate, as in "the wierd [or weird] sisters" in Macbeth, and relating to reading The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown) in my daughter's British Lit textbook, in an Anglo-Saxon poetry context. They are gearing up to read Beowulf, and I saw her sampling of Old English on a handout. There might be a quiz...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Things I Learned

Things I learned dog-sitting:

1.  Wolf is a very good dog.
2.  I'm not the only one in the neighborhood with scraggly end-of-summer yard and gardens.
3.  Wonderful bells Sunday morning near Epiphany Church.

Things I learned driving my daughter to school this morning on a Blue Monday:

1.  I love her music, which she plugs into the whatchamajigger.
2.  The mist is rising off the cornfields out there even when there's no mist in town.
3.  The cattails are high in the ditches.
4.  The O/D Off switch (Overdrive Off) had been inadvertently pressed, perhaps during a previous music plug-in.
5.  How to turn off the O/D Off switch.

Things I learned by starting to read The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown, our next book-group selection:

1.  I am not the only one who reads various books simultaneously; so do the Weird Sisters.
2.  This kind of "weird" used to be spelled "wyrd" and meant fate; I think I used to know that via Macbeth.
3.  [I was briefly a "wyrd/weird" sister in Macbeth in the Dark, a truncated Macbeth with flashlights, and an excellent way for the Free Shakespeare Company to save money on the utility bill. (I "learned" that I still remembered this...was also Lady Macduff in the same production.)]
4.  This book is set in Ohio, where I lived for a time.
5.  I cannot escape corn; from pages 33-34:

Summer, however, is different, because in the midst of all these farms, there are roadside stands, fertile with the bounty of the season in Ohio: crisp, sweet, Silver Queen corn; perfectly ripe, yielding tomatoes the size of baseballs; delicately flavored cucumbers with satisfyingly watery flesh; strawberries, blackberries, peaches--a dizzying array of colors, lush with juice.  Often, in summer, this is all we eat, a table laden with fruits and vegetables, and Rose saw as she entered the kitchen that this was the case that night. Fortunate, as this also meant dinner would be ready before the crickets came out in earnest.

6.  I am not alone as a haphazard cook, preferring a raw-fruits-and-veggies meal whenever possible. (But the Weird Sisters' mom walks away from the stove and forgets what she's cooking sometimes, and I am guilty of that.)
7.  I am not sure about Eleanor Brown's use of "fertile" above, but she's using a community voice of sorts, the voice of all three "weird sisters," so maybe it's OK. Likewise, "dizzying array," which is a readymade phrase. But a narrator, even a community voice narrator, does have to talk the way people talk.

Thanks again to Jonathan Koch for fabulous fruit art! And, hey, he's got a sports series up now!

Sunday, August 28, 2011



In the ruining field a universe of sound
crowds the flying air with yellow spitting teeth
and rust-hued cob splinters above the golden husky
broken dangerous stalks, half gone and gorgeous against

a slate gray storm blue huge harvesting sky or hacked,
masticated down to the black swallowing earth.  Sound
grinds the body and bones of the young mother, tears her
into smaller pieces that air can carry to other places,

out onto the roof of the barn, down into the pummeling ground,
up to where the gold-laden slivering air is sweet.
The farmer wants to take the woman’s child, eager,
into the stomach of the roar where sound changes

to pure feeling, but she imagines his sudden red
impossible scream, arms breaking the air to speak
want, the horrible silence of it all.

first published in The Spoon River Poetry Review, Volume XX, Number 1, Winter/Spring 1995

Thanks to Wikimedia and Herry Lawford for this photo of  a New Holland combine at work near Stoneleigh, UK.  In real life, of course, it was a big green local John Deere combine harvester, but I love the sky and the stuff in the air in this photo.

Relates to yesterday’s post, and the day before.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

All Flesh is Grass

Yesterday I mentioned coming across the phrase "living downstream" in the corn section of The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and noting the coincidence that it is the title of Sandra Steingraber's book on the relationship between the toxins we use in our industrious lives and our health. Her full title says it all: Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.

Like Pollan, Steingraber is a beautifully clear writer. Just as Pollan makes agribusiness clear to the layperson, Steingraber makes science clear to the non-scientist, for instance, in lively descriptions of benzene and atrazine. Both writers use anecdote and charming personal experience alongside hard evidence to make the issues clear and let their significance come home.

There are other striking parallels as well. Steingraber quotes Isaiah 40:6--All flesh is grass--at the beginning of her chapter 7, "Earth," and I've just finished Pollan's chapter 8, titled "All Flesh is Grass" at the beginning of his Part II: Pastoral: Grass.  Both writers refer to the importance of the Rodale Institute Farming Systems studies. And Steingraber elegantly sums up for my home state what Pollan detailed in his journey through industrial cornland--"Central Illinois is the beginning of a human food chain that ends in meat and snack food." (Steingraber, in "Earth" chapter).

