Friday, August 11, 2017

“The World within a Nutshell”: A Review of Blue by Wesley St. Jo and Remé Grefalda

(Paloma Press, 2017). ISBN: 978-1-365-84488-1
The true gift of poetry as an art form is its deft use of air. Of space. Of pauses and gaps into which the reader can pour him- or herself.
Blue takes these strengths of poetry and puts them to maximum use. With its glossy pages, blue and black ink, illustrations, and numerous typefaces, Blue looks like and reads with the speed of a children’s picture book, but don’t mistake the design for simplicity—Blue invites and rewards multiple readings, each with its own approach.
For instance, the first time I read the book, I took it in as a single poem, telling only one story. The second time, I used a panel with a quote by e.e. cummings as a dividing line between two acts—one that takes as its central character love of a human and the second love of God.
The third time I focused on each passage as delineated by its typeface. This third approach is like reading a book of Asian poetry or koans. Each passage is its own rich moment, an invitation to meditate upon its many meanings.
Although St. Jo and Grefalda are the co-authors (with St. Jo contributing the abundant and engaging illustrations), there is no delineation as to which passages were written by which poet. This adds to the overall mystery and allure of Blue. In truth, there are not just two voices, but many.
For the purpose of this review, I am going to say that the book is divided into two stories, Man and God. But this is my own interpretation—they are not labeled as such, nor does the e.e. cummings quote absolutely guarantee a division. In Man, the authors engage the trope of the world traveler, using Phileas Fogg and Passepartout in allusion, illustration, and in the latter’s case, by name. They also play on “Eyes of Blue,” which calls to mind the classic “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” The authors’ use of “lose you to a song” in blue ink appears to reinforce this notion. The Man seems to be off in search of something, which the author(s) hope(s) will either bring him back, or that they will travel the world together “in Denim Blue.”
The e.e. cumming’s poem signals a switch to God: “I thank you God for most this amazing day … and a blue dream of sky…”
There is a subtle shift in tone (though the blue is still blue, as it were) in the section I call God. There are italicized passages that sound biblical, looming large and philosophical. Passages like: “You are/ Beloved,/He said./Perfect/As you are, He said.” While the author replies, “Sleep/Overtakes/Me,/I said./Rest/Frightens me,/I said.”
God does not give up, until the author says, after continued resistance, “So as/You will it, God
And in the final pages we come back to song (“damn you song”) and I wondered as I read and meditated, is it the same song from the start? But it is not: “i whistle out of tune/some nonsense i composed/with you in my heart” [note the small i, only appearing on the final page].
Read Blue as you choose. Perhaps the suggestions in this review will spark a path, but it’s best to ponder its images, meditate on its typefaces, and choose your own way through the blue.

