Saturday, May 8, 2021

AN ARROW IN FLIGHT – Jane Lebak

 Three figures stood on the road with their backs to the sun, but only two cast shadows. Cattle clustered in the distance, their caretakers watching from the slanting shade of the terebinth trees, and even further beyond were sheep with their shepherds. At the crest of the hill before them, birds circled the gates of a walled city where even the land seemed to fall silent. Each mudbrick structure stood washed with flares of sunset that gave a burnt illumination to the little metropolis. . .


The year is 1415 BC. The three figures are there to determine the fate of the “little metropolis” before them. It is called Sodom. We, of course, know this scenario will not end well for the Sodomites or the residents of its sister city, Gomorrah, as the Bible tells us so. But the many contributors to this historic document, some of whom give us poetic eloquence in their narratives—at least in translation—had not yet acquired the literary craft element of showing instead of merely telling. Jane Lebak takes us back with the hidden camera of her celestial imagination to those BC/CE days, inhabiting biblical characters, mortal and spiritual, with doubts and blunders big and small, joy, unbearable grief, and sometimes annoying little personality traits: a good place to mention the Archangel Gabriel, whom today we would pop-diagnose as “on the spectrum,” for driving everyone crazy with his/her analyses of everything. I repeat, everything. He/she?

Gabriel can be either male or female, perhaps humanity’s first exposure to cross-gender identity. One of the three charged with determining the fate of Sodom, Gabriel appears in human form as woman. She’s with Michael, another of the heavenly inner circle of angels, appearing today as a man. The third figure and fellow inner-circle angel, is Raphael. He remains in spiritual form, fully winged but invisible to humans.

Their mission, should they accept it, is to scout around Sodom looking for people of good character. If they can find at least ten they won’t have to burn the city down, including its population. Evidently this deal was given only to Sodom, although Gomorrah’s fate hung on her sister’s.

Far as I can tell, having read the Old Testament’s King James translation only once, Lebak sticks to scripture on public details. This was my sense reading An Arrow in Flight. To confirm my hunch l scrolled to the top and read an account of her preparation. As a high school student interested in ecclesiastica she found Gustav Davidson's Dictionary of Angels, and studied it on her lunch breaks. “It was amazing to sort through all the myths and stories.” She credits an article by Geoff Miler in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly: "Raphael the Liar: Angelic Deceit And Testing In The Book Of Tobit." She went to the Prophet Ezekiel (16:49) for a description of Sodom’s sin, which she pluralized with the visible two of her angelic scouts experiencing them personally.

"How did it get this bad?" Michael says as he and Gabriel head into the city, Raphael hovering along behind. "I understood the Flood, but that was everyone. How can only two cities deserve destruction?" He suggests their approach as poor and needy travelers might persuade the Sodomites to respond with compassion “and then we won't have to destroy the city after all."

Gabriel dismisses that possibility: "Your assertion is that it's easy to derail an entrenched self-centered focus. That may not be the case. . .it may no longer be possible here to raise moral children" [felt a chill reading that]. Indeed, the instant they set foot in town young males begin appearing, on rooftops and behind windows. “Gabriel's nose wrinkled. ‘Three men on a rooftop just noticed us. They're obnoxious.’ Michael led her to a shadowed portion of a mudbrick building and looked about the square where four streets intersected. ‘The men left the building top,’ Gabriel whispered. ‘Four men are watching indecently from a ground-floor window.’"

Soon, as if vultures homing in on wounded prey, a small mob of young men move on the two strangers, cornering them in a dead-end alley. Without their angelic powers, Gabriel and Michael are virtually helpless. Raphael is there more as a witness, not permitted to interfere. He can only watch.

"‘Sweetheart,’ said one, coming too near, ‘welcome to Sodom.’ Gabriel shoved the man. Michael drew his knife, but the men rushed him. At the sounds of a fight, Sodomites poured from their houses. As though the original eleven were not too difficult to handle, now two dozen interested onlookers surrounded the fight, laying odds and placing bets.

