Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Essential Poet

Collected PoemsCollected Poems by Jack Gilbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a number of theories I won't bore you with to explain why Jack Gilbert isn't better known. Instead, I suggest that every person who claims to love poetry buy this collection (or one of the terrific volumes represented in it), read the work of this real and accessible master craftsman, and then buy another copy to donate to a library or to give a friend.

Gilbert wrote of love and loss, common themes for poetry, but like no other poet I know. And yet, his poems, for the suffering a reader might imagine was involved in the writing of them, are also life affirming. In "Half The Truth," he writes, "God has put off his panoply and is at home with us." Elsewhere we have the assertion, "I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,/but just coming to the end of his triumph." And in "A Kind of Decorum," the poet states, "my spirit sings like the perishing cicadas/while I sit in the back yard hitting an old pot."

Here also are poems earthy and philosophical without ornament to obfuscate. In "I Imagine the Gods," the speaker is given three wishes, and asks to eat not luxurious food, but "the great hog/stuffed and roasted on its giant spit/and put out, steaming, into the winter/of my neighborhood when I was usually/too broke to afford even the hundred grams." When told he could be given wisdom, he asks to go and see a woman he was too afraid to be with. Then the gods say they could make him famous again. His response is splendid:

Let me fall in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present. Help me to find
the heft of these days.
That the nights will be full enough and my heart feral.

This book contains all five of Gilbert's volumes plus twenty-one previously uncollected poems. Most of these last pieces are not a striking as the others in the collection, but they are still good, and round the book out nicely.

I cannot more strongly recommend this book to poets and readers. Jack Gilbert's name should be familiar to everyone in love with the written word. In fact, I suspect if his poems were read by students, there would be more people in love with poetry.

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Notes on 2016 North Texas Teen Book Festival

So I attended the North Texas Teen Book Festival with my wife and son. I'm not a writer of teen books or a teacher of teens, but my wife works in a library, and specializes in children's and adolescent literature. We are all readers, and I always think I can learn something with these programs. What you see below are notes, taken on my phone and quickly edited, of my experience. At the end, I'll give you a couple of general thoughts about the experience, ideas I hope you will take with a grain of salt, as I am very much an outsider.

No mugs in the swag shop. 

Keynote speaker Holly Black
"Why Magic?" 
--won some sort of award 
--applause when she said she would never write anything but fantasy. 
--quoting Tolkien 
--straw man argument
--ghost named Robbie
--folk tale to illustrate belief/fear of fairies
--fantasy helps us "look at ordinary things in a new way" (ugh)
--what Magisterium series is about 
-- Callum's (sp) fears are "like mine"
{left to retrieve something for my wife}

Arrived late for a panel titled "A Class of Their Own" 
--description: "All men are NOT created equal in these society stories." Panel of all women
--one other male (working event) (one photographer came later)
--one author referenced Nina Simone "It's a New Day"
"Old husband people"
--one boy showed up late
--almost skipped president question
-- interesting looking books
--"writing as a woman is political" (Elissa Sussman)
Some dissing of English teachers/assignments

{tasked to stand in line for tickets for author signings}

Teenagers and 35-40 year old women looking at me like I'm a pervert while I stand in line for my wife for authors I don't know and don't care about. I'm here a freaking hour and a half when the line starts to move. Teens letting people in line. 

Afterward, I can't get into anything, and so I wait. Then I think maybe I can sneak into one of the panels, but the only one I am interested in won't let anybody in even though they are not full.

So I try to find my son. I figure he's going to the panel on time travel, only I can't find it. I guess they went to a different place than what was on the damn schedule. I suppose I will enjoy the irony of that later.

Ah! I find it. However, it is also closed: "this room has reached full capacity." And of course there is no place to sit, and I realize that with a room full of people -- most of them children, and the rest mommies of children, and just mommies-- I can't say any fucking cuss words. 

Phone about to die. We both forgot to bring plugs. 

Mom and son picking books before signing. 

While waiting in line, Whovian Max holds court over favorite doctors. 

Covertly taken photo of guy who wrote The Maze Runner. Apparently he's some kind of big deal.   

Sarah Dessen. I accidentally had her autograph a book to my wife instead of the daughter who bought it. 

Soman Chainani: a very nice who wrote a nice inscription for my daughter Tina. 

And then, while waiting for my wife to return from her second trip to get Holly Black's autograph, my phone died. 

