Friday, December 31, 2010

“Putting the Mother Back in Mother Church”: A Review of Put the Blame on Eve: What Women Must Overcome to Feel Worthy

“Putting the Mother Back in Mother Church”: A Review of Put the Blame on Eve: What Women Must Overcome to Feel Worthy, Melinda J. Rising, PhD (Larson Publications, 2010; larsonpublications.com). ISBN: 978-1-936012-47-3


Put the Blame on Eve is a survey of two at-first-glance distinct histories that have actually developed on parallel tracks—Christianity and Women’s Rights, and the book is organized accordingly. The first part is a thoroughly researched and fascinating history of the creation and codification of Christianity and women’s ill treatment at the hands of the Church’s founding fathers in their historical and persistent (mis)representations of Eve, Mary Mater, and Mary Magdalene. The second part is a report on the state of women’s status in modern society using the results from focus groups and Federal government departments and other reports.
Rising’s treatment of the subject evolves from three primary sources: Joseph Campbell, Elaine Pagels, and Paul Johnson. Campbell’s work on the usurpation of the Goddess’s prevalence in early cultures by the patriarchal priest classes of various religions is perhaps best stated in his Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers a few years before his death. Pagels and Johnson are well known for their scholarly works on religion and history.
Rising covers a great deal of historical ground in a concise, engaging manner and isn’t afraid to interject an edgy editorial comment every now and again along the way. It’d be all but impossible in this review to cover in any kind of detail the many psychological, physiological, philosophical, and theological components that went into the suppression of the Bible’s best-known women and the distortion of such epic events as The Fall of Eden, the Virgin Birth, and the reconstitution of Mary Magdalene from chief among Jesus’ advisors to Rehabilitated Whore.
Some of the Big Bad Wolves in all of this are the Emperor Constantine, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. If we keep in mind that Constantine was controlled by his mother Helena and killed his wife in a boiling bath for accusing his first-born son of trying to seduce her (factoids that do not appear in the book) and that Augustine was a recovering sex addict (which does appear in the book), it quickly becomes clear that the founding fathers of the Church were projecting their own weaknesses onto the fairer sex. Although seen as pillars of early Church thought, both Augustine and Aquinas were far off in their conceptions of the nature of the Soul and consequently pushed forth the view that women were far inferior to men.
At the heart of it all is one word, three letters: SEX. Hence Eve as Temptress, Mary Mater as Virgin, and Mary Magdalene as Whore. These pointedly conceived and cruelly marketed roles thrust upon these women are, sadly, the obstacle course with which modern women still must contend. Regardless of their very different politics, both Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton were judged more on their looks and dress than they were on their politics, and every gesture and emotional response they make is microscopically dissected to a degree far surpassing that of their male counterparts. Although they are not referenced in the book, biologist Rachel Carson and ethologist Jane Goodall were treated abysmally by colleagues and dismissed by the press as nothing but “hysterical” women who had no business in the Sciences.
Rising takes us through the Albigensian Crusade, the Inquisition, and the global Witch Hunts, all of which did further damage to the position of women. It’s hard to remain calm reading these accounts of rampant power in the guise of Divine mandate.
Some of the more disturbing remnants of these patriarchal ploys is the continued ban on women’s ordination in the Catholic Church and the current Pope’s decision to put attempts at instating women priests on the same level as sexual abuse of children.
Rising’s recounting of the Women’s Movement from its beginnings in the mid-1800s through modern times is another excellently presented historical survey that covers the major subjects of Suffrage and birth control/abortion, and brings to light the differing philosophies that began pitting women against women in their fight for equal rights—an ongoing rift that now includes the Stay at Home Mom versus the Career Woman.
The final chapter is a “Report Card and Prognosis for the Future,” drawing on statistics and reports from various governmental departments and human services organizations. In a nutshell, progress is being made, but there is still a ways to go. The so-called Glass Ceiling and large disparities in pay for the same work between men and women are still major issues that bleed into all other areas of life.
Rising ends the book with many recommendations for continuing the fight for equal rights for women. This is the practical, hands-on portion of the book and there are plenty of important ideas.
No book is perfect, so I feel it fair to point out the following: there is one major editing error, where AIDS is spelled out as Acquired Immune Disease [instead of Deficiency] Syndrome. Also, and more importantly, it is clear by the end that this book is targeted overwhelmingly toward women. That’s kind of like preaching to the choir. Although there is so much excellent information here that women should of course read it, it is really the males of the species that would most benefit from seeing where Church, political, and sociological policies have led us all.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Music Made New: A Review of Cover Stories: A Euphictional Anthology (2010, coverstoriesbook.com)

A couple of quick bits of business, and we’re off.

