Archive for May, 2017

Storytelling Is Merry Playing

This past year I have been turning my hand to writing short stories on the lower end of the spectrum usually ranging to 3,000 words or less. Storytelling is merry playing. A writer is a merry player, so it is appropriate that I offer a story of that name to illustrate the metaphor. Music generated my tale in the first place. I was listening to a tape entitled “Earth Quest” of synthesized music that evoked merriment and a feeling of tripping through an old oak forest. The music furnishes the mood, tone, tempo, and rhythm to which a writer adds the images. Those images in turn give rise to scenes peopled with a cast of characters and a story line. Play as opposed to work is supposed to be fun. Not surprisingly, then, the verb used to describe the act of making music with an instrument is play. In theater arts the noun form refers to the dramatic production and the written script. Likewise, the actors are called players. Some writers describe the act of writing as enjoyable, and others describe it as merely hard work requiring concentration, dedication, and hours of solitude when it would be easier to abandon the task and go watch television. Either way, writing involves a willingness to play with language. Inherent in the activity is a delight in craft, in design, and in the incessant arrangement and rearrangement of scenes and characters into a pleasing order of sound and sense. If not always a merry pastime in its execution, the completion of the story results in merriment. Sometimes the journey from start to finish takes a dark path, but more often than not when I attempt to write a short story, I lapse into a humorous vein. I may begin with a serious theme, but I drift into the wry, the absurd, or the comical without realizing it. Eventually, I discover how my story has shifted to the whimsical, and I am happy at the outcome. I have made merry along the forest path.

Merry Players

The band of strolling players approached the thatch roofs of the village in the lake country, an obscure dell in the northwest corner of England. The emerald-green hedgerows glittered with the fallen rain. The dwarf at the head of the procession merrily skipped along the muddy lane, squeezing a jig from his small accordion. The troupe would perform a farcical skit for the townsfolk in the village square.

After a flash of lightning and another roll of thunder, the rain, which had dwindled to a stray drop or two ceased entirely. The sun peeped over the wet haystack. A carter met them at the outskirts of the village and hailed them with a hearty welcome.

He said, “I be going to market in Ramsbottom today and won’t return until late tomorrow. I’m sorry to miss your antics, but I’m sure the lads at the pub will tell me about the merriment.”

“May the wind blow gently at your back, sir,” said the leader of the band, a red, jolly-faced stub of a man, who looked rather like a diminutive Friar Tuck of Robin Hood’s band, striding beside the brightly painted covered wagon, the sides adorned in flowery motifs of brilliant blue, red, green, and yellow. The dwarf, his large head bobbling atop his stunted body, sauntered past the carter. The force of the dwarf’s personality had awarded him the position of leadership in this traveling band of players—a small circus act of sorts composed of tumblers, musicians, and dancers, and even a puppet show. Ethelrod was his name, no other given appellation; he demanded to be addressed only by his patronymic. Ethelrod’s third decade had commenced a month ago. Dwarves rarely lived beyond age thirty, but with the plague and fever neither did normal-sized men survive to a greater age. He would have married if he had encountered a suitable female dwarf anywhere in the north of England; but he had not, so he and the fat, boisterous soprano of the party formed an incongruous couple. He managed to find a way beneath her ample skirts and she treated him like a cuddly puppy that amused her without end. In Kate’s estimation, Ethelrod was a fine figure of a man although he was barely five feet tall. His head was nobly configured, a long, protuberant jaw, but magnificent brown eyes and high cheek bones and brow that was square and commanding, a head topped with lustrous black hair. She suspected he had a bit of the Welsh in him, because not only did he have the darkly handsome looks of the Celt, he also had the sonorous, bass singing voice of that swarthy race. Only the slight, yet noticeable hump making his left shoulder lopsided marred his generally handsome appearance. Kate was almost as round as she was tall. Her triple chin jostled like jelly when she rolled with laughter at almost anything, for life was a bowl of Yorkshire pudding for her and every day was Christmas Eve. The troupe had devised a few slapstick masques to regale the crowd, domestic spats between shrewish wife and badgered husband, Kate in the role of the nag and Ethelrod playing the hapless husband. He didn’t mind being at the short end of the stick, for his caricatures drew barrels of laughter and filled his felt hat with coins that he passed after every performance like a church basket throughout the audience.