In both books I read about natural nitrogen fixing in soil (legumes, lightning) and artificial nitrogen fixing, by way of fertilizer, the ingredients also leading, sadly, to meth labs in rural America. In Pollan I read about "the shock of electrical lightning, which can break nitrogen bonds in the air, releasing a light rain of fertility."

Steingraber puts it this way: "Lightning, that mad scientist, also fixes atmospheric nitrogen, which rains fertility into the fields." And makes it personal: "My cousin John considers himself a friend of lightning and looks for it in the night sky when storm fronts wake him from sleep."

I'm reading the second edition of Living Downstream (2010), updated to include the latest statistics and scientific information, but I read the first edition (above) a couple years after it was first published in 1997. A documentary came out last year, too, timed to the book's release, and I saw it here in central Illinois, with Steingraber and family members and filmmaker present.

I'm impressed once again, not only by Steingraber's clarity and mastery of the information, but also by her balance and her passion. She advocates a shift to organic farming (not, presumably, the "Big Organic" that Pollan sees as just more agribusiness) as a remedy for our public health and the farmer's plight but also clearly sees that farmers can't do this own their own. Like Pollan, she sees the complexity and near-inextricability of it all, and the difficulty of as well as the necessity for change.

Steingraber's cousin John, the "friend of lightning," is a farmer, a conventional farmer who uses chemicals, but not too many, as he has "a lot of respect for weeds." In the "Earth" chapter, she rides along with John during a harvest, saying that this is usually discouraged--"guests in the cab are distracting and can compromise safety"--and I'm reminded of the day my neighbor Gus offered to take my fascinated two-year-old with him on the combine. I imagined my son about half a row down frightened by the deafening noise, suddenly screaming and scrambling to get out...and thanked him but declined.

My "corn-fed" son, now 21.

Friday, August 26, 2011

As Far As the Eye Can See

"Corn, corn, corn, as far as the eye can see...."

I've finished Part I: Industrial: Corn, of The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

[Corn credits: endless corn, via, Doug Snodgrass;
Corn up close, via Wikipedia, Christian Fischer, ZeaMays]

I told you there would be more corn before this weekend's Sweet Corn Blue Festival! And this is indeed sweet corn we'll be eating in the street while listening to sweet blues. Pollan's opening section was on "industrial" corn, the agribusiness of corn, feed corn, field corn.

Corn is a grass, but not the kind of grass cows naturally eat. They have to be taught to eat corn, and, in the feedlot, it comes in a trough in a mashed, fat-laced, liquidy form. (Eww.)

I was sad when the calf Pollan was tracking had to leave his mother. Remember Dumbo?! Yes, even some feedlot-destined cattle get to spend the first year eating grass with their mothers. But then off they go to eat corn and antibiotics instead of grass. Antibiotics because they stand close together and on manure, which has a lot of bacteria in it.

"Hell," said Dr. Mel, the vet, "if you gave them lots of grass and space, I'd be out of a job."

At the end of the corn section, which lays out all the specific evidence, Pollan reminds us of the farmer's dilemma--having to grow more and more corn (or corn in rotation only with soybeans) just to get by, and that's on the big farms. The small farms already went under. "Corn's triumph is the direct result of its overproduction, and that has been a disaster for the people who grow it."

"Growing corn and nothing but corn has also exacted a toll on the farmer's soil, the quality of the local water and the overall health of his community, the biodiversity of his landscape, and the health of all the creatures living on or downstream from it." That phrase, "living downstream," made me look in the back of the book--index, notes, and sources--for Sandra Steingraber. Though I did not find her book Living Downstream there, Steingraber and Pollan must be fully aware of each other's work, as both are interested in health, ecology, and the environment, and in the we-are-what-we-eat (drink, and breathe) dilemma.

I did find Ruth L. Ozeki's book My Year of Meats, which Pollan calls a "[v]ery funny, well-researched novel about the U.S. meat industry." I agree.

And I'm old enough to remember the "Where's the beef?" commercial.

Where's the beef? In the feedlot, eating corn.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Escape Into Fairy Tale

Imaginary background music/lyrics: “Fairytale,” Sara Bareilles, Little Voice 

I’m not really advocating “escape” into fairy tale here.  Neither is Sandy Longhorn, with her title “There Are No Fairy Godmothers on the Prairie,” a guest blog entry at Escape Into Life. She’s looking closely at fairy tales to see how they function, transformed, in her poetry, and how they always functioned, as cautionary tales often about coming-of-age experiences or handling life’s “dark undertones,” as she puts it.

Or disillusionment, as I see it.