At the far end of the alley, Gabriel screamed. Michael lunged for her, but six attackers pressed him back against the wall, and he took a punch to the gut. Four men had Gabriel's arms and legs pinned. Even as they brought her to the ground, she struggled. Above the men's laughter sounded Gabriel's calls for help. Michael pushed forward, but the gang shoved him back against the wall. ‘You're next,’ the closest man said. ‘She's just the appetizer.’ She kicked. Michael twisted. There were just too many. . .” They escape only after Gabriel calls upon help from above, summoning a blinding light that dazzles the punks so deeply they do the zombie shuffle going away. They spend the night at the home of Abraham’s nephew and his family. Name of “Lot.”

Lest you mistake this setup for something from the superhero pages of Marvel, bear in mind the astronomical budget that would be required here just for special effects and to pay the cast of extras. Each resident of Sodom and Gomorrah has a personal guardian angel (as does every star in the firmament, but that is another movie story). Sadly these angels have no direct power, serving only as advisers, the kind that sit on one shoulder trying to turn us from the temptations of demons on the other. For the record, we learn there is an infinite number of unemployed angels, as well. They’re everywhere. Everywhere. Presumably the film version of An Arrow in Flight, should one come to be conceived, could employ digital wizardry to multiply the beatific faces and heavenly wings of what the industry now calls “background.”

O lort, I see I’ve spent the better part of this review on the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, and haven’t even gotten to the denouement! And it’s only the first episode in the novel! But it sets the stage for the real story: Gabriel’s year-long punishment for having made a small mistake—small by my measure, but. . .well, here’s what happens: Given a much later assignment, hundreds of years after the Sodom/Gomorrah saga, Gabriel must burn the city of Nineveh to the ground. Poor damned Gabriel, instructed to gather fiery coals from the ground and cast them over the city, allows another angel to hand him the coals, which he then scatters over the city. This alone—not picking up the coals himself, as ordered--deeply annoys the power upstairs, who banishes Gabriel to wander the land for a year in human form learning human ways and the importance of strict obedience. During this probationary separation from the heavenly realm, Satan and his multitude of demons constantly appear and hover around Gabriel like gnats on an August afternoon. All Gabriel can do if he—he’s Mr. Gabriel now—finds himself out of his depth is to call for help, that being Michael, who appears instantly to drive off the tempters.

There are adventures ahead for our chastened cherub, and we are along for the ride. The odyssey concludes with a reunion in which Gabriel must keep to himself the memory of having helped an earlier generation of the family. Here it can get a little complex, tightly plotted, with voices shifting from angelic to human and back. I became so rapt I started mouth breathing. 

An Arrow in Flight, is the first of a series of books and stories featuring heaven’s seven top archangels. My initiation to the series started at SevenArchangels: Annihilation. Click on that title for my review. 

 

 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

SHRAPNEL – James Lloyd Davis

Shrapnel is what warriors call the little pieces of flesh-tearing metal launched by a bomb, an exploding artillery or mortar shell, or a grenade like the one on the cover of James Lloyd Davis's new collection of fifty literary tales. A warrior himself, having served in Vietnam, Davis knew well the metaphor's power when he chose SHRAPNEL as the book's title. He doesn't explain why he chose it, but to me the grenade represents Davis's creative mind. Open the book, and its cleverly crafted pieces fly at you—the many sizes and shapes—none lethal, although some will discomfit readers whose own minds cringe from notions outside familiar terrain.


    "Be good for what ails them," as my mother would say in her generous variation of the “tough s**t” lesser souls are apt to employ.

But words are “only games, after all,” Davis reassures us in the first of Shrapnel’s stories, Knitting the Unraveled Sleeves, a tender, yet suspenseful yarn from the viewpoints of an Irish couple, he a retired fisherman who can’t resist going “to sea” with his small boat every morning from their home on the Nova Scotia coast. This morning, protected from cold north winds in the heavy wool sweater his wife knitted for him, he catches “a heavy, proper cod” As he prepares to gut the fish, noting that with its size it could feed him and his wife for at least a couple of days, lightning from an approaching storm strikes the water nearby and heavy gusts arrive pushing waves and battering the little boat. He drops the fish and tries to start the outboard motor. In his haste he floods the engine, but, knowing the oars won’t get him home in time, continues to struggle with the motor hoping to beat the storm that’s racing toward him...