A Review of Way of the Diviner, by William Douglas Horden

ISBN: 978-1536977110 (paperback)
Joey Madia
Half a dozen years ago, a package arrived in the mail from a publisher. As I made the half mile walk back from the mailbox toward my house on a hill on the far side of a West Virginia hollow, I pulled back the tab on the top of the mailer and out spilled The Toltec I-Ching, a beautifully illustrated new take on the venerable divining method of ancient China.
Sending an email to the publisher that afternoon, I said that I would put the book thoroughly through its paces as a self-help guide, as I was in the midst of making several important decisions, both professionally and personally. The Toltec I-Ching, my review of which is available at New Mystics Reviews, was more than helpful—it was life changing. Taking the complexity of the trigrams and hexagrams of the I-Ching and breaking them down into understandable explanations, Horden, along with his illustrator, allowed me to access insights that yielded immediate results on application. I recommended the book to others, and shared it with many visitors to my home who were also seeking some guidance.
Early last year I had the opportunity to review another of Horden’s books, In the Oneness of Time: The Education of a Diviner. I was struck by its nonlinear format and Horden’s ease of language with complex spiritual and cultural ideas. Horden is a very capable storyteller, with just the right mix of levity and brevity—in that sense, a true shaman.
Way of the Diviner is a companion volume to In the Oneness of Time. It is by no means a replication of the material of its predecessor. It is a peek behind the curtains while simultaneously offering a look down the road, from the best of all vantage points—Way of the Diviner is very much of and about the Now.
Using a combination of personal anecdotes, teachings from his three instructors, illustrations that he has created for his multi-volume series on I Ching divination, spiritual parables, synchronicity, alien abductions, channeling, and explorations of the I Ching and other systems for divination and transformation (“shaman, spirituality, alchemy, and immortality,” p. 2), Horden goes deeper into the ether than in any of the other books of his I have read (several more than mentioned here). You will also find passages that contribute to some of the leading work being produced in areas such as Angelology, Authenticity, and Dreamwork. There are also reproductions from some of the paintings from The Toltec I Ching and some of Horden’s stunning nature photography.
Honoring the nonlinear realities of time, Horden titles chapter 1 “Ending” and chapter 2 “Beginning.” He is coming at the complex questions inherent in divination from multiple angles, as any good teacher does, allowing the material to fall like seeds seeking fertile soil (meaning here the reader’s own background, interests, and need). The chapters unfold as they will, having been written in the moment without pre-planning—sometimes on a hillside in Mexico, other times in places about which we are not told the details. The movement is shamanistic—the text moving back and forth between the worlds of spirit and matter; dark and light; life and death.
It helps to have read the books I have already mentioned, or to be otherwise familiar with different spiritual systems and their relationships to shamanism and divination. Way of the Diviner is by no means a starter manual. Yet, with enough background and an open heart it is not impenetrably mysterious. Horden has an approach that flows effortlessly between Serious and Absurd, as he eloquently relates in chapter 11, “Enlightenment.”
I have had the pleasure and privilege to speak one-on-one with Horden on several occasions, often for many hours at a time, both in person and through Skype, and he is meticulous in his word choice in those situations as he no doubt must be behind the keyboard or with pen in hand. And yet he says, “I have been on this path for forty-five years now and am embarrassed that I still have so much to say” (p. 50) and “I thought about leaving this chapter on enlightenment completely blank. Perhaps it would’ve been more appropriate” (p. 56). This humility and care is rare in a teacher. It is a trait we need much more of.
The final chapters of the book unveil a series of advanced concepts, which Horden demystifies with abundant personal and spiritual examples and his considerable ability to use metaphor as a tool for teaching, distilling them down into phrases such as “Make of Yourself a Nest for the Phoenix” and “Sweeping Shadows without Raising Dust.”
Within these chapters are exercises for turning down the volume of the conscious mind so that we can attune with the One Mind. I have used these exercises for many months and they not only focus the mind during meditation and relaxation but help to quell the racing thoughts that I struggle with as both a writer/creative and as someone who grapples with anxiety. Horden calls these “Taking the reins in our hands instead of being dragged across the field.” They are nothing less.
Ever the consummate storyteller, Horden ends Way of the Diviner with a tale about an experience he had in Veracruz and, ever the humble student, the final section holds the ceremonial words of one of his teachers.
It seems for over a decade I have been ending a portion of my reviews with something like, “If you are looking for inspiration and direction in these troubled times…” As long as times are troubled—and that might just be the eternal way of things—authors like Horden and books like Way of the Diviner will be the balm to heal our wounds.

“Is Anything Ever Random?”: A Review of Random Road (A Geneva Chase Mystery)

 by Tom Kies (Scottsdale, AZ: Poisoned Pen Press). ISBN: 9781464208027 (paperback)