There's an irony. Fairy tales as illusions that record our disillusionment, and then restore us. Yes? Restore our innocence? Make us whole after a terrible fracturing? 

The Grimm versions help make that clearer. Open your eyes. Do not go gentle into that weird forest….

That’s how fairy tales often strike me—as something at once gory & useful, containing the awesome/awful truth that my innocence might be shattered and nothing can help me but magic…or wit and grit. Plus courage in the face of the worst. “Don’t give up,” I learn and relearn from fairy tales…

In this poem, first published in Ekphrasis, I look at a painting titled The Fairy Tale, and imagine the mother telling her daughter a fairy tale, side by side with an autobiographical moment of closeness with my own mother, who left a drunken party (to which wives & children were invited) in mixed patience and disgust.

The Fairy Tale

                                    William Merritt Chase, The Fairy Tale (1892)

The woman and the girl are pink and white confections
on the picnic cloth
in the center of the grassy field.

They wear their necessary layers,
but the fabric is tissue thin,
the parasol laid aside for the thrill of the story.

It is safe here at the seaside, away from the men,
to be so exposed,
the girl’s face all raw color inside the white bonnet.

And in the tale, the prince will hack away at thorns
to offer the princess love
and a kingdom, even as she sleeps her long sleep.

From this far away
both painter and viewer can justify the blur
but I can see more clearly

my mother one summer day,
walking away from the party, sitting at the base of a tree
to wait for it to end.

I use the “it” at the end here with an Emily Dickinson-like looseness and precision, to mean, of course, to wait for the party to end, but also the “fairy tale” of marriage and family life, the long sleep of women who believe in that fairy tale, and perhaps even the tree…for it will take a long, long time for that to end, won’t it?

Alternate background music: “Hard to Be Soft,” by Paula Cole, on the Courage CD

Or Peter Gabriel & Paula Cole singing “Don’t Give Up” here on youtube.  (Or, with Kate Bush on the So album, which has “Sledgehammer” on it, a song I played over and over, wildly dancing….)  

Really, don’t give up!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cuban Sandwich

Here is a Cuban sandwich, to get you through the Hump of the Week.

So far all my friends and family in Virginia and thereabouts seem to be fine after the earthquake and not troubled by Hurricane Irene.

While others were shaking, seeing things tip off the shelves onto the floor, hearing roof bricks clatter onto the sidewalk, and pouring out of their buildings onto the street (as I did once when a low-level quake hit Columbus, Ohio years ago....), I was having a Cuban Chicken Panini at Panera with Julie. And taking shelter from a thunderstorm.

Just so you know, there is a group at Facebook called People Against Panera's "Cuban" Sandwich, soon, it says, to be archived.

There are many defenders of the authentic Cuban sandwich, many variations (including an excellent Cuban sandwich at Reggie's in Normal), recipes galore, and, of course, Wikipedia gives us the history of the Cuban sandwich as well as current info, and the above picture.

I tasted my first Cuban sandwich at La Unica, a Cuban grocery store on Devon Avenue in Chicago, with a little cafe in the back where you can get sandwiches, rice & beans, and mamey shakes!

The traditional Cuban sandwich has pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard. Watch out for mayo or mayo sauces. Panera has a chicken version.

The important thing is the bread, lightly oiled, pressed, grilled...

Background music, "Drume Negrita," by Eliseo Grenet.

Enjoy the mameys.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Republic of Fat

If you are a regular reader, you know I love coincidence. Well, I opened the book this morning ready to start the next chapter of The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and it is The Consumer: A Republic of Fat.

Yes, a Random Coinciday on a Fat Tuesday in the blog.

It gets better, or worse, depending on how you look at it. That is, we know we have  a national obesity problem in the USA, but this chapter spells out for me the contribution of HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) as the thing piling sugars upon sugars in our consumption. Yes, I was aware of its danger and the bruhaha about it, but I was surprised to learn that humans only started eating it in 1980.  (I know from previous chapters--The Feedlot and The Processing Plant--that what we eat is also what the animals we, so 1980 is apparently when it first went directly into our food products.) So this is a 30-year epidemic.

But there was an earlier one! Corn whiskey! Earlier the corn surplus went into whiskey--we were drunken fools, and eventually this led to Prohibition. "Corn whiskey, suddenly superabundant and cheap, became the drink of choice, and in 1820 the typical American was putting away half a pint of the stuff every day."

The personal random coincidence is that today is my first rehearsal for the annual Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery, and my character is Martha Rice, whose husband ran a store and got into a little trouble during the Civil War for offering to sell corn to Southerners. He was from Kentucky, famous for bourbon whiskey, and some of his corn might have been destined to wet the whistle of a Confederate soldier.