1. Euphiction is a new genre wherein authors create “literary covers” of songs. Although many writers have probably been doing this very thing for years, it is formalized by name in this anthology for the first time.
2. I edited the stories by N. Pendleton that appear in this collection. I can take no credit for the success of the stories, or the immense talent of their author. I merely cleaned up the edges… he did all the work.

This excellent collection¬—“100 stories, 10 authors, 1 new genre” (plus an intro by Mike Dawson and an Afterword by Sean P. Murray¬) hints at the future of the short story. Longer, but just as visually rich, as flash fiction, these euphicational stories seek to reproduce the compressed narrative structure of the songs on which they were based.

They read quickly and make a wide arc from ‘80s genre homage and fun-poking to deep, dark, and seedy. Most of the authors offer a microcosm of the larger variety, showing off their dexterity and range, as a good band will in a 10-cut album. Others know their strengths and stick to their time signature and key throughout their 10 tales. Either way, the variety of Voices and Perspectives across the 100 stories is impressive.

Each author is provided a space for “Liner Notes,” revealing the source material (in most cases; some authors were denied copyright for titles or other use, which is unfortunate), their relationship to it, and their reasons for undertaking the project. To their credit, all of the authors bring a humor and lightness to their Liner Notes; if this is the face of the new generation of short story writers, the field is in capable, humble hands.

Some of my favorite stories were Simon Neil’s “A Present,” about a train of Muslims heading from India to Pakistan; Derrek Carriveau’s “Papillon,” concerning a teenage wedding; Christian A. Dumais’ “You Know I’d Never Leave You” about a man who births a baby and “A Hundred Fireflies Outside,” which de- and reconstructs teen slasher/romance flicks (an important piece due to its representing the partial face of post-postmodern literature); “Killing the Past,” “Let Your Mouth Tell the Story,” and “Quarters,” all by A. C. Noia; “Infinity,” “Beauty,” “Wildness” and “Home,” all by Derek Handley; “Listen, It Won’t Rain When I Die,” by Matt Gamble; and N. Pendleton’s “Untitled Track 006—Genre Unknown” and “Untitled Track 009—Genre Unknown,” the latter of which is a reworked excerpt from a (hopefully) forthcoming novel that will set new parameters for what fiction can and should be in the twenty-first century [and just because I’m editing said novel doesn’t make this statement any less true].

As I mentioned in the opening, the creation of Art from other Art is not a new endeavor—in my writing classes I use visual art and film soundtracks as prompts, and poets often pay homage to other poets and poems in their work. I also collaborated recently with a visual artist, writing a series of poems based on her highly symbolic and abstract paintings—some of which were originally inspired by pieces of music or poems (which may also have been inspired by works other works of art), so we have a continuum here that opens up endless possibilities and exciting new realms grounded in older traditions.

At least one author in Cover Stories, Derrek Carriveau, mentions a similar situation. Jack London’s short story “Martin Eden” provides the title to a Twilight Singers song on Blackberry Belle, which in turn influenced the author to write some stories. Other writers also mention writing to music in the past, and Matt Gamble confesses to scrapping his original artist/album when the stories were finished and seeking out a better “fit” for them.

Keeping in mind this situating of the writer in a much larger continuum of Art, Cover Stories provides several things: a new genre; a fertile field of inspiration from which other artists—painters, musicians, other writers—can draw inspiration; and several hours of excellent reading.

How many books can say as much?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

“Daring to Be Audacious”: A Review of Richard G. Geldard’s Emerson and the Dream of America

“Daring to Be Audacious”: A Review of Richard G. Geldard’s Emerson and the Dream of America (Larson Publications, 2010, www.larsonpublications.com; ISBN 978-1-936012-46-4)