When the band entered the village from the eastern gate tooting horn and beating drum, they discovered a crowd already assembled in the greensward. Ethelrod halted his troupe and restrained the horse-drawn wagon with a tug on the poor sway-backed white mare’s bridle.

“What, ho, be there?” he asked a chap in a torn tunic beside the lane.

“The sheriff be getting the square ready for a witch,” the peasant answered and picked a flea from his sleeve. A few straw shafts stuck out from his matted hair. Ethelrod supposed rightly that the lad had slept in the stable yard that night.

“I came to town last night so as to be here early to see the show.” Seeing Ethelrod’s curiosity, he volunteered this information. “You’ll not have an audience this day for your mummery, I daresay,” he added.

“Um . . . not likely . . .” Ethelrod mused. “Yes, it do seem my stage is taken.”

Kate popped her mop of thick, curly, carrot-colored hair from between the curtains at the back of the cart. “Did I hear someone say witch?  Witch they call only some pitiful wench, scrofulous men take a disliking for. That be the day they hang a witch in Digglebury Town.”

“It’ll not be a hanging. It’s a burning. She’s already been dipped in the brook and she floated.”

“Good god, she floated because she didn’t want to drown, you ass,” Kate bellowed.

“You’ll pardon me. I’m going to shimmy up the blacksmith’s roof to get a better view.”

Kate beckoned Ethelrod to the rear of the wagon. “I’ll not countenance such a scene. The rabble has always been for a freak show or two. Nothing so like drawing and quartering or lopping some chap’s head off to summon a crowd of stupid gawkers. For the love of Mary, we’ve played to such a crowd for our benefit. They love a fight, a bear-baiting, or a simple crofter’s housewife gouging her husband’s eye out for having a roll in the haystack with the milkmaid. But I’ll not have a witch-burning. No, sirrah. It’s superstition and deviltry.”

“You can’t do anything about it when god-besotted aldermen and black-robbed clerics decide a maid is bewitched.”

“They’re all addled with their own lust, I swear,” Kate pronounced vehemently.

“You can’t save the lass, so you may as well watch the spectacle and thank the Lord God you don’t burn in her shoes.”

“Humph . . .” Kate breathed and popped back into the protective cover of the gaily painted wagon.

Ethelrod unharnessed the white mare and led her to the stable yard for a fresh bag of oats and temporary pasturage in the stable yard. The rest of the troupe wandered off to investigate the uproar in the town, eager not to miss any excitement or spectacle the burning of the purported witch offered. After he saw the old mare content behind the fence, switching her tail at horseflies, he headed toward the village square. As he approached the troupe’s cart, Kate beckoned him from the back of the wagon.

“I’m not standing idle while they murder an innocent woman. Witchery . . . I’ll be damned if it is. It’s the blathering of both papists and Puritans and I’ll have none of it, and if you be more than half a man, which by heaven, I know you to be; you’ll go along with my scheme. Hear me awhile.” She climbed down from the cart. Leaning down to Ethelrod, who reached but to her shoulder, she whispered into his ear.

“Aye, woman, I vow someday, you’ll be the death of me.” He laughed despite himself. “You’ve spunk my girl, more than enough for a man that I wonder if you should not have been a man.” He laughed again. He slapped his hand against his thigh. “I’m the very size to do it.” Kate kissed him on both cheeks, and then ducked back into the wagon while Ethelrod directed his steps toward the bustle in the square. He elbowed his way through the crowd, intent upon gaining a closer view of the center stake around which bundles of brambles and dry branches had been spread. As yet, the convicted woman had not appeared nor had the civic and religious officials gathered on the raised dais or viewing platform. He eavesdropped on the murmurings of the crowd. A holiday spirit permeated the milling villagers, glad to take up a day of merriment in their usual dawn-to-dusk labors. Ethelrod was about to head to the tavern for a tankard of ale, when a trumpet blasted and the town crier announced the entry of the mayor and an entourage of clerics at his heels. The dignitaries took their positions upon the platform. Then the accused witch in a skimpy, umber-colored shift, her hands tied behind her back, escorted by a bailiff was led to the stake. One boney shoulder was exposed, and her golden hair spread like a misshapen heap of straw all askew, stretching at every angle from her head and down the middle of her back—a gigantic halo gone awry as if it were a devil’s plot to undo the highest-ranking seraph of heaven, he thought. Ethelrod could see that with a goodly scrubbing of her face, she was a comely maid.

