Archive for the ‘My Poetry Books’ Category

Al-Andalus: Latest Collection of Narrative Poems

Continuing the style I began with Women at the Well and Land of the Four Quarters, in this collection of narrative poems I give voice in dramatic monologues to the Moriscos, who from 1492 to their final expulsion from Spain in 1609, struggled to preserve their culture and language within a dominant Christian society. Conversion did not spare them from this fate. Some of the characters are historical; some of them imagined and a few are characters taken from Miguel Cervantes’s monumental novel Don Quixote in two parts, which appeared at the time the final solution to the Morisco problem would be implemented.  In history there are many examples of ethnic cleansing; this is but one of them. Because the policy continues around the world today, I was impelled to write about the Moriscos.

In Al-Andalus, I create an English version of the Arabic poetic form called the muwashshah.  Here is one of them in which the Alhambra speaks:

Arabesques and colored tiles tell my tale.Al-Andalus Cover

The vanished Moor built on a grand scale.

 

Songs once sung do not die when done

But linger in the air to arise like the sun.

The silence whirs as if silk is being spun

In graceful script and architectural detail

That Ferdinand and his men dare not assail.

 

Enclosed in alcoves rhythms of the lute

Pulsate accompanied by the plaintive flute.

Banished the kohl-eyed beauty but not mute.

In the Alhambra yet is heard the houri wail

Though her plea to stay is to no avail.

 

The silence holds sad melody like a bee

Preserved in amber, its buzz in quiet key

Resounds beyond the present century.

Those who came before leave a pollen trail

Though their time was filled with constant travail.

 

My name corrupts the Arabic word for red

That came out as Alhambra when it’s said

By Spaniards drinking of our fountainhead.

Within these halls although my voice be frail

Those well-tuned will hear a whispered tale.

 

Carlos the King spent a six-month honeymoon

Ensconced in my walls, like a girl in a swoon

Applauding the dances to tambourine tune.

Granada, tu tierra está llena de lindas mujeres

Is the Spanish song my walls echo nowadays.

In 1492 the Spanish Jews were first given the royal ultimatum to either convert to Christianity or suffer forced deportation. In 1523, Carlos V reneged on the terms of the 1492 surrender, which granted religious and cultural freedom to the Moslems of Granada, serving them the same ultimatum the Jews had received. Mass baptisms of the Moors ensued. The prohibitions against wearing Moorish clothing, practicing Islamic customs and speaking Arabic were suspended for forty years, purportedly to allow for cultural and religious assimilation. Under Philip II the mandates were re-imposed resulting in the rebellion of the Moriscos in the War of the Alpujarras 1568-1570. After the defeat of the Moriscos, Philip ordered the dispersal of the surviving Moriscos to other regions of Spain—a strategy to prevent a concentration of Moriscos that would be capable of armed revolt again. Throughout the sixteenth century the converted Moriscos were suspect. Religious and secular leaders feared they were a third column within the country conspiring with the Ottoman Empire to reconquer Spain for the Islamic world. After decades of debate and suspicion, Philip III ordered the final expulsion of Spain’s Moriscos in 1609. Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra witnessed this process. Indeed, he was writing the second half of El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha during this removal and must have seen caravans of Moors under guard being marched to the sea ports for transport to North Africa.

In recent history Moslems have returned to Spain. They arrive in boats from North Africa. It remains to be seen whether in this century the efforts at peaceful co-existence will succeed. Can an amalgamation of cultures result?

Tribute to Saul Alinsky, Community Organizer

Le Penseur, Museé Rodin, Paris by Innoxious/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Le Penseur, Museé Rodin, Paris by Innoxious/CC-BY-SA-2.0

The long narrative poem I began in May 2012 available in paperback and e-book editions. The title is taken from a quote of Rabbi Hillel, which Saul Alinsky learned as a boy and sought to adhere to throughout his life that ended suddenly in 1972 on a sidewalk in Carmel, California at the age of 63.  Hillel counseled: “Where there are no men, be thou a man.” The cover image of Rodin’s The Thinker is a reminder that Alinsky kept on his desk a figurine of the famous sculpture.  The community organizer was expert in using the Socratic method to get people to think about how they could change their lives.

