Friday, December 31, 2010

Editorial: More Light?

Because it's the holidays—at least for another day or so—and because the holidays mean that submissions tend to slow down toward the end of the year, I thought I would write an editorial-type piece in this blog on a holiday theme.  I've been meaning to write an editorial-type piece on something or other, and this seemed as good an excuse as any.  I knew it wasn't going to be something warm and fuzzy, although the impulse sprang from a holiday sort of place—the desire to offer something, however modest in value it may turn out to be, for the sake of offering it.

That seems to be one of the most consistent impulses surrounding the Winter Solstice holiday that has evolved into our Western Christmas and concurrent religious observances, often lumped together as "the holidays" as if they all occur at precisely the same time, even on years like this one when Hanukkah concluded on December 9th. 

Gift-giving is obviously paramount to the holidays these days, since without retailers to remind us of our obligations to our loved ones and mere acquaintances as early as late September, what would a modern holiday season be?  But an even more basic and ancient impulse was simply to ward off the darkness a little bit by lighting a candle.

It's hard to imagine a time when things like candles on a tree—or the safer alternative of flashing LED lights—were not merely symbolic holiday tropes, but there was such a time, and I think the deal of how it all started was as basic as this.  Year after year, after the harvest and first frosts had passed, people noticed that the days were getting so short that it seemed, at the rate they were going, they would eventually disappear (thus the need to appease the sun gods) and the growing cold from the retreating sun only exacerbated the feeling of darkness.  People huddled inside around their fires much of the day, and probably grew more guarded and fearful of the world outside—and they had reason to be.  Their children may not survive the winter.[1]

It was a brazen, foolhardy and generous impulse to run out into the cold, dark village lane or town square with a torch and an amphora of wine or horn of mead to share with one's neighbors.  But after enough of the stuff had been imbibed, and with everyone glutted on the slaughtered livestock who wouldn't be surviving the winter, anyway, a merry mood was inevitable.[1]  It all must have happened quite naturally.

And that's the problem with the modern Christmas, lamented by Bethlehem-minded observers like "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz in 1965 as well as more secular-minded critics holding an equally dim view of commercialism today:  Nothing about it seems quite real.

But the thing is, it isn't that the rest of our modern lives feels solid and substantial, and only our Christmas is phony.  It's that our comfortable, everyday world is made of aluminum, polystyrene, and silicon (or silicone), and our Christmas is no exception.  Our Christmas is part and parcel of our time, just like it was for the Victorians (and it's hard to say now exactly how the Victorian Christmas was before its repackaging by nostalgia) and yet our Christmas still seems somehow wrong to us—because it doesn't match up to Dickens or even to that 1965 "Peanuts" cartoon.  Everyone (or so it seems) wants to be old-fashioned at Christmas, but very few know how, and the uninitiated are afraid those few will take their secret recipes to the grave.

Who would be familiar with the work of Currier and Ives these days if they weren't enshrined in a familiar carol?  What the heck is a wassail, anyway?  If it's spiked, as I presume it is, I'm game, but I hope someone else knows the recipe.  (Yes, it is, and here is the recipe.[2])  But who has the time to bake, construct and decorate a gingerbread house?  A few very dedicated purists here and there, and some TV pastry chefs. 

To most of us, it's just another trope, like the holly and the ivy (medieval symbols for male and female, "when they are both full grown"--and you can guess which medieval gender is the bright, upstanding holly and which the clinging ivy) or Santa Claus (an incarnation of the Norse god Odin later melded with a 4th Century Greek saint [4]) and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, who at least makes the misfit in all of us feel more at home at a time when it seems everyone else knows where they belong in the scheme of this holiday thing.

The two-to-three-month buildup to Christmas has a way of making the most romantic among us feel like Grinches.  On December 23rd, I found myself humming "Eleanor Rigby" instead of "Deck the Halls."  I knew so many people newly or long-single, geographically distant or estranged from their families for whom I could only imagine this season to be a long, grim slog. 

Should we tag as foul-spirited Grinches anyone who feels a bit cranky at all the product-peddling clich├ęs whirling around them?  I don't think so.  Even with family to go home to and with a loving partner at my side, the pressure of the season had been grating on my nerves, aided by a perennial case of seasonal affective disorder.  This year, I hoped for a light therapy box under my tree.

For the reluctant among us, instead of just "Consume, consume," the advertisers have to sell the idea of Christmas first, and often do so by implying that all would-be consumers have a dormant sense of Christmas buried deep inside them that is just waiting to be sparked.  Maybe one of their more scientifically-minded consultants convinced them there is some kind of Christmas gene, and one of the ways it's expressed is by making the phenotype in question rush down to the Apple store or Jared, The Galleria of Jewelry. 