Resonances of another old-man-at-sea story reach through these words as no surprise recalling the other author’s physical sense in this one’s visage. Indeed, Davis does Hemingway more than once in this collection, albeit keeping to subtle inflections and with original characters and stories. The tone is hard to miss from the start in Storefront Poet: Opening the shop in the early morning, turning the key in the lock, I look over in time to see Mrs. Rodriguez wave from her taqueria across the street. Her bright eyes and beautiful teeth always make my day, but this morning they help me transcend the sounds of a low rider homeboy, passing by between us on Telephone Road, basso profundo speakers trembling my big glass window with alpha-waves I never really understood, but recognize...”

Hemingway’s seeming simplicity can tempt any halfway skilled wordsmith to give him a try, especially a male who resembles the Nobel laureate in his person. And Hemingway parodies abound. Key West holds an annual “Bad Hemingway” contest for writers, and it seems the winners frequently look like “Papa” as well as try to send up his easily recognizable style. I don’t know if James Lloyd Davis has ever entered this contest, but it would surprise me, as, based on these stories alone, I find him unquestionably too serious a writer to consciously make fun of another.

Not that his sensibility doesn’t drift onto other stylists’ turf, such as the “Southern grotesque” plots and characters of the inimitable Flannery O’Connor, whose milieu and tempo come through with dark familiarity in Davis’s flash story Way Cross, Georgia, 1937. Imagine two traveling snake-oil salesmen who attract deadly trouble hawkingholy” mineral oil off the back of their pickup in a banjo-belt crossroads town. Laughs and gasps from this masterful glimpse of con and consequence.

No one is safe from Davis’s unerring eye and ear—bumpkins, slicksters, tough guys, damsels, predators, victims...none so vulnerable as other artists, such as Where have you gone, Norma Jeane, Norma Jeane? And those in the “being” vignettes: Bogart, James Dean, Che, and Picasso. “Being Picasso” has one of those laugh-out-loud endings you write down so you get it just right in your mental archive: (Being Picasso has left me entirely drained, so I must now lie down. It is also dangerous, Please…don't try this at home.)

For those attracted to Shrapnel thinking the stories might be about the military, considering the grenade on the cover and seeing that Davis is a Vietnam vet, if such is the only sort of story you feel like reading at this time, there are two, which alone are worth the price of this book. Both are short, no longer than the average newspaper column, but they are unforgettable—even for readers who have never worn the uniform. They are Memorial Day and Pulitzer Grade.

In wrapping up this review I want to leave you with something special, a zinger perhaps, something to “close the deal” as people in sales would put it. But I’m not selling anything. I’m merely sharing my enthusiasm for a book I truly enjoyed, hoping to infect you with some of that spirit because I know no one who reads Shrapnel will come away disappointed. These stories, as I mentioned my mother would say of them, “Are good for what ails you.” I would add, “They’re just plain damned good.” As for zingers, Davis has sprinkled so many sparkling, resonant lines of prose throughout these stories I am hard-pressed to pick only one to leave you with. I had planned early on, in the very first story—Knitting the Unraveled Sleeves—to use this line to conclude the review: “What is it that anyone can wish for, finally, but comfort, a hedge against solitude, and, once in a while, a poke or two at rapture?” And that line has held up against all of the others that come to mind right now. It’s a keeper. It shall stay with me for the rest of my life. But it’s too fine a sentiment for zinger duty.

What we need now is what stand-up comics call a rimshot. If you don’t know what I mean, you’ll find out when you read Standup Gigs in Zendos Make You Cry. It features the comic “Zenny Youngman, [who] walks onstage and blinks, squints into the silence, the spotlight so bright he cannot see the room. The sharp light it casts illuminates the pockmarks on his cheeks, accentuates his wide nose, casts shadows that resemble a dark mustache on his upper lip. His intro ends and he bows at the waist.” The silence continues, joke after joke… Oh, the jokes aren’t that good, but we feel his pain. We love Zenny. We want someone to laugh. And when the rimshot comes, we do.



[For more Short-Story Wednesday links check Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

 

 

 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

GRIT AND GRACE – Tobi Alfier

Not especially surprised when I arrived at the poem Her Life is an Edward Hopper Painting, being in one myself from the beginning of Tobi Alfier's latest collection, Grit and Grace.

