Friday, December 30, 2005

"Chuzzle This," said Duke

Sorry Duke, but I had to write that down since you have said that to me a number of times as I was planning to read Dickens' "Martin Chuzzlewit", and I think it is darned funny. Although I could not possibly explain what it means, and given the tone of it I'm not sure I'd want to.....

Short note here to post the following to the battalions of hangers-on to The Secret Thread. I am currently engaged, as you may note on the right here, in my "Annual Dickens Read" for 2005, although it will technically spill into 2006, unless I can read approximately 700 pages in the next two days. As I've been saying since the summer, this time it is "Chuzzlewit": the only Charles Dickens novel to be partially set in America, released in the early 1840s in serial form, and the first Dickens novel that was ultimately less successful than the novel before it. It was his first 'quasi-dud' in other words, it is interesting to note. I'm not sure why that would be. If you're concerned about that, don't be: the next book he published was "A Christmas Carol" which vaulted him into super-stardom and is still probably the most famous of his books and the most famous Christmas story this side of the Christmas Story itself.

I plan to post on here some notes and thoughts about "Martin Chuzzlewit" upon my conclusion of the book. It is essentially the story of an eccentric rich man and an inheritance, making broad commentary on human nature and greed as people lobby for an old man's money. Should be interesting indeed.

Dickens, or as I like to call him, "Chuck D", was probably the greatest novelist of all time in English. It is a very fun and interesting exercise to read one of his great novels every year, and this is my fourth time doing it. I am looking forward to posting my thoughts and seeing how this novel compares in my own estimation to the others I have read to date, which are, for the record: A Tale of Two Cities (not part of my "Annual" progam), Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House, and Dombey and Son.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Duke Altum's NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2005

This gets harder to pull off every year, but since I have managed to do it for the last two I suppose I better buck up and see if I can push out a third. But how do you narrow down all that you’ve read in the course of one year into a neat, convenient list of the “10 Best”? Answer: you can’t. However, you can recommend some particularly good ones that stand out in your memory from recent months past, titles that you feel would be of others’ benefit to know about. So that’s what my list is going to be this year: a smattering of books that provide unique and fascinating insights into our common condition, into a particular region or historical period, into spiritual or moral questions, or into subjects various and sundry and interesting… in fact, the best of the lot may just cover all of those categories.

So without any further effusions, here are ten noteworthy and highly-recommended (by yours truly anyway) books that I’ve read in the past year or so, listed in no particular order. Who knows, maybe one of them will catch your eye. And even if they don’t… keep “casting out to the depths” with your reading! If you do so, you can’t fail to bring up pearls of wisdom to stimulate your mind and fortify your soul…



Grendel, John Gardner
This is an utterly unique and enthralling book, especially if you happen to have read Beowulf. Gardner, with powerful imagination and beautiful, crisp prose, engages us in a haunting re-telling of the epic poem, this time from the perspective of the monster. But in doing so, he also gives us a rich meditation on loneliness, spiritual hunger, and the struggle to come to terms with the mystery – and at times, misery – of existence in a fallen world that seems cut off from its Source. Why does Grendel kill and howl in the night? What motivates him to maim and slaughter the very creatures he is so obviously interested in? Is it possible that the monster yearns for communion and for understanding, just as we do? Or is he simply Evil incarnate? Such are the depths plumbed in this most original, rewarding, and surprisingly moving novel.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Please see my post entitled ‘An African-American Ulysses: Duke's scattered reflections upon getting halfway through Ellison's Invisible Man’ from October 24, 2005 (in the Archives section -> October 2005).

R. S. Thomas Reads the Poems (CD), R. S. Thomas
Technically this is cheating because it is a CD I’ve listened to (3 actually), not a book I’ve read, but since it’s a recording of Thomas reading many of his own poems, I figure it’s acceptable. This rare recording (a gift from Mutt, I want to note) of Thomas reading work from throughout his long career is one of the treasures of my entire collection. I couldn’t possibly express in a few lines here how powerful an experience is it to hear Thomas’ shaky octogenarian voice read his stunning poems, which are mostly about God, nature, Wales (where he served for fifty years as an Anglican priest), and human yearning. Listening to Thomas’ world-weary croak as he wheezes through these verses makes me feel like Jacob wrestling with the angel: the poems are a struggle with Divine forces and truths far greater than I can ever understand, but they do not leave me without a blessing either. Absolutely unforgettable.

The Aeneid, Virgil
Please see my post entitled ‘Of Arms and the Man’ from September 21, 2005 (in the Archives section -> September 2005).

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Breece D’J Pancake
Please see my post entitled ‘A Troubled Guest on the Dark Earth’ from October 4, 2005 (in the Archives section -> October 2005).

Holy Thursday, Francois Mauriac
I think I may have actually read this last year, but I don’t care – it’s such a great book that I couldn’t keep it off of the list (and most likely just forgot to add it to 2004’s). It’s not often that a Nobel Prize winning-novelist also writes a deeply personal, spiritual memoir on the Eucharist (and it would NEVER happen today), but that’s exactly what this book is. Wise, lucid, heart-felt reflections on the meaning and value of the sacrament that the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the source and summit of all Christian life.” The writing is nothing short of gorgeous, and Mauriac’s ruminations on this most important of themes are often quite profound. Especially recommended for anyone who would like to develop or awaken within themselves a more fervent desire to draw closer to Christ and to, more specifically, “know Him in the breaking of the bread.”

The Ice Palace, Tarjei Vesaas
Here’s a novel that you truly feel you’re dreaming, rather than reading. The story is simple enough: two Norwegian girls strike up an unusually close, almost mystical, friendship, and then one wanders into a natural labyrinth created by a frozen waterfall, and never returns. The other spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out what happened. But a secret (never quite revealed) is passed between them too before she disappears, and from there, the sheer magic and wonder of Vesaas’ spare but beautifully poetic prose takes over. His description of the frozen waterfall (the titular ‘ice palace’) is among the most stunning, evocative passages I have ever read in my life, even in translation (I can’t imagine what the experience of reading it in the original Norwegian must be like). This book is the proverbial mystery wrapped up in an enigma, but it’s so magnificently rendered, you hardly mind not being able to cross all the t’s at the end. No wonder the publisher who first brought out an English translation called it “the best novel I have ever published.”

Going Native, Stephen Wright
If you took Kerouac’s On the Road, Oliver Stone’s film Natural Born Killers, a few episodes of The Jerry Springer Show, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and several splashes of suburban ennui and threw them all in a blender, the concoction you get might taste a little bit like Wright’s hellish road novel Going Native. But notice I only said “a little bit.” To describe the book in that way sells it far, far short of its deserved worth. In terms of sheer originality and talent, this one ties Vesaas’ The Ice Palace as the best novel of the year for me. But it is a very, very different book… it can only be described as a surreal, violent roller-coaster ride through the unhinged carnival of a society that lost its moorings a long time ago, and seems to be hurtling headlong into an unknown, unforeseen future. That society is ours… and so, Wright seems to imply, is that future. Hallucinatory, unnerving, heart-pounding, terrifying, jaw-dropping, belly-laughter-inducing, chilling… these are only some of the words I can think of to describe Wright’s performance in this novel. I’ve never read another one like it.

Blue Blood, Edward Conlon
Fascinating, impeccably written memoir from Conlon, a fourth-generation Irish-American police officer working the seamy streets of the South Bronx (and still working them as a detective, it should be said). What separates this book from most other cop stories, I would imagine, is above all the quality of the writing: Conlon went to Harvard and knows how to string sentences together. He also draws liberally from a variety of interesting sources: everything from The Godfather to Gangs of New York to the Confessions of Saint Augustine. His detailed, precise descriptions of street cops trying to rid the neighborhood of the scourge of drugs makes for riveting reading, fully immersing you in the dirty, noisy, often violent life of the street. I’ll never forget reading the passages that describe sifting through the rubble that was all that was left of the Twin Towers after 9/11 (somehow Conlon was able to capture in words the soul-sucking sadness and weariness inherent in such a task, and not just rely on the “gross-out” factor). The entire book is a gripping, meticulous, balanced account of life as a New York City cop in the 21st century, and I highly doubt a better (or more accurate) one exists currently.

The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes,

Denise Levertov
Very profound collection of poems on, well, religious themes by Levertov, a woman of Jewish origin who converted to Christianity as an adult. Inspired in part by the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, many of these poems attempt to re-imagine familiar biblical scenes from the point of view of a character (or even an object!) within the story, and the experiment yields some rich insights. (Examples: one poem presents to us the last supper from the perspective of a servant girl, another is ‘narrated’ by the fig tree that was cursed by Christ in that strange gospel passage!?!) I found almost all of the poems to be both challenging and edifying to my faith, in addition to being beautifully rendered... an instructive, wise and thought-provoking little book that can be enjoyed by anyone, whether they’re “into” poetry or not.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Journal of a "Novel" - Entry 3

This blog is about "literature and the spiritual life", a Thomas Merton-ian description for the forum appended to the blog by its founder, and my brother, the legendary Duke Altum. My posts have not focused very much on the spiritual life side of the equation. I'm nowhere near as good waxing on this subject as Duke is, but there is certainly a spiritual side to all of my reading and writing pursuits, and that is also the case with this new project. To me, writing has certain spiritual qualities, such as solitude, quietude, acting on impulses of the heart and the will and the subconscious, probing into the deepest recesses of the soul for a glimpse of truth. So I suppose my justification of blogging about my own writing projects is that, in one sense, I am talking about spiritual activity in some obscure way, and if that sounds imprecise and unsure of itself, it is. But it does not mean that, in my case, writing fiction and spirituality are not connected. Just because my command of the language is inadequate to the task of articulating why the writing process deserves to be a topic on this blog does not mean that this position is indefensible. It just means that I might not be the guy to do it.