If Charles Schulz were still around and someone managed to convince him to make a second sequel to his famous "Peanuts" Christmas cartoon, what might he have to say about the way commercialism has truly blossomed since 1965, and even 1992, when the first sequel was aired—about how it's exploded into the full-grown monstrosity that it is today? 

What might he say about all the ways we've found to imitate items once found in nature or even the factory with digital, virtual representations of them?  (At least a pink aluminum Christmas tree exists in three dimensions.)

If he were a paleo-pagan instead of a Protestant, (although it's interesting to note that later in life he referred to himself as a secular humanist [5]) what might he, speaking for our ancestors, say about what has happened to the simple impulse to light a candle rather than cursing the darkness, and to share a little of what makes a person merry with one's neighbors and friends?

Oh, sure, it didn't take long even for the ancients to pin down this impulse into stagnant ritual.  That's one of the things groups of humans do best—suck the feeling out of something and replace it with a "how-to" manual, and then put the manual up for sale, along with some devotional trinkets.  That's no modern phenomenon. 

What we've managed to innovate in the last century or so is a world where, due to our cleverness, our success as a species, we don't need candles to light our dark nights anymore, and so we've logically come to believe that all we need is the idea of a candle, the trope of a candle cut into a rough shape for a cookie or synthetic fabric mold. 

I have to emphasize that I count myself as someone who is in favor of the future—meaning that I detest the idea of cursing progress, proclaiming all that's modern to be corrupt and decadent, because much of what we have built for ourselves over the millennia has proven light years better than what we started out with, and not only with regard to technology.  Much of our way of thinking about our fellow human beings is more inclusive and tolerant and less self-serving and violent.  Although we obviously have a long way to go along that path, on the whole we are kinder and gentler. 

But I do think we might do well, in the midst of hunkering down and wishing coziness and comfort for me and mine, to remember the despair, and disparity, that persists in the world outside our weatherproof doors—in the parts of the world map lit up by the electric grid and the parts that as of yet are not—and light a candle with that darkness in mind.  


Apparently Goethe's apocryphal last words "More light!" turn out to be a posterity-minded paraphrase of his more banal instruction to "Open the second shutter so that more light may come in."[6]  Does it really matter, though?  Letting the sun in is one way of letting the world in, and maybe the reverse is also true.


Thanks for reading
here's wishing you a happy and luminous New Year!


Because there's much in the world I don't know (but the World Wide Web does) I consulted these sources:
1. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/20/opinion/20cohen.html?_r=1
2. http://www.accidentalhedonist.com/index.php?title=wassail
3. http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/2731/
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_M._Schulz

6. http://www.utne.com/2002-07-01/famous-last-words.aspx

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Marsha Mathews' Northbound Single-Lane

Northbound Single-Lane by Marsha Mathews
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom



Marsha Mathews' first chapbook Northbound Single-Lane was recently published by Finishing Line Press in a lovely handcrafted-looking edition with a cover illustration of a magnified grasshopper that immediately drew me in.

Mathews' disarmingly accessible style kept me turning the pages through this 19-poem collection, and I appreciated the arrangement of the poems both chronologically in terms of the speaker's personal narrative but also, true to the title, directionally northward, albeit with a detour here and there.

And, of course, the final poem brings the speaker home both to her native Florida, the point of departure, but we also realize by this point in the collection that "northbound" has another meaning as well, as does "single-lane."  The speaker's decades-long journey, taken in the company of two daughters who occasionally aggravate but more often inspire, ends when she finds herself sitting alone but un-lonely, finally free from the domination of two powerful griefs, first for a father who passed away and second for a husband who walked away, on the dock her father built:  "On this dock I once watched/ the horizon through my father's eyes./ Cigar scent choked the salt./ I now see the ladder at the end of the fill."

By this point, the speaker has come a long way since a poem early in the collection, "Merry-Go-Whorl," in which the dissolution of a marriage was portrayed as a slowly dawning horror:

You snuggle
into this complacency
till one day
the person you love most
averts his face.
Living room walls open
& out prance
blue unbridled hyenas.
Your house crumbles
into a powdery rubble of questions.

In a later poem,  "Lone Goose," Mathews shows her skill for crafting an interwoven conceit when she compares the goose's morning call and its disruption of the fragile security of a tranquil lake to the fragile psychic security she has tentatively begun to build while taking refuge at the lake, also shattered by the same noise, like a jarring meditation bell.