Arthur Conan Doyle. Agatha Christie. Edgar Allan Poe. Peter Straub. The Mystery genre is certainly daunting. With such a rich heritage built over so many decades, one has to applaud any new writer breaking into the genre. How do you honor the well-known (and often well-worn) tropes that make the genre what it is while also bringing something new?
Let’s face it—not bringing anything new to a pillar of a genre such as Mystery is like playing a song note for note as originally arranged and expecting your cover to be remembered.
With this skeptical opening in mind, I have to congratulate Tom Kies on not only honoring what makes a good mystery a good mystery—twists and turns, richly detailed locations, lots of likely suspects, an overall moral depravity and subtle condemnation of society, and of course a compelling detective—he manages to bring something new and attention-getting to the genre: the main character’s private life literally and figuratively competes with the mystery all the way through.
Having met Kies on a few occasions, and knowing him for the bearded, gregarious man he is, imagine my surprise when the first-person narrator, on page 2, says, “Sweat trailed slowly out from under my bra…”! All levity aside, Kies does a masterful job of bringing the highly damaged and at times unlikeable and every-bit-a-woman Geneva Chase to life.
Kies’s background is in journalism, so it is no surprise that Chase is a lead reporter at the fictional Sheffield Post, where she is in constant danger of losing her job because of her alcoholism. Ah yes… that trope: the alcoholic news reporter. But in all tropes there must be some truth. It is a relentless, high-pressure, deadline-driven, high-stakes game reporters play. I think of the stories of Hunter S Thompson and films like The Paper and the more recent Spotlight, and Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom and it is easy to believe that a good portion of the best reporters also have their demons.
So far so good. Kies has brought something new (and frankly risky) to the genre and is writing about a field that he knows well (which shows in Chase’s relationships with the managing editors and with the local police and in interviewing witnesses and “chasing” down leads). Although he now lives on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, Kies is from the north—New England and New York. Random Road takes place in an affluent area of Connecticut, and it is clear that Kies knows the people and the area from more than just research and a check of Google Earth. If you are like me and want to feel like you can see, smell, and taste the local atmosphere, especially in a mystery, you will not be disappointed.
I hesitate to bring too much to light in a review when it comes to a mystery. In many ways we are solidly in the genre—horrific murders, parallel crimes that breed numerous suspects, questions of class and wealth, a town on edge, a police force under pressure, and a cast of characters whose moral gauge tends to run to the barely there.
Within these tropes, Kies gives us much to keep us engaged. Geneva is a complex and interesting character—interesting because she is honest. Her life has been one of hard drinking, adultery, and endless bad decisions—and she knows it. When faced with the opportunity to do some good, she tries. Some she wins, some she loses. That is true to life.
Both the A and B stories—the solving of the murders and Geneva’s personal arc—are ripe with damaged people, on both sides of the law. Random Road delves into the dark underbelly of Appearance versus Reality. Almost everyone wears a mask. Almost everyone has been hurt or is in the process of hurting someone else. And Kies has developed the primary and secondary characters enough that we hear their stories and can understand, if not forgive, their aberrant behavior, because we can see its roots. No cartoony master criminals or out-of-nowhere sociopaths in Random Road. Just victims of their environment.
There is some irony in the novel being called Random Road (which is where Geneva’s primary love interest resides) because the novel has many coincidences. At first I questioned this as convenient to the author, but then I looked closer. It is a small community, where everyone knows one another and it is easy to see how paths would cross. Geneva is super-sharp to boot—she follows her nose (whenever it’s not in close proximity to a glass of vodka) and reads the signs, all in keeping true with her billing as an ace reporter.
And to be fair, coincidence is a necessary evil of the genre and tight storytelling in general.
Random Road is a powerful story of love, the danger of addiction, the harm of dysfunctional families, and the necessity of forgiveness as much as it is a tension-fueled crime drama. Kies accomplishes a lot in his first novel and in a genre inhabited by giants.

I hope there’s more to come.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

“Jung in Larger Context”: A Review of Toni Wolff & C. G. Jung: A Collaboration, by Nan Savage Healy

 (Los Angeles: Tiberius Press, 2017). ISBN: 978-0-9981128-0-0 (paperback)