From the git-go:All that is left sometimes, is to hold faith in tradition and comfort—dog laying in front of the fire, a bit of spirit to make the kisses sweet, one last song hanging in the air.” Actually that’s the last stanza of the first poem, Before any Words are Spoken, but even at the first I’d succumbed to the mood of inevitability with its respites of blessed solitude. I was one of the nighthawks in Hopper’s diner, sharing space with a stranger or two lost in private thoughts as was I, ingesting Alfier’s knowing sensibility along with my coffee and wedge of lemon pie.

Alfier knows Hopper’s people. They live at the edge of survival, with little chance of ever realizing their dreams, and knowing it, but plugging along anyway, held together with determination if only just to keep on going. The unnamed gent who walks in the cemetery, following his doctor’s orders to do ten-thousand steps a day. “All that is left is his faith in ten-thousand, the footfalls of loping deer, headstones in icy winter, and the last song hanging in empty air, his bold baritone in the chorus.”

Or the three long-retired, unnamed barflies who habituate Harold’s Place: “These guys wear the stamp of fisheries, the prison, or the old scrap yard—stories told by scars, tattoos, language, and the speed at which they polish off their pension’s allotment of booze...They’ll die here, tilting barstools hug their asses barely shy of Heaven.” If they feel sorry for the way things worked out, they keep it to themselves, abiding Aristotle’s sentiment Alfier quotes:The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.”

Would that the patriarchal sage have known The Blind Woman [who] Touches her Toes in the Sea. “Gentle and chilly foam tickles her toes but does not scare her. The heart can only do this work alone, she thinks, as she often does, thankful that no one comes to ‘help’ her walk back to the street.” Dignity and grace—and love (for that you must read the poem).

Although “church” is no slur among Alfier’s people, the biblical “grace” would seem to be missing for many of them, but the occasional angel does appear. Most memorably for me is “Viv” the motherly diner waitress in Decaf or Regular who can tell when it’s time to cut off your caffeine. “She’ll know if you stayed up all night to study, fueled by No Doz and Red Bull—she knows the only way you’re gonna get out of this truck-stop town is to do well, or you’ll be takin’ the lunch rush over for Manuel. Not good.” She’s the girl in the Edward Hopper painting:

Lord God Almighty but she could put a hurt on a man—

hair up and wrapped in a smooth chignon that the glow

from a thousand fireflies of motel blinds makes shine

red as the sun in summer. A tight boiled-wool

skirt halfway up to hail Mary full of grace, shoes

to bring her eye to eye with the deep lines

in your weathered face.


She is the nightwind, the motel clerk, the diner waitress

rolled into the fantasy you’ve had since forever.

She’s the bartender and barmaid—

sometimes your desire. At others your regret.

In truth, this is your story. You are the one with shoulders

tight as the traffic that winds through the city,

not her.


She’s a bit dusty, like a wedding dress never worn,

packed away in a chest in the closet. Her cheeks the deep

rose of a hot desert wind. Her lips pursed—

with disdain or delight—it’s impossible to tell.

She’s the wildflower no one can name, windchimes

caught in a forgotten tune. A time-stamped photograph

of empty, she sits with her coffee, silent and alone.

 


 

Here’s a stanza from Aftertraces that perfectly captures the way I feel this morning, this spring, if you will, this Edward Hopper aperitif:


Hard winter days are changing into spring.

The odd dust devil kicks its heels up

the unpaved road outside her patio, masks the colors

of early wildflowers we can never praise enough

as they start to peek through mudded earth

in the fields beyond...





 

Tobi Alfier is a multiple Pushcart nominated poet and Best of the Net nominated poet whose poems have appeared in many publications. She is also the co-editor of the San Pedro River Review. You may contact her at sprreview@gmail.com.






Saturday, March 6, 2021

COLOR and LINE – Carole Mertz


I would say Carole Mertz's new collection of poetic writing is, were it a drink, a supremely fine Cognac. Upon reflection, it is a drink—of words and spaces distilled with intimate care to reveal a portmanteau of nuances aged in loving casks from as far back as nearly five centuries (not considering how many years Sofonisba Anguissola might have spent painting The Chess Game from which Mertz took the inspiration to write The Learned Ladies).

