Tag Archives: Civil War

The Recruiter: a story

Introduction: I offer up this dystopian tale – wrapped, as it is, in the fragile hope of the literary-rhetorical theme that suffuses it – as protest against the world as we presently find it and as it threatens, imminently, to become.

I offer it up, also, in support of the progressive movements for peace and justice that presently struggle against the brute forces of oppression, but that promise, if they are allowed to breathe, the sort of revolutionary change that still might create a world that we and our future generations can inhabit in relative harmony.

But I also hope that it will stand up on its own merits – as it has struggled through countless drafts and revisions to do – as a piece of literary art. A special thanks to Jill Adams, at The Barcelona Review, whose generous critique will certainly have helped me bring it a bit closer to that ideal.


The Recruiter

by Brett Alan Sanders

And we become true lovers each one of the other’s freedom …


So I’ll just lay it out straight. The memory’s still fresh in my head, no less vivid than ever. Despite all the troubles been raining down on me and Rose since we left our proverbial pot for this urban frying pan and joined up.

The central and undeniable fact is the murder of that black recruiter. It happened just as things were really starting to heat up, nationally and planetarily, at the commencement of these great conflagrations that were about to bring our precarious and fractured Union to its knees for maybe the last time. Going on a century and three quarters after the first of America’s civil wars when Abe Lincoln was supposed to of freed the slaves for once and all.

It was then that the good soldier thought to bring his wife and their children to live with him there in that backwoods community of mine. His black wife and their three black children. To live with him there in that almost lily-white county where he quickly lost his own life. The mom and dad were both good-looking, the cute-as-buttons children like yea high to a grasshopper. I knew he’d brought them because we saw when they did their moving in. Me and Rose saw them, that is, Yolanda and Rosie who were joined at the hip since forever. Me with my lopsided fro and cafe-latte complexion, Rose with her fair freckled skin and red bangs, together we saw the movers unloading all their stuff into the old farmhouse across the way from my Scots-Irish grandma’s house. The only grandma I ever knew.

Some would say backwards community instead of backwoods, and I can’t deny there was more than a smidgen of truth to it still, but at least we weren’t all ignorant and intolerant bigots. What happened to this one man seemed to of woke some folks, too, though it wasn’t enough to stop the reckoning that was circling down on us.

And there’s always those few that were wide awake to start with. Like, for one, Rodriguez, the only person of color on the whole frickin’ faculty and maybe the only dyed-in-the-wool liberal, my red-eyed Kennedy-Democrat grandma said. Or call him progressive, like even then in their politically neutered state they liked to call themselves. Or maybe even socialist, or democratic-socialist, or radical-nonviolent revolutionist, though didn’t anyone hardly say those words anymore without a real careful glance over both shoulders.

Rodriguez mostly taught Spanish, but they also gave him a class or two of junior-high English, and it’s there I learned Martin Luther King’s speech about that dream he had of little black kids holding hands with little white kids in harmony and shit. We learned it because he made us watch it twice, once before and once after taking it apart and practically memorizing whole snatches of it, and then get up and give our own orations, he called them, all the while using pathos and logos and ethos just like all his ancient heroes.

He called it a class on the good lost art of rhetoric, he said, the kind makes for good citizens and constructive yet impassioned civic speech and action but that sadly we didn’t practice anymore in a meaningful way. And that was his big thing and, little punks that we were, we didn’t care to know squat about it. But he drilled it into our heads anyhow.

And then, in co-conspirator Kochenheimer’s World History, we were back at it again. She had us reading a speech by some dead Roman orator name of Cicero. Or Sissy-Row-Your-Boat-to-Shore like some of us preferred, Lord knows he was no barrel of monkeys. While good old William Shakespeare, on the other hand, long as you had one of those simpler and more modern texts like I preferred to read on my own, now there’s a guy could spin a tale!

So I was a freshman that year, not yet a decade ago when what I’m fixin’ to tell you occurred. Like I said, I was living across the road from where the protagonist of this story and his little family moved in. And this protagonist dude, like I said, this black man with his black wife and black kids all lined up and pretty, was an Army recruiter that’d been out to the school quite a lot schmoozing around in hallways and classrooms and in the cafeteria and trying to recruit juniors and seniors during their lunch, and plant seeds with the younger ones.

He’d made it out to football games, too, and volleyball and basketball, and  even attended a track meet and wandered down to the shot-put area where he talked to one big lug of a senior who’d been charming him off his feet since football season. Talking the talk about maybe joining up so he could go shoot ragheads in Syria or Lebanon or rebel Palestine, in Turkistan or Pakistan or Iran. Now as the first and mostly nonviolent wave of national resistance was about finished being crushed and the tanks back off the streets, our loudest dissidents in their cages or their graves or in hiding and the build-up over yonder picking up speed again – with full conscription of men and women, from eighteen to thirty years of age, beginning to be entertained in that farce of a Congress with its pale remnant of radical or semi-radical voices.