The bailiff bound the slim young woman to the stake. When the chief cleric saw the task completed and the poor woman securely tied, her head lifted in defiance, her eyes steeled for what she soon must endure; he arose.

“Do you repent lest you suffer the pangs of eternal damnation in the fires of hell?”

“I repent of nothing, for I have done no wrong. Of this, you know full well. You are the one to be damned by the Lord of Heaven and of Earth. I do here condemn thee.”

“Do you not fear for your soul? Confess I say, repent, and you will be welcomed into the bosom of Our Savior.”

“Save your own damned soul,” she shouted.

“Then you seek the purification of the fire?”

“Have done with it. Do the foul deed now. I am confessed of nothing.”

With that the cleric gave the nod for the fire to be lit. The bailiff, holding a flambeau, walked toward a brazier of hot coals. At that moment, heads in the crowd turned in response to the clop of horse’s hooves and the shrill whoops of a woman. Rapidly advancing upon the square was a red-haired woman, stark naked, astraddle like a man an aged white horse. She was plump, her full breasts brushing the neck of the horse, her buttocks like pink panniers spanning its rump, and fleshy thighs grasping the sides of her mount as her heels spurred the animal onward. Agog at the spectacle of the nude, bareback rider, all eyes followed her as she circled the village square, shrieking in joyous abandon, unashamed of her exposed condition, but seemingly glorying in her display. The horse, too, appeared to have summoned new reserves of energy in the attention she was also receiving even though the best that the mare could do was a rolling trot. What dignity or shock remained to the mayor and the clerics on the dais evaporated as they watched in fascination the lewd performance. Dazed, they did not know if the devil had ensorcelled them, or the witch at the stake had conjured a profane vision before their eyes.

Ethelrod slipped through the circle of gawkers, a dagger held between his teeth, swiftly slithering to the stake and cut the girl free from the stake, hissing at her, “Run quickly. To the forest beyond the south gate.  Watch for the painted player’s cart there. Go.”

She ran, bare-footed, like a fleet doe while the crowd, stunned, still followed the circuit of the naked fat lady on the old mare. Then, the first licentious man whistled; another hooted; the shoemaker’s apprentice threw her a copper pence and cried, “That’s what I like—meat on a woman’s bones.” Some laughter erupted, but some good wives boxed their husbands’ ears. Catcalls and shouts of “For shame” mixed in the hullabaloo that arose in the throng, all attention continuing to be riveted on the naked lady.

Finally, the mayor stirred herself from his stupor and ordered. “Arrest her.”

The chief cleric shook off his shock and shouted, “Indecent exposure. Jail her.”

The dwarf jumped upon the platform. “Halt, My wife is touched in the head. She has spells worsened by the witch’s stare. Leave it to me. I’ll take her home and apply a poultice that brings her back to her senses.”

The authorities hesitated. “This is a matter for the courts,”

“Please, Your Grace. It is but a slight inflammation of the cerebrum. I can handle it. Allow me,” Ethelrod bowed low and scraped the boards with his floppy, felt hat.

At first the mayor looked skeptically and was about to utter a word when a hubbub arose in the crowd. “She’s gone! She’s gone!” Everyone’s attention turned to the stake, and certainly, the witch had disappeared.

“Search the town,” the major roared. In the confusion Ethelrod and Kate escaped beyond the square and quickly retreated to the covered wagon where the rest of the troupe awaited. Kate disappeared into the wagon to dress quickly. The men harnessed the white mare to the wagon, climbed aboard, and wheeled the wagon around, exiting the village by the south gate. The players formed a train, lagging several yards behind the departing wagon.