I say “would say” because, frankly, my palate’s sophistication deficit could easily betray me and confuse the Cognac with a cheap brandy. A waste to the connoisseur, presumably, but I’ve a worldly acquaintance who swears by a budget-friendly Portuguese brand that I’ve tried and found startlingly agreeable. What I’m trying to do here is lay a little groundwork for a confession that my palate for poetry is so personal I can’t really vouch for...waaaaitaminute—that’s the whole point of poetry! From the heart and mind of the poet. Period. A bonus should the poem connect directly with heart and mind of even one other human being, if only for a flash.


Mertz’s collection, Color and Line, contains a myriad of insightful flashes, some so sublimely lucid and intricate they’re still gamboling on my brain pan, and may well continue tickling its synapses for as long as they’re alive. I’m already happily drunk on them! And there’s a presentation bonus with this collection: examples of different styles and types and traditions of poetry, including a “cento,” which borrows lines from other poets, a “title poem” taking titles from other writers and arranging them into a story, and one built on a familiar hymn. Several are “ekphrastic,” which are inspired by visual art, such as The Learned Ladies.

My favorite of the ekphrastics was inspired, I venture to suggest, by two separate paintings—The White Soup Bowl, done in 1771 by Anne Vallayer-Coster, and Antonio Lopez Garcia’s 1971 work The Dinner, which I found displayed side-by-side when I googled the older painting. Mertz doesn’t mention Garcia’s depiction of an adult and a child alone at the dinner table, nor does White Soup Bowl reveal any human beings at or near the groaning board. Mertz might disagree, but I submit she saw the two paintings together, and her imagination took off from there and gave us Francois Enjoys an Evening. She starts out describing the bowl: “a very heavy cooking pot made of twice-baked clay. Do you hear the lid scrape the lip of the pot? Do you smell the onion soup brewing within...” I sure can. It’s making me hungry, and I just finished a bowl of chili! 


Now she takes us behind the curtain of steam rising from the pot: “you are surrounded by friends, and the talk is lively...” OK, I’ll take her word for it. No choice. But now the adult and child (or poetic surrogates) step from their painting into The White Bowl, and come alive. “How charming that young girl looks, across at the table to the left. Her father, busy with the chatter, does not see her drop her napkin and reclaim it, the curls of her rich brown hair falling briefly across her face, concealing for a moment her wide, dark, and beautiful child-eyes...” We find ourselves part of the scene, caught between two centuries, wanting to dunk some bread into that steaming pot and make small talk with father and daughter, involved in a story told in the sensuous, evocative language of someone who likely spent more time choosing her words, getting them right, than the chef spent readying his cheese and onions for the broth.

First runner-up (sounds better than second place) for my favorite ekphractic poem in Color and Line grew from a painting by one of my favorite artists, Vincent Van Gogh’s cafe scene La Guinguette. The poet titles her inspiration Come Share a Glass with Me, describing in fine detail what she observes in the painting and bringing questions and ideas from what the scene says to her. The “guinguette,” she tells us, quoting from a French dictionary, is “a small cabaret either with or without a small dance hall where people can gather to drink a cheap ‘but malicious’ light green wine. She draws out attention to couples seated in the outdoor alcoves. “What do the people discuss? Do they talk of the rising price of cabbage? That Jeanne will meet Pierre after his shift ends?”

Alas “guinguettes died out when the cheap wine could no longer be had,” Mertz informs us, “when Parisians no longer swam in the nearby Seine. Their habits changed; they no longer came to the guinguette for a relaxing glass of that light green wine.”

Mertz is Book Review Editor at Dreamers Creative Writing, a Member of the Prize Nominations Committee at The Ekphrastic Review, and served as advance reader for Women’s National Book Association’s 2018 poetry contest. She judged (in formal verse) the 2020 Poets and Patrons in Illinois International Poetry Contest.

There’s a freedom to writing ekphrastic poetry that appeals to me,” she says in Color and Line’s preface. “One can allow the artworks to speak directly and in specifics or one can muse on the artist’s intentions and leave unanswered questions.

At times I research the artists and introduce a bit of their history into my writing. Often first impressions work themselves onto my pages and I let them stand. Sometimes I allow myself free rein to stray into open pastures.” 