This guy pretended he wasn't glad to see me when I got home. 

So here are some takeaways from the event/experience:
First the good--
  • It is always exciting to see so many young people who like to read, and the fact that the line for Holly Black was longer than the one for James Dashner (for whom you had to have tickets in order to get an autograph) tells me that these kids aren't just there because of a movie. When kids have writers as heroes, you can feel a little better about the world.
  • Pretty knowledgeable and helpful volunteers and staff. I had a lot of questions, and was lost a lot. Was never steered wrong or given a teenage eye roll with "Go ask someone else."
  • Authors seemed quite personable (though I personally did not talk to any).
  • Seriously glad that they had strong, well attended panel over LGBT issues/writing/readers.

Now the not so good--
  • I know I am not the audience here, but I take exception with the constant implication that English teachers and adults are out to stop kids from reading what they perceive are dangerous books. Come on! Do we have to make everything look like an us against the world thing?
  • The idea that three authors were so dang important that fans had to stand in a special line to get tickets to get their autographs does not sit well with me. That some people paid $100 or $200 for special packages to spend a handful of minutes with these writers reminds me of baseball players who are paid millions and then charge kids for the privilege to get an autographed card.
  • No bookmarks or coffee mugs in the swag shops? Really? Do they know anything about readers?
  • It baffles me that something as large as this could not find a couple of poets or put together a panel on poetry. We know every third angsty teenager is scribbling poems in notebooks. There are poets who would be happy to spend time talking to young readers and their parents and teachers. When you omit something like this, you tell people it isn't important.
  • Speaking of unimportant, why were so few men involved? I believe there were less than ten male authors, and the board and staff that put this event together is made up completely of women. What do you think such a thing says to the young boys at this crucial time of life when much of how they respond to reading is getting formed?

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Masterful Tribute to Charlie Haden

I have spent my morning listening to this wonderful tribute to the late bassist and composer Charlie Haden. Most of the tunes are remarkable Haden compositions, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who played with the master on several terrific albums, handles each of them with an intuitive touch. Even "Hermitage," a Pat Metheny piece Haden recorded with his Quartet West, sounds as if it was taped inside the brain of jazz. The backing band has no slouches, giving the material the honor and empathy it deserves. But most importantly, this is fine, fine music. Rich in texture, and deep in soulfulness, Charlie should fill the heart of any room with delight.

Listen to the album on iTunes.

This song isn't on the disc, but I like it:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Drifting Along with Hammock

I cannot stop listening to Everything and Nothing. Just getting into "Post-rock," Hammock is new to me, but they have been around a long time, and everything they do is shimmering gold sonic goodness. But this project, rivaling Oblivion Hymns in strength and intensity, just does me in. There are the haunted words and ethereal vocals in tunes like "Dissonance" and "We Were So Young." But most of the songs are instrumentals that which range from ambient moodscapes to pulsing rock, perfect for driving under a wide open sky. The textures created by guitarists Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson are always a delight, even when it is clear the songs address sadness and the transitory nature of life. Whether you are drifting under the stars or watching someone you love drift from your grasp, this is the soundtrack of your movie.

Listen to this album on Spotify.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Meditation XXXVII--Manipulating Ourselves into Slavery

Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”
In John's account of the "trial" of Jesus, we have two moments that I have always read as distinct and separate moments, related only in that they are part of the narrative of Christ's crucifixion. After Pilate has had Jesus whipped and humiliated, he brings out the soon to be condemned and says, "Behold your king!" The crowd says, "Away with him. Crucify him!" Pilate responds with the question, "Shall I crucify your king?" to which they respond: "We have no king but Caesar."

It is clear the Jews here did not completely believe this, as the messiah they were hoping for was one who would overthrow the government they lived under. But for the rulers who wanted Jesus gone, the oppression of the Romans was beneficial. It gave them a common enemy to rally the commoners against (in words, not actions), and yet a structure that allowed them to keep power. So the declaration is merely an attempt to manipulate Pilate into killing Jesus.

But what they have done is swear loyalty to the state (not God). It is not only that they do not see Jesus as God. They also see the state's authority, when it suits their purpose, as greater than God's.
When Jesus is put to death, Pilate has written over the cross "the King of the Jews," which shows the state's power over the Jewish nation. The Jewish authorities complain, and say Pilate should change the phrase to "This man claimed to be the king of the Jews." Maybe they get it finally. Maybe they see that Pilate may have been manipulated to kill a single person, but they have signed an extension on their submission to the ruling power.

