Sunday, November 26, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #43

***TST would like to wish a very happy FIRST birthday to Jane Charlotte!!! Ad multos annos and much love, little one!***

Here is another terse, minimalist poem that packs a profound wallop, much like Jean Foillain's stunning "Music of Spheres" (POTW #22, back in January of thie year). This one comes from the Polish poet Anna Swir. Czeslaw Milosz was a huge fan; in fact, he published a lot of her work into English... so that gives you some indication of the talent at work here. If somehow reading this little gem doesn't convince you of that already.

I myself have always viewed the sea as something worthy of awe, or even "fear" in the Biblical sense of the word... I believe it was Saint Augustine who said "no man can look at the sea and not be reminded of God," or something to that effect.Well, I'm not sure if Swir was thinking of God at all in this poem or not, but she certainly draws our attention memorably to an important reality: the utter smallness and insignificance of man in the face of nature's mysterious, and often terrifying, power. And yet brilliantly, in that last line, she reminds us of our privileged place in the created order of things.


The Sea And The Man

You will not tame this sea
either by humility or rapture.
But you can laugh
in its face.

was invented by those
who live briefly
as a burst of laughter.

The eternal sea
will never learn to laugh.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Books I'm Thankful For, 2006

Presented by Mutt Ploughman.

In honor of Thanksgiving, I now present for 2006 six books that I am thankful for: not only favorites books of mine, these are the books that I literally feel grateful that someone had the guts and heart to write, the ones that have meant the most to me personally in my development as a writer and a fan of literature. The selections are presented in no particular order.

Wishing everyone a happy holiday and God's blessings for this holiday season.

WINTER'S TALE, Mark Helprin. This book will always have special meaning for me. It blew the doors off of my conception of what the novel, and the imagination, could accomplish and remains a luminous and fascinating story.

MARIETTE IN ECSTASY, Ron Hansen. One of the novels I admire the most of the 20th century by one of the writers I respect the most. A virtuoso concoction of poetic beauty, literary quality and spiritual potency.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH, John Steinbeck. A novel which literally changed my life. It may be THE book that made me really want to try to write fiction for as long and as far as I could sustain the effort.

MOBY DICK, Herman Melville. I've only read this once, but plan to change that; this is the ultimate story of obsession that in my mind delivers the greatest reward for the terrific investment one puts in to read its nearly 1,000 pages. This book has a perfect conclusion.

THE ROAD, Cormac McCarthy. People will be surprised to see this new novel on this list, but this novel is nearly perfect in my view, and affirms in a most arresting and memorable way the power of love and, at least in my reading, the overwhelming Majesty of God. Also, it is a thrill to see a truly great writer silence critics who question his skill late in his life.

COLLECTED WORKS*, Flannery O'Connor. I was simply unable to narrow it down between the four books she published during her life. All of her works are brilliant, endlessly mysterious and extremely important to my writing and literary life.

* - ok, ok, so it's not one book.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 29


Progress is limited on completing Chapter 2 of my novel, but it is coming along slowly. I have already written the draft in longhand, and I am currently engaged in the second revision of the chapter. It's difficult work and fairly tedious and I don't enjoy it as much as I do composing the chapters themselves, even if I don't know where the hell I am going in the story. My guess would be that most novelists, if pressed, probably don't like the revisions as much as the initial writing, but who knows. Everyone has their own methods, so I suppose everyone has their own preferences. I find it pretty hard to write the chapter over 6-8 weeks and then revise it painstakingly three times, but that's the M.O. I landed on for this effort, and I am hoping that this work will pay off. I never was a very good revisionist with my writing in the past and it usually showed. But there is a higher standard in place here, and I am going to enforce that standard, since this is the largest and most ambitious writing effort I have undertaken to date. As well it should be. Everything I have done before has led to this. Even I don't know what "this" really is yet. So the revision work I am doing now is extremely important, and I recognize that about it. Additionally, I know the book will probably go through many more revisions. I recently read an interview with one novelist where she said that after she has written a first draft of her novels, they get revised so many times that almost none of what was there the first time is left when it's published. That's hard to believe, but probably the truth. I sincerely doubt I will revise my novel to that extent; whether that proves to be a detriment remains to be seen. Right now, as I have written, I am in the second revision of the second chapter. The second revision for me typically is the most "intense", where I try to consciously improve the language, cut out anything that isn't required, and sharpen the focus. Following this I will make a third revision which will chiefly consist of additional cuts - stripping extra fat away. Hopefully this will not take me all the way until Christmas to do, but if it does, so be it. I only get so much time, and I only work so fast.