In any case, perhaps what I mean to flail at here in this entry is that this new project I am seeking to undertake does have a spiritual dimension for me. Even more than one. Today I was doing a little reading in the 'Spiritual Exercises' of St. Ignatius as a kind of mental serum for the rest of the day's poisons, if you will. Yes, I know that you are not supposed to 'read' the Exercises, you are supposed to 'make' them, but I don't know much about them and I just wanted to expose myself to the langauge in this old writing itself. And in one of the exercises St. Ignatius makes a suggestion to use the five senses in the contemplation of the Nativity, the actual moment of Incarnation in the birth of Christ. It proceeded to go through the senses, inviting the person making the exercises to try to 'taste' the air in the stable; to 'see' the glory of God, smell the animals and the hay and everything. Even just reading those guidelines seemed to give me a better impression of the Nativity in my own mind, which is what all writers try to do on some level, make you see things.

I realized that this is the sort of experience I want to create for readers of my proposed novel, except about Depression-era Indiana. I want it to become a sensory experience in the sense that you really hear, feel, taste and smell the small town during that age of history. But the challenge of this is obvious: I wasn't there myself. Therefore I have to rely solely on what other writers have said, eyewitnesses like my Dad, and my own imagination. Reading an interview once with Edward P. Jones, the man who wrote the novel 'The Known World' (see Mutt Ploughman's Best Books of 2005), which was set in the Civil War era in Virginia, I read his response to an interviewers question about how he got the details right from the period since he had admitted to doing very little research. He said something to the effect of, 'If I'm the writer, and I tell you it's Virginia in 1850, to you it's Virginia in 1850 until I give you reason to think otherwise.' In other words, he believed in the power of his imagination to see what it looked like himself and describe it. I am sure he went back and checked on details, but to some large extent it was not research but a lack of restriction on his imaginative powers that made that book work successfully.

As in Ignatius' suggestion to use all the senses to contemplate the miracle of the Incarnation, a fiction writer needs to do the same thing to 'get inside' his terrain and then convey that to other people in writing in a way that makes it possible for them to sense where their story is taking place and what it is like there. The words of the Spiritual Exercises definitely seem to help a person experience the spiritual world in a more intimate way. A novelist's words must do the same thing for the world he is creating. This is the sort of effect I am looking to achieve when I write my book. It will take a lot of work.

But there is another spiritual aspect to this project. Why am I really writing it in the first place? Why do I want to go back in time, experience a world I never lived in that is nothing like any world I know? And why do I long for other people to experience that world? These are much more difficult and complex questions. But I think there is something of a vocational aura hovering around this idea that I have had. Do I dare float the possibility that I was intended to write this story? Indeed, BORN to do it? Is this something I can associate with a life calling, a summons by God to maximimize my talents and abilities and create something in imitation of Him that can last, through which people can know something about my family history and the rigors of raising children in the Depression in this country, and through which I can learn more about who my ancestor was and what he was all about? If I do NOT write this story, am I failing in a much more profound way than just not completing a fictional story? Or was I never intended to do it in the first place, as I might have thought I was?

There is, as you can see, a lot of complexity to this idea, and if it is not clear that I have been thinking about it over the years, it will become that way with more postings. I think it is something that I have almost no choice but to attempt. What will come of it? Do I have what it takes? Am I putting too much stock in a vague concept, trying to 'force' it? Who knows. There's no manual for writing novels; if there was, I would have had one done before my mid-30s. But I can tell you this, I'm gonna pursue it. See if I can find the answers to all of these questions.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Journal of a "Novel" - Entry 2

Although I don't know if anyone besides Duke would have read the post, it was fun to introduce my new writing project via the blog in my first entry. It strikes me that if I am not doing any actual writing of a new story yet, and won't be for a while as I have previously explained, it does feel a little strange to call this my new "writing project" since I'm not writing. At least, not in the technical sense.

Nonetheless, in another sense you might argue that I have already been working on this story for years. It might not be accurate to say that I am starting to write it, but it is accurate to say that it is in the works. And arguably has been for a while.

Writing builds up in one's subconscious for a certain period of time before it is ever put onto the page. That period of time is nearly impossible to quantify. But I know from my own writing experiences that before any story or nonfiction piece is written, there is a period of mental planning that occurs, and that could take anywhere from a few weeks to several years, even decades in some cases.

For example, I recently published an article in the journal Rock & Sling on the singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee (see the Archives from August). That piece took me months to write, but I was thinking about it for at LEAST two years prior to ever sitting down to write it. I had been building up a strong desire to put out there somehow my thoughts on what this singer's music meant to me, but sometimes it takes an event to spur the writing along. In the case of this article it was the release of Bill's album 'Friendly Fire' and seeing him perform again for the first time in a couple years that got me to sit down and knock it out.

Or, in a story I serialized on this blog called 'Start Something', a single line from the film 'Edward Scissorhands' stayed with me for years and in an indirect way led to the final line of my story. I wouldn't call it the impetus behind the piece, but it was something that stayed with me and in the end informed a story I wrote years later. For the record, there is a scene where a woman asks Johnny Depp's Edward to hold her, but since he has scissors for hands, he simply says, 'I can't.' I lifted that line and put it in the end of my story in a different context.

There is an interview I heard once with Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck's third and final wife, in which she said that she always knew that Steinbeck was planning a book mentally, because his attention span for trivial matter was very limited. She said there was always a period when whatever she told him in regular conversation kind of went right through the ears without sticking. This because he was preoccupied mentally with planning a novel.

Though I may not suffer Steinbeck's afflication of distractiveness - and maybe that says something about my level of effort for the new project! - I feel like I am in this phase. And I feel like in a way I have been in it for some time. I really don't know what I want to write in this story, or where I plan to take it, but I do have some vague ideas, and they are whirring around in my head as I think about it more. It's hard to get across on here how rapidly an idea grows and how forcefully it makes its presence felt on the writer's mind. But I can tell you, as I guess this blog shows, that I walk around with it threatening to take over my interior live in its totality at every moment. To me this is a positive sign in terms of my creativity, but one must be careful that it does not distract them too much from other responsibilities. After all, I do have two little kids and a wife at home who deserve my attention. Hopefully I do not skimp on them too much in favor of my own literary fantasies.

And what of my ideas for the story? I can give a few random details, which I set down only to see what remains and what doesn't as the planning unfolds in these very early stages.

I'd like the novel to be set in western Indiana, in the 1930s. It will center around one central character, whose name at least for now is Walter Brogan. He's of Irish descent but a few generations removed. (This is a principal difference from the person I am basing him on, my paternal grandfather, who was partly English, but not Irish, at least not that I know of.) I attempted to create this character for the first time recently in a story I started but had to abandon called 'Drifter'. The idea there was to chronicle the end of Walter Brogan's life, which would take place in the early 1960s. It would be the same guy, but those events would not be included in the scope of my supposed novel.

The novel, I think, would span the time of approximately one year in the height of the Great Depression. I was thinking early 1930s, like '32 or '33, but I have to do more research about when it was at its worst. Without giving too much away, I think the story would have something to do with the struggles Brogan has raising a family at this time and working in the oil industry as a fuel distributor. There is a quasi-legend, or at least one version of events, that says that my grandfather, Floyd Lovell, who did distribute oil in the 30s, was fired from his job for extending credit to his customers who could not pay for the oil without persmission to do so.

This story has me by the throat. To me, this is one of the central aspects of my grandfather's character, if it is true. And if it is not, it still will be the central aspect of Brogan's character, because this little detail fascinates me. Floyd Lovell was, by my father's accounts, a difficult, tempermental man at times, and a tough father to live up to if one was bookish and not very gruff. But this anecdotal evidence that he might have shown compassion to other men/families, who were after all no better off than he was, says a great deal to me. It means he had a soul and a heart and knew what was what, in the end, I believe. It means he cared for other human beings, and this knowledge means a lot to me because I never knew the man.

I'll leave it there for now, but this is the terrain I want to explore. I am going to do a lot of research on both the time and the oil industry during that period, for obvious reasons. It should be fun and informative. I also plan to do a lot of talking with my Dad, as much as I can, to support this project. I've talked to him a thousand times about this, but not in this context. I am really looking forward to those upcoming conversations. I'll report about those two, and other aspects of the idea, in upcoming posts.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #19 -- CHRISTMAS EDITION!

A happy, holy Christmas season to all TST readers/participants! For this week's poem, I wanted to invite both celebration and contemplation of the mystery and wonder of the bright miracle of the Incarnation... to that end, I selected one of the remarkable Christmas poems of Thomas Merton. The great monk, mystic, social activist, poet, gadfly and literary critic wrote some very tender and devoted poetry (mostly dedicated to the Blessed Virgin) in the 1940's, and this poem comes from that period. In describing the annual Candlemas ritual practiced in his own monastery, Merton reveals fresh insights and deep spiritual truths about this special season to our jaded minds... "for those who have ears, let them hear." I love the description of he and his fellow monks (and all of us?) as "New Simeons, to kindle/Each at Your infant sacrifice his own life's candle."