And the Union soldier above is Private Samuel K. Wilson, of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry, taken by Mark A. Wilson, of Wooster College, where my dad went to college, to round out this Random Coinciday!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Corny Back-to-School Post

It's the first day back to school for many (on this Blue Monday in the blog) and I am educating myself about corn just in time for the local Sweet Corn Blues Festival, coming up next weekend. I'm reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

I had heard a lot about this one, read excerpts here and there, and loved The Botany of Desire.* Now that I'm in it, I'm so glad I am learning in more detail about the farm subsidy, the stomach/s of the cow, and the farmers' own dilemmas. I grew up in farmland, surrounded by the corn/beans rotation described here, and, of course, learned a lot about ecology and agriculture in school and in life while growing up.

Speaking of school, I am glad there is a Young Reader's edition of this book!

The particular copy I'm reading (of the grown-up edition) is a gift of my poet friend Bill, who is restoring the prairie on some land he owns around here in the midst of farmland.

With the song "The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends"*** running through your brain (handy link here, in case you want it as a ringtone), ponder this irony from The Omnivore's Dilemma:

These two companies [Cargill and ADM] now guide corn's path at every step of the way: They provide the pesticide and fertilizer to the farmers; operate most of America's grain elevators...; broker and ship most of the exports; perform the wet and dry milling; feed the livestock and then slaughter the corn-fattened animals; distill the ethanol; and manufacture the high-fructose corn syrup and the numberless other fractions derived from number 2 field corn. Oh yes--and help write many of the rules that govern this whole game, for Cargill and ADM exert considerable influence over U.S. agricultural policies. More even than the farmers who receive the checks (and the political blame for cashing them), these companies are the true beneficiaries of the "farm" subsidies that keep the river of cheap corn flowing. Cargill is the biggest privately held corporation in the world.

No further comment at this point on that point, but I'll keep telling you about my corn-based reading as I go.

*I even mention it in this prose poem/bar joke** "The Apple" in Blood Lotus #20!

**Speaking of bar jokes, check out this excellent reflection by Susan Ryder on courage and thinking outside the...boat.

***Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Happened in My Yard

Yesterday stuff happened in my head, but stuff keeps happening in my yard, even though rain is scarce. Specifically, Sweet William has come back.

Some of it reseeded, bringing new, shorter plants, a few blooming daily, along with the spotty second round of trellis roses.  Some of it is coming back after 1) being eaten by rabbits 2) being sprinkled by the hose! These latter are still just foliage, and I hope they have time to bloom again before summer ends.

Fabulous pictures provided via Wikimedia, the red and white by Pilgab and hot pink Dianthus barbatus by Tomas Cekanavicius, with proper accent marks at link!

Today is tend-the-garden day at church in the morning and poetry workshop in the afternoon. Here is a recent poem from the August poem-a-day postcard project!

Sweet William 

Sweet William's coming back
in late August, despite the drought
and, earlier, the one downpour, with hail.
The tender pink blossoms,
the wild fevered red
like diaper rash, the white
splotched at the back of the red throat.
Somehow it will survive, defended
by a wire fence from rabbits.

I wrote this on the back of a postcard showing a row of babies potty-training on a row of chamber pots. Eurasian orphans, alas, circa 1950, from the Underwood Photo Archives, San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the fabulous Wikipedia tells us that Kate Middleton included Sweet William in her bridal bouquet.  Of course!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Happened in My Head

Today is Slattern Day in the blog, and I confess to 1) folding laundry, in defiance of Slattern Day and 2) just having had an elaborate conversation-in-my-head fantasy (in my kitchen, while achieving coffee) involving a cellphone going off in the middle of a live performance at a local theatre. (Image, Dinner With Friends, Heartland Theatre.)

I will actually be in a live performance in a local theatre this fall, Sirens, at Heartland, in early and mid-November, and a cellphone going off in the middle of it is, sadly, a real possibility. Hence, the elaborate fantasy.

Here's what happened in my head:

Mike, the artistic director, gave his usual pleasant curtain speech encouraging season tickets & volunteers, offering bottled water during intermission, and delivering the please-turn-off-your-cellphones request.

Then I came out and said, "Hi, I'm Kathleen Kirk, an actor in tonight's play, and I'd just like to ask you again to please turn off your cellphones. You may think your cellphone is off, or on mute, but it might not be, so please check. Also, I am technologically challenged, so even when I put my cellphone on mute, I might not have turned all the sound off, so if someone leaves a message, that little song starts singing later, and whoa! is that embarrassing! We wouldn't want that to happen to you, would we?

"I ask because, even though Mike asks every single night in his curtain speech, every single night someone's cellphone goes off during the performance. Really! No kidding! It's terribly distracting for the actors and the audience, and the people next to you will hate you and think you are stupid.

"You're not stupid, right? So, please, doublecheck, and turn your cellphone off, all the way off.