Be Thou a Man is a biography written in formal verse telling the story of Saul Alinsky’s work as a criminologist, social activist, and community organizer–a legacy that Barack Obama drew from in his own work in Chicago. I correct the misconceptions surrounding Alinsky’s name, which some political figures like Newt Gingrich have tried to associate with the far left, socialists and communists. The truth is Alinsky was none of these, and more accurately espoused a grass-roots, democratic process to problem-solving. Because of views I expressed in a Letter-to-the-Editor, I  was associated negatively with Alinsky, the insinuation being that because my roots were in Chicago, I was contaminated by Alinsky’s radicalism. My knowledge of the man was vague, so I began to read everything I could find out about him and learned he was no more a radical than the Founding Fathers. In Alinsky’s vocabulary radical is not a derogatory term, but one he proudly adopted. Alinsky did not belong to any political party, but rather fell into the conservative camp in his opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which he termed a “prize piece of political pornography.”

The narrative poem is divided into the seven decades of the twentieth century in which Alinsky lived. In the final section, “Missive from the Underworld,” Saul Alinsky speaks from hell to the people living today and comments on current American conditions. The poem concludes with this stanza delivered in his voice:

From out hell’s friendly flames I can spy

the middle class contract, reduced to fears

of foreclosure, not able to get by:

I strike the match to rears of financiers.

From torrid lips I fire furious blast

of liberty’s bugle rousing the caste

whose reservoir of patience has run dry,

their fair share the super-rich have siphoned

off—in protest they march, all toughened,

on Wall Street, the middle in gear at last.

To hell with humdrum chain gang plaints

or Can’t-Win-For-Losing blues anymore

for We’re The People the document paints

paramount, those the Union was made for.

I once said on earth the angles abound;

hear me frolic with angels under ground.

You may ask why on earth write the biography in formal verse? Any numskull knows poetry doesn’t sell. Nobody reads poetry in the United States anymore. Poets don’t have an audience outside of barroom poetry slams. Are you joking?  You’re beating your head against a brick wall.

This poet has a thick skull. I wrote my tribute as a long narrative poem because I wanted to.  I decry the state of poetry as the reserve of the academics.  I still cling to the notion that narrative poetry in the past has appealed to a broad base of general readers and it can again, for narrative poetry is the mode to capture a larger readership for poetry. Published poetry today is either filled with obscure, self-absorbed, abstract images accessible only to its creator or written in prosaic lines. I am a literature major and confess to either not getting most of the poetry I read in Poetry or other prestigious literary magazines or being so bored with the pedestrian lines of prose arranged as poetry that I can’t finish reading the poem. I wrote my tribute as a long narrative poem because I like reading verse-novels such as Byrne by Anthony Burgess and Darlington’s Fall by Brad Leithauser. These are wonderful book-length narrative poems. I enjoyed the challenge of writing Be Thou A Man as a narrative poem. Above all I wrote it in formal verse, because poetry is the best form to praise great men.

Please Trespass Here

I read both novels and poetry. Sometimes I combine the two and read a verse-novel (a rare find). An excellent example of a full-length verse-novel that I recently reread is Darlington’s Fall by Brad Leithauser. It leaves me wondering why it did not receive more acclaim than it did.  The novel I just finished reading is 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. Wanting to know about this writer, I read that he died before the novel was published and that he wrote poetry first, but turned to novels to earn money when he had children to feed. That got me to thinking about other novelists who also wrote poetry. Margaret Atwood, D.H. Lawrence, Erica Jong, Herman Melville, John Updike, and Sherman Alexie come to mind. If my readers can suggest others, please share them and offer your opinion of how well they do in each genre. There is also Sylvia Plath, primarily a poet, who wrote her one novel The Bell Jar. And, of course, Tolkien included verse in the form of songs in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy.