May each of our "own life's candle(s)" be re-kindled in the days to come... and stay kindled "Until our sacrifice is done,/(By which not we, but You are known)".

Lux venit! Gloria in excelsis Deo!


The Candlemas Procession

Ad revelationem gentium.

Look kindly, Jesus, where we come,
New Simeons, to kindle,
Each at Your infant sacrifice his own life's candle.

And when Your flame turns into many tongues,
See how the One is multiplied, among us, hundreds!
And goes among the humble, and consoles our sinful kindred.

It is for this we come,
And, kneeling, each receive one flame:
Ad revelationem gentium.

Our lives, like candles, spell this simple symbol:
Weep like our bodily life, sweet work of bees,
Sweeten the world, with your slow sacrifice.
And this shall be our praise:
That by our glad expense, our Father's will
Burned and consumed us for a parable.

Nor burn we now with brown and smoky flames, but bright
Until our sacrifice is done,
(By which not we, but You are known)
And then, returning to our Father, one by one,
Give back our lives like wise and waxen lights.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Introducing Mutt's 'Journal of a "Novel"' - Entry 1

One of my favorite books about writing books is John Steinbeck's post-humously published 'Journal of a Novel', which catalogued the writing of his epic 'East of Eden' (1952). As any Steinbeck crony knows, this book was a collection of letters that Steinbeck wrote to his editor, Pascal Covici, on an almost daily basis during the writing of the novel. He likened these letters to a pitcher warming up his arm before taking the field. After writing the notes, which discussed his progress in the story and also touched on the broader issues/concerns of his life at that time and the world at large, he would dive into his daily 'work' on EofE, averaging about 1500 words a day.

I have decided that am going to attempt to use this blog as my 'Covici', and write about my next fiction project, if I can do it without laughing or causing too much laughter. I want to catalogue my own progress towards my planned "novel" about Depression-era Indiana and fictionalizing my grandfather in some way in a story. But i have to put "novel" in quotes. I've never written a novel, and have no reason to think I can get one published if I did. Yet, I DO think I am capable of writing one, as I've said before. And I may as well try. It's what I'd really like to do in life, therefore I have to make an honest attempt, and I just can't see why now isn't a good time to take it on. I figure by cataloguing my own progress here, as Steinbeck did in an earlier form of communication, I can motivate myself to keep going by making my thoughts quasi-"public". And as any writer knows, anything that motivates one to keep going through the blocked, uninspired periods is worth its weight in gold. (Let's hope I keep ridiculous cliches like that out of the novel.)

When I speak about taking this on "now", let me be clear, I mean starting now, but make no mistake, if I ever finish this project, it will certainly not take weeks or months. It will take years. In essence, what I am doing by writing this post is committing myself to a LONG term writing project. It can be abandoned, of course, if it does not work out (gazillions of previous novel attempts have been ditched by me - one went at least 300 pages). But there's no question that this is the beginning of what must be a serious commitment. Why would I take on such a commitment? Is it even realistic when I just had my second child, I work full time, and write one hour a day if I am lucky??

My only answer is that I don't really feel like I have much choice. I really want to write a novel. I am really drawn to the material of the life of my grandfather, an oil distributor who was raising a family of six children in the 1930s and 40s and who died oyung at 58 in 1961, nine years before I was born. And i just instinctively feel - or if you will, my heart tells me - and this is the most important thing i have to say here - that THERE IS A STORY IN THAT MATERIAL, AND I AM THE PERSON TO WRITE IT. It may be, as I told my brother Duke the other day, that this is part of what I am called to do while I am living on earth. It may sound grandiose, but if it is, than why have I been trying to write fiction consistently for the last FIFTEEN YEARS, since I was 20 years old, in response to impulses I have to do so?

So, let it begin. It will be a long ride. I can't wait to get started on my reading 'research', as I noted in a previous post here. I have no idea what the story is, what it will be all about, but those subjects will be explored as i research and later on as I begin to write the book.

Which brings up my final point. 'Journal of a Novel' is not a really long book. Steinbeck was not planning the novel when he wrote those letters. He was already in the writing phase. I may be six months to a year from ever laying down a word of a first draft on my story. My journal will also catalogue the research period. But I want a place to air out my thoughts and to begin planning the book. So if i realize this dream, in the end this journal will catalogue both the planning and the writing of what may - one never knows - turn out to be the artistic achievement of my life to date. If i can see it through.

I want there to be no doubt from the beginning on this: I TRULY BELIEVE I CAN DO IT. So stay tuned if you want to see if I can.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Read Farther

Very often when you admire a well-known, recognized literary classic (say, Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath), it pays to dig a little deeper into the author’s catalog to see what other lesser known gems can be uncovered and enjoyed. I have found this to be the case with many of my favorite writers who have written highly respected and popular classics – when I’ve searched out some of their other works, I have been richly rewarded through the experience of reading them as well. Sometimes it pays to “read farther.”

I’m thinking about this, I suppose, because I am in the midst of a little run in which I am purposely going back and reading some of the lesser-known works of writers who became famous on the strength of one, or perhaps two, notable books. For example, take Stephen Crane and Sherwood Anderson: two highly-respected, canonized American writers whose most famous works are staples in our country’s high school English courses – The Red Badge of Courage and Winesburg, Ohio respectively. Both of these are undeniably great books, and well deserve their designation as “classics” – but I for one think it’s a shame that such great writers and thinkers, such noble searchers after truth and the soul of America, should only be known for these singular efforts. Especially when both of them contributed other fascinating works to our collective body of literature that seem to be rarely read, or worse, altogether ignored in our day. In my experience, this is usually the case with writers who are known for one great work – there are almost always other works in their oeuvre that are well worth attending to, but that tend to get overshadowed by the great success of the more recognizable one. William Golding gave us Lord of the Flies, for example, but he also gave us the powerful moral fable The Spire. Daniel Defoe is famous for, of course, Robinson Crusoe, but his A Journal of the Plague Year makes for fascinating reading as well. Sinclair Lewis, America's first Nobel laureate, is lauded for Main Street and Babbitt, but many contend that his most ambitious and important novel is his satire on race in America, Kingsblood Royal. [There are exceptions to this, of course: Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece Invisible Man, for example, is the only major work of fiction he produced, and Wilfred Owen was killed in action in World War I, leaving us with only the one astonishing collection of poems (of which ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is by far the most famous).]

Another thing: I have noticed that the most creative, successful writers are usually those that are willing to stretch themselves and try out different genres, styles, and formats through which they can express themselves and refine their art. Scan through the list of Nobel laureates in the last 100 years and you’ll notice that most of these writers didn’t just focus on one genre or style, but were constantly trying new things, branching out, extending themselves in new directions. Look at Steinbeck: most people know him for the aforementioned Grapes or Of Mice and Men, but few realize that he also wrote plays, several books of non-fiction, journalism, travelogues and several different varieties of experimental or satirical fiction. And many of these lesser known Steinbeck works are tremendously interesting and wonderful in their own right. It’s fascinating to me that the famous chronicler of the working-class American families and laborers during the Great Depression years would also write a satirical novella about a Norwegian village that resists Nazi occupation during World War II, or a re-telling of the King Arthur/Knights of the Round Table myth set in southern California.

Two shining examples of this kind of literary daring and versatility are a pair of the greatest writers America has yet to produce, Mark Twain and Herman Melville. Both are obviously well known for very famous works of fiction – Twain for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Melville for Moby Dick and ‘Billy Budd, Sailor.’ But a look deeper into the work of both men reveals an astonishing buffet of riches, there for the tasting for anyone who bothers to come to the table! Twain has given us two books detailing his travels across Europe, an incredible variety of moral fables and short fiction, a serious study of Joan of Arc, rich non-fiction portraits of life on and along ‘The Big Muddy’ (the Mississippi River), and an amazingly wise and poignant meditation on our human condition in his one-of-a-kind Diaries of Adam and Eve. Melville, on the other hand, has blessed us with ground-breaking experimental short fiction (‘Bartleby the Scrivener,’ ‘Benito Cereno,’ ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’), epic poetry, novels satirizing American culture (The Confidence Man), adventures yarns on the high seas, and a wide variety of other novels and stories.

But back to Crane and Anderson for a minute. Chances are the majority of us were essentially forced to read either Winesburg, Ohio or The Red Badge of Courage in a high school English course (or, in my case, both). I, because I only blossomed into a fully flowering book nerd after college, went back as an adult and read them both again, getting a great deal out of each the second time around. Winesburg in particular really knocked me out – reading it as an adult, I realized how ahead of its time it really was (it’s amazing to think it was first published back in 1919), and how obvious an influence it was on so many major writers that came after Anderson, most famously Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. The latter in particular: you can really see, when you read Anderson (assuming some familiarity with Faulkner, which is all I have, some), how some of the interior monologues and inner ruminations of Faulkner’s characters would never have been written without Anderson’s pioneering work in trying to get at the emotional core of Midwestern common folk trapped in small towns, desperate for a richer experience of life than their environment could offer.