In the interest of Disclosure, I served as the editor for this book. That said, and keeping in mind the relationship of editors like Maxwell Perkins with their writers (in his case, no less than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and, somewhat synchronistically—to use Jung’s term—Thomas Wolfe), this should not preclude a fair review. Indeed, editors are reviewing books all the time. The difference is, they have the opportunity to provide different eyes to the author’s work before the fact, as opposed to reviewers, who do so after the fact (although I have done a number of pre-publication reviews that precipitated changes before publication).
But enough of that. I agreed to the editing contract for the same reason that I am now reviewing Toni Wolff & C. G. Jung—Nan Savage Healy’s detailed and insightful exploration of Jung’s unsung and nearly obliterated collaborator shines a powerful light on Jung, whom I, like others, practically deified as I have made my own journey through Jungian staples such as Archetypes, Dreams, the Shadow, and Myths.
I have reviewed many books by Jungian psychologists (e.g., Lawrence Staples and Erel Shalit) and have read many of Jung’s books. His work is an essential part of my own in Storytelling and I put him right up there with Joseph Campbell as one of the giants whose shoulders I stand upon.
An essential question that I have struggled with in the nearly three years that have elapsed since I first heard from Nan with a request to edit this book is this: Has my estimation of Jung decreased, increased, or stayed the same as I have learned about his relationship with Toni Wolff, who first met Jung as a patient and soon became a Lover, Muse, and Collaborator? I would say, after careful, continued reflection: all and none of the above.
My reasoning for this answer serves as the basis of this review, as I am sure that many of the reviews written by Jungian analysts and various historians and academics of Toni Wolff & C. G. Jung cover the nuts and bolts of the psychology and the finer points of who came up with what theory, who wrote which part of each book or essay, and who we really owe the credit to. This review is perhaps more personal, which may help this outstanding book to reach an audience segment it might otherwise miss.
Make no mistake—this is a work of deep academic excellence. The notes take up 52 pages, and the acknowledgments illuminate the depth and width of the resources—human and documentary—that Healy pursued to bring this book to fruition. She spoke with descendents of Wolff and Jung and went where the winds of inquiry took her. There is plenty of synchronicity at work, from her first stumbling upon an essay by Toni Wolff up through the book’s completion and I can tell you that I edited the book not once, but twice (and I understand considerable work was done after the fact while adding the 101 images that bring the words to life and give the reader a different kind of insight into Wolff and Jung), all the result of Healy’s commitment to tell Toni Wolff’s story as best as she can.
Toni Wolff’s story is very much inextricable from Jung’s, and from men’s in general. Coming from a wealthy household, college was not a proper option for her—and her lack of a degree was something she continually worked to overcome. After the death of her father and the subsequent responsibility she took for the family’s well-being and finances, she sought therapy from Jung (who took his own father’s death hard as well), and he instantly saw her genius. At the time she was a poet and very much in tune with her dreams. As she moved from patient to lover, muse, and collaborator, Toni abandoned poetry, focusing on the more concrete world of psychology. In fairness to Jung, he always regretted her leaving her poetry behind.
Fairness is a key strength of this book. It would be easy for Healy to put it all on Jung, to portray him as an unethical doctor who preyed on his female patients (there were others besides Toni), ignoring the dangers of Transference for his own selfish reasons. But she does not. Indeed, the primary reason Jung does not diminish as a thinker, writer, and artist in my estimation through this journey is because Nan Savage Healy Humanizes Jung, illuminating his Quests for answers in the deep void of symbolism and the subconscious, a Quest he inspired me to take nearly two decades ago.