Not far outside the gate, the disheveled woman emerged from behind the gnarled trunk of an oak tree and raced toward the colorful player’s cart. Ethelrod extended a hand raising her up beside him on the driver’s seat. “No time to talk now. We make haste to the old forest road,” and he lightly snapped the whip on the nag’s swayed back. Gamely, she quickened her step a bit, energized by the oat bag fastened to her nose and sensitivity she had developed from a long relationship with the driver. She summoned a brisk trot for a mile, then lagged somewhat as the caravan swerved into the forest gloom. Ethelrod let the mare amble at a gentle pace. She was familiar with the way to the hidden dell deep in the recesses of the forest where they would make their camp. Toward dusk, the troupe angled into a narrow break in the dense foliage and stopped in an area circled by protective oaks. Minutes later, the train of players trickled into the dell. After the campfire was lit and the kettle of stew was warming above the flames, the troupe settled around the pit to hear the rescued woman’s story.

Ethelrod began, “With what witchery did they charge you?”

“Yes, tell us do,” Kate echoed, an amiable smile on her round face.

“Gladly, I’ll tell you who rescued me. I am an orphan, raised by the midwife who died and taught me her simples and medicaments. She trained me in the ways of the healer and showed me every curative plant and herb, mushroom and flower in the forest. When the chandler’s wife gave birth to a boy with a club foot, they blamed me. Then, the reeve’s daughter was born with a split lip and he pointed the figure at me again.”

“Nothing but a run of bad luck,” Kate exclaimed indignantly.

“Not to them. Bad births are a sign of sorcery—the devil’s work—to them. One addled love-struck maid, who couldn’t get the attentions of the mayor’s son, accused me of lasciviously dancing with him at the maypole.”

“Mere jealousy,” Kate bellowed. “That be the devil all the time.”

“Shut up, Madame, and listen her out,” Ethelrod gently reprimanded his effusive mate.

“If truth be told, the lad did have an eye for me,” the young woman laughed, brightening at the memory, her beauty heightening despite the disarray of her hair and garments.

“Aye, did you return the favor?” Kate asked playfully.

“Well, no . . . I am not disposed to marry. My vocation is nun-like as was the beldame, Mistress Marion, who took me when my parents died of the plague. My father was a traveling tinker. My mother passed first and afterwards he left me on the midwife’s doorstep before he expired also.”

“A sad tale,” Ethelrod said.

“You be safe now with us,” Kate said. “With a bit of sprucing up, you’ll be a player. Can you sing and dance, lass?”

“To be sure I can do a jig or Morris dance as well as the next one as soon as administer a healing draft or apply a poultice to a wound,” she answered cheerily.

“Will you join our band, then, of merry players?” Ethelrod chimed in.

“If you’ll have me.”

“We will,” the troupe cried in unison.

“Draw a keg of ale,” Ethelrod shouted. “Let’s celebrate our new player.”

“A fine witch’s brew as ever I drank,” Kate chortled, her jowls jostling. “Fill our chests with jests until every cow jumps over the moon.”

They celebrated into the night and the forest rang with their laughter and song as every woodland creature grew silent, scurrying into their dark burrows. The old forest was dark but comforting, only the merry players providing a spot of light within the gloom.

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Fiddling around with Poetry

As I put together my eighth poetry book, Marianne Moore’s famous poem “Poetry” keeps intruding into my thoughts. Her poem begins with the memorable words, “I, too, dislike it.” She goes on to refer to poetry as “fiddle.” I admit I have been unapologetically fiddling around with poetry since I was sweet sixteen. I’ve decided to title this latest collection of fiddling around Still Unrepentant. I am unlikely to repudiate this sinful pleasure any time soon. I will die both loving and disliking poetry.