But there’s more of this “pioneering work” in Anderson’s largely forgotten follow-up to Winesburg, a story collection called The Triumph of the Egg. Although he deals with similar themes, these stories at times push the boundaries even further, experimenting with different forms and lengths and points of view. They range from a brief, enigmatic 2-pager exploring, of all things, the mysteries of bearing children (‘Motherhood’), to a dark, novella-length tale of a small-town girl returning to her hometown (after moving to the big city of Chicago) for a weekend and reflecting upon her stifling life and experience there (‘Out of Nowhere into Nothing’). Given Anderson’s obvious gift and preference to write about his characters’ inner lives and deepest yearnings (mostly left unfulfilled), it is surprising and quite impressive to me how well he is able to take on the voice of young female characters, which is something he does often in this collection. In many ways this collection seems the next step taken from where Winesburg left off, creatively speaking… and yet, if we get off the train in Winesburg, we miss these other fascinating little whistle-stops out there dotting the Great Plains of the American Midwest… as well as an intriguing window into Anderson’s development as a writer.

And when you think of The Red Badge… Crane wrote this searing novel of the Civil War when he was only 21 years old! Anyone who had read it will agree that that in itself is an astonishing achievement. But what did he go on to write after that? Where did his travels in the world, and on the page, take him? He didn’t get all that far, seeing as he died before he reached the age of thirty… however, he DID manage to create many other memorable works of short fiction, as well as some well-regarded poetry. I recently read some of that short fiction in a small collection called The Open Boat and Other Stories, and some of the work was really profound and interesting. The title story in particular, 'The Open Boat,' surprised me by revealing itself (at least in my reading of it) as a clear precursor to the existential fiction of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. But this was in the late 19th century, several decades before either of these writers came on the scene! Crane vividly describes the experience of being tossed about on a wild sea in an open life boat (something that actually happened to him, which obviously adds to the impact and accuracy of his account), and with healthy doses of philosophical musings mixed into the narrative and a handful of diverse characters, it’s easy to read the story as an allegory for man’s existence in a cold, unfeeling universe of Chance. I’m not sure if that was exactly Crane’s intention, but to me there’s a straight line from this story to stuff like The Stranger and No Exit.

This is not even to mention the next book on my list, Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo, which is described on a prominent web site dedicated to Hugo’s life and work this way:

Dedicated to the island where he spent 15 years of exile, Toilers of the Sea was an addition to Hugo's great illustration of Man's Destiny. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame had depicted Religion, Les Miserables Society - Toilers of the Sea was intended to illustrate Nature. The stage for Mans battle with the elements was the sea, and one of its most horrible creatures lurking in its depths. Hugo's original title for the novel had been The Abyss, which perhaps would have been more appropriate.

Besides being a drama about the ocean surrounding it, Toilers of the Sea was also a display of Hugo's intimate knowledge of life on the Channel Island of Guernsey. The life of the natives, local folklore, the Island people's mixture of English and French and the magnificent scenery gave the novel peculiar and fresh qualities.

Now I don’t know about you, but that to me sounds like a fascinating novel indeed… yet who has ever heard of it, or heard it discussed? Or had it assigned to them in a course? And the corollary question to that, in my mind at least, is, Why haven’t we? But the answer to that question notwithstanding, my point is that it’s in print, you can still find it out there… and that is usually true of many lesser known works by talented and thoughtful writers. It is well worth the time to get out there and pan for these obscure works, because very often there are golden nuggets of wisdom still buried and waiting to be discovered (by the intrepid reader who’s willing to take risks), underneath the silt and sediment of all the cultural run-off that has accumulated since their authors first brought them into being.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #18

Feast of Saint John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz)

Here is one that is appropriate not only chronologically, but also spiritually (at least in my reading of it), for this time of year. Adam Zagajewski is a poet of Polish descent who lives and teaches in America (Houston, to be exact). His writes profound, honest, spiritually astute and deeply emotional poetry. He seems to be carrying on the tradition and work of the great modern Polish poets that came before him, Zbigniew Herbert and Csezlaw Milosz.

I know that Zagajewski, like most Polish boys, grew up steeped in the traditions and rituals of the Catholic Church. I don't have any idea where he is now in relation to that Church, although it is clear from his poetry that a Catholic sensibility and a sacramental view of nature and reality have endured in his soul. I fully understand that this poem could be read as an exhortation to hope for Spring. But to me, the final lines of this poem can only point to the miracle of the Incarnation, as the needle of a compass can only point to True North. December may seem a "herald of destruction" with its brittle cold and white silences, but this cannot change the fact that the One we're waiting for is, in fact, being born, and the One we are all seeking will come to save us, and all the world, on Christmas morn.

A blessed Advent and Merry Christmas to all readers of The Secret Thread!



December, herald of destruction,
takes you on a long stroll
through the black torsos of trees
and leaves scorched in autumn’s fire,

as if to say: so much then for
your secrets and your treasures,
the fervent trill of small birds,
the promises of summer months.

Your dreams have been dissected,
the blackbird’s song now has a rationale,
plants’ corpses clutter the herbarium.
Only the laboratory’s hard stone remains.

Don’t listen: they may take everything away,
but they can’t have your ignorance,
they can’t take your mysteries, strip you
of your third homeland.

Don’t listen: the holidays draw near
and frozen January, snow’s white paper.
What you’ve waited for is being born.
The one you’re seeking will begin to sing.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Mutt Ploughman's Best Books of 2005

The Known World, Edward P. Jones

About the book: An historical novel about black Americans who owned slaves in the pre-Civil War era in the South. First novel from Jones; published in 2003; winner of several awards including the Pulitzer Prize.

About the author: Previously published one story collection called Lost in the City; was unemployed after being laid off from his job when he wrote The Known World; has stated in interviews that he had planned to read many books about the Civil War period as research for the book, only to abandon the reading and make most of the details up.

Why it made the list: This is a fascinating, moving exploration of a little-noted aspect of the history of slavery, that of black people owning black people. Numerous memorable characters; impressive plotting that skips episodically back and forth in time. This book is a testimonial to the power of a determined imagination and a writer’s confidence in the story he has to tell.

Riders in the Chariot, Patrick White

About the book: Epic novel examining the intersecting lives of four charismatic outcasts living in suburban Australia in the 20th century: an eccentric woman, a humble Jewish man, an aborigine painter, and a saintly washer-woman.

About the author: Enigmatic and somewhat reclusive, Patrick White remains the only Australian writer ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1973). Riders may be his best known work; other works include The Tree of Man, Voss, and The Solid Mandala. He is not easy to read but his work is very rewarding.

Why it made the list: Impossible not to include it. This is a complex, sweeping novel filled with fascinating existential- and religious-themed passages, and includes some of the most strikingly original prose in English I have ever read. All four of the main characters are thoroughly unique and believable.

World Light, Halldor Laxness

About the book: Sprawling story about the life of an Icelandic orphan who is convinced his destiny is to become one of his country’s great poets. Originally published in the late 1930s.

About the author: Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature. His work was heavily steeped in the ancient literary tradition of Icelandic sagas and are notable for their humor, passion and portrayal of the peasantry as dignified, humble people often struggling against oppressive forces. His most famous novel is Independent People.

Why it made the list: This is a sprawling novel that is swollen with emotion, humor and grace. Laxness’ protagonist, Olafur, struggles all his life to make himself into a poet worth reading and remembering. This book is filled with exquisite passages on the power of literature and would appeal to anyone who has ever tried to do credit to their own creative impulses against all the odds.

The Ice Palace, Tarjei Vesaas

About the book: The odd story of two young girls who become friends in the frozen lake country of remote Norway, and the mysterious tragedy that separates them forever.

About the author: Vesaas is considered one of the greatest Scandinavian writers and was repeatedly considered for the Nobel Prize but never won. His novels and poems explore the lives of people living in desolate regions of Norway and the emotional and physical burdens of such a harsh existence.

Why it made the list: This is a totally unique, atmospheric, almost creepy novel written in very spare, beautiful prose (expertly translated). The unusual relationship between the two girls is never fully explained, but is rendered in simple, heartbreakingly lyric terms, and the wintry landscape with all its grace and beauty is a major force in this spare work. This is a hypnotic and fascinating novel.

Chronicles, Bob Dylan

About the book: Supposedly Volume 1 of three planned volumes of the memoirs of the iconic singer and songwriter, one of the most famous and influential figures in American culture.

About the author: Bob Dylan is a truly classic American voice, an enigmatic poet of our times with an eye for small details and a gift for rendering powerful truths in simple terms. He has one of the few songwriters who has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and his numerous albums include some of the most famous songs in the history of modern music.

Why it made the list: This is a spare, surprisingly satisfying memoir told in a unique style and tone of voice that could only belong to Bob Dylan. Most memoirs have limited appeal except to strict enthusiasts of the person writing them; this one manages to make Dylan’s story broadly fascinating and appealing. The prose is elegant and simple, and the unusual structure eschews conventions by skipping whole swatches of time in his career to focus instead on the interesting stories behind certain periods or particular albums. It’s impressive to follow along as Dylan steps into the literary world almost without effort and plays strictly by his own rules.

The Double, José Saramago

About the book: Bleak but powerful novel about an aimless, tired man who spots his ‘double’, a clone, playing a bit part in a rented home video, and the reckless pursuit of his ‘double’, which brings unexpected consequences.

About the author: Winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, the only Portugese artist to do so, José Saramago is one of my favorite writers, although I do not share his worldview or his atheistic values. Nonetheless he is a brave, powerful novelist who has produced his most extraordinary work after age 60. I also recommend his other extraordinary novels, including The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Baltasar and Blimunda, All the Names, and The Stone Raft.