In line with his Humanness is Jung’s recognition of the Shadow and the warring aspects of one’s personality. I have called my own warring halves Joe and Joey since college, a realization I came to intuitively in a moment of shamanic crisis—it was not until a decade later, listening to Michael York’s masterful reading of Memories, Dreams, Reflections that I began to understand what was at work through Jung’s own experiences. It truly changed my life. Since that time, I have worked through theatre, storytelling, shamanic studies, and voracious reading and diligent spiritual practice to get to know my Shadow and integrate the two halves of my personality. To this day, Treaties are broken and the war ensues again. Studying the Liber Novus and Black Books and undertaking similar projects of my own keeps the casualties down and treaties ever renegotiated. Toni Wolff & C. G. Jung has been invaluable to that process (see pp. 68 and 74–77).
The one area where I am most suspect of Jung’s motivations begins to be explored in depth in chapter 5, “Spiritual Wife.” Some of Toni’s most important contributions to psychology stem from an essay she wrote called “Structural Forms of the Feminine Psyche,” in which she outlines four structural forms for the “chief perspectives of women” (p. 90): Hetaira, Medial, Amazon, and Maternal. Space does not allow me to define and explicate them… and I could not do better than Healy in doing so. For my purposes here, it is enough to say that the Medial operates akin to a Muse for the creative man, while the Maternal is self-explanatory. Here is where it gets complex. Jung did not believe that one woman could be both his Muse and the head of his household—his wife Emma served in the role of the latter, raising their children and overseeing the home, while Toni served as the Medial. One might bleed this down into the vulgar Madonna and Whore, but that is impossible to do while absorbing Healy’s portrait of Toni.
Perhaps I am lucky (as was Joe Campbell with Jean Erdman, although they did not have children)—my own wife has been both for me (the Medial is a “prophetess and psychic seer,” p. 90; fittingly, my wife is a psychic medium) and so, for me, Jung’s thesis looks more like Convenience than Truth. This dual role in one woman, I should say in fairness, can at times be destructive when we consider Jackson Pollock’s muse and wife, Lee Krasner or Sylvia Plath to Ted Hughes, although destructive marriages for artists and poets are not all that unusual. In the case of Jung, Toni, and Emma, this triangle, which went on for decades, was awkward and painful for Emma and Toni both.
There is no doubt that Toni shepherded Jung through dark nights of the soul at her own peril. At one point, she was determined to marry him, a notion that Jung rejected out of hand. It could be said that this tumultuous relationship led Toni Wolff to pay the ultimate price: death by broken heart.
Toni Wolff & C. G. Jung, like a good analyst, operates on many levels. Healy covers the history of analytical psychology, from the main ideas to the Clubs and gathering places funded by wealthy American heiresses as well as illuminating the key phases of Jung’s career through the contributions of and disagreements with Toni Wolff. For instance, Toni had no use for Alchemy, and Jung took on another Medial in order to push that segment of his work forward.
The man who built towers like Bollingen out of stone as well as scientific and mythological towers out of sheer intellect and depth journeying was complex and suitably human for the tasks at hand. Toni Wolff was indispensible to the process. Nan Savage Healy mediates between the two with the effortless grace that only comes from years of committed toil.
We should all be thankful that she stumbled upon that essay by Wolff those many years ago.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