"If you are a super-important doctor-on-call, I'm not sure why you came to the theatre tonight, since you are on call, but, if you did, you can leave your cellphone on vibrate in the box office and, if there's an emergency and you have to go perform an appendectomy, the person in the box office will come out and stop the play and get you.

"I don't even want to mention texting.

"On a personal note, I could be at the state volleyball tournament tonight, watching my daughter play, but I made this commitment to my theatre colleagues in the spring and to you, tonight's audience, and, even though I am eager to hear about the game, I have turned off my cellphone so it doesn't ring or sing or buzz or vibrate backstage, causing any audible distraction for you, or physical disturbance to my fellow actors.

"Once I step out on this stage, in character, I am all yours and won't be thinking about volleyball at all. I will attend to that after the performance. But if a cellphone goes off tonight, while I am playing Rose in Sirens, it's possible I will have to step off the stage and out of character and escort you out of the theatre because of the disrespect to all..."

Cut to middle of play...cellphone goes off in the date-with-an-old-high-school-pal scene...Rose rummages around in her purse thinking it's hers, then listens, looks, and steps to the edge of the stage and off and up a little red-carpeted stair and rummages in the purse of an audience member and answers her phone:

"Hello? No, this Kathleen! I'm in a play right now, and you've called [expletive deleted] as she sat in this theatre audience watching the play.  ...I know! Pretty rude. So, I'm going to have to hang up now, and turn off this phone, and escort her out of the theatre. If it's really important, you'll call her back, right? Bye!"

Kathleen/Rose turns off the phone, fumbling a bit in her technology challenge, and looks around for a big man.

"OK, ma'am, I'm going to have security escort you out.  Security? Sir, could you be security for a moment, and escort this woman all the way to the front door?  Here, you can give her her cellphone when she's outside. We'll wait for you. We won't start the play again till you get back.

"Anybody else need to doublecheck your cellphones?"

Friday, August 19, 2011

Escape Into Friday

The new poetry feature is up at Escape Into Life, Jeannine Hall Gailey, with amazing collage art by Shelley Kommers. What you see here is Andromeda Puts Out Her Stars (and EIL assures me it's OK to use it here to announce it there!)

Jeannine's poems in this feature are prose poems, two of them incorporating a haiku-like lyrical moment in the center, so they are like the Japanese haibun, often a poem of journey.

Two of them are about "the robot scientist's daughter" so I went on a little imaginative journey myself, off into speculative science fiction down one path, off into memory on another, and off into cyberspace on yet another, so my brain is tangled.

On the cyberspace journey, I landed on Jeannine's blog about poets who are scientists' daughters, which led to Kristin Berkey-Abbott's blog riffing on that topic, and I stayed to hear her report on the reef at Key Largo.

Oh, the poor ocean. Watch out for jellyfish!

Back inside my braided brain, I detected a science strand, an art strand, and lots of drama and language. I'm not a scientist's daughter, but I recalled madness and murder, a jail term, a trolley car accident, a great flood. And even a jellyfish. I wonder what I should do with all that!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My Little Chickadee

I was awakened by the feebee of the chickadee this morning, starting very early. Actually, the chickadee roused me from a drowsing state after my first wake-up call at 4:30, from thirst? first day of school worry? Nothing to worry about: daughter had set her own alarm, is off for a short first day, followed by end-of-summer socializing, then back to school for volleyball practice, and all is well.

My husband, once a coach at her school (but a teacher applied, so...sigh...) went to the mandatory parents meeting for volleyball, finding out what it's like to be a volleyball parent (previously my job), and I went off to book group on a pontoon boat! (But he signed us both up to work volleyball concessions!)

We discussed The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon, that funny, moving, re-imagined "history" novel, pursuing the "what if?" of Alaska as a Jewish settlement territory after World War II. My mother remembers the actual proposal, by Harold Ickes, which did not fly. In the novel, the characters are all on the brink of Reversion, and another dispersal into the world, when Alaska will be returned to...Alaskans.

This one would make a good movie, I'm sure. I enjoyed the subtle hilarity of language in it, and some of that is in the dialogue, so it would be present in the movie version, and the intricacy of plot. Not just the hardboiled detective plot, but the ongoing political/human conflict plot. The "red heifer" plot. Crazy apocalyptic thinking.

I was moved by the messianic character. And intrigued by the "bad guy" who says/writes: Every Messiah fails the moment he tries to redeem himself 

Meanwhile, the SOBs, that self-titled men's book group, who should try The Yiddish Policemen's Union if they haven't read it already, are reading No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. My dad, who used to say "my little chickadee" to me in a W.C. Fields voice, was scared by the film version of No Country for Old Men.

And here is a gloved hand that might belong to an old man, feeding a chickadee.