Why it made the list: Saramago has taken on the folly of human cloning in this typically bleak, pessimistic story that proves nonetheless to be a thrilling mystery and comical exploration of identity all at once. I admire Saramago’s bluntness with the truth and willingness to express his controversial views on complex ethical problems of our age. He also has a gift for comedy, particularly when it comes to pointing out the ridiculous paradoxes of humankind. Yet Saramago’s books can take unexpectedly chilly turns towards violence and inhumanity. This novel was by turns fascinating, hilarious and frightening, all the way to an expertly executed final chapter.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

About the book: Published in 1981, this book made Rushdie’s international star explode and drew immediate and earned comparisons to the great ‘magical realist’ novelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Günter Grass. It tells the long and convoluted story of two Indian babies, switched at birth, and their parallel destinies, which also coincide with the birth and infancy of the modern Indian nation.

About the author: Salman Rushdie is a British-raised Indian writer who is frequently mentioned as deserving the Nobel Prize, but his complex relationship with Islamic nations, borne of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses, may prevent this from ever happening. A rich, melodious, confident prose stylist, he perhaps more than any other modern literary giant bridges the chasm between Eastern and Western cultures.

Why it made the list: This book has a sprawling, complex plot and very colorful, rich characters, particular the female ones. It was a totally unique reading experience, rich in detail about Indian culture and the volatile political and socioeconomic conditions that brought about its establishment of independence in 1949. Rushdie clearly played by his own rules, allowing his imagination and creativity to flourish and succeeding spectacularly. Reading this book one feels the growing confidence and narrative power of a major voice in world literature.

Water Music, T. Coraghessan Boyle

About the book: This is T.C. Boyle’s first novel, also published in 1981, and like my previous selection, it clearly demonstrates the power of a confident, exuberant writer’s imagination when it is allowed to run wild. Set in the 18th century, this book tells the story of Ned Rise, a child of the London streets, and his fateful collision with Mungo Park, the famous explorer who was the first white man to locate the source of the Niger River in Africa.

About the author: One of the most prolific and talented writers of the modern era, T.C. Boyle has written seventeen books, including seven short story collections. He writes confidently on a wide variety of subjects from a very humanistic / secular perspective.

Why it made the list: Its sheer imaginative brio. T.C. Boyle was a young, brash writer when this book was published and obviously had supreme confidence in his own narrative gifts, and that is what comes through in this wild, very funny and intriguing story. Boyle studied 19th century literature at the University of Iowa, and this novel was his take on the classic Victorian-era novel, but written with his own modern, wise-cracking style. Rich in historical detail and immensely entertaining to read, this was one of the most pleasurable reads I encountered this year. Highly recommended.

The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright

About the book: Technically this shouldn’t even be on this year’s list, since this book is not being published until February 2006, but I got an advanced copy. This book is Wright’s first in twelve years and marks a departure from his previous novels: it is an historical tale about a young man raised by abolitionists during the Civil War-period who discovers his own ancestry has a slave-owning heritage, and sets out to find out more.

About the author: One of the most under-valued American writers of our time, Stephen Wright was my mentor in graduate school and is the author of three previous novels, all of which are extraordinary. He is a powerful, stylistically original writer whose novels hit hard. I highly recommend any of his books to readers of serious American literature.

Why it made the list: Wright has proven he has versatility, mastery of the language, and an acute vision of what it means to be American with this fourth novel, by turns a bold new direction for him and an extension of some of his previous themes. This novel was both horrific and humorous, with a surprisingly empathetic heart for the goodness of humanity against the terrors of war and insanity of racial injustice. This is the first of Wright’s books to end on a note of hope, and I am hopeful that it accomplishes for him what All the Pretty Horses did for Cormac McCarthy in the early 1990s.

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake

About the book: A brief collection of twelve short stories about the desperate, disadvantaged lives of poor working-class people in rural West Virginia, this was Breece Pancake’s only published book.

About the author: Breece D’J Pancake killed himself at age 26 in 1979, two years before his only collection appeared. With the publication of his stories he was hailed as one of the major new voices in American literature, a writer of brooding, poetic vision and powerful emotional courage.

Why it made the list: Sheer grace, talent and power. This book is raw, gripping, sad and beautiful, the work of an extremely talented young writer who could not overcome his own depression and self-destructive instincts. These stories are filled with yearning to break free from spiritual bondage and create something meaningful out of one’s existence in dark times, stuck in dark corners. It is a collection that will not leave any reader unmoved, and it stands as a painful testimonial of what might have been for Breece Pancake.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #17

His is a name most of us don't immediately associate with poetry, but Herman Melville actually wrote quite a bit of it in his later career, including one long epic about a trip to the Holy Land ('Clarel'). He was a relentless experimenter, and was constantly looking for new outlets for his creative genius and vision (and, unfortunately, new outlets to try and support his family... the fact that a writer as brilliant as Melville could be a commercial and critical failure throughout his writing career is as astonishing as it is discouraging!).

Robert Penn Warren once commented that "the Civil War made Melville a poet." He was referring more or less to Melville's debut poetry collection, Battle-Pieces, which was a cycle of vivid, moving poems inspired by the epic battles and personal tragedies of the war that tore the country apart from 1861-1865. The following is one of my favorites from that collection, and among the most well-known of all of Melville's poems. Its beauty and sadness pretty much speak for themselves, and its relevance to our age (every age?) is perhaps best captured in the powerful lines:

"...dying foemen mingled there -
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve -
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)"


Shiloh (A Requiem)

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
O'er the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh -
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain,
Through the pauses of the night -
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh, -
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there -
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve -
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.

Coming Soon: Mutt's Best Books of 2005

Lists are lists, you kind of take 'em for what they're worth, but it struck me that if this blog isn't the right place to list my favorite reads of the year, then I don't know what would be. This is the ideal venue for such a list, and I don't think I have made a list like this before, at least not an 'official' one.

My brother and Secret Thread creator Duke Altum makes a list every year, and they're always filled with whoppers. If he wasn't planning to already, I am tossing down the gauntlet and practically insisting that Duke post his list also. This is the time of year for Best Of lists!! You will notice when we have both posted our lists that Duke & I do venture down very different paths reading-wise throughout the year: I will leave you to discover the differences. But trust me, though twins share a lot of their tastes, you will see that Duke & Mutt move in different directions in our literary pursuits. This is as it should be!! As we are all singular individuals, our interests and the books we read reflect this........

Keep your eyes on this blog for Mutt's eagerly anticipated Best Books of 2005. Note: this list does not mean the best books that were released in 2005. It means the best books that I read in 2005. Might seem obvious, but just to make it clear.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

What I Am, and Will Be, Reading

The legions of Secret Thread readers might notice that the little 'What We're Reading' indicator on the right seems stuck on David McCullough's 'John Adams' for Mutt Ploughman. Actually, I finished that book, and read 'The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake' as indicated in my Thanksgiving post below. Now, I am reading another longer novel, but I don't want to post on here what it is, because it is directly tied to a gift I am going to be giving Duke for Christmas. When I finish this book, I plan to round out 2005 with 'The Plague' and 'Martin Chuzzlewit'.

For at least the first three months of 2006, I decided I am going to embark on a 'reading experiment' unlike anything I have tried before. I am going to spend the first quarter of the year doing what I guess I am going to call 'research reading' in preparation for a writing project I plan to attempt. I am going to be reading books exclusively about one subject only: The Great Depression that occurred in the United States in the 1930s. I have two books in my possession that I will probably be starting out with: 'Hard Times' by Studs Terkel, an oral history of the Great Depression that was a visionary gift choice by Duke for me a few years back; 'The Great Depression', an out-of-print paperback that is a collection of newspaper columns from around the country that appeared in newspapers cataloguing the Depression (should be fascinating). I have already read Steinbeck's depression-era masterpiece 'The Grapes of Wrath' twice, but I may re-read his earlier novel 'In Dubious Battle' and possibly seek out his articles that were published in a book called 'The Harvest Gypsies' about that time. Another book I'd like to take on in this time period is James Agee's 'Now Let Us Praise Famous Men'.

Why am I doing this? To me, having free reign to choose what books I want to read and mix up the genres, forms and authors continually is important. This 'experiment' upsets that to some degree. Normally I can't stand reading about the same stuff over and over, just as I dislike reading two books in a row by the same writer in most cases. BUT, I am someone who enjoys writing as well as reading, and I have some literary aspirations that have not been realized yet. For at least six years, and perhaps more, I have had a fascination with the Depression and what it gave rise to in this country, and have also entertained increasingly over the years the idea that I might some day attempt to write about that time period myself. Many times I have envisioned attempting to write stories or a novel that fictionalizes the life of my grandfather, Floyd Arlington Lovell, who was an oil distributor raising six children during the Depression in rural, dust-bitten Indiana. Furthermore, the Depression was the defining influence on my own father's early life, as he was born right into it in August of 1930 and grew up relatively poor during the toughest years of economic hardship this country has ever known. These things shaped his character, and have always been totally foreign to me, but equally interesting. I have long imagined possibly writing about this, but have always dismissed it as over-ambitious, too much for me to handle.

Well, I'm 35 and I'm not going to be a star writer. I have two children that are here and growing fast and I have about half a life, maybe a little less in the books. I'm not being morbid: what I'm saying is, there is no time like the present, and if I think I can write, than I should damn well aim high and try to write a story that appeals to me and I think that people would read. So I want to try to see if I can begin to formulate ideas for a Depression-era novel. I've written stories and long fiction manuscripts. I have never written a novel that 'works', let alone attempted to publish one. But this material, this era in history, has its hooks in me, and I am at the very least going to try to learn as much as I can about it and see if the ideas and creative impulses that have stirred in me in the past can be fanned into life.