Does this sound familiar? In America, some see loyalty to God (or their idea of God) and loyalty to the country (or one's idea of country) as the same thing. Of course, they manipulate the words and the ideas so that loyalty is something that has little to do with godliness or reasonable citizenry. They cherry pick portions of the Constitution to fit their paranoia or thirst for dominion, and, having no real sense of the scriptures they claim guide them, turn those few, misquote phrases into their own scriptures.  They are slaves to fear and/or power, and so manipulate the masses with their fake God talk or fake talk of freedom and rights, unaware that they are dragging not only those they rule, but also themselves into deeper bondage.

Lord, save us from thinking our rights supersede your command to love. Help us to seek your peace instead of your power. Demonstrate your strength in our weakness. Amen in Christ.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Meditation XXXVI--Through the lens of metaphor

"For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind."

In this chapter from John's Gospel we find the incredible story of Christ healing a man born blind. The chapter opens with the disciples asking what may seem to the modern reader to be a very strange question: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was was born blind?" The question is steeped in the prevailing error of the time, one based on an assumption that such maladies are the direct result of doing wrong. It defies reason that an innocent child could have done something before birth that he would be so cursed. Likewise, if the parents had done something worthy of punishment, why inflict that punishment on the unborn child?

Of course, the disciples, to carry the metaphor further, are blinded by the cultural and "spiritual" norms they have been born into. They can only see the either/or. And the answer, whether they realize it or not, says something about the nature of the God they are at Jesus' feet to learn about. With either expected answer, that God must seem a capricious overlord where rules are concerned.

But Jesus, ever the contrarian who adamantly pushes away from the trap of either/or thinking, says that neither option is correct. Then he adds, somewhat cryptically, that the man's blindness was there "that the works of God might be displayed in him." So while He could have said that this has nothing to do with God, He is clear that God is in the center of it, just not in the way everyone thought. I'll argue that the miracle of the man's healing, however, was only one part of Jesus demonstrating the "works of God."

See, the rule-makers/enforcers of Christ's time (and ours) were more interested in using the event as a way to trap their political enemy. After questioning the event, the man, his parents, and then the man again, they find themselves questioned. The healed man says, "We know that God does not listen to sinners." The statement is telling because they had adjured him to tell the truth (because they did not wish to believe the man's account), saying, "We know that this man is a sinner." Leaving aside for now what "sin" may or may not actually mean, we see these men expected a specific answer. Because Jesus was already their enemy, they could see nothing good coming from Him. This is further shown by them throwing the healed man out of the synagogue, for what can only be seen as having the audacity to stand up to them, with the classic circular argument: "You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?"

It is easy for us to condemn the words and actions of the Pharisees here, and even to see the same mindset among certain people and groups we are familiar (or think we are familiar) with. I could not help but see corollaries in political groups on the right and left and in between, who see those who think differently from them as not only wrong, but grotesquely evil. What is harder, and more necessary, is that we look within ourselves for the germ that not only makes, but builds up enemies by ignoring the good right in front of us. That is the germ that, left unchecked, becomes terminal disease of the mind. As Jesus would tell the Pharisees, "now that you say, 'We see,' your guilt remains."

Stories like this show why an understanding of and openness to metaphors are so important. It was not love of the law that made the Pharisees unable to see the Jesus' truth, but their love of self made them turn the focus knobs of their microscope on the law until they could find their hatred, and this disguised as concern for the people. Our lens should not be scripture, but God Himself, whom we must continually seek. Otherwise, we cannot find joy, even in miracles.

Heavenly Father, we grope alone until you take us by the hand. And we do not always know it is You leading us. So quiet our minds that we can adjust to the light you give, and grant us vision of heart to trust You in what seems like darkness and even against the narrow vision of our times. Amen in Christ.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Scott Cairns' The End of Suffering

The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in PainThe End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain by Scott Cairns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was not what I expected, and at first, not what I wanted. I cannot tell yet if it is what I needed. While some of the ideas may not be new to people who have spent a good deal reading this niche of literature, it is certainly more honest and better grounded, theologically and rationally, than other work I have read on the subject, including Lewis' sometimes infuriating The Problem of Pain.

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