Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #32

Last week found me in Nashville on business, so I was not able to put up a poem... this is the one I meant to put up. Partially in celebration of the opportunity I had a few weeks' back to see him read live, and partially because his work is always worth visiting and reflecting upon, I give you another great poem from Seamus Heaney.

This one is from his second poetry collection, Door into the Dark, and as you can see it is the poem that provided the book's title. In classic Heaney style, it is a powerful childhood reminscence that carries along with it deeper and more universal meanings/themes. That line, "All I know is a door into the dark," has intrigued me from the first moment I read it (long before I knew what it referred to). I had to good fortune of hearing him read this very poem at the recent evening, which of course, coupled with his fascinating explanation of certain lines, gave it an even stronger resonance with me. The road over which the blacksmith gazes from the door jamb, recalling a traffic sounding with "a clatter of hoofs," was the same road on which, Heaney explained, his younger brother was struck by a car and killed just a few years later (an event explored in the heartbreaking poem "Mid-Term Break" from his debut collection).


The Forge

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil's short pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when the new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music,
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 16

Brief Excerpt

The following is a small excerpt from the Prologue of my "novel", which I would describe as being in the opening stages of development. In this segment, Father Brogan is describing the first evening he encountered a young student journalist, and what happened to him before that encounter. It is only in its first draft and no doubt will experience many revisions in the near future.

The evening our paths first came to intersect fell softly upon the northeastern Pennsylvania landscape one week ago, the second week of May. It was a Friday evening, and I was just emerging from the residence hall where I live with my other Jesuit colleagues, so many of whom have come and gone in the course of the 34 years I have spent here. I had prepared for myself a tolerable supper of baked scrod, vegetable soup from a can and oyster crackers, but had eaten little of it, my appetite no longer bearing much resemblance to that of the young parish priest of the 1950s who thought nothing of retiring to the pubs of Chicago for beer and steaks and theological discourse. Today my appetite is a rabbity, frail creature even in its stronger moments. And on this particular Friday, I could not even bring it to bear on the small repast I had prepared, because of my distraction and, indeed, consternation over the assignment I had been given that very afternoon.
Earlier, I had presided over my last final examination period, and that was not even for my own students. When Brendan Russell, M.A., M. Div., one of our school’s youthful ‘lay theologians in residence’ had had to depart on a family emergency, he had asked me to sit in for him on his final examination. So I had done just that, sitting in the nondescript classroom for three hours while the students of Russell’s celebrated ‘Spirituality and Ecology’ course toiled through their essays on Heaven, earth, sea and sky, and all the connections therein. Far be it from me to weigh in on the possible fruits that all of this very broad, tolerant, far-reaching sort of thought could bear for these young minds. I simply sat mum, collected their exams when they had finished their creative labor, and reflected languidly on the fact that I would never again sit as proctor for my own or for anyone else’s examinations. It didn’t trouble me too much.
Afterwards, I returned to the office I shared with three other theology professors to check my mail box, more out of routine than for any other reason, for I had long since ceased receiving anything of value in the box. No more did young theology students drop off their term papers looking for my comments on their arguments, whether they were my students or another teacher’s. I wasn’t sure if there even were theology students anymore. No more did I receive the more cryptic notes, hand-written by troubled, agitated, or sometimes outright panicked students, asking to meet with me to discuss matters more difficult, perhaps more personal in nature, things that had nothing to do with academics or grades. The notion of approaching one’s priest as a counselor for moral concerns also seemed far in the past. No more did I receive invitations to cocktail parties, retirement parties, and other campus soirees. For many years these things were all frequent occupants of my campus mail box, and how well I remember the days when I felt as though I could not possibly keep my balance with all that I had committed myself to, only to return to the same office after teaching three hours’ straight on Aquinas, my head aching with the effort required to perform such an insane task, to find several more requests for my assistance, my time, my ear, to add to the ever-accumulating pile.
All of these things were gone now, passed into dust, as the Bible promises. Figuratively speaking, of course. So it was without surprise that I found nothing of import in my mail box on this day save a copied letter from the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences formally reminding all professors of the urgency of turning in their final grades on time and a flyer advertising the last session of the semi-popular ‘Theology on Tap’ series at O’Grady’s, the Irish-style pub they had built into the new Student Center on campus. Occasionally, when my frame of mind drifted off of its normal course into more ambitious waters, I had entertained the thought once or twice in the last few years to drop in on one of these sessions to quaff some beers and try to ‘kick it’ with students about theological matters. But this was something that would have appealed to my younger self, perhaps 20 or 25 years in the receding distance. The truth was I was too tired to seriously consider it, never drank beer anymore, and probably would have halted all semblance of amiable fellowship in its tracks just by crossing the threshold into the pub. I still loved the students. You can’t do this without that love. But their territories were clearly marked and their pursuit of liquid pleasure was not an arena in which an elderly priest would be on top of his game, or should be, anyway.
Having nothing left to detain me further in the office – my grades submitted, my small wooden desk from the 1960s mostly cleared of its contents – I passed into the small office where our rotating student intern and the Theology Department secretary, Jane Whittaker, shared some space. I wanted to greet Jane, who had been with the department for eighteen years, and inquire after her cancer-stricken son, a terrible crucible she had been facing for much of the year. But as I approached, admittedly thinking more about my own fatigue and desire to return home to rest than her son’s condition, she saw me coming, and collared me, as it were, with ‘an important message’.
‘You’re to pay a visit to the president,’ said Jane, a portly, gregarious woman whose gray-black hair had been held back by the same jade clip every day for all of those eighteen years. Why I noticed this sea-washed green color every single time I looked at her is something I never could explain. I blinked at her a few times. But there was no doubt that her ‘important message’ was intended for me.
‘The president, Jane? Are you certain you have that right?’ I asked.
‘Of course, father,’ as she insisted on calling me. ‘There’s no mistaking a call from the president’s office.’
‘I’ll take your word for it on that,’ I replied, wondering about this summons. ‘A debriefing, I suppose, although the timing surprises me. I thought young Jimmy would wait until all the pomp was over before giving me the send-off.’
‘Father Brogan. Come off it, now. No one is going to give you a “send-off”, and you know it well. Don’t say that they will. You know Father Chesterfield would let you stay for another thirty years, if you were willing.’
I chuckled reflexively. ‘Even if I were, Jane, I doubt that God is willing to impose that on this community. But one never knows.’ I winked at her, thanked her, and then promptly wandered off, without asking after her son. In another time, before I became this old and so prone to distractions, I would have asked regardless. Yet, in fairness, a summons to drop by to see the president of the Jesuit University of Northeast Pennsylvania was an unusual occurrence indeed, and might have distracted anyone.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A 21st-Century Generation X’er Reflects Briefly on Reading the Venerable Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales for the First Time