Chapter 3

With my focus on revision, I have not come up with many very concrete decisions with regard to the storyline as it runs through Chapter 3. But I do try to keep a partial view on it peripherally while I revise the previous chapter. And hopefully things will slowly begin to come together and I will recognize where this story "wants" to go. I know the time frame for it (5 months forward, to November 1924) and I know the place (back in Bentonville, IN). And now, for my rapt readers, I will reveal general plot concepts thus far for the upcoming chapter. These usually change to some degree, and frequently have to be pared down, but for now, here you go:

For Walter Brogan, it will be a time where his main efforts are trying to assert himself in his business and establish a normal life for himself and his wife. When Edward Jackson, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, is elected governor, Brogan will become determined to do something to help combat the presence of the Klan in his community, having bitter memories of their previous intrusion into his life (Chapter 1). He will seek the advice of his father-in-law and admit that the Klan intruded on his wedding night. He will also establish a rapport and friendship with a farmer named Cal Wittenberg, a fellow resident and member of the Knights of Columbus, since the Knights are considering taking more aggressive steps to counteract the Klan's presence. Meanwhile, we will get more insight into Greta Brogan's routine at her parents' house and some background on her life. We will find out some details about her brother, Peter, who has gone against his father's wishes, dropped out of law school, and traveled to Texas to serve as an apprentice to the supposed "oil tycoon", "Pops" Wheeler. Finally, if I can get all of this in there, we will see at least something of Myron Devreaux (who is featured "off camera" as it were in Chapter 2) positioning himself for an eventual foray into local politics in Bentonville.

What will Chapter 3 eventually look like? Time will tell. But what I hope I've done here, an absolute exclusive for blog readers, is provided you with an idea of the vision that I have for the next installment of this expanding saga.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #42

This justly-famous poem from the celebrated Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (not the greatest poet named Thomas from Wales, however, in my view – that honor would go to R. S. Thomas) is an inspiring expression of what motivates the true poet – better yet, the true artist: “Not for ambition or bread/Or the strut and trade of charms/On the ivory stages”… Dylan Thomas certainly had his issues, but man, his Gaelic poet’s soul certainly shines through in his work… it cannot be denied!

Enjoy this one for the sheer richness of the language and its inherent understanding of the artist's true vocation...


In my craft or sullen art

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

New variations on an old, old tune

I have a work colleague who has become, over the course of the last year and a half or so, a pretty good friend. Like me, he has a real interest in good books and good films, and we enjoy recommending things we've read or seen to each other, and comparing and contrasting opinions as if we were Siskel & Ebert or something. Also like me, he is happily married and the father of a son close to the age of mine. In short, we have much in common, and that is part of why we seem to get along.

There is one major difference between my friend (let's call him Steve) and I, however -- one that was bound to come up in our discussions of what makes great art, family life, fatherhood, etc. Steve is a committed atheist -- and I don't mean one who simply believes that there's no proof for the existence of God and so he just doesn't want to be bothered trying to solve the riddle that no one can solve. No, he's the type that takes it a step further, and claims that not only is there no rational basis for belief in any kind of supreme being, but that religion itself is the root of all evil and the main cause of much of the suffering that has been endured by the human race throughout the ages. That no human being who claims to be a rational person and to be concerned with the future of humanity has any business whatsoever clinging on to what, in the words of a recent movie character, is a "ridiculous superstition." It's not only wrong-headed, in Steve's view, to believe in a God -- it's morally irresponsible. To do so is to perpetuate and foster unnecessary conflict and division in a world that could use a whole lot less of both.

Obviously, Steve is not shy about sharing his opinions and thoughts with me concerning why religion is a sham and why the world would be a much, much better place without it. In fact, he regularly challenges me on my Roman Catholic beliefs, which are well known to him, and on the idea of believing in God in general. He does not do it in a mean-spirited way, and I have actually enjoyed the ongoing dialog we have had on these subjects. As I said, he has become a friend, and there is much about him that I respect and even admire. He's a witty, intelligent man who obviously loves his family and cares about his work and the way he lives his life.

I bring this up only because our ongoing conversations happen to coincide with a trend in the publishing world that is pretty hard to miss if you are at all tuned in to the world of books. In the last few years there has been a spate of popular books about atheism, books that openly and brazenly challenge the very idea of religion in general and, in many cases, call for its out and out dismissal. And as in all things in this business, if one book is successful, a whole slew of others will follow as sure as the sun rising in the morning. You can always count on that.

