About that book, more later. First I am happy to share the text of a poem that Ron has just had chosen for a forthcoming anthology called American Society: What Poets See (Future Cycle Press). The print edition is due out in August; the poem may already be up, or soon will be, on the press’s website (www.futurecycle.org).
The poem, dedicated to one Butchie Maxwell, is called “Listen Hard Enough.” Ron informs me that he read it at a memorial for poet-activist Dennis Brutus in Durban, South Africa in February 2011. The text follows:
The quiet seems absolute
but, if you listen hard enough,
you can hear children’s voices
from the other side of the world.
It is a beautiful day,
weather “like it used to be.”
Clouds roll through a dark-blue sky,
wet snow in a dogless city,
so white, so heavy, so clean.
The wind, of course, you can hear
without trying. Crickets, birds, too.
But, if you listen hard enough,
certain sounds from deep in the woods
seem a mingling of children’s voices.
Picture these kids, if you will,
begging, selling petty goods,
running in and out of traffic
on a teeming African street,
or perched high on a garbage hill
in the heart of some favela.
One looks up, perhaps, and sees
wet-white clouds in a dark-blue sky
and, who knows, he may be listening
to you. He hears your distant heart.
You can see what I mean about the internationalist vision, grounded none the less in the very particular. The allusion in a single stanza to kids “selling petty goods, / running in and out of traffic / on a teeming African street,” and to Brazilian kids “perched high on a garbage hill / in the heart of some favela,” is a perfect example.
What the poet has to say about American society is made explicit in The Rented Pet, which he describes as “a bittersweet 14,000-word story about two dogs and the humans in their constellation.” It is set, he adds, “in a specific neighborhood in 1970s Brooklyn” and “chronicles social change: specifically, gentrification. In so doing, it serves as an elegy for a passing world.”
The book is available in a Kindle edition for the bargain price of $3.99 (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?rh=n%3A133140011%2Ck%3Athe+rented+pet&keywords=the+rented+pet&ie=UTF8). The story will also be published (in installments, starting on August 13) by Piker Press (www.pikerpress.com). I have just downloaded the Kindle edition myself and look forward to a leisurely reading of it in the comfort of my evening armchair. Meanwhile, the author’s own summary should more than suffice to suggest whether or not the book would be of interest to you:
Rex, The Rented Pet. An old German Shepherd trained as a blind dog.
Julia: His female companion.
Mildred Schaap: bookkeeper.
Jerry Kaplan: carpenter.
Joe Bassano: supervisor of a moving van yard.
Charles Miller: a blind poet who operates a newspaper kiosk.
Dr. Matt Brunn: a veterinarian.
Part One: Renting the Pet.
Part Two: The pet is menaced. A romance begins.
Part Three: The romance blossoms. A companion is acquired for Rex, who is also seriously injured.
Part Four: At a party to celebrate Rex’s recovery, his past is revealed.
Epilogue: Both dogs die. The Funeral.
Then there is this absolutely charming elegy, written in the style of Mark Twain’s “Ode to Stephen Dowling Botts, Dec’d”:
Let men be bold, let truth be told,
These two were a king and his queen.
Of noble scions, their hearts like lions’,
No bone in their bodies, mean.
To the lonely and the blind, ever were they kind,
These paragons of canine race.
They came, they saw, they overcame,
Leaving Earth a worthier place.
So let’s raise a cup, drink it all up,
Here’s afterlife to Rex and to Julia,
Let’s hope where they are, whether near or far far,
There’s food, water and sex, hallelujah.
As it turns out, I have also just written a story that prominently features an old dog. The specific incident of the dying of that old friend is drawn from my own adolescence. While that incident as portrayed at story’s climax is a sad one, it is situated within what I think of as essentially a comedy, and the fictional dog’s dying has the effect of precipitating the modest but not insignificant changes of heart of the two principal characters, an unlikely friendship between protagonist and antagonist.The story’s thesis involves an English teacher in a rural high school who decides to teach a rhetorical / persuasive unit centered on the writings of Charles Darwin, and a local preacher who gets wind of what he’s up to and proposes to derail that anti-Creationist pedagogy. What starts out contentiously winds up in a relationship of mutual respect if not agreement. In the end, at least, they have each gained a deeper appreciation for the other’s position.
The story, as pointed out the other day by my rhetoric professor Thomas M. Rivers (U. of Southern Indiana, retired), is polemical in structure, a plot built up around an idea. He suggests, though, that it is largely successful at presenting both plot and idea without falling into the common rhetorical error of either-or thinking. The idea, briefly stated, is in favor of Darwinian science but, at least as importantly, the importance to our national future of a civic rhetoric of dialogue that probes far beneath the facile either-or charade of contemporary politics. Idea and story both had indeed, before I actually wrote, been percolating for a period of a few years, during which time (and especially during the drafting itself) I was at considerable pains to see that plot and characterization convince on their own, independent of the polemic – and that both protagonist and antagonist are presented with humor and dignity, each one contributing something valuable to the discussion. Though, on strictly scientific grounds, as a matter of established and well-vetted fact, Darwin does necessarily come out on top.
I think I have succeeded fairly well at that complex task, though time of course will tell, and I don’t rule out further re-writing. My manner of working is very intense, anyway, involving a great deal of editing and fact-checking and fine-tooth combing as I go, so that the first draft in this case might be someone else’s second or third. The story that I wrote previous to this one, in March, went into a second draft after much tweaking of the first and consultation with readers. That one, called “The Recruiter” and weighing in heavily on the tragic side, is now in circulation, and I awaiting results from the first mailings.
I don’t want to say anything more specific on this blog about the present story while I also have ambitions of sending it around and finding a journal to publish it. I will only add that I have called it “The Brotherhood of Man and Beast.” And that it begins with a brief epigraph from Cervantes’ Don Quixote: “Y volvieron a sus bestias, y a ser bestias” (And they returned to their beasts and to being beasts).
For those who know me best and exclaim, “Oh, God no! There he goes again about that damned Quixote!” – be assured that I have completed the draft without a single reference, in the text itself, to that eternal fountain of amusement and inspiration. At most the comedic style, earnest as it also is, imitates the light touch of Cervantes’ story that is at once comic and deeply poignant.