As I write this review, the Republican party has just unveiled its new “Pledge to America,” similar to their 1994 Contract With America, which is an interesting and thought-provoking parallel to the title of this book, which, to me, is really two books in one, a notion I would like to explore up front and then move away from.
Richard Geldard, an internationally known expert on the writings of R.W. Emerson, shares his subject’s passion for the state of America, including what is wrong, ideas on how to fix it, and who is to blame. While I agree in theory with much of what Geldard says in chapters such as “A Call to a Nation,” “A New Great Awakening,” “America as Opportunity,” and “Wealth and Economy” I feel compelled to warn the reader that Geldard puts the blame squarely on the Right-Wingers and Republicans and paints what I feel is an overly optimistic portrait of what Barack Obama and his message of hope will do to change the trajectory of our country.
Just to be clear—I am in no way fond of or inclined to make excuses for the past policies of the Bush administration and their cronies, nor can I disagree with Geldard’s recent blogs on the Huffington Post about Glenn Beck and the Tea Party; by the same token, I have many reservations and questions about our current president (none of which have to do with his place of birth…) and I find the author’s level of faith in him and his policies to somewhat taint an otherwise thought-provoking and important book for our times.
Having warned the reader who might share my political concerns, I can move on to the real focus of this review—Geldard’s expert exploration of the most applicable of Emerson’s essays to these Modern Times.
Throughout the preface and the book’s 12 chapters and 2 appendices, I learned a great deal about Emerson and the era in which he was writing that helped put his essays in perspective. For instance, I did not know that, following his daughter’s marriage into the Forbes family of Boston, that Emerson was to become one of the ten wealthiest men in Massachusetts. As one of America’s most quoted and influential philosophers, Emerson is vital to our understanding of ourselves as individuals and as the collective known as “America.”
Whether he is explicating New England Transcendentalism or the Dream of America (as opposed to the American Dream), Geldard does a master’s job of selecting crucial passages from Emerson’s works and setting them in the context of currently pressing issues. He interprets and elaborates on the multi-layered threads in a way that will open these at times difficult to read essays to a much broader audience (hence the irony of his distinct political leanings).
The main essays from which Geldard draws are “Experience,” “Fate,” Nature, and “Self-Reliance.”
As Geldard states, “Emerson himself has been reduced to a purveyor of slogans and aphorisms empty of meaning outside their context” (50). Chapters that best remedy this and reconnect the man with his context are “Emerson and American Religion” and “Idealism and the Perennial Philosophy.” These chapters not only situate Emerson in his own time, but track his intellectual and spiritual connection to those who also went on to influence modern thought, such as Aldous Huxley and Ananda Comaraswamy. It was a surprise to me just how much Emerson was in tune with the nexus of Spirituality and Science—what is now called Quantum Mechanics (explored with increasing emphasis through chapters 5–7).
The two appendices contain passages from Emerson’s works with no commentary. These sections will hopefully serve as a bridge for readers who want to return to Emerson’s writings with a new perspective having read Geldard’s book or perhaps those who follow the recommendation of this reviewer and read Emerson and the Dream of America as their introduction to one of the most important philosopher-writers our country has ever known.

A Special Review for the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Publication of Lex Hixon’s Living Buddha Zen

(Larson Publications, 1995)


Lex Hixon was a fascinating individual. He studied five religions (he was an initiated Sufi Sheikh, a practicing member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and was about to be inducted as a priest in the Soto Zen order when he died in 1995) and published seven books. He received his doctorate in world religions from Columbia University. For 13 years he hosted WBAI’s “In the Spirit” radio program, during which time he interviewed both Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama.
Living Buddha Zen is a commentary on Zen Master Keizan’s Denkoroku: The Record of Transmitting the Light, written in the fourteenth century.
Like most Zen works, with their premise that “ultimately knowing nothing always eclipses knowing anything” (p. 13), this book, and no doubts its predecessor, can be a difficult and oftentimes frustrating read, considering as it does highly abstract concepts such as “nonduality,” “mind,” and “enlightenment,” but Hixon encourages the reader to stay with it with his exuberant and straightforward style of writing. As he says in the Foreword, “questioning… is integral to the practice… Living Buddha Zen is a book of questions” (p. 13).
Being a commentary and meditation on Keizan’s book, Hixon takes the koans (questions that in some sense have no answers, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”) and lectures of the Master and adds his own understanding, including a concluding poem at the end of each of the 52 “transmissions” from one Living Buddha to the next in the Shakyamuni tradition.
The life stories in the Author Introduction of some of these Living Buddhas are truly fascinating. Many were attendants to their predecessors; one gave his eye to a blind beggar while another severed his own arm to cut the root of separate body and mind; yet another did not sleep for three years. At least one was married and had a child, while others lived in caves and monasteries. With each transmission, the understanding of the Living Buddha was thought to grow and deepen, as knowledge was continually accumulated and passed on.
The 52 transmissions are laid out the same, with a koan, a comment, and a closing poem. I used them as daily meditations, reading the koan in the morning, the comment in the afternoon, and the closing poem before sleeping. Although they run only a few pages each, there is much to consider and reading a transmission in a single sitting risks missing the multi-layered meanings and messages.
The following are some of the nuggets of wisdom to be gleaned (and meditated upon):