I suppose I dislike poetry primarily because few people except other poets actually ever read it. I love it because it increases life’s meaningfulness. I dislike it when I don’t understand it, and I am like the bat “holding upside down” in Moore’s poem. I have been hopping around a long time like a real toad in that imaginary garden, which is Moore’s metaphor for the art of writing poetry. Inherent in that metaphor are two dichotomies: poetry is composed of both fantasy and reality; poetry deals with both the beautiful and the ugly. Gardens are thought of as beautiful places abloom with colorful flowers and greenery while toads with their warts and bulging eyes are perceived as unattractive.  For Moore, good poetry must be both raw and genuine.

When I confess to others that I write poetry, I receive blank looks in response, as if I am, in fact, a strange toad they just encountered in the road, and they are left speechless, not knowing how to react to such an oddity. “Really, a poet?” they’d like to say, staring uncomprehendingly at this eccentric who writes poems rather than action-packed thrillers. In the first poem in my new collection, entitled “Incorrigible,” I imagine asking absolution in Catholic confession for the sin of writing. Afterwards I leave the confessional as unrepentant as ever.

Above all, I like poetry for its playfulness with language and its double meanings, in the very way in which Moore uses the word fiddle. A fiddle is a musical instrument. The poet fiddles, or plays around, with words. Poetry is no more nonsensical or less serious an art than playing the violin. To fiddle around implies that an activity is idle and inconsequential, and therefore a trivial pursuit. Moore’s irony, however, leads to the opposite conclusion. In poking fun at the popular belief that poetry is purposeless, she asserts poetry is what is truly genuine, for it strikes at the core of life. Creativity defines the essence of our humanity. Man is the animal with language. The concision of poetry is the supreme expression of our ability to shape language into meaning. Poetry also is the ideal means to avoid the pitfall contained in Socrates’ dictum: The unexamined life is not worth living. I render my life meaningful, at least to myself, in the act of writing poetry, and I remain unrepentant.

The Brothers Karamazov

My inclination of late has been to revisit the great novels I read in youth rather than to read noteworthy contemporary books. This is my third venture into The Brothers Karamazov. Because it is such a long and comprehensive exploration of both the depths of depravity and the heights of virtue, each reading brings new insights and appreciation of Dostoyevsky’s achievement.

To a certain degree I retreated to literature this time as a respite from my obsession with Trump-watching. Day after day, being upset and depressed by his absurdities, ignorance, and lies was so tiresome that I sought relief in the magnificent product of an extraordinary mind. Getting lost in a great book is the ultimate stress-reliever.

But that respite did not last long, for from the first pages Fyodor Karamazov reminded me of The Donald. Fyodor has three sons by two different mothers and a presumed illegitimate son Smerdyakov. In the neighborhood, Fyodor is known as a clown and a buffoon of crude tastes and lecherous propensities. He’s acquired his wealth by dubious land dealings. He is a disgrace and an embarrassment to his sons who after their mothers’ deaths are neglected in childhood while Fyodor pursues his business affairs and licentious lifestyle. Friends and relatives take over the care of the dirty and ill-clad little boys. Dmitri, the son by his first wife, follows a military career. Ivan, an intellectual and writer, and Alyosha, a seminarian, are his two sons by his second wife. At the beginning of the novel the father, the three sons, and various onlookers assemble in the monastery to receive the advice of the old priest Zossima, who counsels the reprobate Fyodor Karamazov in this passage:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and who listens to his own lies gets to a point where he can’t distinguish any truth in himself or in those around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. Having no respect for anyone, he ceases to love, and to occupy and distract himself without love he becomes a prey to his passions and gives himself up to coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, and all this from continual lying to people and to himself. A man who lies to himself can be more easily offended that anyone else.

Luckily, as the novel progresses, my mind is diverted from the similarities between Karamazov and The Donald to philosophical and moral considerations beyond the current American political scene, for Dostoyevsky’s work encompasses both the Russian soul and the universal human condition.