“Not Your Grandma’s Tao”: A Review of The Tao of Cool, by William Douglas Horden

(Ithaca, NY: Delok Publishing, 2017). ISBN: 978-1544629834 (paperback)

“You’re not cool, you’re chilly. And chilly ain’t never been cool.” [George Carlin, from one of his HBO specials]
You best get ready—this isn’t your (normal? regular?) traditional review. I am not even sure, after reading The Tao of Cool, that a review is even a COOL thing to do, nontraditional or not. Nothing about this book, which is [loosely] (as in, shares a common word in the title and the same number of chapter-poems) based on the Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu is presented in an expected way. For instance, the subtitle is on the back of the book, and reads: “Deconstructing the Tao Te Ching [:] from the Notebooks of Snafu Trismegistus [,] Bodhisattva of Universal Cool.”
Now, (normally) I would question such a statement. In one of my other lives as an academic editor, at least once a year I edit papers from a writer who promotes himself as a “thought leader.” That always makes me cringe. But, in this case, Bodhisattva of Universal Cool sort of elegantly, exactly sums it up.
As I sat down to read The Tao of Cool [perhaps it’s even better standing up… a problematic psoas muscle kept me from testing this idea], my academic side dutifully pulled my copy of the Tao Te Ching, translated by D. C. Lau. Turns out, synchroserendipitously, that I had read it exactly 13 years ago. Cool, I thought.
Perhaps not so much.
What is a deconstruction, anyway? I am not going to pull a definition from some online dictionary, because I am now cooler than that. I’ve done my share of deconstruction, which, to be of any value, involves some kind of re-construction. But isn’t that what authors (cool ones anyway) always do? Everything is through a lens, through experience, just like the actor.
And that seems to be the coolest, most hipikat [definition on p. 9 of the Introduction] way to engage with The Tao of Cool. The deconstruction came and went in the sublime Darkness of the writer’s toil—what we get between the covers is pure Light.
Horden pulls no punches in the Introduction. He tells it like he sees it. “It” being a, well, scathing survey of the politico-social landscape. He says that the book has taken “twenty years to ripen” (p. 5), which seems to be the requisite time for any novice to become a master—and it takes a master to produce a work like this. Perhaps the Introduction is a good litmus test to see if you are cool enough to withstand the barrage of wisdom that takes the uncool and melts it into oblivion. If you can’t get through the first 10 pages, read something else, as Horden says (better than I) on page 1.
I have to say, prior to reading the 81 chapters, I thought I was pretty cool. But when one reads, in chapter 6: “Only the profoundly Uncool talk about spirituality/religion/and the sacredness of everything” (p. 18) I had to question where I was on this particular scale. The more I progress, the less I talk, but talk I still do.
For those inclined to make a comparison between The Tao of Cool and Lao Tzu’s text, try chapter 10. Then, really, just put Lao Tzu away. Flipping back and forth, line by line, is the opposite of Cool.
Chapter 15 and some subsequent chapters brought to mind what the Beats were doing with words and mind-jazz decades ago (“The Uncool is muzak./The Cool is Jazz,” p. 88). Lines like “Dig./True hipkats are so far gone they’re already on their way back” (p. 27) recall Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso. If anyone was channeling hipikat outside of the actual jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, it was them. Difference is, the Beats were chasing story down a highway full of traps—they were ultimately consigned forever to a town called Uncoolsville when the rhythm-car spit-spit and blam-blammed amid their own frailties and distractions. Jim Morrison was on the right track for awhile as well, especially with his poetry: “The Cool is always having a near-death experience” (chapter 25) but he ultimately kept going. Same with Hunter S Thompson, who came to mind during my read of chapter 41. Before we judge any of these would be hipikats too harshly, however, it seems that especially Kerouac and his buddy Neil Cassady weren’t too far off the mark, as chapter 45 tells us: “Joyriding is better than anything else” (p. 57) and the whole group—especially in this case, Corso—got close considering “A healthy fascination with death is hipper/than an unhealthy fascination with life” (p. 62). Maybe Tom Waits is a hipikat. If he is, he’s too Cool to say.
If I have any hope of being Cool, even for a moment, I had better leave it here, and give Snafu Trismegistus, the Bodhisattva of Cool, the (nearly) last word:
“Setting your watch to geological time takes astronomical Cool” (p. 52).