 

 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

TALL: Love and Journalism in a Six-foot World – Nancy Stancill

Guess
Seeing the title of the first chapter of Nancy Stancill's autobio, "Cutting Ingrid's Legs," made me wince. Still does, even though I know the rest of Tall builds on a crescendoing awareness that being a comparatively tall female hasn't been the bummer of a ride girls may fear it will. But still...

That some young females actually consider chopping off a few inches of thigh bones to better fit in with the herd is bad enough, and knowing some actually do it breaks my heart. Social tyranny on a par with Chinese foot-binding.

Shame on our society!

"I’ve talked to many tall women who recall good times at the midpoint of childhood," Stancill tells us. "They didn’t worry about how they looked, how they dressed, or whether boys (or the larger society) approved of them. Then puberty kicked in and their lives would change abruptly." She looks back at her own gig with the "mean girl syndrome" and the social hierarchy it embraced. "I was low on the popularity pole. It was a lonely period in my life."

Having parents who understand helped ease her anxiety. In high school, where she was the tallest girl, she felt additional pressure to distinguish herself. It seemed natural to try out for the cheerleading squad, “that apex of high school success,” following in her sister’s footsteps. But the idea of “jumping up and down and screaming about football” didn’t appeal to her. She put off telling her parents, worried they’d be disappointed. Their response, when eventually she shared her misgivings: “‘Honey, you do whatever you want,’ my dad said. ‘You don’t have to do anything for us.’

My parents came through by that simple act of acceptance and I never forgot it. You can forgive a lot of less-than-perfect parenting if you know your parents really see you.”

Getting good grades and serving as editor of the school newspaper didn’t hurt her confidence, either—and helped launch her on an award-winning career as a journalist. Her investigative reporting for The Houston Chronicle and the Charlotte Observer helped bring criminal convictions and prison time for wrongdoers. And her involvement with Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), a nationwide network of journalists, included a five-year stint on the organization’s board of directors. “Journalism tends to be a lonely profession," she writes. "Sometimes you feel like it’s just you and your computer against the world. IRE eased that feeling for me, knowing that good colleagues would help if needed."

Her stories included exposures of a rogue CIA agent selling arms to Libra, a sheriff running an illegal speed trap, and a landmark case testing whether Hispanic students should have bilingual education. Both the rogue agent and corrupt sheriff were convicted, and the judge ruled in favor of bilingual education.

She titled one chapter “Was I in danger? I’ll never know,” and recounts her investigation into suspicions that the chancellor and the president of a Texas community college were involved in shady deals with the CIA and military bases. Here, she says, is where her physical stature proved to be an asset: I think my tallness made me appear stronger and less vulnerable to college leaders seemingly intent on harming me. I know that being six feet tall in this situation made me feel like I had an invisible shield of safety." Perhaps that edge in fact did save her life. A couple of confidential informants—one a mid-level administrator of the college—told her that an instructor there who’d tried to blow the whistle on the college had turned up dead in the Houston Ship Channel.

“I never could confirm whether the chancellor and president were involved in the teacher’s death," she writes, but later used the ship channel death as a scene when she segued from journalism to writing fiction. Both of her novels—Saving Texas, and its sequel, Winning Texas--feature a tall, attractive, intrepid female Houston journalist, uncovering political shenanigans and criminal activities mined from Stancill’s personal experiences at the Chronicle. Her historically based fictional themes are as current as tonight’s TV breaking news and tomorrow’s front page headlines.

Typing the word personal up there in the paragraph about themes reminds me I nearly overlooked the truly personal stuff promised in Tall’s subtitle: Love and Journalism in a Six-foot World.” Romance: another challenge she found her height threw her way in a society that likes its women to be at least a little shorter than men. She dated a lot working her first full-time newspaper job, in Charlottesville, Va., but nothing stuck, none of her boyfriends were able to overcome her anxiety over simply being too tall. This all changed when she fell in love—for the first time—with “Gary”, an advertising salesman at the paper. First love/first fooled—isn’t that how it goes? Eventually, after Gary’d stolen her heart, she found she’d mistaken his “domineering attitude as self-assurance instead of self-centeredness.”

Moving east to Newport News to work at a bigger paper, she met the love of her life. It happened in her kitchen during a party she was giving one night in October 1973. She and Len Norman are still together, now happily retired. They live in Charlotte, N.C.

(He’s shorter.)