The daughters appear as constants in the narrative, comfort amid the uncertainty.  In "Abigail's Antiques," one daughter panics her mother by practicing ballet steps oblivious to the breakable merchandise in the eponymous store, but Mathews gracefully turns the poem to make apparent what is ultimately of value to the mother:  "... for her, there's no breaking./ Even if she leaps."

This territory is risky when it comes to avoiding the maudlin, and Mathews doesn't always manage to steer completely clear of it, but she does avoid going over the edge.

And occasionally, a more caustic tone emerges, as in "The Sectioning," a pitch-perfect and in fact one of the strongest poems here:

The first time you see her
she is crying.  For weeks,
screams tear the air.

As you drive to the grocery store,
her voice rides in your temples.
You check the mirror,
sure that she is following.

The relatively long final poem is the natural culmination of the collection, and it begins compellingly:

On the dock my father built
I watch lights from beach houses
quiver toward me,
streak across Boca Ciega Bay.
The moon shoots itself
to the water.  Light spins, flashes
like Spanish doubloons.
They dazzle, tempt me with miracle.  
Yet the neighbor's dog howls.  
A gull pounds the air with its wings.  
A mullet slaps the surface.  
The grainy boards beneath my feet
are real enough.  What then?

Halfway through, the breakthrough:  "I remembered laughter." 

The closing lines of the final stanza leave us with the collection's most luminous imagery:

Tones draw into seawall's hollows,
lamp shells.  They cluster
& shine like pearls,
holding off everything
empty.

The speaker's quest for identity began in the opening poem, in which she as a girl injected a grasshopper with red dye because "I ached for something/ to inject myself with/ to make me shine."

In the final poem, the world makes its presence truly felt to the speaker, and is moved in turn by what she discovers in the penultimate stanza, "... music never before heard:/ my notes."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: Karla Linn Merrifield's The Urn

Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom


Karla Linn Merrifield's new chapbook The Urn is dedicated to her husband Roger Weir, whose prostate cancer is in the final stage although it appears to have been in remission when at least some of these poems were written.  She presents the chapbook's twenty-three poems both as a tribute to a still-living loved one (as opposed to a posthumous elegy, which can only be appreciated by the bereaved) as well as an exploration of her own grief as she comes to terms with the deferred but certain loss of her partner.

It is a brave undertaking, and the poems Merrifield shares with Roger and with us are especially moving in light of the circumstances we know inspired them, but most would stand alone even if we didn't have this knowledge.


Merrifield was an Everglades National Park artist-in-residence in 2009, and her fluency in describing nature is evident in the most finely crafted of these poems.  Many describe the life in Florida that the author and her husband share.

The strong opening poem, "No Mainland Visible, Islands Only," ends with:

who else falls prey?

husks of spider crabs strewn
on this beach with candor
reply the chain is out of order

two red-shouldered hawks
eye me twice     curve into
morning     shredding mackerel clouds
 
When the author's tone occasionally falters or overreaches, the grieving speaker returns to nature as a source of strength and solace, and both form and content are back on sure footing.

"The Calling" begins:

The dapper clan of backyard avians
            comes calling to celebrate
                     with me your cancer’s remission.

Chickadee, titmouse, junco, downy—
            quartet in a spectrum of grays-to-black—
                     feather the sun this mild November morning.


One exception to the nature rule is the breezy poem "Soundtrack for the Man Who Wore Bow Ties with No Camera..." which hitchhikes up the coast and back in time to the New York of the '70s, deftly weaving Simon & Garfunkel song references with semi-nostalgic reflections of a carefree, dissolute past:

Those were my beret days of truant, sleazy hours
at play as ex-hippie-exiled-to-the-city,

tripping out on jazz combos at Storyville at noon
or late-night Bleeker Street blues,
with wine and a joint, a screw.                   
It was another November morning,
lifetimes ago. The promo man from Playboy

drove me in his slick ’59 machine 
down by the schoolyard in Corona, Queens,
past the police station, over to Julio’s ’hood.
He snapped in the cassette and we listened
to Paul sing the gospel, believing we’d never

burn out; no one was ever going to die
because no one had, no one we personally knew.
   


But she returns to nature in the final two poems.  The very last is set in Florida, but
the one before, "Wake," is set in another wild place on the other side of the continent, where she describes an urn much larger than a mantle could hold, where ashes are scattered "in choppy waters off Orcas Island."

Still, I fancifully wish for the man
I have loved; so I whistle
for a kingfisher to chant this passage
with blue-spangled feathers and blue-
crowned calling above waves. 
He will behold my bright bird up and down,
along, over his deep home,
this fjord where I give him living blue.

 
The best sort of gift is one given at the right time, and that's the beauty of this timely labor of love.