Tuesday, April 10, 2018

“Between Life and Death There is Nature”: A Review of Smoky Zeidel’s Garden Metamorphosis

“Between Life and Death There is Nature”: A Review of Smoky Zeidel’s Garden Metamorphosis (Deltona, FL: Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC, 2018), ISBN-13: 978-0-9979517-4-5

Smoky Zeidel has a way with words. This five-time Pushcart nominee is able to plumb the depths of human experience with a simplicity of language that makes accessible what the philosophers, rhetoricians, and many poets render (at times on purpose) vague and therefore useless.
Garden Metamorphosis is much more than a book of poems (and a bonus short story that rends the heart); it is a meditation made in nature’s Cathedral—the garden. As Voltaire advised in Candide, we each must “tend our own garden.” Gardens have served for centuries as masterful metaphors for the soul, the human condition, and the mystical nature of Nature. Zeidel’s powerful poetry captures this alchemical mixture-in-a-bottle in book form, and the reader is wiser for the journey.
Monarch butterflies figure prominently in the collection, in both poems and the short story. The transformation of the butterfly (caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly) is perhaps the most tried and true metaphor of all of the many nature metaphors that have graced the page from the author–mystic’s pen. It is the three-act model in action, a pattern that happens not once, but many times in a person’s life. It is proof that our lives are a process, a chance to continually move from “I am this” to “I am becoming something new.” Another core theme is the sacredness of the soil, the plant life, the bugs and beasts encountered when one is down in the dirt—rooted and connected, away from the brain-draining, connection-dampening technological construct into which so many of us are patched.
There is a lot of talk in recent years in the scientific world of entropy—the natural decay and death that drives all of existence. Playwright David Mamet has made it the center of his work and Dan Brown’s most recent novel, Origin, explores entropy in existence-critical ways for humankind. Zeidel advises in “Sacred Soil” that we to “celebrate decay.” She then asks:
“…when I die/bury my ashes in a garden…/and plant a tomato or orange tree/as my grave marker” so that she may become “sacred soil” and “nourish new growth.” Entropy in action.
Interdicted with the garden poems are poems that create a push and pull in the author’s life, from past to present and back, revolving around key people she has known (see “Guitar Man” and “My Father’s Trains”). Here again is the three-act structure at work—metamorphosis comes in stages, and Zeidel takes us to childhood, to young adulthood, and to the present. In “Wind,” stanza one ends with her “aged, arthritic hands” while the second stanza takes us back to when she was six. It is a poem about Kennedy’s death, and death is perhaps the ultimate metamorphosis—a theme prevalent in the poetry in these pages.
Zeidel is also working here with schisms and gaps—those created by or between such things as young/old, magic/logic, the safety of “grandmother’s arms”/the bombing of Aleppo. These are the ritual spaces for transformation.
All of this leads seamlessly to—and operates as a primer for—the short story “Transformed.” Reviewing Zeidel’s prose is always tricky (I have reviewed three of her novels) because, like in her poems, she moves back and forth in time, creating mystery boxes that are only opened in the final act. It would be a sin to reveal a single secret thing. Thematically, “Transformed” is closely linked with the poems in the ways I’ve already discussed. The protagonist, Marina, is isolated, her garden having become her whole world. She styles herself (like Zeidel in her bio) a “monarch rancher.” How she comes to this place of isolation, awaiting the cracking of her own chrysalis to become something new, something transformed, is unfolded through Zeidel’s beautiful, evocative prose, which, in this particular tale, utilizes the syntactical simplicity of Hemingway with the depth of the great Persian poets. All surfaces are reflective here—of Marina, of monarch, of us. Nature is never one thing, though it always is the Teacher—and the lessons can be hard.
Read Garden Metamorphosis multiple times. Read it a poem at a time, and meditate in between each of them. Carefully, spiritually cultivate your garden or, if you don’t have one, create one—even if it’s on a windowsill, in an egg carton (something new from something old). And, should you see a monarch butterfly beating its wings against the breeze, think of who you’ve been, who you are, and what you might become.
And when you do, say a silent thank you to Smoky Zeidel—monarch rancher and writer extraordinaire.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Review of The Road to Strange: UFOs, Aliens and High Strangeness

by Michael Brein and Rosemary Ellen Guiley (New Milford, CT: Visionary Living, Inc., 2018). ISBN: 9781942157250