Thanks to Wikimedia for the photos, with full credits at these links: chickadee on branch by Danielle Langlois and chickadee landing-on-hand from flickr.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thin Places

Day after day of beauty here, and more grace.Yesterday, after noting the red shred of hibiscus in Patricia Clark's book, She Walks Into the Sea, I walked into town, passing a bright red hibiscus in full bloom.

I feel I've found a kindred spirit here, someone noticing the same things I do--specific plants, birds, trees, and shades of feeling.

Spiderwort, nuthatch, even voodoo lily. Butter-and-eggs. Day lily, mayapple. Clematis, poplar, wild iris.

For my friend Kim, there's a poem called "Thin Places."

                                                Thin places, the Irish call them,

the places near a hawthorn where spirits
            pass back, squeezing like sheep do,
                        a spray-painted X in red or blue, through a gap

in rock, in time.

I have a poem called "Willow Tree" that mentions its species name, Salix babylonica, the weeping willow. So when I came to Clark's "Salix Nigra: Black Willow," I knew what it was. She has a "no-name creek." I have a "Nameless Creek." 

I'm someone probably blind in the past who values, now, paying attention. So to find this stanza in her poem "Early Meditation" was like...breathing.

Who put you in charge of watching?
                                    What date for the peepers
singing from the mud?
And the Carolina wren, when does it start
                        nest building again over the carport’s light?
If no one notices these details,
                                                will they cease to exist?

And I love how Clark calls herself "the watcher." 

Listen, if you like, to the nuthatch here at Birdjam and the Carolina wren, singing, "Tea-kettle!" here. Thanks to Wikipedia for the images of nuthatch and wren.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tawny Light

I am reading She Walks Into the Sea, poems by Patricia Clark.

Oh, beautiful!

This is a book that fits my "categories of existence" so well my heart might burst.

Random Coinciday:

Yesterday morning, I wrote about the blue hibiscus. Then, in the afternoon, I read about the red hibiscus in Clark's poem "Tawny Light."  It begins:

If I could be carried back to this, the just-before-dark
            peach explosion of light touching the trees, and then
                        the tips and serrated leaves on the wasteland chicory,

if I could be lifted back to this before I die,…

And then the poem is one long sentence, suspended, sustained, as is the sunset, but inevitably dropping into night. And in it is "a red, tissue-thin shred / of hibiscus."

Also the "wasteland chicory" I love, which is blooming now beside cornfields and in median strips in my town, and Queen Anne's lace.

Fat Tuesday:

Not so random, since RHINO sent me the book, in a box with others, "Tawny Light" was first published in RHINO 2009 (where I was an editor, reviewer, and advisor in the past). Yesterday, I opened the box again, and it was like Christmas! And that is the paradox of...

Slattern Day:

I'm behind on my attention to these books because I cleaned up! That is, to protect and keep them safe, I stacked them neatly in a box in my closet and got distracted by my life, other tasks and duties and reading. If I had, in a more slatternly fashion, left them to collect dust in a stack on the floor, I would have read this book sooner. But, given the synchronicity of chicory, lace, and red hibiscus, this was the perfect time.

But I do want to keep reading and reviewing or drawing attention to RHINO poets and their books, as the magazine used to have a review section at the rear, RHINO Reads, now a reading series in Evanston. You can follow news and events in RHINO's Big Horn Blog.

Poetry Someday:

See above! But also, for poets, remember that RHINO has been reading submissions since April 1, and their reading period ends October 1. So, if you haven't already, send them something soon, as you gather packets to send the journals just beginning to read in fall!

To get a copy of She Walks Into the Sea, go here or here! To get that red hibiscus, go here.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Blue Hibiscus

Beautiful blue sky day here in the Midwest, in mid-August, in the week coming up on back-to-school blues. Melancholy and excitement mix at this time of year.

I feel it, though I am not going back to school!

I might feel blue about the end of outdoor lap swimming in the early morning, but I am floating on a feeling of well-being instead, a gratitude very deep indeed. I hope it will ripple out to you.

Today I celebrate Maria Oliva Tyra and her Blue Hibiscus.

You can visit her website here, or buy a print at the new Escape Into Life store, here, as I did, to support both the artist and the online magazine that hopes to draw attention to numerous visual and literary artists!

And here is her Escape Into Life artist feature!

This surreal blend of flower, gears, and dangling needle--which exposes the "mechanism" of art--reminds me of the actual swamp-rose mallow I saw growing by the lake in Michigan in late July, yes, a kind of hibiscus. Summer ends, memory lingers, art goes on.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Life in These United States

Remember that humor column in Reader's Digest? Well, I do. It was favorite reading material when we visited my grandparents in Akron, Ohio. And you can still find "clean jokes and humor" in RD Laughs! online.