• “any attempt to exterminate personhood is a spiritual sickness, like anorexia” (p. 52)
• “To exercise any occult power or to immerse the mind in any finite doctrine is to be bound and dragged by a rope” (p. 58; emphasis in original)
• “Student and teacher are like intersecting cords in a fishing net—nodes, not separate strands” (p. 63)
• “Performing nothing is Buddha activity” (p. 121)
• “No one can realize Truth, which is utterly simple, without becoming utterly simple” (p. 157)
• “Even the most subtle sense of self-satisfaction must disappear into laughter” (p. 162)
• “I cannot become it/because it is already me” (p. 184)
• “Here is where you must arrive!” (p. 198)

There is one passage which must be related at length, containing as it does the wonderful mystery of which Hixon speaks so eloquently:

“The father of the young successor introduces his son, Sita, to the present Buddha, explaining that the boy was born with left fist clenched. This strange condition still persists. The Awakened One explains the hidden karmic cause. In a previous existence, Buddha Aryasinha, at that time a simple Buddhist monk, received a small crystal of Perfect Nondual Wisdom, offered to him by the Naga kings of the Western Ocean. The monk entrusted this priceless wisdom treasure to a certain young man named Basia, who guarded it with great loyalty. ‘Now give me back that original gem,’ the present Buddha calmly asks, and immediately Sita’s left hand opens, for the first time since birth, releasing a clear stone.” (p. 124)

Living Buddha Zen ends with a Lineage Chart of the 82 Buddha Ancestors, of which Lex Hixon [Jikai] is the last to be listed. The chart shows the migration from India, to China, Japan, and America.
Although my shelves are filled with many volumes that consider the Great Mystery under many names and disciplines, this is perhaps the most adept at showing that “It is an open secret, concealed only by its complete transparency” (p. 218).

Monday, September 20, 2010

“Walker Between the Worlds”: A Review of Timekeeper II

“Walker Between the Worlds”: A Review of Timekeeper II, by John Atkinson (September 2010, Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com) ISBN: 978-1-926715-11-7

Thirteen months ago I had the opportunity to read and review Timekeeper, the prequel to this new work from author John Atkinson.

In Timekeeper II, the protagonist, Johnnyboy/Timekeeper, continues the journey begun in the first book, although, because of his vision quest on the Sacred Mountain, he can now live up to his Native American–bestowed name and unfold his tale on multiple planes and through multiple blocks of time.

This extra angle adds much to the second book, as Timekeeper, through his first-person narration, takes the reader back in time to experience events only hinted at in the first book. His experience of prejudice and intolerance from both sides of the family as a half-blood Indian are revealed in poignant vignettes, called up as Timekeeper makes a second journey in an effort to better understand his heritage and embrace his role as storyteller (complicated by the fact that he is illiterate for most of the early part of his life).

His ability to seek information through dreams and visions breaks the bounds of traditional storytelling and brings the reader across nearly a century of U.S. history as it relates to the mistreatment of Native Americans by the military and the local townsfolk. Johnnyboy’s struggle to find common ground between the traditional beliefs of his mother and the Christianity of his father’s people provides a lesson for us all.

Readers interested in Native American (specifically Sioux) ceremonies such as sweat lodge and sun dance will find the narrative particularly appealing, as will students of shamanism.

Atkinson’s prose is in fine form, with plenty more of the colorful expressions (“worshippers spread out in pews like crushed red pepper on barbequed ribs”) that made the first book such a delight to read. Although the narrative operates on multiple planes and loops back on itself numerous times from present to past, to further past, there is always a clear indication of just where we are.

As Timekeeper’s sequel came to an end, I realized that Johnnyboy, still a teenager, has plenty of stories left to tell.

I look forward to following him wherever—and whenever—he may go.

“Walker Between the Worlds”: A Review of Timekeeper II

“Walker Between the Worlds”: A Review of Timekeeper II, by John Atkinson (September 2010, Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com) ISBN: 978-1-926715-11-7

By Joey Madia

Thirteen months ago I had the opportunity to read and review Timekeeper, the prequel to this new work from author John Atkinson.

In Timekeeper II, the protagonist, Johnnyboy/Timekeeper, continues the journey begun in the first book, although, because of his vision quest on the Sacred Mountain, he can now live up to his Native American–bestowed name and unfold his tale on multiple planes and through multiple blocks of time.

This extra angle adds much to the second book, as Timekeeper, through his first-person narration, takes the reader back in time to experience events only hinted at in the first book. His experience of prejudice and intolerance from both sides of the family as a half-blood Indian are revealed in poignant vignettes, called up as Timekeeper makes a second journey in an effort to better understand his heritage and embrace his role as storyteller (complicated by the fact that he is illiterate for most of the early part of his life).