To wit: about two years ago, a young Stanford philosophy graduate named Sam Harris made a splash with his first book called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. The book basically took the events of 9/11 and made them the jumping-off point for a full-scale attack on religious faith in general, arguing that it always leads to division and conflict and ought to be more or less discarded for the good of humanity. This type of argument is, of course, nowhere near anything new: in fact, he seemed to be re-hashing many if not most of the same arguments made a long time ago by figures like Voltaire and David Hume, and more recently, Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell. Russell's book of essays from the 1950's in particular, Why I Am Not a Christian, still remains an oft-cited text for contemporary atheists.

Harris is back at it this year with a smaller book called Letter to a Christian Nation, which is supposedly his response to all of the mean-spirited, Hell-invoking letters he received from Christians in response to the first book. (I don't doubt that he did receive such letters -- I wish I could say I did doubt it, but we American Christians especially are unfortunately pretty accomplished at picking at splinters while ignoring planks.) He's also been in major newspapers, magazines and web sites a heck of a lot lately, I've been noticing, preaching his "religion is the root of all evil" and "all religion is inherently opposed to 'genuine' morality" gospel pretty much wherever he can find a pulpit. Maybe it's just chance (thought I doubt it), but these appearances in Op-Ed columns everywhere happen to coincide with the rash of brisk-selling atheistic screeds I mentioned earlier. The Cambridge biologist Richard Dawkins' new book The God Delusion is currently a bestseller, garnering a front-page review from the likes of the The New York Times Book Review, and Daniel C. Dennett's recent Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is also selling well, from what I have read. And let's not forget that everybody's favorite British-contrarian-posing-as-an-American-journalist (one of Steve's favorite columnists, not surprisingly), Christopher Hitchens, will bless us with his own offering into the sweepstakes, wittily titled God is Not Great, next year! (Speaking of Britain, even the Guardian (UK) has noticed this phenomenon in American publishing, and posted an article about it recently online.)

As Steve likes to say hopefully, "Maybe Americans are finally starting to come around!" I like to playfully counter remarks like this with observations like, "Steve, your problem isn't with religion -- it's with us! Human nature itself... if there were never any religion, and humanity had been guided all along by other noble polestars such as Science or Philosophy, we would still be divided into our separate camps, bickering and fighting and even sometimes going to war to defend our own entrenched positions. It's just the way we are. You can't simply pin it all on the back of religion." Which is exactly what Harris seems to be doing also, in those well-articulated and aggressive arguments that are getting so many column inches these days. (Look on the Boston Globe and Newsweek web sites for recent Op-Eds by Harris if you're interested.)

I will admit that at first, this recent trend in all of its manifestations disturbed me, especially since I was dealing with similar arguments in the workplace (and still am). But since I've had a chance to think about it a bit more, I realize that these are just the newest variations on a very old tune. This is not to say there aren't compelling points within these arguments that we need to take very seriously -- there are, and we do. We always do. In fact I think the very presence of such arguments in the public square, and even in our relationships with friends and relatives, is good and healthy for Christian people. It forces us to think carefully about what we believe and how to articulate that in a clear and coherent way that has meaning to our contemporaries… just as St. Peter exhorted us to do: “…always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear…” (1 Peter 3:15, 16)

There’s no doubt that we live in a dangerous age filled with hurt and suffering, much of which is indeed being caused by ideologies informed by religion. But then again, think of all of the pain, death and despair caused in the 20th century alone – bloodier than the 19 centuries previous to it COMBINED – by ideologies that made a point of rejecting the notion of a God entirely. Some of these scientists and “progressives” seem to think that if we could just get the pesky monkey of religion off of our backs, we could then finally settle down and do some good in the world. Tell that to the victims of genocide in Communist Russia, Communist China, Nazi Germany, parts of war-torn Africa, France during the Revolution, etc. Theirs is an argument based on a crippling, and perhaps willful, ignorance of both human history AND human nature. You will never prevent men from searching for something transcendent and higher than themselves. You will also never prevent men from hurting and killing and visiting evil on one another. But without the hope that the first impulse might temper the second, nothing is left for us but despair. No matter what our latest highly educated, “enlightened” thinker may claim.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Journal of "Novel"-Entry 28

Teaser: Chapter 2 - "A Premature Death, New Experiences"

The following is a brief teaser from the second chapter, just completed, of my novel in progress, tentatively titled Only the Dying.