Thursday, May 11, 2017

“The Reader as Mediator”: A Review of Rupert M. Loydell’s Dear Mary

 (Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2017), ISBN-13: 978-1-84861-519-9
Dear Mary, Rupert M. Loydell’s twentieth collection of poetry, is a series of meditations on the Virgin Mary and the circumstances of her miraculous conception. True to form, Loydell, a painter as well as poet, approaches the mystery through the dual lens of words and images. And one does not have to be raised Catholic like myself to appreciate the large number of images available to us that take as their subject Mary’s receiving of the news from the angel Gabriel and her subsequent life as mother of the Savior, Jesus Christ.
Indeed, “the appearance/of the angel,” as Loydell says in the poem “A Process of Discovery”: “the event/the moment/as pregnant/as the Madonna” (18). With this encounter heavily weighted from the onset, Loydell explores the crafting of the image, as in “Colour by Numbers,” although he does not take the elitist angle of painting as something only for the highly trained—especially with religious matters as its subject—but something for everyone, something as simple as a color by numbers painting, which you can “take… to the next level” (26). This is more Bob Ross than Old Masters, and refreshingly so.
In the poem “Cimabue” he writes: “everything in Italy/is a love letter to God” (28) a statement that recalls to me the atmosphere and impact of the art in the Martin McDonagh film In Bruges. Even the lowest and bleakest of souls are not immune to such pervasive and powerful displays of Holy, Heavenly art. The next poem, “Hidden,” continues and expands this theme: “There are hidden angels/everywhere in Tuscany./If you find one keep quiet/and speak of it only to yourself/let meaning turn to whisper” (29).
Given that the Angel and Mary are the lead characters in Dear Mary’s narrative, we have to ask who or what serves as the Mediator between the Spirit and the Flesh. The very act of the Immaculate Conception (real or metaphorical) elevates Mary to near-Spirit, but she is still (and importantly) Flesh. Loydell’s poems and the vast array of paintings out in the world serve as Mediators, but the Reader must function as Mediator as well. I left the  Catholic Church at 21 to become the Mediator of my own experience, rather than relying on priests, nuns, and long-gone prophets.
“How to Say It” uses the Painter as Mediator: “He does not know how to say it,/how to talk about the moment/he has been asked to paint,/so he simply colours the story in” (39). Loydell leaves ample space in his poems for the Reader to do the same.
Let us not confuse “simple” for “easy” here. On some level, even the Writer “colours the story in” with a transcendent element beyond words, if the angels/Muses are kind and the artist remains open to the experience, as Mary was. Extending this metaphor, the Inspiration fills the artist’s vessel like the Savior fills Mary Mater’s womb.
From pages 51 to 59 is a multi-part poem titled “Shadow Tryptych” (“after Francis Bacon”), a rich tapestry of insight on the Vision and Voice of the artist. It sits at the exact midpoint of the collection and serves appropriately as the central Furnace and Core of Dear Mary.
A highlight of the collection is “Alien Abduction.” The nexus of angels/demons and aliens is inescapable to ponder, and Loydell’s well-informed but tongue-and-cheek take will get you smiling while you think.
“How Grey Became” takes us back to color, and keeps you thinking. Loydell writes: “The colour grey is preferred by people who are indecisive;/grey is also the colour of evasion and non-commitment.” He then goes on to say: “Grey is the colour of intellect, knowledge, and wisdom” (65). This latter interpretation is the one I tend to favor. It’s a proposition put forth even further in the Live song “The Beauty of Grey.” As I exist day after day mourning the death of Complexity, I wish there was more grey. More mix. More middle. Given that, perhaps both interpretations work.
“Out of the Picture” is about none other than Joseph. My namesake. The biblical character I have most pondered in my life. Loydell gives him a voice too long in coming. Talk about Complexity…
A more modern take on Mary and Gabriel is “Surveillance System Annunciation.” What if it all was recorded. Would it clarify or even further muddle?
The collection is bookended by two essential pieces.  First is the Preface by Dr. Jim Harris, who is the Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford. I highly recommend taking the time to read it, even if it means reading it after the fact so that your own experiences of the poems are not colored by his insights, sound as they are. 
The collection ends with a Notes section, which illuminates the source material and inspiration for various poems (for instance, “Dear Mary” is assembled from the song lyrics of 11 musical artists and other texts).

Like Catholicism itself, the sources and inspirations that make up Dear Mary are myriad, and the Mystery is left to the Reader as Mediator to ponder.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

“How to Manage the Void”: A Review of Sharon Heath’s The History of My Body, The Fleur Trilogy, Book 1