Disclaimer: I have two entries in this collection. Also, a book that I am co-authoring with my wife about our two-year investigation of a haunted library in North Carolina (subject of one of the two entries in this book) will be published by Visionary Living in the summer of 2018.
Followers of my blogs and my work know that I have long been an advocate for Telling our Stories. I have seen the power of story on stage in social justice theatre productions, in legislative lobbying for equal rights, and in swaying public opinion. In the news as of late are the powerful stories of teenagers demanding changes to gun laws.
Although the field of paranormal investigation may seem worlds (and dimensions) apart from my three decades of work as a content creator and storyteller, I have found the parallels to be considerable. As I begin to establish myself as a paranormal investigator, I will be centering my talks and workshops squarely in the world of Story. Whether spirits, interdimensionals, or extraterrestrials, the entities that we encounter beyond the veil are characters, with backstories, motivations, and even in many cases, clear personality traits that change over time.
With this in mind, I am approaching this review of The Road to Strange: UFOs, Aliens and High Strangeness, by Michael Brein and Rosemary Ellen Guiley as both a storyteller and a paranormal investigator.
There is no question that a greater percentage of the population is experiencing and reporting paranormal activity. Each month there are new stories and new footage released by governments and organizations like NASA making a case for everything from UFOs to portals.
So why is the field still so far from anything close to resembling mainstream? In part, because the scientific community is quick to dismiss anecdotal evidence as no evidence at all and demands proof that is in most cases “round” so that it will never fit into the “square” space of traditional science. I have spent enough hours in the field to be able to say a few things with assurance: (1) what we are encountering is more in line with the principles of quantum physics than traditional science; (2) these entities are super intelligent and know how to disrupt, manipulate, and ignore scientific measuring equipment—even the most sophisticated and well funded; (3) anecdotal evidence (supported by research, understanding of narrative and story context, and technical data when it can be reliably gathered) can be as compelling and legitimate as a reading on an electromagnetic frequency meter.
Using these three points as our metric, The Road to Strange is the future of paranormal research.  Michael Brein, the world’s only “travel psychologist” and Rosemary Ellen Guiley, one of the most acknowledged experts in the field of paranormal research in the twenty-first century, curate a collection of stories that they support with the kind of research, story contextualization, and understanding of nontraditional science that provide the increasing legitimacy this important field demands. This book is a follow-up to their very successful The Road to Strange: Travel Tales of the Paranormal and Beyond, and they plan more books in the series—an indication that this multi-level approach is gaining traction.
The book is broken into four parts: “I Know what I Saw,” “Mystery Lights and Craft,” “Alien Encounters,” and “High Strangeness.” The first section derives its title from the unfortunate fact that experiencers/witnesses are often ridiculed by their family and friends, the traditional science gatekeepers, and in the media. Those who claim abduction experiences (the third section) are particularly targeted. As a storyteller, I always go back to one key idea: characters are driven forward to action by their motivations. What possible motivation could there be to lie about seeing a UFO or being abducted by aliens? I once heard a Mothman witness remark during a lecture that, in the 40 years since he went public, he has made enough money from what he saw to pay his mortgage for a single month. And the ridicule he’s faced in the small towns where he lived and worked far outweighs money or attention being key motivators. Are they just mentally ill attention seekers?
Brein and Guiley’s commentaries in the first three sections focus considerable word count making the case that these experiencers are not such a low percentage of the population that they can be dismissed as crazy and mistaken tale-tellers. The stories in the section titled “Alien Encounters” can test the width and breadth of what the reader is willing to believe about the nature of the alien hierarchy and their designs on Planet Earth and its inhabitants. I am a fan of skepticism: it invites research and respectful debate, which are necessary for any field to maintain its growth. Again, the commentaries provide context, parallel cases, and situate the stories on solid ground that a pure anecdote would fail to provide.
Exploring the limits of our own beliefs is essential. I find it particularly so as a paranormal investigator. A number of years ago I read Ingo Swann’s Penetration. I called the investigator who had given me the book and said, “Do you believe this is truthful, because if it is, it changes everything I’ve ever known.” I found myself asking the same questions reading some of the anecdotes in this book. Knowing Guiley personally, having been in the field with her on numerous occasions going back almost a decade, I trust her like I trust Ingo Swann. By extension I believe the people whose stories are told in this book. And it does change everything. It literally opens doors to other worlds.
“High Strangeness” takes its title from a term coined by researcher and author John Keel. This is the trickster aspect of UFO/paranormal phenomena. The interplay of deception, synchronicity, and flat out bizarre occurrences in these encounters puts these encounters on the very fringe of what might be happening. These cases may be the hardest to make sense of and therefore breed some of the longest commentaries of the book.
In addition to these four sections there are a Preface and Introduction by the two authors, respectively, as well as two Appendices. The first is an interview Brein did with J. Allen Hynek, an investigator and researcher who worked on several government UFO projects and, in the process, moved from cynic to skeptic. His journey could be instructive for others who, to quote X-Files, “want to believe” but find it difficult to do so. The second is a list of “UFO and Related Organizations.” This is another resource for those who want to know more about this subject from professionals from an array of backgrounds, from journalists and police to technicians and scientists who have spent decades amassing and analyzing reports. Like the experiencers themselves, their motivations are certainly not money or attention. The hours are countless, the work often thankless, and the laughter of the gatekeepers aimed their way loud and derisive.

