Thursday, October 30, 2014

Worth a look

Here is a list of posts I think you'll like:

‘Oh this pen cannot describe my feelings’: A mother laments that her only son has gone off to war. 

‘The whole face of nature smiled at harvest time’: The 14th New Hampshire in battle at Winchester.

Remembering Lincoln: The thoughts of a New Hampshire U.S. senator who knew him well.

‘It would be a pleasure to linger here’: A New Hampshire reporter writes from Gettysburg.

Captain Gordon’s war: From the letters of a 2nd New Hampshire officer.

From Fredericksburg to war’s end: A pious private’s life at the front. 

A Confederate captain at Gettysburg: An articulate rebel tells the other side of the story

Making the Civil War relevant: A teacher’s thoughts about the Civil War and young people.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

New York City haikus, vol. 1

Observations, fall 2014, mostly while walking down Broadway, across Central Park and along the Hudson:

Missed Jay-Z, sor-ry,
No music to ancient ears.
Frick instead: Vermeers!

Five dogs on leashes,
flower petals in the sun.
Lead boxer? Pink shades.

Smooth sailing today
but at Hudson River docks
bare masts creak and sway.

Skinless umbrella –
pedestrian collision?
Poppins disaster?

Passing tongues trill:
Da-nyet, I was like, jawohl,
¡hola! Amerika.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

It's all in the dress

Animal Dress

The night before she went back to college,
she went through my sweater drawer, so when she left
          she was in
black wool, with maroon creatures
knitted in, an elk branched across her
chest, a lamb on her stomach, a cat,
an ostrich. Eighteen, she was gleaming with a haze
gleam, a shadow of the glisten of her birth
when she had taken off my body – that thick coat, cast
off after a journey. In the elevator
door window, I could see her half-profile –
strong curves of her face, like the harvest
moon, and when she pressed 1,
she set. Hum and creak of her descent,
the backstage cranking of the solar system,
the lighted car sank like a contained
calm world. Eighteen years
I had been a mother! In a way now I was past it –
resting, watching our girl bloom.
And then she was on the train, in her dress
like a zodiac, her body covered with
the animals that carried us in their
bodies for a thousand centuries
of sex and death, until flesh knew itself, and spoke.

Oh, so many wonders propel this poem. The challenge for its maker is that a poem that is ultimately about the power of language needs to show that power as well as declare it. This one is full of visual language – words that make pictures. The reader sees his or her way through the narrative.

But even when the words are visual, they can also chime to ear and please tongue. Gleam, gleam, glisten – language that sounds beyond the page.  Creak, crank, sank. And then the intensity of mother looking at daughter and the beautiful metaphors: “strong curves of her face, like the harvest moon” and the mother’s body, at birth, as “that thick coat cast off after a long journey.”

Olds has written thousands of poems about her family. Like this one, most of them seek the universal in the particular, “the backstage cranking of the solar system” in “the hum and creak of her descent.” This poem captures a moment, a scene, but also the mother-daughter bond as a child comes of age.

Even more, the poem articulates the thought stirred by all those animals on the sweater dress: evolution’s gift of words to convey feeling, beauty and meaning.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Another side of Sharon Olds

Sharon-Olds, winner of the 2014 Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize, is known for her poems about her inner life, her sexuality, the female experience and her family. In this poem from her collection One Secret Thing she looks outside herself into the darker side of a common commodity – wood.

Wooden Ode

Whenever I see a chair like it,
I consider it: the no arms,
the lower limbs of pear or cherry.
Sometimes I’ll take hold of the back slat
and lift the four-legged creature off the floor to hear
the joints creak, the wind in the timbers,
hauling of keel rope. And the structure will not
utter, just some music of reed and tether,
Old Testament cradle. Whenever I see
a Hitchcock chair – not a Federal,
or an Eames – I pay close, furniture
attention, even as my mind is taking its
seablind cartwheels back. But if every
time you saw a tree – pear,
cherry, American elm, American
oak, beech, bayou cypress –
your eyes checked for a branch, low enough
but not too low, and strong enough,
and you thought of your uncle, or father, or brother,
third cousin twice removed
murdered on a tree, then you would have
the basis for a working knowledge of American History.

An ode often seeks out truths about its subject, Shelley’s west wind, harbinger of winter as well as rebirth, or Keats’s Grecian urn, only a sweet illusion of life outlasting time.

Sharon Olds’s “Wooden Ode” announces itself as such a quest in its first line. A chair like what? Soon enough the chair is a creature, its joints creaking, the timbers and the keel hinting at violence at sea. A slave ship maybe? A sailor keelhauled across the ship’s barnacled bottom?

Back on land, the narrator studies not just any chair but a Hitchcock chair, its design nearly as old as America, armless usually, straight-backed, Old Sparky at Sing Sing without the belts and wires. And then we are outdoors again, amid American trees with limbs just high and strong enough for lynching.