How’s that for a windy title, boys and girls? Somehow it seems weirdly appropriate though, when the subject matter of the post is an epic medieval poem about a group of travelers making a pilgrimage on foot to a holy site in England, telling wild and wooly stories to pass the time… but who would want to read such a thing in 21st century, postmodern, pop-mart America? And how could such an arcane work possibly be relevant or meaningful to anyone in this day and age?

Well, for starters, this is The Secret Thread after all, and that’s one of the things we do here: dig out obscure and overlooked (or underappreciated) classics, give them a good reading, and mine them for truth and insight that applies to all of us, in any age. That’s not to say we don’t read for the pure enjoyment of the thing – that’s the primary goal and function of fiction reading of any sort, if you ask me, or art in general for that matter! – but on this blog, we try to seek out, share and discuss bits of wisdom and creative expression that have the power to make significant, even indelible, impact on modern lives.

Sorry, but that stuff is always worth repeating… at least, to me. (End of commercial! I'm Duke Altum, and I approve of... ah, forget it!)

Secondly, there is the unique universal nature and theme of this work, which makes it not only credible but meaningful to all people everywhere, at any time. I’d like to expound on that, but the great 18th century poet William Blake has already put it more eloquently and accurately than I ever could... so why reinvent the wheel? Here is what Mr. Blake wrote about Chaucer’s most well-known and beloved work:

“Of Chaucer's characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remained unaltered, and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps… Chaucer is himself the great poetical observer of men, who in every age is born to record and eternize its acts.”

That right there captures the essence of not only of why I wanted to read the book, but why it still very much matters to people of the 21st century, and will likely matter to all people for as long as we’re kicking around on this planet. To put it very, very succinctly: we’re all pilgrims. I know that sounds like a cliché, and perhaps it is, but as in all clichés, it contains a kernel of good old-fashioned truth. For as long as there have been recorded stories and myths, man has continually and faithfully returned again to the metaphor of life as a journey. A line can be traced from the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh to the Odyssey to The Canterbury Tales to The Pilgrim’s Progress to Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine to The Lord of the Rings and beyond.