But I'm here to point you to Right Hand Pointing again, the United States issues, part 1 and part 2!  Look at that fabulous USA triptych cover! And the fine art and poetry inside both issues!

I have 3 poems in part 2. All very short, as is everything in Right Hand Pointing. Brevity is the soul of RHP.

"Illinois" is about common spiderwort, one of my favorite wildflowers. I have it in my garden--blue, lavender blue, and red grape varieties--and it is sturdy and hardy indeed, easily surviving yesterday's hailstorm.

Balsam (pictured pink above) is pretty darn sturdy, too, but a couple of those stalks went down.

I've been working on this poem for years, and I finally got it right! (I hope!) It's based on Indian lore in Illinois found in Life and Lore of Illinois Wildflowers, by William E. Werner, Jr., published by the Illinois State Museum, with photographs by Werner and wonderful drawings by Sharron Davis Schumann.

There's a wildflower in "Nebraska," my favorite wildflower in childhood, when I lived there. Goldenrod! (Nothing to sneeze at!)

And a buckeye (sort of) in "Ohio."  Went to college in Ohio, still have relatives there, and had my first job, as an encyclopedia editor, in Columbus (Reynoldsburg). I guess I am still interested in encyclopedic knowledge. And/or Wikipedic knowledge.

I love how my little buckeye leads into Richard Fox's Ohio poem about the Buckeye State! And for random coincidii, 1) I recently featured Richard Fox at Escape Into Life and 2) I am reading all about corn (prime in his and other United States poems in RHP #43) now in The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Back to the Drawing Board

I love the short animated films by RSAnimate with the cartoon drawings, words, and narration. They make things so clear! And, of course, appeal to all kinds of learners--verbal, visual, aural--and various attention spans.

Here is a good one on education (via Youtube) that describes the current context/situation and handles the tough realities with humor. While I know we must educate ourselves for the workforce and our economic times, I'm also troubled that education is primarily seen and only changed to suit political/economic needs of those in power.

I always go back to Sputnik for an example, because 1) it works and 2) it corresponds to my own life span. Science and technology had to surge in 1957 so the USA could compete with Russia in the space program and the military-industrial complex, as it is called.

We need another such surge now to stay competitive in the changing world and because of our own complacent habits, but two political/economic realities seem in irreconcilable conflict here: 1) Improve education from the young ages on up so we can have a strong country and 2) Keep Americans stupid consumers so the rich can keep their hold on most of the wealth.

Sounds cynical, but of course the "bread and circuses" aspect of the USA today has been a topic of discussion for some time.

I favor a liberal education strong on the humanities to balance an equally strong commitment to science and technology in our schools today, at all levels. We have to keep the whole human being in mind and know what's at stake.

I've talked to too many students who went to college to get a good job. How did they define "a good job"?  Good salary, good benefits, lots of vacation time. "And what would you be doing?"

No answer.

If it's all about the lifestyle--the job = the money to enjoy leisure activities + nice house--then what are we doing to contribute back to the community*? And to keep ourselves feeling productive and happy with what we do?

*feel-good charities

Believe me, I have not solved this for myself, and I'm no expert on this, but I can see the dilemma.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Last Swim

Today was last swim for Early Bird Lap Swim at the public pool. Sigh.... Some of us--who shall be known as Pixie, Julie, Dave, and Moi--met at Denny's for breakfast afterwards, in my case obliterating the good effects of swimming by eating Strawberry Cheesecake Pancake Puppies.

Don't ask me for an image. I would salivate all over again. Let's just say it's like a French Toast Fantasy. Henceforth, only a fantasy.

And that's not me. Not even the fantasy me. That's Cybill Shepherd from The Last Picture Show (film) and Pulp International (website). The film is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Larry McMurtry. I have not read it but can probably find it at the library or on my parents' bookshelf if I need it. Maybe I have read it, but it would mean something different second time around.

I do have a black swimsuit, but, with Last Swim swum, I am throwing it out, because it is disintegrating. It lasted for two good years in chlorine! I think I will finally throw out all my old emergency-reserve-partly-disintegrating swimsuits in a flurry of late-summer cleaning activity to encourage the purchase of a new non-disintegrating swimsuit at an end-of-summer swimsuit sale.

I will save at least one. It shall be called Last Swimsuit.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Reading, Not Rioting

NPR had this inspiring news this morning, delivered with the bad news of teen violence in Philadelphia, going on while London's burning.

"We're out here reading books in silence. We're basically being the anti-violence flash mob," said 18-year-old Maria Clark. "We're showing people that we do do things positive. Not everybody's violent."

I do love the thought of reading flash mobs! And it's OK with me if yours is a Kindle, Nook, etc., even if mine is likely to be a book with covers, words printed on actual pages. At least for a while.