His ability to seek information through dreams and visions breaks the bounds of traditional storytelling and brings the reader across nearly a century of U.S. history as it relates to the mistreatment of Native Americans by the military and the local townsfolk. Johnnyboy’s struggle to find common ground between the traditional beliefs of his mother and the Christianity of his father’s people provides a lesson for us all.

Readers interested in Native American (specifically Sioux) ceremonies such as sweat lodge and sun dance will find the narrative particularly appealing, as will students of shamanism.

Atkinson’s prose is in fine form, with plenty more of the colorful expressions (“worshippers spread out in pews like crushed red pepper on barbequed ribs”) that made the first book such a delight to read. Although the narrative operates on multiple planes and loops back on itself numerous times from present to past, to further past, there is always a clear indication of just where we are.

As Timekeeper’s sequel came to an end, I realized that Johnnyboy, still a teenager, has plenty of stories left to tell.

I look forward to following him wherever—and whenever—he may go.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

“Meditations on Death”: A Review of Bobbi Lurie’s Grief Suite

(forthcoming from CW Books, May 2010)


Bobbi Lurie writes poetry that hurts.

Grief Suite follows the decline and deaths of its subjects with unflinching honesty. From the sterile hospitals rooms and invasive procedures that fill them to the exposure of decaying family dynamics through the course of illness and its aftermath, Lurie takes the reader on a journey through guilt, anger, denial, accusation—aspects of the “five stages” so many counselors talk about. But after reading this collection of free-verse and prose poetry, the truth seems to be that when it comes to Grief, nothing is cut and dry enough to be categorized.

It must be simply lived. Or, truer still—survived.

The collection begins with “Traveling North,” a prose poem that uses strings of image-phrases that call to mind Kerouac’s Mexico City works and Burroughs’s cut-up style. The punctuation works like a drum beating the battle-rhythm before the carnage. (In a later poem she writes: “I fragment short prayers, picking at the worded wounds.”)

The poem as prayer is most clearly present in “This Amputated Place is My Soul, Lord,” operating more as a mantra-meditation than a traditional Christian invocation.

Death, as it is so often, is tangled up in an essence of Love that is dark, dangerous, and unromantic, as best represented in the poem “Codependent Nation.” The speaker is represented by the small “i” as she speaks of how she “met my first love/at the vending machine/in the mental hospital.” The poem, which runs half a dozen pages, keeps the reader off-kilter and engaged with its varying rhythms, line breaks, and use and absence of punctuation. The imagery is unencumbered by typical mechanisms that might clutter it up or make it more palatable.

There are stories here that Lurie needs to tell, and we need to hear (“In print she says every/thing/In life she’s contrite”).

I was particularly intrigued by the subtle senses at work in all of the darkness of the poems. Purple and yellow are often mentioned, as well as scents like perfume.

The title poem, “Grief Suite,” begs numerous readings due to its length and complexity. The reader gets a clear sense of the Process grief entails. Like the earlier poems, it again felt as though there is a crushing weight that only these words can lift.

The poem details the dying and death of a mother, an event which brings to Light and Life the childhood memories and present contentions in the mother–daughter, mother–sons, sons–daughter relationships. It reads like a diary, and the reader is very much Voyeur, invited or not. There is much here that will be familiar to anyone who has experienced a similar death event in their family, especially if one sibling stayed behind to care for the parent while the rest went off into the world.

Two of the poems, “Once My Heart was Wide and Loved the World” and “Tossed Out Box of Treasured Possessions” function like sutras in the form of two-line meditations and dialogues:

“Black spots of cancer.

Like a small boy pointing a magnifying glass to an insect.
Interested in the way the body burns.” (from “Once My Heart”)

“And what will you do with the rest of your possessions?
I will never collect possessions again.” (from “Tossed Out Box”)

The final three poems, “Rasa,” “Waking in Old Age,” and “Soft Fibers Adorn the Diminishing Landscape” are beautiful, disturbing poems with stark language resulting in a power of imagery that recalls the lone swinging bulb in an otherwise darkened room. Nurses bring their “crude humor” as they joke about the patient’s incontinence… Although we know they are searching for self-defense, it is disturbing nonetheless.

Grief Suite is beautiful and light in all of its ugliness and dark.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Review of Dr. Bud Harris’s Resurrecting the Unicorn: Masculinity in the 21st Century

(Fisher King Press, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-981034-40-9)

By Joey Madia

There is little doubt that in the nearly 20 years between the publication of Robert Bly’s Iron John and the re-publication/re-vision of Resurrecting the Unicorn by Fisher King Press (it was previously published under the title Emasculation of the Unicorn: The Loss and Rebuilding of Masculinity in America) that the dilemmas faced by the postmodern man have only grown more complex.