(Deltona, FL: Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC, 2016), ISBN-13:  978-0-9979517-0-7
I am going to be up front here. I love this book, which is in large part due to its main character, Fleur Robins, daughter of an ultra-Conservative US Senator from Pennsylvania and an alcoholic mother who had Fleur as a teenager. Fleur is one of the most delightful, complex, and often contradictory child characters since Holden Caulfield in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Sheila Tubman in Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great—two characters that had a profound impact on my childhood and, subsequently, my life.
Perhaps it is my own growing fascination with Complexity and Chaos Theory, but I have been noticing a recent trend in storytelling—be it novels, television, or (to a lesser extent) film—that comes into play with Sharon Heath’s approach. It began with the male anti-hero in television shows like The Leftovers and Walking Dead, who is flawed, isolated, and oftentimes just plain Wrong. That trend has now broadened and extended to not only female characters, but to entire families. I just finished watching the debut season of Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix. Not only are the relationships between spouses, parents and children, bosses and co-workers, neighbors, and so on incredibly Complex and always on the verge of or in the midst of Chaos, but these multi-level flaws create a much richer, deeper view of Life as We Know It than I think was ever possible before.
It is through this lens that I read Sharon Heath’s novel. Fleur is a study in Dichotomy. Her Nobel-level brilliance couples with a naivety that makes her the prey of the opposite sex; a brilliant vocabulary and a tendency to misinterpret what people are saying make for socially awkward instances and relationship troubles; a dynamic tension between the Private and Public drives her onward through her pre-teen and early teen years with a speed and recklessness fraught with peril and outsized Consequences.
Indeed, aren’t we all, in this post-post-Modern age of sound bites, tweets, and swiping left or right, struggling with the same? The connection between brilliance and lack of common sense; our struggles for True Communication in a world of digital shorthand and diminishing attention spans; of the Public and Private masks that we switch on and off with increasing rapidity; the lessons that come so fast while we are multi-tasking and trying desperately to problem solve on micro and macro scales—it all adds up to a life of Contradictions and Complexity.
This is the life of Fleur Robins. We know from the subtitle that the first book is part of a trilogy and that Fleur is talking to us, not from the present, but from the future.  This is a brilliant device on Heath’s part because we experience two points in time simultaneously—Fleur’s experiences (and they are myriad and at times cringe-worthy) and her later self’s recording them after the benefit of time, processing, and maturity.
Given that Fleur, mistaken for learning disabled when she was actually capable of groundbreaking discoveries in Quantum Mechanics when she was barely in double digits age-wise, is obsessed with questions of the Void and Time and Life and Death—questions that work in tandem with the events unfolding in the novel.
But Fleur is not on her own as far as the heavy lifting in all of this relentless Complexity and Chaos. There are her aforementioned parents, who have clear arcs of their own; Fleur’s grandparents; the domestic staff; and the classmates, teachers, and colleagues whom Fleur encounters on her accelerated journey through the educational system (which takes her from a loose version of home schooled to a school for the gifted and talented, to Stanford University).
Although I am tempted to reveal details of Fleur’s experiences, they are all so wonderfully delightful in their unfolding that I will instead keep my remarks general and focus on the overall themes the author employs. As indicated by my choice of title for this review, the Void is a central feature. Calling to mind the alchemical term nigredo, which is the starting material from which everything is created or, even better, a place of infinite possibility, I began to notice the myriad alchemy at work in The History of My Body. There are gardeners and cooks, and quantum physicists—masters of alchemy all. And the journeys of love and forgiveness the reader experiences are of course the heart and soul of alchemy—the transmutation of baser emotions into love. And the journey is difficult for everyone involved: It was hard to see Fleur’s starting condition of “she is too dim to be helped” morph into “she’s such a genius, she doesn’t need help” before continuing on to something resembling a healthy balance. In line with the quantum physics elements of the book, Fleur’s philosophy demonstrates an early working of a Theory of Everything—a rich landscape of overlapping, intertwining, complementary, and at times contradictory metaphors, thought-arcs, and theories Fleur is always apt to test with full fervor.
Heath must be commended—there is a thin, dangerous line for a novelist between such complexity being the beautiful quirk of main character and an indication of poor planning and execution by a writer unable to bring their broad worldview into manageable scope. It is clear that Heath has been purposeful and exacting. Like the best sit-com writers, she repeatedly sets up a “plant” that plays out more fully as the story it resides in reaches its crescendo, creating a “mini-explosion” of meaning of which Fleur would wholeheartedly approve.
Because of her inclination toward diving in head first and asking questions later, Fleur really does remind me of Holden and Sheila. And also of Michael from the hit sit-com The Office. As much as I loved and rooted for him (and precisely because of this connection) I cringed at least once an episode as his incomplete understanding of a situation or some mixed-up mathematics that altered the actual equation of his reality led him to embarrassing and hurtful moments. And Fleur has more than her share of all of these for a girl her age.
To paraphrase Fleur, stories were made to fill the void. Especially ones as richly written as this one. I look forward to continuing Fleur’s adventures when Book 2 comes out.