I would venture to say that most people, no matter what their specific religious persuasion/history may be, tend to look at their lives as a series of steps taken along a certain path. Unless you are a true, dyed-in-the-wool nihilist or atheist who believes that life has no meaning whatsoever and all is random in the cold, unfeeling universe, such a metaphor probably makes sense to you on some level. We can argue endlessly about Who/What may have designed that path, and about whether or not the trail was fixed beforehand or blazed by your ourdecisions and actions… we can even speculate over what might have happened to us if we had taken a turn in a different direction at some key point along the way. But I think we’ve all got a natural inclination to think about our lives in such terms.

Within the Christian tradition of course, the word “pilgrimage” comes loaded up with some significant freight indeed. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path…” The belief in Divine Providence, of a benign God who loves us and desires to lead us home to the Promised Land, is obviously a key concept within this tradition. And then there is the journey Jesus Christ took from the Manger to the Cross… ever since then, Christians have always seen their lives as a pilgrimage, a via dolorosa (“way of suffering”) in which we must atone and do penance, and prepare ourselves to enter into the Kingdom of God. Such concepts are embedded not only within the Christian tradition, but within the entire mindset of Western culture, in one way or another. (The fact that the German word bildungsroman is still used in our vocabulary to describe novels, and sometimes even films, is an interesting case in point.)

And so in using the pilgrimage to Canterbury as his literary device, Chaucer showed forth his literary genius – the trope has meaning for just about everybody, and what better way to describe the "human comedy" in all of its folly and fallenness? A motley crew from all classes and walks of life find themselves together in a country pub, from which they will leave at dawn the following morning for the long walk on foot to Canterbury Cathedral, where a shrine to St. Thomas a Becket is located. Their host calls them together and suggests that, in order to pass the time on their trek tomorrow, they play a game in which everyone relates some kind of tale, and when it’s done they can vote on which is the most memorable of them all. So the rest of the long narrative poem (more accurately, a series of long narrative poems, which are written, interestingly enough, in different styles and meters) consists of each character relating some kind of outlandish tale, and the other pilgrims reacting to it.

And the amazing thing, despite the arcane language and the obviously different social mores and conditions, is how much we can still recognize and relate to in the stories. Other surprises include how hilarious the book can be at times, and also, how bawdy and downright salacious! I continually found myself impressed by how down-to-earth (perhaps even at the dirt level, to some readers!) the humor and the human voices are in this book from 1387. We look down on people from this era (betraying the "chronological snobbery" that C. S. Lewis so often railed against) as being hyper-religious, prudish, superstitious dolts... but Chaucer’s characters display wit, intelligence, sly humor and, very often, a sort of homespun wisdom that, for this reader anyway, gave off the unmistakable whiff of truth.

One final note: most people are immediately put off by the unfamiliar format of a classic like this… we’re not exactly a culture that has much patience for long, narrative poetry. But this is really a very minor hurdle, that is easily cleared by finding a good, readable modern English version (and there are several available). If you accept such a format as a necessary reflection of the times which produced it, and take it as part of your immersion into another time and culture, what you find is that, perhaps against all reason, you come away with wisdom that still applies to this time, this culture… indeed, still applies to that shuffling parade of weary pilgrims currently making its way along the dusty road towards eternity, a procession within which we all have a place.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 15

Slow Going

Work on the first draft of the Prologue for my "novel" in development, as yet unnamed, proceeds at a snail's pace, unfortunately, but at least it is still moving. But it's slow going and none of the progress that I have made on it, maybe 25 handwritten pages or so, has come easily for me at all. Part of it is just the nature of my life at the present moment: two small children, one a toddler, one still a baby; both of whom have been ill recently, although they're getting better; some recent travels; my own bout with a massive cold, etc. It doesn't add up to much time to write, but I try to squeeze in what really amounts to about 30-50 minutes' worth per attempt. That's not very much. It's going to take more sustained effort than that to write a novel, I know that without question; but at the same time, I just take whatever I can get. It's better than nothing, and it sure beats giving up.