I think I can write a novel, I think I can learn about the Depression, I think I am able to enter into this material with enough passion and drive to try to make it into something unique. I think all of this enough to make a hard curve in my regular reading regimen and start doing serious reading for a serious artistic endeavor. Stay tuned for later reports in 2006 about the gestation of my ideas and the books that are helping me along.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #16

Sorry folks, took the week off last week for Thanksgiving... but we're back now with a powerful and moving poem from the great Russian poet and Nobel laureate, Joseph Brodsky. This poem means a lot to me in a number of different ways. First, I always find it very interesting and illuminating when modern writers re-imagine the myths and legends of the ancient world, drawing out new meanings and interpretations from old stories. Here Brodsky writes from the point of view of Odysseus, having been wandering far from home for many years and now marooned on a strange island (as related in The Odyssey), writing to his son Telemachus, whose entire childhood he has missed due to the Trojan War and his subsequent, forced exile. What would a father write to his son if he thought he would never see him again, and if he has also missed all of his growing up? This touches upon another reason the poem hits me hard -- as father to three sons, I recognize some of the longing in it to know one's son, to wish the best for him and to hope that you've had some kind of impact on his life for the better. Brodsky also succeeds brilliantly at expressing the sorrow and despair that must haunt any parent that is somehow separated from, or has (God forbid) lost, their child.

This poem packs a lot of emotion and truth into a few lines, and is also an excellent example of the continuing relevance and genius of the ancient classics... material that is ever old, but also ever new.


Odysseus to Telemachus

My dear Telemachus,
The Trojan War
is over now; I don't recall who won it.
The Greeks, no doubt, for only they would leave
so many dead so far from their own homeland.
But still, my homeward way has proved too long.
While we were wasting time there, old Poseidon,
it almost seems, stretched and extended space.

I don't know where I am or what this place
can be. It would appear some filthy island,
with bushes, buildings, and great grunting pigs.
A garden choked with weeds; some queen or other.
Grass and huge stones . . . Telemachus, my son!
To a wanderer the faces of all islands
resemble one another. And the mind
trips, numbering waves; eyes, sore from sea horizons,
run; and the flesh of water stuffs the ears.
I can't remember how the war came out;
even how old you are--I can't remember.

Grow up, then, my Telemachus, grow strong.
Only the gods know if we'll see each other
again. You've long since ceased to be that babe
before whom I reined in the plowing bullocks.
Had it not been for Palamedes' trick
we two would still be living in one household.
But maybe he was right; away from me
you are quite safe from all Oedipal passions,
and your dreams, my Telemachus, are blameless.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Celebrating the arrival of a new life!!!

We at The Secret Thread would like to extend a very warm "welcome to the world!" to JANE CHARLOTTE, the latest edition to TST family!!! Jane is the brand new daughter of our own Mutt Ploughman and his wife of 3 years, Kelly. She was born on Saturday, November 26 at some time in the middle afternoon (sorry, at this writing I do not have the exact time!).

As her proud uncle, I could not let this monumental event go by without acknowledging it on the blog here! My family and I have not had the chance to meet her yet, but we can't wait to do so. And (as if it needs to be said), with a name like that, you KNOW that she will fit in perfectly here at TST (can anyone out there say "great female writers of 19th century Britain"?*), and already has the stuff of legend and learning!

(*BTW, I don't mean to imply that Jane was named for any writer in particular -- I think Mutt and Kelly just recognized the inherent beauty of the names and went with their instincts. But still the "coincidence" couldn't possibly be missed by this blogster! Either way it is a wonderful name...)

Jane, you are a gift to the world, and TST celebrates your arrival with great enthusiasm and joy! We entrust sweet Jane Charlotte to the prayers and safe keeping of Mary, the Mother and protectress of all children and believers in Christ, and call upon the Lord of All to bless and keep her, along with Mutt, Kelly and big sister Corinne, as their family continues to grow in love...

-with very much love from "Uncle" Duke

Friday, November 25, 2005

Random Post for Thanksgiving

Secret Thread readers,

It's been a long time since I offered anything of value on this blog. I did post my review of Wright's 'The Amalgamation Polka', but that was something I had written previously and not exclusively for this blog. Just want to say I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving holiday.

Duke hasn't updated the books in a little bit, but I have completed reading McCullough's 'John Adams', which was a huge but worthwhile book on the nation's second President. A fascinating life, fascinating man. No one can top David McCullough for substantive, detailed, yet readable history books. He's the king of the genre for this age, and after many decades and two Pulitzer Prizes, among other awards, I'd say David McCullough has earned his status and his sales. If you haven't read McCullough but take an interest in reading history at least on some occasions - for me it's an uncommon alternative, but I enjoy it - you owe it to yourself to check out his numerous books. They are ALL interesting. Particularly recommended is his thrilling and facsinating '1776'. If you're an American who reads, you oughta read this book.

In the interim I also dived into and completed 'The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake' that Duke had so highly recommended on this blog (see his excellent post, 'A Troubled Guest on the Dark Earth'). Bottom line: Duke was right to recommend these stories so enthusiastically. In Breece Pancake we had, for the briefest time, a truly gifted and visionary writer. His stories are very bleak, and if you don't go for that kind of fiction, the sort that doesn't necessarily leave you feeling good, you may not appreciate Pancake's fiction. But for those interested in the best American literature has to offer, and/or in the form of the short story, and/or in fiction that bravely probes the darkest corners of the heart - if you are into any of these things, you cannot and really should not avoid Breece Pancake, sooner or later. These stories pack a tremendous punch.

I would list what I am reading presently, but in a way it is 'research' for a book I might get Duke for Christmas, and I don't want to give it away. Let's just say it's a long and mysterious novel from the 1960s. After that I plan to tackle Albert Camus' 'The Plague' before I take on Charles Dickens' 'Martin Chuzzlewit'.

BUT - all of this might take me a long time, and I hate to say that this may be my final blog at least for a little while. There is a GOOD reason for this. I, Mutt Ploughman, am anxiously awaiting the birth of my second child, which could annouce that is ready to be born at literally any moment here. I already have one precious little girl who is 2 1/2; this one may be my second daughter or first son. Stay tuned! This Thanksgiving, I obviously have a great deal to be thankful for, and I am thankful to the Lord for His blessings. Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Reading, keep it up Secret Thread readers, and I will be back, a father times two, as soon as I can get enough time in the day to offer up something new!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #15

One of the most valuable single books I own in my little collection is an anthology of poems from around the world called A Book of Luminous Things (edited by the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz). This book is worth its weight in gold to me. As a matter of fact, I keep the book, of all places, in my bathroom... I know, some of you are thinking "too much information," but my point is that it is that rare book you want to make sure you are dipping into regularly, that rewards you no matter what page you turn to and no matter how often you turn to it. Milosz has compiled a virtual cornucopia of GREAT poetry from every continent on the globe (with the exception of Antarctica maybe), as well as from different periods of history. The result is truly a book that lives up to its grandiose title... it is a book of wisdom, beauty and truth... a book of luminous things.

POTW #15 comes from this great anthology, and it brings us to an entirely different time and culture than has been previously featured in this series. Milosz obviously has a strong interest in and affinity for the Asian poets, and one poet who is featured several times in the book is Wang Wei (699-761), one of the three major poets from the T'ang Dynasty. Wang Wei was a poet of incredible subtlety and grace (even in translation one can assert this), and his poetry celebrates and admires the beauty of the natural world, while always casting a longing eye towards a Buddhist detachment from the pressing realities of his life as a civil servant. According to Milosz, this longing for detachment is always symbolized in his poetry by clouds...

Now I don't know much at all about Chinese poetry or history, or Buddhism for that matter, though I know enough to understand that there is much to admire in all three. But this poem stands on its own as a powerful expression of the elation and enchantment the traveler (of any age) feels when coming into a city that is new and mysterious and open to him/her. In this case, the city is approached by boat... but I recognize in these lines something I've felt myself (and I'd venture to guess has been felt by most of us in our travels, if we've been blessed with such opportunity), which is the wonder and sense of possibility that stirs in the heart as you enter a new world for the first time.

The poem also powerfully evokes the sights, sounds and (perhaps) smells that must have been prevalent in an ancient, remote Chinese city... and to be able to bring such sensations vividly to the mind's eye of a 21st century amateur American reader of poetry is in itself worth celebrating.


Morning, Sailing into Xinyang

As my boat sails into Xingze Lake
I am stunned by this glorious city!
A canal meanders by narrow courtyard doors.
Fires and cooking smoke crowd the waters.
In these people I see strange customs
and the dialog here is obscure.
In late autumn, fields are abundant.
Morning light. Noise wakes at the city wells.
Fish merchants float on the waves.
Chickens and dogs. Villages on either bank.
I'm heading away from white clouds.
What will become of my solitary sail?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Freedom's Warriors

This is a review of Stephen Wright's new novel, The Amalgamation Polka, being published by Alfred A. Knopf in February 2006.