Notice the change from “Emasculation” to “Resurrecting” in the title. It certainly makes the book more PC and less potentially off-putting, and this bears out in the text. This is not a radical manifesto on the loss of the masculine but a thought-provoking examination of just where the true essence of Manhood went off the rails. There is an excellent case made for journeying through the Feminine Principle in order to arrive at the Masculine, an idea championed by Carl Jung and countless Eastern mystics. This is about Balance and Inclusion, not machismo and misogyny.

Working in a way very similar to Bly, Dr. Harris has substituted Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Tinder Box” for the Grimm tale “Iron John” used in the book by the same title. Far from being a mere “knock-off” or homage of someone else’s way of exploring this subject, there is a strong case here for more exercises where Masculinity/Manhood are deconstructed and dialogued through the use of fairy tales.

Mythologists and critical thinkers from Bruno Bettelheim to Joseph Campbell have made a compelling case for the relevance of fairy tales to all of us, male or female, and Dr. Harris makes a substantial contribution to this field of study by illuminating many symbols and rendering readings through his deconstruction of “The Tinder Box” that were new to this reader.

Although the bulk of the book is devoted to in-depth work with “The Tinder Box,” there is much more going on. It is appropriate in this time of questionable wars and the mis-use of the masculine around the globe that Dr. Harris raises the ghost of John Wayne (the quintessential male for my grandfathers’ generation) and dispels many of the misunderstandings about this complex model of manhood.

Picking up from the fairy tale thread established in the first three-thirds of the book, the ending chapters look closely at the symbolism of the Unicorn and Lion and what men must do to make the most of these totem powers living within us. The section on Eros and Logos is thought-provoking and situates the text squarely in the realm of science rather than pure emotion. Rites of passage and the necessity of mothers and fathers better fulfilling their complementary roles when raising their sons (and daughters) bring to mind another of Bly’s books, The Sibling Society.

In closing, Resurrecting the Unicorn is essential reading for college-age young men and fathers. It’s an excellent companion to Iron John and a renewed call to revisit the Men’s Movement that rose up suddenly and died just as quickly in the 1990s. This time, perhaps, armed with both books and twenty more years of experience, we will do a little better.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

“Crossing the Boundaries, Real and Imagined”: A Review of Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s Water the Moon

(Forthcoming from Marick Press, 2010, http://www.marickpress.com,
Price: $14.95, ISBN 13: 978-1-934851-12-8)


In the past 12 months I have had the opportunity to review several collections written by poets who are producing works stemming from their condition of being a Westerner in the East or vice versa. The time for such catalogued experiences is certainly ripe—with the United States and Asia having no choice but to come to terms with one another economically and otherwise, and the growing realization (from a small but potent population) that the future of our world must exist in a place that honors Uniqueness without fortifying Boundaries, such dichotomy-breaking insights are keys to the doors of New Possibility.

Who better to keep those keys than the modern poet?

From Sze-Lorrain’s bio we learn the following: She was born in Singapore and “grew up in a hybrid of cultures.” She attended school in Britain, the United States, and France. She has performed worldwide as a zheng concertist and released a CD in 2009. She is an editor at Cerise Press and a translator, and writes non-fiction as well as fiction.

With such a varied education, artistic background, and cultural palette, Sze-Lorrain is ideally suited to represent the vanguard in what so many of us hope will be a braver new world. Water the Moon, her first poetry collection, sheds light on what such a world might be.

The book opens with a couplet from Li Po, and proceeds in its opening section, “Biography of Hunger,” to explore the sensual experiences of the author as she watches her grandmother “water the moon,” creating a culinary delight with historical ties to the Emperor Chu Yuan-chang 600 years before.

History, and one’s country-based sense of place within it (and ultimately outside of and beyond it), provides the roads on which she navigates in poems with titles such as “Shoebox Filled with Mao Buttons,” “Tibet,” “A Talk with Mao Tse-tung,” and “Odyssey.” Highlights of this section are the prose-like poems “The Sun Temple” [“I pause at a hermit’s rococo cave, now revamped/as a Bed and Breakfast”] and “The Unrecorded Days” [“In this world, every rendez-vous existed before the very beginning”].

The second section moves westward, and is entitled “Dear Paris.” Here the poet is at first the stranger in a strange land, laying out her prayer:

I come to you for salvation,
old and delicate,
aging yet timeless

The poems progress to a sense of her finding the familiar in the new, again in the culinary arts, as expressed in “Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne,” where the worlds of East and West are clearly connected by the ending lines.