The Road to Strange is long and wide. It is my belief that this excellent book will invite fellow travelers on the journey and, in the process, bring legitimacy to the experiencers who are brave enough to tell their stories in its pages.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

“Metaphorical, Intentional Poetics”: A Review of Eileen R. Tabios’s Murder, Death, Resurrection

(Loveland, OH: Dos Madres Press, dosmadres.com, 2018). ISBN: 978-1-939-92999-0

Eileen Tabios’s newest collection of poetry could be called a sum total of a life’s work (in progress). Created from her MDR poem generator (as have been a few other collections before this one), Murder, Death, Resurrection (to me aptly named, although an email exchange in the back of the collection indicates not everyone agrees) is 1,166 lines of her previously published poems. (The final line is 1,167, but in a Postscript Tabios says that she eliminated one line—I did not notice which—and, should your own means of generating poems from these lines [a key aim of this project] point to that missing line, insert one of your own, or another poet’s.)
Boy, that’s a complex opening paragraph—lots of clauses, parens, brackets, em dashes… but that seems to be okay in this case. Complexity is part of this endeavor, which Tabios undertook for a few reasons. I will summarize them quickly here, because there’s lots to do, but do not ignore the Introduction and back matter of Murder, Death, Resurrection—it is a treasure trove of exercises, explanations, and that email exchange is really not to miss. If Tabios wants to provoke thought and even pushback, she is succeeding.
This is my twelfth review of Tabios’s poetry, and almost all of the collections I have reviewed have lines represented in the MDR. So there was a familiarity for me in all of the new. After nine years of reviewing her poetry, I see the MDR work as a Culmination rather than a divergence or some (mere) experiment in recycled language. Comparisons can be made to the “cut-up” work of William Burroughs or even Philip K. Dick’s use of the I Ching to generate storylines and character choices, but they will ultimately fall short. Very much in line with Tabios’s previous work on the Filipino Diaspora, the MDR is an expression of taking back language through breaking it down. Briefly, this is a response to colonialism and American imperialism. Fittingly enough to mention here, I am preparing to do a Chautauqua tour as Ernesto “Che” Guevara in mid-2019, so I am living daily with the reality of what American colonialism and imperialism have done to the Philippines and Latin and Central America. Politics hinges on language (Rhetorical Studies is obsessed with this). Slang, jargon, and such art forms as Rap are expressions of this as well. An interesting aspect of this is the notion of “Babaylan” poetics, which (quite shamanically) states that everything is connected and in harmony, no matter how different it may seem.
Always one to blur the boundaries between poet and reader and to ask of the reader more than most writers do (a key reason I am so engaged year after year with her work) Tabios provides instructions for the reader on how to construct a poem of your own.
I could not resist the urge to try.
I decided on seven lines for my poem (as an homage to the theatre company I cofounded, Seven Stories). To generate line numbers, I went to the eleven reviews I have done of Eileen’s previous books. I used a variety of devices for generating line numbers, from dates of oldest and newest reviews, number of words in a review, and summing all of the numbers referenced in a review. The following lines make up “my” poem:
I forgot the years when I wore uniforms of darkened wool shaped by machines, lined by grey.
I forgot the mud in monsoon season always sucked at the ankles, non-discriminating, a placid surface but camouflaging sharply edged stones, goooey, goooey, goooey and brown as the hide on rotten bananas.
I forgot the advantage of an ignored chandelier.
I forgot my father is not Mao Tse Tung of China.
I forgot I admired encaustic for protecting forever the fragility of paper.
I forgot green calyx emphasizing the burden of generously-watered corollas.
I forgot there is a country somewhere on then opposite of where I stand on this earth, a country whose scents stubbornly perfume my dreams.
By the second line, a narrative began to form, and each ensuing line dropped securely into place as I read it. I witnessed a metaphor being born: Eileen’s lines were the bricks and the subtext I was creating to link the lines was the mortar. In the following, I have inserted the subtextual lines that “adhere” the poem into a unified whole in brackets (I have also titled the poem, as Eileen suggests):
“Echoes of Mortar and Brick”
I forgot the years when I wore uniforms of darkened wool shaped by machines, lined by grey.
[He insisted on uniforms; not everyday children’s clothes]
I forgot the mud in monsoon season always sucked at the ankles, non-discriminating, a placid surface but camouflaging sharply edged stones, goooey, goooey, goooey and brown as the hide on rotten bananas.
[Scrubbing the cuffs at midnight, so he wouldn’t know]
I forgot the advantage of an ignored chandelier.
[Some things better left in the black]
I forgot my father is not Mao Tse Tung of China.
[Though he surely acted that way]
I forgot I admired encaustic for protecting forever the fragility of paper.
[Notes from mother: “He cares; he just can’t show it”]
I forgot green calyx emphasizing the burden of generously-watered corollas.
[Signaling she was home, and I was somewhat safe]
I forgot there is a country somewhere on the opposite of where I stand on this earth, a country whose scents stubbornly perfume my dreams.
[I wished it into existence but now I can’t return].
Have fun creating your own poems from the lines in Murder, Death, Resurrection. Don’t hesitate to think outside the box. This is especially true for those who want to use this for workshops and classes. Some lines could be used as story prompts; some urge visual from textual: Line 547: “I forgot the laughter of weary men as they shared a wicker-covered bottle.” What an oil painting that would make. I think that this collection could serve as a “daily meditation” generator as well. Some of the lines make beautiful koans and sutras.
Tabios has left a breadcrumb trail of clues as to her poetry’s core thematic treasures. An e-copy of the manuscript could generate a thematic keyword search that would illuminate Tabios’s preferred words, images, metaphors, source material—the list could go on awhile, depending on the researcher’s interests and questions. Put it through statistical analysis software and what might be revealed, one could only imagine. But you couldn’t stop there. You’d have to DO something poetic with the data. That would be a must.
Murder, Death, Resurrection is the latest reason why Eileen Tabios is one of the most important poets working today.