If the force we know of as ‘justice’ has any remaining sway in the literary world, February 2006 will see the sun rise on a victorious new dawn for the writer Stephen Wright. With his fourth novel, The Amalgamation Polka, Wright’s first in twelve years, he now clearly stakes a bold claim inside the inner ring of the finest novelists in the English language working today. Furthermore, in the context of his larger oeuvre, this novel proves that Wright is painstakingly building a literary legacy to compete with those of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy.

Over a period of 23 years, in three previous novels, Stephen Wright has written uncompromisingly and astutely about America in meticulously crafted prose and witty, realistic dialogue that reflects the spiritual wanderlust and moral vacuity that afflicts this country. His earlier works – 1983’s Meditations in Green, 1988’s M31: A Family Romance and 1994’s Going Native – are imbued with a quality of fierceness and brutal honesty that is both shocking and appropriate to his ends. Wright’s books are violent without being gratuitous, terrifying without being cheap. They are powerful experiences, and they hit hard.

When he emerged onto the scene in 1983 with Meditations in Green, a shattering fictional rendition of his uncommon experiences as an intelligence analyst in the Vietnam War, his literary career had great promise. Wright was a graduate of the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he had been mentored by the likes of John Cheever and John Irving. Meditations won the Maxwell Perkins Prize for first novels. But his languorous production and penchant for truth and honesty over marketability would serve him poorly in terms of material success.

While his second novel, M31: A Family Romance, was a brilliant dissection of family life and a terrifying perversion of the science fiction genre, it seemed to have been misunderstood by his publishers and critics, and (almost literally) alienated readers. Although M31 was roundly praised by critics, it remains his most obscure novel, though no less accomplished in many ways than his other books.

This set the stage for what must have been the most devastating experience in Wright’s career, the tepid commercial reception of his third novel, Going Native. The combination of Wright’s scathing vision, his maximalist prose, and the general public’s weak stomach for literature that amounts to a hard, penetrating stare into a mirror seemed to create an unbridgeable distance between Wright and a wider readership. Going Native is an astounding novel, a series of increasingly nightmarish stories loosely strung together by the ghostly presence of a psychopathic killer who begins the story as a suburban dad on his back porch, on the verge of a serious breakdown. But the book requires effort, was inadequately marketed, and went largely unnoticed.

Nonetheless, while no one was looking, Wright’s skill and originality only blossomed. Each of Wright’s previous books has been a startlingly unique endeavor and a considerable stride forward. With his first three novels, Wright did nothing less than appropriate three well-worn clichés of modern fiction – the war novel, the sci-fi novel, and the ‘road’ novel – only to totally reinvent them.

Now, twelve years removed from Going Native, this gifted novelist has done it again, this time with the historical novel, specifically of the Civil War era. In The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright has achieved something that is comparable to the finer novels of such giants as Faulkner and Toni Morrison. At the same time, he has delivered a surprisingly redemptive work, an unexpected and welcome addition to his bleak, sometimes shocking catalogue.

The new novel opens in the 1840s and carries through to the end of the Civil War. It tells the story of Liberty Fish, the only son of white abolitionists living in New York State in a time when ‘the dreams of the Republic were dark and troubling.’ (page 5) Raised by parents who have dedicated their lives to the cause of freeing slaves from bondage, Liberty is taught to look upon the institution as unjust and inhumane. He grows accustomed as a child to encounters with complete strangers wandering in and out of his home, staying there while en route to some new and hopefully more benevolent existence.

Liberty’s mother, Roxana, whose lifelong quest Wright describes as ‘the file she had wielded for so many years … rasping away in the gloom at the chain that bound up the land’ (p. 11), was herself raised in South Carolina by slave-holding parents. She reveals the story of her upbringing, her shift in ideological stance and, eventually, her complete separation from her mother and father to her only son in detail while he is still a child. It is a story that haunts Liberty until his destiny puts him in a position to confront this troubling history.

Liberty is born into an atmosphere of tolerance and respect for the concept of freedom, for which he is named. Early on in the novel, he befriends an old former slave named Euclid, who provides him with a stark lesson on the evils of slavery. When the impressionable young Liberty innocently asks Euclid why one of his eyes is missing, the man takes Liberty into his home and lifts up his shirt in a Christ-like presentation, forcing the boy to put his fingers on his scars.

His back was a hideous cross-hatching of hard, ridged flesh, welt upon welt in random disarray, appearing much like cameoed burrowings of some frantic creature permanently trapped beneath the exitless skin. (p. 23)

‘“That’s slavery, boy,” Euclid tells him. ‘“That’s the kingdom come”.’

Incidents such as this, in tandem with the dedication of his mother and father, compel Liberty to sign up for the Union cause almost immediately when the Civil War finally erupts at Fort Sumter. Before long the young man finds himself on the battlefield, where ‘all the sermons and arguments he had heard throughout his short life on the evils of chained servitude had come down to this: a mad charge through a cloud of dense, choking smoke into the very barrels of the slavocracy.’ (p. 178)

Liberty is exposed in short order to the horrors of war, vividly described by Wright without compromise. But when he witnesses these horrors being translated into acts of cowardice and atrocity against innocent people off the battlefield, the cause loses its grip on the ideological young man. Finding himself alone deep in the heart of the seceded country which brought forth his beleaguered mother, who remains unable to shake off the chains of her slave-holding heritage, Liberty detaches himself from the army and sets off in search of the grandparents he has never known.

The remainder of the novel consists of Liberty’s journey to track down and confront his mother’s parents, and his attempts to understand them. What he finds is an elderly couple corrupted beyond salvation by the malevolent effects of owning other human beings – two people capable of cruelties, and the twisted religious justification of same, beyond anything Liberty could have imagined. Liberty’s grandmother is a withered, frail, stubborn woman whose callousness and racism has cost her the love of her children and left her a mere husk of a person, awaiting death with open arms.

His grandfather, Will Maury, a doctor and self-proclaimed philosopher who twists the Christian Bible to support his stunning bigotry, considers the entire black race a ‘perplexing obstacle to the soul’s attainment of the harmonious and the good.’ (p. 236) A thoroughly contemptible man, whose own soul Liberty immediately judges to be ‘in extravagant peril’, he perpetrates vicious experiments against his black slaves, particularly female ones, many of which are his own progeny. Maury’s principal occupation seems to be the ‘cleansing’ of the black race, which he thinks he can bring about through the imagined purity of his own blood and through harmful chemicals employed to ‘end the curse of color by eliminating color entirely.’ (p. 237)

Liberty’s purpose in tracking down his grandparents, while never explicitly rendered, seems to be the pursuit of some kind of reunion of the branches of the family – an amalgamation – and not one of vengeance. Yet as Liberty becomes aware of his ancestor’s despicable attitudes, and of the truly abominable experiments that are his attempt to accomplish a ‘divine plan’ on earth, he perceives that ultimately no reconciliation is possible. In a key passage, he eloquently communicates his opposition to his predecessor for an external observer who has inquired after Liberty’s own racial heritage:

Blood flows across time like water, going where it wants, when it wants, without respect to boundaries geographical, physical or social. Tributaries converge, branch, re-converge in a pattern that may not be so random as it appears. Life, I suppose, and ultimately it makes mongrels of us all. (p.311)

Once again, Stephen Wright has produced an utterly new creation from well-worn fictional terrain. This bold new novel is a thrilling, vivid examination of the old scourge of slavery and the viciousness and absurdity of racial injustice. Because of the forceful statements it makes about the latter, against a backdrop of a horrific war and a once-proud family torn to pieces by hate, The Amalgamation Polka is a timely, important book. Its somewhat optimistic conclusion, while not entirely devoid of bitter irony, seems fresh and judicious.

Wright’s twelve year hiatus has resulted in a novel that both capitalizes on his previous accomplishments and reveals a social consciousness that in his previous books may have borne a closer resemblance to anger.
In fact, in the context of Wright’s previous work, this book is the continuation of a running theme – the close, unflinching scrutiny of America itself. Whereas his three previous novels were all more contemporary, each of them took a hard look at the American culture, and the underlying forces and attitudes that conspire against its grand designs. The Amalgamation Polka continues that probing in an historical context, pursuing it more deeply, all the way back to the foundational concepts of freedom, equality, and yes, liberty.

Stephen Wright obviously is aware of the ongoing importance of not losing sight of the true meaning of these concepts. Yet he is also deeply skeptical of our tendency to trust that these virtuous forces are simply ingrained in the American people and American actions just because of who we are and how we got here.

There are some flaws worth mentioning here, the most significant of which has to do with the final third of the story. After Liberty experiences the nightmare of combat – which Stephen Wright has forcefully proven elsewhere he knows something about – his pursuit of and patient coexistence with his grandparents causes the pace of the novel to lag in places. His obvious inner conflicts over how to handle these figures from his past lead to numerous dialogues with his grandfather, and while his feelings are understandable, some of the conversations seem forced. Additionally, while Wright wisely avoids the stereotypical idioms of the time, particularly in the speech of his black characters, there are moments when the 19th century model for a more lyrical dialect seems a tad superfluous.

Taken as a whole, The Amalgamation Polka is probably not Wright’s most accomplished book. This, however, is a proposition that reflects more on the structural and artistic brilliance of his previous work, Going Native, than it detracts from the strength of this new novel.

At the outset of this review I had the audacity to mention three very famous literary figures from the American canon in connection to Stephen Wright. A person may argue with and even dismiss this association, but to do so that person must be one who has read all of Wright’s previous work, and for the moment this faction seems to be, unfortunately, exclusive. It is worth noting also that nobody felt very strongly about Melville’s work while he was alive. Faulkner was all but broken, with most of his novels out of print, when the Nobel committee figured it out. Cormac McCarthy languished in near-poverty for nearly thirty years before achieving any modicum of worldly success.