That was our antagonist, as a matter of fact, that big-talking football and field-and-track star, and that’s what he said: ragheads. I heard it from Rose who was there and hearing the whole conversation. And who of us hadn’t heard Mr. Antagonist Boy throw the N-word around while jostling our way through the senior hallway, where he used to hold forth with his fellow know-nothing rednecks? I was trying to get through there one morning, for example, when he saw me and said Talkin’ ’bout …. And just left that next word hanging there like a lynching rope off a ten-foot-high tree branch.

I was a country girl, too, but I didn’t like being called a redneck since, for one thing, I associated that word with Confederate flags they all wore on their T-shirts and on their ratty old cars and pickups. And for another I was a mixed-race kid with white mother in prison for dealing in opioids and meth and with part black, part American Indian father I never knew. So with Rodriguez and a smattering of black and Latinx kids I was one of roughly a dozen people of color in the whole frickin’ building.

As for the raghead thing, why it bothered me so much? Since the first occupations more than a quarter century ago after those towers went down? Before I was even thought of, but that Rodriguez showed some clips of the year before to the extracurricular film club. After he’d showed us a contraband copy of Dr. Strangelove from way back in the Sixties. And then, after the Contra Wars and the Persian Gulf, all the fresh fighting, us and our European allies with Israel in a decades-long regional wildfire that no one had the guts to call what it was: frickin’ World War III, if you’d asked me! It was Rodriguez, anyhow, got me thinking along those lines. On those evenings when you might sometimes catch him preaching, to his choir of oddballs and contrarians and misfits, that Mexicans and Central Americans and what precious little was left of our so-called illegals and our refugees, hither and yon, had their own perspectives and struggles and fears as valid as ours – and were no less human. So what got me, like my teacher said, was why didn’t we tally up Arab people’s deaths like we did our own? Like it didn’t matter that for their brown skin and their religion, for their bubbling crude or whatever else the hell it was we had against them, they were dying every day by hundreds and thousands beneath our predator drones and our bombs and missiles?

And yet, otherwise, except for our teacher’s cautious hints and a few unexplained “disappearances” of other outspoken dissidents, the uncivil war taking place almost at our county’s borders – heavily filtered and narrated on our mobile devices, computers, and big-screen TVs – seemed to hardly faze us.

But all caution aside, how Rodriguez lasted as long as he did I’ll never know. Got himself disappeared not more than a week after that liver-lilied administration had closed down his film club without a moment’s warning. It was early spring before I was supposed to of graduated, after I’d passed all the college entrance exams and earned an academic scholarship to the University of Louisville. Scattered bursts of guerrilla warfare already broken out around the country during the previous infernally hot summer.

But enough of that backstory and shit. Let’s get down already to the main mystery of this narration, to where Mr. Protagonist Man got himself to when he didn’t come home one evening.

Did that make someone else the protagonist if he wasn’t to turn up alive? And if not him, who else? Surely not me, Yolanda Ann Gilmore, though there was no one more caught up in this mess than that girl!

As it was, the recruiter didn’t tell anyone exactly where he was going, but chances were it was out into the boonies about a thousand county-road miles from where I lived, where at least we had a general store and some crumbling asphalt and not just endless woods all around with barely a rut to drive on. Mr. Gonna-Shoot-Me-Some-Ragheads was telling him, telling the recruiter, that is, to come on out to his neck of the woods if he really wanted and go ahead, talk to his momma and daddy and granddaddy, and there was a mess of a’nts and uncles, cousins and sisters and brothers out there, too, some of the boys bigger than him and already graduated or dropped out.

And so when Mr. Recruiter Man’s wife was down to the general store and the school and near everywhere asking frantic-like if anybody knew where he’d got to, me and Rose started to worry he might of actually gone out there. Nobody knew – well almost no one, I reckon – but rumors were flying fast and frenzied and some of them centered on Antagonist Boy and his family or neighbors out there in the middle of nowhere and with certain racist, Klan-like tendencies that had got themselves noted by folks visiting those parts. And that he and his people surely didn’t have their hands too clean in those affairs.

Rose, who was a sophomore and attended second lunch, said she heard from  some metal-head type during the days right after the recruiter went missing that he, that is the metal head, had taken our recruiter in his confidence and told him he mightn’t want to make that trip – inasmuch as people of color wandering out those parts on innocent sightseeing adventures had related some real hair-raising tales when they got back to the county seat safe and sound but majorly spooked. Said he heard one of those stories himself, sitting down one evening in some greasy local eatery, and it about gave him the heebie-jeebies.

Well, by that afternoon there were Army people out at the school asking lots of questions, plus National Guard from the nearest base and, by next morning, more Army from Lord knows where and all sorts of military vehicles combing the school environs, copters in the air flying real low over national forest lands and every bit of earth, wooded or clear, within this and the next county up and over. And even some plainclothes federal agents from Homeland Security, FBI, maybe even CIA – everywhere you go you couldn’t miss some trace of them. Local law enforcement, I heard, been told to keep their ears to the ground, their eyes open, and report anything suspicious, but otherwise to stay out of the way.