The violence is not, of course, in the wood but in how Americans have used it, on land and sea, our history.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A poetry prize for Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds is this year’s winner of the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. She will receive the award and read her poems on Oct. 30 in Concord, N.H. (details here).

Sharon Olds
The award bears the name of married poets who lived and wrote at Hall’s family farmhouse for two decades until Kenyon’s death of leukemia in 1995. She was 47 years old. Hall, now 86, still lives in the house and has a book, Essays after Eighty, due out soon.

The Hall-Kenyon is given annually to an esteemed American poet. Olds is the fifth winner. Previous winners have been Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan, Jane Hirshfield and Billy Collins.

Hall is an old friend, and for the first four years I had the pleasure of presenting the award. This year I can’t make it. But I have read and reviewed Olds’s poetry for years and interviewed her often. In advance of her Concord reading, I have prepared a few pieces to give readers of the Concord Monitor, the newspaper I used to edit, a taste of her work.

Olds splits time between New Hampshire and New York City, where she teaches at NYU. Her last book, Stag’s Leap, won both the Eliot Prize, Britain’s top poetry award, and the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

I went back to an earlier book, One Secret Thing (2008), and chose three poems to share and comment on.

Here is the first one:


By the time I was six months old, she knew something
was wrong with me. I got looks on my face
she had not seen on any child
in the family, or the extended family,
or the neighborhood. My mother took me in
to the pediatrician with the kind hands,
a doctor with a name like a suit size for a wheel:
Hub Long. My mom did not tell him
what she thought in truth, that I was Possessed.
It was just these strange looks on my face –
he held me, and conversed with me,
chatting as one does with a baby, and my mother
said, She’s doing it now! Look!
She’s doing it now! and the doctor said,
What your daughter has
is called a sense
of humor. Ohhh, she said, and took me
back to the house where that sense would be tested
and found to be incurable.

Olds sometimes opens her readings with this poem. It is a humorous ice-breaker that sets an audience atwitter. But the poem also says a lot about Olds’s body of work.

There’s that wonderful simile – the doctor with a name “like the suit size for a wheel” – and then the line break, a kind of ta-da pause before his name, which is to be spoken slowly so that the joke can be savored: Hub Long. Olds’s mind is a font of metaphors, and her poems reflect this. Although her line breaks can puzzle, they can also sparkle, announcing a turn in a poem’s direction.

This poem comes from a rich strain of Olds’s work. The mother-daughter relationship was a test for both of them for as long as her mother lived. Fanciful though it may be, “Diagnosis” returns to the roots. What kind of mother cannot recognize a sense of humor in her baby?

One Secret Thing closes with a moving series of poems about Olds’s mother’s dying.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Snapshots from the past, history as we lived it

First, let me thank you for reading my series of posts on my family’s letters from World War II and four years beyond. These letters deal mainly with my father’s service in the Pacific Theater and the effort to keep the home fires burning by mail. They run chronologically and encompass 15 posts beginning with this one (there is a prequel here).

My mom, Bernadine Pride, at  her parents' house in Fairfield, Conn., 1958.
In a short time these posts have generated well over a thousand page-views. I sense from this that the story has been of interest beyond my family. When I began it, I saw it as a series of snapshots from the past, history as it was lived, and hoped for just such a following.

The Our War blog has also had three other surges in readership during the last month. One was for an account of the late Sen. “Happy Jack” Chandler’s rhetoric from two decades ago. This post shot from 15th to 5th in all-time page-views during the last 20 days, increasing by nearly 300 hits.

The other two significant increases came for diaries. The third of four parts of a Confederate captain’s diary slipped into the all-time top 25 list, but all of Capt. Robert Emory Parks diary entries, which begin here, were popular. The other diary was kept by an Exeter pastor during the early years of the war. Many readers found all three years of it (1861, ’62 and ’63) during the last month.

What’s interesting about the popularity of these diaries is that they capture two scarce views of the war, one from a highly articulate, unreconstructed rebel, the other with a day-to-day account of the home front.

Here are the top 25 all-time posts based on page-views, which now range from 252 to 1.097. The numbers in parenthesis are last month’s rankings.

9. A Gettysburg journal (part 3) (8)
19. A gift from the heart (16 tie) 

Friday, October 10, 2014

15. 'We’ll never be completely happy again'

Shortly after the death of their 5-year-old daughter Bonnie, my parents left New England for Florida, seeking a new start in a new place. I was two and a half years old and have only a vague memory of the first place we lived, a duplex on Sedeeva Circle in Clearwater.

With my sister Pam before the alamanda
bush on Bermuda Street in Clearwater, 1950.
It was from there that Mom wrote the undated letter below to her parents in Fairfield, Conn. It was written in 1949, less than a year after Bonnie died and before my parents adopted my sister Pam, who was born on Nov. 8 of that year.

The letter disclosed a great deal about my parents as I knew them. My mother was the daughter of a successful salesman. My father, at 32, was just beginning his career as a salesman and sales manager in real estate firms, car dealerships and cemeteries. In the letter my mother got a laugh out of his soft-hearted approach to his profession. He would never entirely overcome it, although he found both success and satisfaction in his work while treating people right.