It’s been a similar road for Stephen Wright, but this should now change. Critics have long embraced this writer, but have stopped short of adding his name to the catalogue of American masters. It is time to do so, just as it is high time for the reading public – anyone who cares about literature – to catch on and reap the considerable cultural benefits of having such a gifted artist focusing his attention on our country.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #14

This week's offering comes from Oscar Wilde, the famous (and infamous) playwright, essayist, poet and critic. Wilde of course is well known for his wit, flambouyant dandyism and sexual scandal within the gilded milieu of Victorian England... but what is lesser known about him was his life-long interest in and flirtation with Christianity, which culminated with his death-bed conversion to Roman Catholicism. In the midst of his public humiliation and imprisonment on charges of sexual misconduct and indecency, Wilde turned to writing poetry to express his despair, loneliness and spiritual yearning -- and it is during this agonizing time of his life that he produced some of his most profound, striking and deeply moving poetry. 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' is his most widely known and justly celebrated poem from this period, but I find this one to be quite profound as well. At the deepest level, it seems to me, all of our souls are crying out in a manner similar to the one expressed so eloquently here.


E Tenebris

COME down, O Christ, and help me! reach thy hand,
For I am drowning in a stormier sea
Than Simon on thy lake of Galilee:
The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,
My heart is as some famine-murdered land,
Whence all good things have perished utterly,
And well I know my soul in Hell must lie
If I this night before God’s throne should stand.
“He sleeps perchance, or rideth to the chase,
Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name
From morn to noon on Carmel’s smitten height.”
Nay, peace, I shall behold before the night,
The feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,
The wounded hands, the weary human face.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #13

No one could possibly deny that the greatest, most influencial of all American poets (so far anyway... although it's hard to imagine him ever being dethroned) is Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass is absolutely essential reading for anyone even remotely interested in American history and culture -- the fact that it takes the form of a collection of poems is almost an afterthought. And yet, as a collection of poems, it is nearly unmatched in its astonishing breadth and diversity of styles/forms. Whitman is, more than anyone else I would argue (i.e., Franklin, Emerson, Melville, Twain, De Tocqueville), The Bard of the American Soul.

The following poem is very famous and beloved by poetry fans everywhere, but I cannot resist adding it to this series... it's just one of my very favorites poems of all time. If I were editing an anthology of poety (and I guess in a way, I am, right here on this site), this one would be a non-negotiable. It might be the most effective, evocative description of a non-living thing I've ever read... let's put it this way: I like trains as much as the next guy, but I'm not what you'd call an enthusiast... and yet, I get shivers up my spine every time I read these astonishing lines:

Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant, with all thy lawless music! thy swinging lamps at night;
Thy piercing, madly-whistled laughter! thy echoes, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all!

Why is that, I have often wondered? How is it that mere words can contain such emotional force, such remarkable power to evoke and conjure? I have no idea... I can only chalk it up to the mystery and the majesty of the poetic gift, rendered upon the page in all its glory. To me, these lines are proof positive that the artistic gift is truly a "Divine spark" (as John Paul II has made clear in his remarkable Letter to Artists) with which we, consciously or unconsciously, imitate and glorify our Creator.

If you've never read this poem before, sit back, make yourself confortable, and get ready for your heart/soul/imagination to be stirred. You are in for a rare treat indeed. (And if you feel nothing when you're done, consult your primary care physician immediately.)


To a Locomotive in Winter

THEE for my recitative!
Thee in the driving storm, even as now—the snow—the winter-day declining;
Thee in thy panoply, thy measured dual throbbing, and thy beat convulsive;
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass, and silvery steel;
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides;
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar—now tapering in the distance;
Thy great protruding head-light, fix’d in front;
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple;
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack;
Thy knitted frame—thy springs and valves—the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels;
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily-following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering:
Type of the modern! emblem of motion and power! pulse of the continent!
For once, come serve the Muse, and merge in verse, even as here I see thee,
With storm, and buffeting gusts of wind, and falling snow;
By day, thy warning, ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night, thy silent signal lamps to swing.

Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant, with all thy lawless music! thy swinging lamps at night;
Thy piercing, madly-whistled laughter! thy echoes, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all!
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding;
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide—across the lakes,
To the free skies, unpent, and glad, and strong.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

EXCLUSIVE, Coming Soon

Secret Thread readers, who ever may have seen my previous post on the novelist Stephen Wright (see 'A Great Writer is Set to Return....' in the archives), it's a great pleasure to be able to say that by virtue of some great advice from my friend and fellow writer RICHARD HOROWITZ, I managed to procure an ADVANCED COPY of Stephen Wright's new novel, 'The Amalgamation Polka'. I have read the novel, which represents a new direction in some ways for Wright, and is a book that I hope and believe will finally bring Wright the readers and the accolades that he so richly deserves.

In a short time, I will be posting here a review of the new novel, which I hope will generate interest in whoever might see it to pick up their own copy of the book, which is due in February 2006. Wright is clearly among the finest novelists working today, and this novel is a startling, at times searing, and ultimately redepmptive new chapter in a literary career that is quickly taking on the unmistakable aura of legend.

Be on the look out for Mutt Ploughman's Exclusive Advanced Review of Stephen Wright's 'The Amalgamation Polka'.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #12: A rare double-dip!

That's right folks, this week I am featuring 2 poems from the chosen poet. This is primarily because I love both selections and had a hard time choosing between the two... but it's also my way of paying homage to a man who, if we can speak (figuratively) of the "relationships" we form with our favorite writers, has been my longest and most trusted "friend." I have been reading and heartily enjoying his works since the second grade -- and I still have the old book reports in my files somewhere to prove it! He was a brilliant thinker and world-reknowned literary critic, philosopher, theologian, essayist, novelist, orator, Christian apologist and, last but certainly not least, writer of childrens' books. I believe every single one, or darn close to every one, of his scores of books are still in print. His name? Clive Staples (better known as C. S.) Lewis.

"Uncle Jack" (as I jokingly refer to him with Mutt) is not as well known (or well regarded) for his poetry, though he did actually write quite a bit of it. His first book was a collection of poems (Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics), and throughout his entire career he would publish, always either anonymously or under a pseudonym (my favorite of the pen names he used is "Nat Whilk" -- old English for "I know not whom"), poems in various literary journals and such. Although his poetry has not always been treated kindly by the critics, I personally find it to be heartfelt and earnest, often very moving, imaginative, and (perhaps most interestingly, to me anyway) deeply insightful into the private hopes, doubts, fears and joys that motivated this great writer at the very core of his being.

The first poem here was a selection largely inspired by my recent (and first) viewing of the BBC film version of the hit play Shadowlands, which (as many will already know) was based on the late marriage and deep love shared by Lewis and Joy Davidman, an American poet and critic. If you've seen the later Hollywood version but have not had the chance to see the earlier BBC film, I highly recommend you try and find the latter. It gets much closer to the thought and writings of the actual man (read: an infinitely superior script), and seems to portray the love between the two much more accurately in every way. This poem could almost work as a perfect synopsis of the entire play/film. Lewis suffered greatly in sitting by helplessly and watching her die of cancer (obviously this was written either in the midst of or just after her dying), but he also came to realize the extent of the gift God gave to him in her love, and seems to have learned something quite profound about grace and redemption in the agonizing process. (I love his witty, honest self-effacement here too: "I talk of love -- a scholar's parrot may talk Greek".) I find the last two lines deeply moving, and worth reflecting upon for anyone who is bound by the chains of love to another person. ("Love is not blind; it is bound." -G.K. Chesterton)

As for the second, it is just one of my very favorite poems from Lewis. I find it a fascinating take on the psychology, for lack of a better word, of faith and prayer... an imaginative expression of how it feels at times to pray, to receive pardon and grace in small quantities in the midst of our doubts and fears. It seems to me to be very honest and real in terms of the way prayer often feels, and yet, it is also somehow encouraging, urging us not to give up on the practice, but to "consent/To weariness, and pardon's watery element". I'm not even 100% sure what that means, but it feels and sounds authentic to me, when I think about what a struggle prayer can be at times, and how necessary it is to believe in its efficacy even when it seems to be moot and powerless. "Arise, my body, my small body, we have striven/Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven."

I hope you will find these poems of Lewis' as inspiring and interesting as I have... or, at the least, that this post will provide a somewhat new or different glimpse than what you'd seen previously into the extraordinary genius of mind/meekness of heart of the great C. S. Lewis, one of my all-time literary heroes.


As the Ruin Falls

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love --a scholar's parrot may talk Greek--
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.


After Prayers, Lie Cold

Arise my body, my small body, we have striven
Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven.
Arise small body, puppet-like and pale, and go,
White as the bed-clothes into bed, and cold as snow,
Undress with small, cold fingers and put out the light,
And be alone, hush'd mortal, in the sacred night, -
A meadow whipt flat with the rain, a cup
Emptied and clean, a garment washed and folded up,
Faded in colour, thinned almost to raggedness
By dirt and by the washing of that dirtiness.
Be not too quickly warm again. Lie cold; consent
To weariness' and pardon's watery element.
Drink up the bitter water, breathe the chilly death;
Soon enough comes the riot of our blood and breath.