He’d been born in Michigan City in the year of the new millennium, in October. His father was 35 at the time, although he’d married his mother when she was only 21; the age difference was one of the barriers between Walter and Julius that had never really been broken down. By the time Walter was born Julius had already held several jobs: in a glass factory, selling furniture, then for a long period as a station agent for the Monon rail line, which terminated in Michigan City. When Walter came into the world Julius had transitioned into law enforcement in the Michigan City Police Department. He worked constantly and spent little time with either the boy or his two sisters after they arrived.
Brogan’s most vivid and cherished memories of his father’s life came from when he ran for Sheriff of LaPorte County in 1916. That was the last time that Brogan could remember his father with energy, conviction, something to prove; the whole family became tied up in Julius Brogan’s campaign. Unfortunately, he was running on the Prohibition ticket, and the cornerstone of the campaign was the protection of the citizenry by the promotion of a constitutional amendment to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States, and his vision for enforcing the foreseen law in the county. He faced stiff competition from corporate interests, traditionally Republicans, and from Roman Catholics (his father’s bitterness towards them never let up after the election, which troubled Brogan later on for obvious reasons), but what had really done him in was the infighting among Protestant circles themselves. On the issue of Prohibition, Protestant churches were a house divided. The ‘wets’ – those against an amendment for Prohibition – threw themselves behind the Republican ticket, and Julius Brogan was defeated that November.
Until his death in 1920, Brogan’s father had never been the same after that. But Brogan remembered vividly the feverish activity of the campaign itself, and all of the door-to-door canvassing of the electorate Julius Brogan had done on his own behalf, tirelessly at the age of 51, meeting with people face to face to explain why his policies would lead to a safer place to raise one’s children. Brogan’s primary job on the campaign trail was to distribute flyers with his father’s picture on them, which he had to pick up at the printing press in Michigan City next to the police headquarters and carry them by bicycle as far and as wide as he could. Brogan had pedaled all over town in the summer and early fall, nailing his father’s picture to trees and telephone wire poles, and the image of that portrait would linger in his consciousness for the rest of his life as the exact visual representation of who Julius Brogan was: a firm, decent man with a square-set jaw, in a dark suit and tie; a serious man, ready to take action to clean up the streets and the hamlets in LaPorte County if only given the chance. A man with little time for horseplay, a man with a job to do and a constituency to protect.
Brogan remembered how earnestly he had tried to do his job and how badly he wanted his father to win the election. Looking back on it later, he could sense that much of his eagerness to see his father elected Sheriff was driven by his fear of the effects of a defeat – with good reason, as time eventually proved. The young Walter could sense on some level that his father’s strengths lay in the service of his community at large, rather than his relations to his own family. Although he would openly pontificate regularly about being a good father and protecting his family, the reality was that his intensity and seriousness about work and making a difference in the world was something he could never detach himself from for enough time to simply enjoy being with those he strove to protect. He was always stern; life allowed one precious little time for dallying around when so much work was still to be done. Brogan could remember in his final years when the automobile was becoming more and more prominent in the social lives of common citizens that his father was vehemently opposed to ‘motoring’ and Sunday drives, even if they were only for picnics or visits to the park. He believed such activities spawned laziness and moral laxity. ‘A family should spend their time in their own homes, after church,’ he could almost hear his father ranting. ‘Before you know it, the automobiles will replace the churches themselves, outright. I refuse to bow to the holy church of the Henry Ford Motor Company!’
After Julius Brogan’s defeat, however, as Walter Brogan could recall so well, his spirit almost immediately declined. He became more tired, more irritable, more frustrated with life in general. He returned to the police force full time and continued to work hard to enforce the laws, which he considered his sacred duty. But he was putting in longer hours with diminishing energy and strength; he would come home in a state of total exhaustion, snap at his wife, barely converse with his children.
Walter Brogan had been so sad and angry at his father’s defeat that he couldn’t see his behavior after 1916 as any form of negligence towards his family or his paternal duties: all he wanted to do was lift Julius’ spirits, somehow, in some way. He made it his singular purpose to please his father; he would stop at nothing to make something of himself, to succeed in everything he could so that he would one day rise up and avenge his father’s defeat. Maybe in politics, maybe in sports, he didn’t know how he would do it: but he would become someone worth of the community’s respect and admiration.