In her letter my mother also wrote about segregation. One of my earliest memories occurred at either Woolworth’s or McCrory’s, the side-by-side 5&10s on Cleveland Street, Clearwater’s main drag. Not yet able to read, I stepped up to the “colored” water fountain for a drink. An African-American woman chastised me for it, and I cried. My mother explained to me that we were northerners but lived in the South now and had to abide by its rules.

This was just the beginning of a conversation with my mother that lasted throughout my childhood. And it wasn’t just a conversation. She was as color-blind as one could be in the segregated South. Gertrude Clark, the African-American woman who cleaned our house for many years, came to my mother’s funeral in 1993. She told me she was able to collect Social Security only because my mother had paid both the employer’s and employee’s shares of the Social Security tax.

Mike and Pam, Clearwater, Easter 1955.
But the main subject of this 1949 letter of my mother’s was grief. The loss of Bonnie had driven my parents apart, and my mother needed to tell her mom and pop about it. At the same time it is easy to see from the letter that she was beginning to see her way through the anger and bitterness of the worst loss a parent can suffer.

Not long after this letter was written, my parents bought a new house at 1216 Bermuda Street, a few blocks north of Sedeeva Circle. My sister came to us late that year, and our brother Robin three years later. Bonnie was never forgotten in our house, but life did go on. Mom was a great mother and a tireless volunteer for good causes. Dad loved his work as a salesman and manager, but he was a soft touch with bad timing and no instinct for the main chance. Friendship, honor and dignity mattered most to him, and his life reflected these virtues.

The letter begins with a note Mom added across the top after she had written it: “Boy, my writing is awful – I just read this over, which I never do – Good luck to you – I could hardly read it.”

                                                                                               Saturday morning

Dear Mom & Pop –

Dad, you’re slipping again. Mother, you’re doing fine. Course again I don’t know what I’m going to write.

Our minister has been on the radio every day for the past week so I’ll have to take time out to listen to him. He’s a wonderful man & speaker. He is so sincere. Boy, last Sunday he talked of the suppression of negroes and that it had to stop. He’s from Ga. and said he knew how the southerners feel and that it had to stop. He’s going to put his foot in it. But what he says is true but some of these southerners are really sumpin’ – I like him too because he’s made quite an impression on Charlie. Don’t mention this in your letters.

Charlie sees an awful lot of things now in a different way. It must have been the will of God that we should find such a wonderful man. You know, Charlie couldn’t make up his mind which way to “take” Bonnie’s death. At times he’d be very bitter and say he’s out for all he can get, but now he’s beginning to realize that there is someone watching out for us. He’s always been soft-hearted, but the other day he said he’s come to realize that there are so many sad people in this world and if he can help them by a good turn he’s going to do it.

As lonely as I get for my baby, sometimes I get such a wonderful feeling that it all happened because she accomplished so much. Sometimes I get that “What’s the use of living” feeling, but I always get over it. I have so much to be thankful for. At first I couldn’t stand Mike or Charlie but they look to me for so much help that I can’t see how I could ever let them down. We’ll never be completely happy again because of that gnawing feeling, but were we ever completely happy before? We’ve found a lot more by losing Bonnie and know that she’s waiting for us. I just hope and pray we can live up to it.

At the dedication program at the Park a lady had made (crocheted) an American flag. Charlie had sold her property. I wasn’t with him yesterday while he delivered the deed. The flag is beautiful. I asked Charlie why she didn’t sell it. He said she was a foreigner and is now a very good American and won’t sell. It took over 1,000 hours to make it. They came down here, bought a house for $8,000 and got rooked, although they don’t know it. The man is very sick and they live on an old age pension of $33 a month. She made flowers out of crepe paper to make money. So my chicken-hearted husband said when he delivered the deed he’d buy one. She said she’d have 3 made by then. Well she had 6 and he bought them all -- $6. I said to him kiddingly why didn’t he pay for the lot.

I get a kick out of him. He can’t see trying to sell people the best when they can’t afford it. His boss said last night that was wrong because usually everyone wants the best, especially when it’s your last “home.” Charlie says phooey – why make people wish for what they can’t have (to me, of course). Course he makes more money on the most expensive lots, but he doesn’t care. He said he’d rather make friends.

Mike’s kinda cranky. He’s cutting his 2 top molars. One is half through and the other is nice and red.
Our landlady has her ex-husband staying with her. Makes something interesting to watch. Mike calls him Mr. Larsen. She has her first husband’s name. I heard him telling Mike not to call him Mr. Larsen/ Mike can’t figure it out. I’m glad he’s not old enough to realize what’s going on. So long now.

                                                                              Love, hugs & kisses – B, C & M

Dad and Mom, about 1953. Much later, Dad wrote on the back: 'I love this one. Happy days!'