The supremacy of love and of forgiveness in the regeneration of debased mankind is reinforced continually, personified in the character of Alyosha, the youngest son, who unconditionally accepts everyone as his brother. Karamazov is not the only one who has problems with honesty, but also Grushenka and Katerina, the two female characters contributing to the plot’s nexus of jealousy, revenge, and passion. To one degree or another all the characters are tortured souls. The novel is deeply religious and psychological, delving into the recesses of human nature to examine what would cause a man to commit vile acts and what motivates a person to murder. Why would a child hate his father so much as to kill him? Ivan comes to believe he is complicit in parricide, because he planted the seed in the mind of the actual murderer while his brother Dmitri stands accused of the crime and is unjustly convicted.

The theme of father-son relationships is expanded in the subplot of the boy Ilyusha and his father. In contrast to the Karamazovs, they have a loving relationship. Dostoyevsky takes this theme further in Alyosha’s friendship with the precocious thirteen-year old Kolya, who can overcome his worse instincts under Alyosha’s tutelage. In this dynamic, Alyosha replicates the loving relationship that he had with the Elder Zossima, his spiritual father, in the monastery. The opening of the novel juxtaposes the death of the beloved Zossima with the final scene in the novel in which Ilyusha dies, surrounded by the boys who once bullied him and who now love him. The anguished atheist Ivan also possesses a heightened sensitivity to the suffering of children in his repudiation of a God who permits innocent children to endure unspeakable brutality at the hands of adults.

Ivan is the nihilist, Dimitri is the sensualist, and Alyosha is the Christ-figure searching for verities in religious orthodoxy. During the murder trial, the prosecuting attorney compares the brothers to a troika, each one representing a facet of the Russian soul, pulling a runaway sleigh.  He engages in a lengthy psychological analysis–impressive in 1880 before the emergence of Freud and Jung. The defense attorney begins by stating psychology is a double-edged sword and uses the same set of facts to disprove the prosecution’s argument in psychological terms. The descriptions of the spectators’ morbid fascination and the courtroom drama are remarkably like the conduct of televised sensational court cases today. All the passions and motifs in the novel intensify once the accused murderer is brought to trial. If the reader has borne with Dostoyevsky’s long passages and meanderings until this point, he will be astounded with the relevancy of these last chapters to contemporary issues of crime and punishment.

In writing any book review, I strive to avoid giving away too much of the plot. In this case, it is pretty much an impossibility to scratch more than the surface of the plot and spiritual dimensions. The novel is far too vast, intricate, and philosophical. One reason the literary canon rates The Brothers Karamazov a classic is because it calls for multiple readings. Dostoyevsky died soon after its publication. Although it reads complete in itself with Alyosha comforting the grieving boys after Ilyusha’s burial in the final scene, Dostoyevsky purportedly considered extending the story to account for what becomes of Alyosha, the youngest of the three brothers. There are other characters not fully accounted for. What ultimately happens to Grushenka and Katerina? Does Ivan’s madness end in his commitment to a mental institution? How does the convicted murderer fare in a Siberian prison? Does the escape plan hinted at actually occur? Not all threads come together, yet the conclusion is not so open-ended either that I am left unsatisfied. Rather I find it delightful to speculate about the fate of the other characters.

So what did I gain from reading this book in the Age of Trump? Alyosha concludes after hearing Ivan’s poem about the Grand Inquisitor that anything is permitted if God does not exist. Ivan affirms that conclusion, saying “I shall never repudiate the formula of ‘everything is permitted,’ but you will repudiate me for it, won’t you?” Alyosha is silent and responds only by getting up and kissing his brother. Vileness, personal attacks, and repulsive behavior–as strange as they may seem–are cries to be loved and appreciated. Dostoyevsky’s answer like that of all great spiritual leaders is to forgive and to give your brother the love he seeks.

This is easier said than done. It takes a saint to treat a scoundrel in this way. But to return attack with attack, truly, does perpetuate the cycle of hate. However, I don’t believe it is virtuous to remain silent in the face of injustice. It is incumbent to speak up against the authoritarians who like the Grand Inquisitor offer us “miracles, mystery, and authority” in the belief that freedom is too much for the ordinary man to bear. I am no saint, so perhaps the next best course of action is to gently admonish, bless the scoundrel for he knows not what he does, and then fall silent.