For a few years after the fateful election, even as Julius wore out his body as he wore out his heart, this determination on his only son’s part did seem to bring him some small measure of comfort. He particularly relished Walter’s prowess in sports. Brogan was driven fiercely by the prospect of giving his father something to cheer for, and excelled at baseball, basketball and football. The latter was the sport Brogan enjoyed the most. He played linebacker and doubled as a drop-kicker; his kicks in the final seconds of numerous high school contests helped make the difference between a defeat and a dramatic victory. He seemed to relish pressure situations on the football field and clearly had confidence in his abilities. When playing defense he charged opponents and tackled them relentlessly even after he suffered a knee injury in his junior year. He recovered slowly and was never quite as fast after the injury, in which his left knee had been hyper-extended, yet he still played well enough to compete for and eventually win a scholarship to play for the Fighting Irish at the University of Notre Dame.
In those days the Irish were not as prominent as they were soon to become under head coach Knute Kenneth Rockne, but under the regime of coach Jesse Harper up through 1917 the Irish had an .863 winning percentage and were on the cusp of becoming a permanent national power. When Brogan was in grade school, Julius had taken him to South Bend to watch some of their games, and even though Notre Dame was a Catholic school, it quickly became the place many young Hoosiers dreamed of playing football regardless of their religious background. Walter Brogan was observed in three games in his senior year in 1917 and was offered an athletic scholarship to play for the Irish just as Knute Rockne’s coaching staff was taking over.
The next two years, particularly in the football seasons of 1918 and 1919, were the happiest and proudest of Walter Brogan’s life. Though he struggled with pain from his lingering knee injury and barely played in either of his first two seasons at Notre Dame, he benefited immensely from Knute Rockne’s relentless coaching style and he succeeded, he believed, in adding happiness and pride to his father’s life. Julius Brogan attended every home game and several away games as well, hollering for his son to get in the game. Brogan did not play at all as a freshman in 1918, for the Irish had some of the greatest talent in all of the Midwest. At the beginning of his second year, the fall of 1919, he played linebacker in the first two contests of the season, one game at home and one away, before re-aggravating the knee and sitting out much of the rest of the year. That year the Fighting Irish went undefeated and were one of a number of teams to be selected by various organizations as the national champion. The pre-eminent star of the team was George Gipp, and Brogan would always tell personal anecdotes about Gipp later in life when he wanted to impress people.
Brogan had very high hopes for the 1920 football season, which was to be his junior year at Notre Dame. He was hoping to recover fully from his knee injury and compete for a starting position, although it would be an uphill battle against his talented and fiercely competitive teammates. But after the conclusion of the 1919 season, unfortunately, Walter Brogan never saw another day in a football uniform.
During his first year in South Bend, the United States Congress had ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and passed the Volstead Act, making the commercial sale of alcohol illegal throughout the nation. Julius Brogan, who had been a member of the Prohibition Party for years, was thrilled to see something of his vision finally come to pass. The elder Brogan was not a member of the Temperance movement – he did not want to see alcohol banished entirely, and indeed enjoyed partaking in a couple fingers’ worth of scotch whiskey in the parlor of his own home and under the umbrella of his own self-discipline and propriety. But like so many other Christian gentlemen of his time, he did feel that the sale of alcohol in bars and night-clubs was inextricably linked to the general decline of morals in society at large and was a largely destructive force working against the development of the new generation of men and women in the United States. It was a bad influence, and Brogan felt that Christian men with any investment whatsoever in the future owed it to their children to keep it in permanent check.
When the 18th Amendment was put into effect on January 16, 1920, in the winter of Walter Brogan’s second year at Notre Dame, his father volunteered immediately as a ‘Prohibition Agent’, a member of the police force whose specific purpose was to uphold the new law. Less than two weeks later, after attending a lecture on American history, followed by a short meeting with Coach Rockne and the entire Irish football squad to discuss the 1920 football season, Brogan boarded a train for the short trip back to Michigan City. A light snow fell during the return journey. Brogan breathed out his exhaustion. He was greeted at the Michigan City Railroad Depot by his uncle, Garfield Brogan, and the Reverend Howard Doak, the minister from the First Methodist Church of the Nazarene, where his father was a standing member of the Biblical Education Committee. Even without the Reverend Brogan would have known it was something terrible, related to his father. His uncle Garfield didn’t bother very often with himself or his two sisters. But at least he’d had the decency to come out in the cold on that winter evening to help break the news to his nephew that his father was dead.