Another thing is that it is hard to attempt to create a believable dialogue/relationship between an elderly priest and a young journalist/student who also happens to be female, if you're sitting where I'm sitting. I'm not really in the know as to how an older priest would react to a young female and I'm definitely not in the know as to how a young female would react to an old priest, or anything else for that matter; but then again, this is the job at hand. So I am doing my best with it. What I want to do is create a believable situation in which Father Luke Brogan is confronted with a situation he isn't used to, from a source that throws him off-guard, to his own discomfort, and experiences an unexpected result. The 'unexpected result' to which I refer is the desire to tell his father's story, which will lead me to the novel itself, as yet unstarted.

It will be interesting to try to complete the Prologue and rewrite it a bit. I would say that despite the slow progress, I am about 3/4 done with what I envision to be the Prologue. I don't want it to be very long and it's probably too long now as it is. I am messing around with the idea of posting an excerpt, which my brother and TST founder Duke Altum has suggested that I do, not without some provocation. IF I do that, which is definitely still in question, it will not be long, because I don't want to give it all away and I don't want to be sharing too much if I don't even have the story off the ground. We'll see. I think it is sort of lumbering along, the writing is tentative, and I suppose you might say I don't feel limber yet and don't have much momentum going on this novel idea. That's ok. I just want to persist and see what I can get down. I think if any momentum develops, it is going to be later on. But I know enough to know I have to slog through the tough parts to get to the parts that flow. If you don't hang in there when it's tough, you'll never write anything. In other words, I think I can get to something better than what I am doing now, but there is only one way through it. Persistence is key. I wish I could find a way to put in more time in each session. Sometimes I get ready, set up some coffee, sit down, pick up the pencil, and the baby cries on cue. But this is the way it is, and even a novel doesn't come before your own child. Hell no. So, I am just going to keep making the effort when I can and believe in the possibility of this thing taking off.

Critical Meeting

On the weekend of June 9-11, 2006, I also plan to get together solo with my old man, at a hotel suite in Pennsylvania, strictly to discuss his father and details of his childhood in the Depression. It should be very interesting indeed. I have talked with him a lot about both subjects, of course, but this will probably be - or should be - the most detailed conversation we have on such matters, unless we wander off onto other things. I told my Dad repeatedly that I am going to pick his brain as much as I can. It's a great opportunity for me. My Dad's 75 years old, and while luckily he is in relatively good health, he won't be here forever. This is going to be imporant, first-hand recollections. I wonder exactly how he feels about all of this, because as far as he's concerned there is no real reason to think that all of it will lead to anything, but he seems quite game. I am sure he will be pleased to talk about his father and what he remembers. What father wouldn't want to tell those things? I hope to learn a lot about his day-to-day life in the 30s and 40s - to the extent that he can remember - and about the specific details regarding Floyd Lovell. Hopefully it will help me form a clearer impression of a character that is still pretty hazy in my mind's eye.

Oh, and one other thing. We went around the horn for weeks and weeks trying to find the right dates to get together, and finally settled on June 9-11. And it was only after that that we both realized that June 9 was Floyd Lovell's birthday. Accident??? If he were still alive, he would be 103 on June 9, 2006.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #31

Next week, I am going to do something I've wanted to do for a long time, probably ten years: I'm going to hear Seamus Heaney read in person, from his new collection of poems called District and Circle, in Philadelphia. As I've mentioned in this series before, Heaney is among my literary heroes, and is certainly one of my very favorite poets... you can well imagine that this wanna-be is very excited for the event. Next week's poem will almost certainly be another one from Heaney, to celebrate the experience (which will mark the first time in this series that I've selected a work from a poet already featured once before).

For this week's poem, then, a tribute to the most recent Irish Nobel Prize-winner, in the form of a poem from Ireland's first Nobel Prize-winner: William Butler Yeats. I have no doubt that Heaney would be flattered by the association, which has been made before of course (the great American poet Robert Lowell famously called Heaney "the most important Irish poet since Yeats."). I'm actually not too familiar with Yeats' work, and what I know of it has never appealed to me personally all that much... except for this one, which I have loved from the moment I first read it.

There are some lines in one of my favorite Heaney poems, "Postscript," that contain this breathtaking description of swans on a lake:

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.

For some reason this description has always reminded me of the famous Yeats poem featured here below. I have no idea if the poem was in Heaney's conscious mind or not when he wrote "Postscript" -- without question, it was in his subconscious mind, a permanent resident there -- but I've always connected the two in my head. So, as a tribute to Heaney and to the venerable, age-old tradition of Irish poetry, I present this W. B. Yeats classic... 'Mysterious, beautiful.'