From writing poetry, I trespassed into the land of fiction, writing novels and short stories.  In my latest poetry book, Please Trespass Here, I have collected all the poetry I have written since 2001. The collection is divided into five sections: Settings, Characters, Motifs, Novenas for Grandmother, and Playground. The topics span world events in the first decade of the 21st century mixed with humorous takes on daily life and nature. Themes turn to the criminal mind and to literary figures. The title invites the reader to trespass into the poet’s territory and be rewarded, among other things, with sightings of moose, a great grey owl, and a bear.  After completing this poetry book, I have set poetry aside for the time being to begin a new novel. I will never entirely abandon poetry, for I get great pleasure from crafting a poem’s lines and stanzas.

I invite those who only read novels or anyone who left poetry behind when they left school to trespass on the territory of poetry. The rhythm and imagery that jump out at you in your favorite prose passages thrive in the concision of poetry. I offer here the title piece:

 Please Trespass Here

Please Trespass Here Book Cover

The tempo of summer simply slows

Like subtle flutter of warbler wings.

A grasshopper lurches in the lawn,

While I loll, open book, on the deck.

Nothing as serene as a printed page

Spread to the sun in perfect marriage

Of mind and matter—the world soul

Emerson thought of long ages ago

Before my mountain home was born.

Unwelcome cowbird lands on the feeder.

Today I am content to see the intruder.

There’s room for crossbill and grosbeak,

Prettier by far than this dusky wayfarer

Who neither reads nor admits of signs.

Ample is the hour, ample is the sky

For vagrant cloud and flagrant crow.

No circle more sacred than black soil

And no world larger than this moment.

The Dramatic Monologue: Biblical Women Speak

A dramatic monologue in poetry is not exactly the same type of speech as a soliloquy in the theatre.  In a soliloquy the character is alone on stage speaking his thoughts Woman at the Wellaloud. There is no auditor other than the audience who is eavesdropping on those thoughts; although in a poetic dramatic monologue, the speaker could be alone talking aloud to himself, too.

Often the dramatic monologue is termed a persona poem, because the voice, the “I” of the poem, is a person speaking. In the process, the speaker reveals his personality traits and situation.  Often his words are directed to an implied auditor. Other times the auditor is identified by use of direct address.  The dramatic monologue could be described as a one-way conversation.

The soliloquy in theatre and the dramatic monologue in poetry share in common the dramatization of character.  The dramatic monologue works to communicate peculiarities of speech, distinctive traits; and details about the time, place and other circumstances of the character’s life.  Inherently, the dramatic monologue is fully realized in its theatrical performance. Some of the most memorable poems in English literature are dramatic monologues. In high school, Robert Browning’s classic poem in this form—“My Last Duchess”—fired my passion for poetry. In Browning’s poem there is an implied auditor to the Duke’s remarks. In another unforgettable example, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” identity of the “you” that Prufrock addresses in the opening lines is open to speculation. The dramatic nature of these poems endows them with a story-telling power not comparable in lyrical poetry. Robert Frost expanded the dramatic poem to a two-way conversation in such poems as “Death of the Hired Man” and “Home Burial.”

Before writing the collection Women at the Well, I had dabbled in persona poems, chiefly because the dramatic aspect made them ideal for oral interpretation in a Readers’ Theatre setting. The centerpiece of the collection is the woman whom Jesus meets at the well. She gives him water and he probes her soul. After hearing a church homily on John 4:1-28, I went home to write the poem “Woman at the Well.” That poem got me thinking about other nameless women in the Bible whose back stories begged to be told. Even the big name players like Deborah and Judith needed an expanded voice. In rereading the women’s stories, I discovered there was so much left unsaid in the male version that the gaping holes had to be filled. And the women’s stories must be told in their own words as imaginatively as I could.