With this newfound footing, the poems gain a surety of self-in-place, as Sze-Lorrain experiences architecture, art, and love (all symbolized through the recurring themes of moon and water), until she can once again look at Geography through the lens of History in “A Brief History of Time.”

The once-stranger is now at home, and her many interests and aspects flow ever more seamlessly together, where the preparation of food is likened to Flaubert’s use of commas and verses are flavored with myriad cultural references from around the world.

It seeming fitting to call the last section of Water the Moon its “third act,” as it is very much a poetic exploration of art, artists, and broader-ranged thinkers. From Albert Einstein to Man Ray, Edith Piaf to Picasso [and his Muse, Dora Maar], Van Gogh, and Chopin, Sze-Lorrain employs her knowledge of history and geography to situate her own artistic sensibilities and sensualities with theirs. The final section, entitled, “The Key Always Opens,” goes on to explore the relationship of Samuel Beckett with his own Muse, Suzanne, after he was stabbed by a pimp in 1938 [“Be My Bride”].

In a bit of fun, the collection offers “A Lot had Happened: A Five Act Play,” an homage to Gertrude Stein’s satire of the rigid form of 5-act plays before visiting the photographs of Steichen and the “ruach” of Romanian poet Paul Celan.

The collection ends with a poem titled “Instructions: No Meeting No World,” which ties all of the themes and artistic forms of the book together, summed up in the sentiment:

“Prefer rivers to regrets. Two of them happen
to meet outside the window.”

The confluence of two rivers is known to be a magical place, full of supernatural occurrences and triumphs and tragedies of equal measure and memory.

Add a shining night-disc above, and you begin to understand the power and meaning of Water the Moon.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Review of This Hungry Spirit: Your Need for Basic Goodness by C. Clinton Sidle (Larson Publications, 2009, www.larsonpublications.com)

In today’s self-help book market, finding something new is becoming harder and harder. In many ways, it’s all been said before, and often times far better, by far wiser people.

It was with this challenge in mind that I began reading C. Clinton Sidle’s This Hungry Spirit. The year was coming to an end, I had thoughts of resolutions and self-betterment for 2010 at the forefront of my mind, and as I shuffled through the stack of books I had to review, it seemed like as good a choice as any.

Sidle’s credentials are impressive. He is director of the Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program in the Johnson School of Management at Cornell, as well as being a leading authority on leadership, executive coaching, and developing human potential and author of two other books.

So what was different about This Hungry Spirit?

First and foremost, I found Sidle’s honesty about his personal life and challenges to be genuine to an extent that I have not seen in a long time in books such as this. While most self-help gurus employ anecdote to connect with the reader and illustrate the effectiveness of what they are teaching, there is often a sense of “talking down” or the author being so much farther ahead than the reader.

Sidle seems quite at ease with the fact that he is a “work in progress,” so it was easy to identify with and trust him—and by extension, his advice.

The book is a mix of explicative text, numerous (and genuinely helpful!) exercises, and, in the margins, post-it-like text excerpts that not only serve to review important points but offer the reader the opportunity to go back to This Hungry Spirit over and over again for advice, daily meditations, and reinforcement.

So what is this book all about?

In a nutshell, This Hungry Spirit explores the pursuit of happiness and the fulfillment of need that are the underlying higher motivations for any human being trying to actualize his or her full potential.

But what do we do? More often than not, once the lower needs are met, we pursue societal notions of “success”—an important job, high pay, awards and accolades, the accumulation of Things. But it is clear that many people (most?) with these items checked off their list are still not happy; still not fulfilled.

Similar to Ram Dass’s writings and lectures about seva (service) and Deepak Chopra’s advice to give, and give freely, of yourself, Sidle implores the reader to live in service to others in order to better meet the needs of service to self. This is an important idea and as the co-founder of a non-profit service organization, I can say without hesitation that it works.

As I mentioned earlier, the book mixes instructional text with practical exercises that rival anything that you would experience working with a therapist. There are a total of 39 of these exercises throughout the book and a “Leadership Wheel Assessment” in the Appendix. Each is designed to help deconstruct old mental models and build new ones, and the reader is often encouraged to go back and look at old exercises, which makes it easy to mark your progress.

The book is user-friendly and filled with upbeat and motivational section headings such as “Reap the lessons of adversity” and “When in doubt, return to your purpose.”

Besides the personal anecdotes, I found the selection of parables and bits of Eastern wisdom to be a delight to read. Sidle has done a masterful job of choosing them.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that there were a large amount of typos in the book, which is unusual for Larson Publications. I hope that these will be corrected in a future edition, as the book is simply too good to be bogged down by missing or misspelled words.