Meanwhile, Steven Colbert had his head in "the cloud" recently on The Colbert Report, and I understood him exactly. This is a hulu link to a 5 minute excerpt, "The Word: Head in the Cloud," so it may take a moment to load, but it's fun to watch.

You can stick all your data in "the cloud" now, so you can retrieve it later, when you need it...if you can even remember the bits of info you'll need to retrieve it.

Sigh....  Before the print age, we had all sorts of mnenomic  devices for remembering stuff.

Yes, retrieving it from our own brains!

Writing stuff down was the first cloud!

I confess 1) I tend not to retain stuff I read online...I figure I can find it again if I remember to look and 2) I forgot the print matter science fiction I had read when young, but 3) I have wrapped up my scifi summer of evidently re
-reading Philip K. Dick and Cordwainer Smith.

I am glad I stuck with Cordwainer Smith, because,
 as London burned and Philadelphia broke a young woman's leg, Lord Jestecost said to C'Mell, "I want to help the underpeople." And did so.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hello, Wisconsin!

Imaginary soundtrack: Be My Thrill, by The Weepies
(Click link to really hear it!)

OK, last night after watching the beautiful wind farm sunset out at my folks' house, and in between rounds of the New Yorker Caption Game, we watched the Wisconsin recall election returns via Rachel Maddow, etc., with hope and thrills.

Democracy really is a thrill! I love it when the people speak, and it's interesting to see both sides claiming victory because, when we let real democracy work, we all win...or lose...together.

When we rig the system, only the powerful win, right?

Wisconsin's non-violent people's protests earlier led quietly and gradually to the great victory of having recall elections, a fairly rare thing and an accomplishment in itself.

In sad contrast, we have London burning. Perspective on that is yet to come. I've heard commentators call it pure criminal violence, a seething social unrest from ongoing poverty and injustice, a response to a recent shooting, and so on. It's probably a subtle, complicated mix of all this.

I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. alongside Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing reminding us that if we don't "do the right thing" while the protests are non-violent they will become violent. And I am optimistic enough to think that we basically know how to "do the right thing" before it comes to that, and what the "right thing" is. We know when we are doing wrong, don't we?

Well, I've gone philosophical and universal, but to keep it to the United States, here is Part 1 of the Right Hand Pointing United States of America issue, and the editor's Note on disillusionment and the reawakening to beauty. (I think I will be in Part 2, next week.) In various ways, the people speak.

And sing.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Round Two, Round-Up

Despite the weeks of heat with only weensy rain, a new rose has opened on the trellis, so this may be the start of a true round two for the roses. Or a tiny moment of beauty.

Meanwhile, the mulberries, who volunteer in unfortunate places, must be gone after with Round-Up. I hate to do it, but I have been advised by the Dean of Green (WGLT Radio) that this is the only thing that will kill them.

Other pests thrive. Aphids (here pictured on milkweed) are having a heyday on the vines of sweet autumn clematis, itself a pest to some, but I love the sweet, anise scent of the tiny white blossoms. I was pondering the seedpods this morning, their resemblance to lady parts (lady parts not pictured, blossoms above).

I routinely duck spiderwebs, even the ones in inconvenient places like gates and doorways. But, whoa! There's a ginormous spider who's made a ginormous web over the bleeding heart. In another month, she'll be big enough to catch baby rabbits.

Speaking of gruesome deaths, you might enjoy this review of a rehearsal of Macbeth by Ada Grey, seven. She is my new favorite theatre reviewer under 30. My favorite totally grown-up theatre reviewer is still Julie Kistler of A Follow Spot (because she knows everything about everything and writes with lively joy).

Ada dictates her reviews to her mother, who maintains the blog for her. This is a two-for-one review of dress rehearsals of Lakeside Shakespeare productions of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I particularly like Ada's description and illustration of the term "love triangle."

Ada enjoys gruesome deaths and scary witches, but only in moderation and went to a dress rehearsal because it was a "not-blood day." But her review may indeed induce you to visit Lakeside Shakespeare in Frankfort, Michigan for a good time!

Monday, August 8, 2011

After the Playground

I have a poem up at Literary Mama called "After the Playground" that recreates a playground experience at the Hayt School in our old neighborhood in Chicago. I was just visiting old friends in Chicago this weekend and having that nostalgia of place. The very air reminded me of summers past.

Today, by chance, my sweet sixteen daughter is headed up to Chicago on the train, with her boyfriend, to meet her brother, and his friend who is a girl, and old friends from our old neighborhood, the one with Hayt School in it and also St. Gertrude's parish, where my kids started school. They plan to go to the beach, so I hope the weather holds. If not, the Lincoln Park Zoo. Or maybe the Field Museum, to see the Whales!

Their childhood is rolling back over me today, and their future is rolling out before me, a beautiful bluegrass carpet. Oh, my dears!