The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Monday, May 01, 2006

George Saunders' 'Pastoralia': A Brief Review

Normally I'd say that Mutt Ploughman is our "resident" book reviewer here at The Secret Thread, and an accomplished and excellent one he is... as his recently published review of Stephen Wright's The Amalgamation Polka in the April 10 issue of America magazine proves for the umpteenth time. (Here is a link to that review online for anyone who may have missed it, by the way: http://www.americamagazine.org/BookReview.cfm?articleTypeID=31&textID=4731&issueID=568).

However, this time around I would like to write a few words about an outstanding collection of short stories I just read, by an incredibly talented American writer named George Saunders. Saunders is one of these very rare writers that seems to be wildly praised and appreciated by other accomplished writers, as well as by average American readers of all stripes. He's got a real gift for satire and humor, but he's also got a decidedly softer side, and writes some of the saddest lines I've read in a long time. He's been called everything from a dark futurist, to a cynical liberal satirist, to the heir apparent of Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pyncheon. But I don't really know about any of that. That's just stuff I'm repeating that I've read in articles and such. Here's what I can tell you, what I do know, after reading his second short story collection, Pastoralia, for myself.

This is one of the funniest, most original and most interesting short story collections I've read in years. One of the main targets of Saunders' satire is corporate America, whose twisted logic and absurd, euphemistic language is hilariously skewered in the title story "Pastoralia." For a hint of Saunders' outlandish style, this story can only be described as a strange mixture of Quest for Fire and Office Space, if that can be imagined. Perhaps my favorite story of them all is "Winky," a spot-on parody of the ridiculous influence that self-help charlatans (you know, the Tony Robbins and Dr. Wayne Dyer types, "personal power" and all that crap) have on the down on their luck in this country. The way it reveals how hollow their snake-oil promises are in the face of even the slightest challenge from actual, real life is both uproarious and heartbreaking.

"Sea Oak" is memorable on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that it's not every day that you read a story told from the point of view of a male stripper working in an aviation-themed restaurant, whose beloved old aunt happens to visit him as a foul-mouthed zombie (her postmortem advice to the main character on how to solve his financial problems: "Show your c**k."). And yet, against all reason and logic, there is a powerful emotional undercurrent to this story as well. How can this be? There's no way to explain it, except to note that Saunders, in his own words, has "a sentimental streak a mile wide," and he seems to favor honest, hardworking, down and out characters that are trying to get by and make a better life for themselves despite numerous (and usually funny as hell) financial, familial and romantic challenges. Despite the fantastic settings, you recognize his characters -- they are the people you work with, stand in line with, and/or commute to work next to every day.

Saunders works his strange, powerful alchemy again in "The Barber's Unhappiness," which is the story of an utterly unlikeable barber, a blatant ogler of pretty women and unwilling participant in a driving course to remove points from his license. He meets a woman he think he might have a chance with in the course, but backs off his advances when he realizes she's not nearly as attractive as he first thought. What's to like in a story like this? Plenty, in Saunders' hands. The scenes in the driver's course are wickedly funny (with their ridiculous cast of offbeat characters), and somehow again by story's end, despite all inclinations to the contrary in your brain, you realize with a start that your heart is rooting for the sad sack.

Two other stories have a more somber, tragic tone, with the final story, "The Falls," packing a real wallop at the end, as a man plagued by indecision all his life (it seems), failing in his career and struggling to support his young family, finds himself in the unlikely position of being the only one who could possibly save a pair of drowning girls. His whole sorry life seems to have been building up this one horrible moment of combat between his hesitant nature and the moral imperative of potentially life-saving action.

The level of talent immediately apparent in Saunders' brilliant sophomore collection is obvious from the first few paragraphs of the first story. With the exception of the immortal work of Flannery O'Connor, I can't think of a short story writer who has been able to make me laugh so hard, while also stirring my heart and soul with a depth of emotion that doesn't seem possible in the context of such wicked satire. And while Saunders' work doesn't offer as much spiritual depth and symbolism as O'Connor's, it would be a mistake to say that it does not touch upon that realm. His characters stumble and struggle through an America that has traded the Church of Christ Crucified for the Church of Consumers Incorporated, and that seems to be condemned now to search the lonely suburbs and crumbling blue-collar towns for the soul it lost in the bargain.