In the final assessment, This Hungry Spirit truly is a well-balanced, well-written, and very practical guide to feeding our souls and increasing our happiness. Its benefits to the reader are considerable.

Monday, January 4, 2010

“Far from the Fool”: A Review of John Gartland’s Gravity’s Fool (2009, Assumption University Press, ISBN: 974-615-242-4)

“Far from the Fool”: A Review of John Gartland’s Gravity’s Fool (2009, Assumption University Press, ISBN: 974-615-242-4)

by Joey Madia

Many a modern poet has stacks of unsold books filling the corners of his or her writing room. This is a matter of both competition as well as the lamentable lack of interest in poetry in today’s reader. Perhaps as condensed forms of Communication continue to emerge, based on the requirements of Social Networking sites, poetry will re-take its place in readers’ daily lives.

In the meantime, it is good to know that some poets, such as John Gartland, are putting out additional editions of their titles. This fourth edition, published by Assumption University Press, features a new final poem and a few words by Steve Conlon, Dean of the Graduate school, about Gartland’s collaboration with Tom Hodgins (Poetry Universe 1: Poetry without Frontiers, which I will be reviewing later this year).

Gartland is a novelist, playwright, and poet, and a founding member of the Poetry ID writers’ workshop in England. He is a teacher of writing who has taught in Bagkok, Thailand and now in Chungbuk, Korea.

His poetry resonates with the self-sure voice of the man from the West who has journeyed to the East and is working to assimilate where he has been and where he now is into adjoining and at times overlapping landscapes. His breadth of travel is complemented by his breadth of knowledge. His poems are full of literary and geographical references that ground and gird his ideas and visions, creating a tension of Concrete and Abstract that sings sharply in the modern poetic form.

He begins the collection with the following haiku:

Those headlights in the
mirror are your death, so keep
your foot on the gas

The Death theme, that elder companion of the poet from Keats to Corso, abounds in Gravity’s Fool, tied to landscapes and relationships, to love and the relentless pursuit of life. One gets the sense that Gartland, having participated in loss in so many of its forms, is seeing with new eyes, drinking up and cataloging images the young and ignorant rarely note, much less process. To read “Nothing but the River (the Thames at Wandsworth Bridge)” is to witness the flotsam and jetsam of time’s running waters in all of their intermixed ugliness and light.

“Poetry ID” illuminates for the reader some of Gartland’s raw material on his journey to the condition of Poet, after having heard the familiar words put upon all (good) young poets by their mentors: “It’s all right, but live some more./You need to go out and live some more.”

And so he did.

Being a teacher of the craft, Gartland explores the condition of the writing outside of his own experience as writer, most notably in the poems “Poetry Escapes during Questioning” (a nice companion piece to Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” should you be a poetry teacher looking for perspectives on the craft to give your students), “Chez Parnassus,” and “The Company of Poets.”

Gartland’s experience as playwright informs the poem “Letter to John Wilson,” which is a worthy challenge to the well-trained actor looking for less-traveled, multi-leveled monologues. This poem leads a section devoted in great part to Death. Death of love and death of family. Death of epoch and of edifice. All woven together with a subtle similarity in phrase that begs pointing out:

“the plumes of rising steam” (“Letter to John Wilson”)

“we drift away, like smoke” (“Retrospective [for Lyall Watson]”)

“turf smoke rising like incense” (“Gatestown”)

“haze/that drifts upon the Partry Mountains” (“Song of the Undertaker’s Men”)

All of these poems set up the series of the next three poems, dealing with Gartland’s daughter Laura. As the father of a ten-year-old girl, I found these poems in all of their simple beauty, enviable connection, fine art, and lingering ghosts to be some of the best of this collection.

As I mentioned earlier, this fourth edition ends with a new poem, called “The Market in Cheongju. Night.” What was most striking with the placement of this new piece is the sea-change it signals for the book.

The previous final poem, “Jesting Twilight,” ended with the phrase “I am waiting.” “The Market…,” by contrast, ends with “crash the iron bolts,” bringing to mind Whitman’s “Unscrew the locks from the doors/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs” that serves as an epigram to Ginsberg’s Howl.

Gartland is no longer content to wait, and we, as his fellow travelers on this road of poems, mustn’t either.

Gravity’s Fool reaffirms for the long-time practitioner of the poet’s art just what good poetry really is and the life-work that all worthy craftsmen must put in; therefore it is also essential reading for the young poet first embarking on his or her path of words and their inevitable wounds and wonders.