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.