I appointed myself to do this task in 1986.  When I started the project, I was aware that revisionist looks at the Bible were appearing more in both fiction and non-fiction. As the poems progressed, I saw my Old Testament women filled with rage while the New Testament women reflected Christ’s message of love. The New Testament women were frequently the first Christian converts, so that in Part Two of the Women at the Well, the speeches become less strident. Since then my dramatic monologues have gone through two revisions and expansions.  In its latest edition Women at the Well now includes the voices of sixty-one Old and New Testament women.

I confess to taking many liberties; I offer unorthodox interpretations of some of the Biblical women’s lives. I even went so far as to include a dramatic monologue by a woman who is never mentioned in the Bible: Judas’ mother. I wondered what the mother would say about her son’s betrayal of Jesus.  In some poems, it is clear whom the woman addresses; in others her auditor is unidentified. In the paired piece, “Lot’s Daughters,” I have the two sisters alternate in a two-way conversation. The dramatic monologue in all its manifestations proved ideal for having the Biblical women come alive on the stage. In retrospect, I had probably the most fun writing this book than any other.

Writers usually turn to writing the types of writing that they enjoy.  Naturally, I turned to dramatic monologue in Women at the Well, having read so much memorable poetry written in this form.

Can you recommend some dramatic monologues in poetry?  Have you used the form in your own poetry?

The Power of Play

The importance of play in early childhood development has been pointed out in psychological research. The human brain is wondrously malleable from infancy to seven years old. The globe has been explored, but the brain is the most exciting frontier remaining to fully chart.  Language acquisition in the first twenty-four months of life is an incredible phenomenon.  More so is the capability of that infant brain to acquire more than one language and to keep the phonological and syntactic codes of multiple languages separate.  In many ways the acquisition of language can be seen as free play, alone and with the parent. The baby babbles freely and playfully imitates the speech of his mother. The child’s language acquisition accelerates as the parents sing, talk and recite nursery rhymes to the child. The adults invent many new verbal games to play with the child as well as using the familiar Patty-cake, Ride-a-Pony and This Little Piggy.

Fascination with how play formed such an important part of my life and that of my peers growing up in the 1950s and 1960s led me to recall the games and activities that occupied so much of our waking hours.  Recollection of my childhood days underscored the fact that playing outdoors was vital.  We preferred even to play a board game on the front porch than to stay inside.  Fortunately, television did not broadcast around-the-clock and children’s programming was within restricted hours.  We went to bed at a decent hour, way before that off-the-air signal appeared on the screen, and we could be alert for school the next morning.  Unorganized activities (soccer moms take note) without adult surveillance in those pre-teen years allowed for the free play of imagination. We created our own images on the screens of our minds without the pre-packaging of manufactured electronic toys.

I fear my readers will think me a Luddite, one of those dowdy anti-tech dinosaurs, who claim the good old days were Nirvana. Hardly. I love my computer and acquired my first one in 1984. I concede video games improve hand and eye coordination and have their place as an enjoyable past-time. What I do not concede is the unbridled time spent on computer games to supplant outdoor games, inventive play, and reading as the major portion of a child’s day.  I would not have the child’s computer time scheduled for the hour before bedtime.  The computer screen seems to extend wakefulness and inhibit normal sleepiness at the end of the day.  I would schedule that fun hour when the child first arrives home from school at a time before supper.

Reflection along these lines was the catalyst for my series of poems on childhood activities.  A childhood without electronic gadgets and television 24/7 was magical. Physical exercise and expansion of the imagination were its hallmarks. An overweight eight-year old was an oddity.  I reflected that the growth of consumerism created a market for expensive toys. Previously, more often than not, children made do with simple toys or made their own.   Those makeshift kites and jump ropes somehow provided endless hours of entertainment compared to today’s electronic games that may be abandoned altogether a few weeks after the Christmas present is unwrapped.  I collected the poems I wrote to recapture this pre-digital age childhood in my poetry book Playground. I hope aging baby boomers will take a trip down memory lane in this book. For those born after 1969, I hope it motivates you, as President Obama counseled also, to turn off the television and read a book aloud to your children.   Allow into a child’s life the room for the type of play that empowers, the play that expands imagination and inventiveness.