It was about a week later me and Rose almost got ourselves raped or killed or just beat up, or maybe all three, when at the start of study hall we grabbed a restroom pass and walked around the wrong corner at the wrong time as our familiar redneck and possible antagonist, after several days absent, was whispering something real confidential-like to one of his buddies. And we barely heard something like out back the house a couple mile when all a sudden they both spotted us and everything fell dead quiet. They pushed us inside the girls-room entrance, one of them grabbed me and the other one Rose, they slammed us both into the braces between the open metal doors of a couple stalls, the one who’d got me with his body pressed hard against mine like a lover gone psycho, like some reverse White Othello against his Dark Desdemona, his aroused sword not too short of inside me and him breathing foul breath into my mouth and nostrils.

He leaned into me, anyhow, put one hand on my breast and squeezed, then his other hand pushed into my throat so I couldn’t hardly breathe. Rose’s captor, I learned later when we mustered the courage to speak of it to each other, had both hands around her neck and slowly lifted her from the floor. The one who’d got me, our chief antagonist and potential rapist-murderer of previous mention, this choking sweating slobbering piece of chicken shit said between his teeth, one grunt at a time, sword-like exclamation points like bookends holding up both sides of his every utterance, he said one effing word out of me, or even look like we’re either one effing thinking about it, and we’re both effing meat for effing buzzards. But only after serving a few seconds as meat for the satisfaction of someone else than those vultures’ lusts, I have to believe.

We didn’t hear nothing, we coughed, won’t breathe a word, we softly sobbed once they’d loosened their strangleholds enough so we could verbalize our terror, our bodies all a-tremble like dry stalks of corn in an August windstorm. Then, before letting me go the rest of the way, my attacker smirked like some mad Klansman behind cone-shaped white hat and mask and hateful do-him-the-honor-of-attending-his-lynching-party gown and, while the other one landed two or three swift sucker punches to Rose’s gut, took both my nipples between thumb and finger and twisted inward till it felt like he was gonna rip them off, muttering That’s my pretty little brown-skinned girl – only he didn’t really say brown-skinned, if you get my drift – and landed a wet tongue all the way up my face.

So when they’d turned us loose and disappeared and we could hear their voices fading and laughing their way down the hall, we rushed into one of those stalls and, both of us already begun wetting ourselves, Rose all the more for those wallops to the gut, we took turns at finishing peeing in the same toilet, then to take away the smell and the slobber and the throbbing we flushed away the piss and dabbed and caressed at ourselves with toilet paper and clean toilet water over and over again, then pulled up our pants and for the longest time just held onto each other in that same stall, its door closed and latched, while long scarcely-audible sobs wrenched their way out from our deepest inner regions.

Some girl who happened in there during the next passing period ran to a teacher and hauled her over to our hiding place, this teacher lady then begging us out so we could go down to her classroom and talk in private – it just so happened to be her free period. We opened the door and slunk out but immediately we said no, we don’t want to talk, but then she noted bruises on our arms and necks and asked are we having some boyfriend trouble. No, we told her, and that girl still standing off to one side looking like she might bust out crying herself we told no, we can take care of ourselves, thank you very much. So that then out in the hall, the girl just standing back by that entranceway all somber-like, Teacher Lady still pressing, I finally croaked in my pathetic piercing drawl to just leave us the fuck alone.

And then everyone and her cousin droop-mouthed and staring and we looked at each other and turned and took off crying to Rose’s own redneck car, with no rebel flag or other shit like that but redneck all the same in a not-so-bad country sort of way, and we squealed those frickin’ tires and got the hell out of dodge.

Over the last couple weeks before their graduation and the commencement of our summer break, we were careful to wear scarves and long-sleeved men’s shirts when we did come to school and not go anywhere outside of passing periods – and then always in groups. But still they managed to keep running into us and lick their chops and leer at us in some sort of goddamn frickin’ follow-up warning. Like we could of ever forgot the first. And then through the summer we slept over at each other’s house most nights and lay in the same bed drifting fitfully to sleep, in the meantime whispering to get the courage to tell or else stick with our fear and convince ourselves we didn’t have any choice but to keep the secret.

Or maybe mail an anonymous note? And then cut and dye our hair and get big-ass sunglasses and rapper-style stocking caps and baggy pants? And get as far away as we could from that lousy place? Or instead, maybe just kill ourselves – Londie Ann and Anna Rose – in a suicide pact like some despairing Thelma and Louise? Drive over some frickin’ buzzard’s roost or other after eluding our tormentors just long enough to beat them to that fatal cliff?

Or, less likely, attack the bastards in their wilderness lair. Like a pair of crazed Furies with axes or scimitars and send them to a well-deserved and bloody Hell before they even know what’s hit them.

As time passed, anyhow, and we were back in school and the number of resources unleashed for that old manhunt mostly dried up, we took a sudden determination to come clean and tell what we knew even if it did mean our torture and death – at least we wouldn’t keep dying those thousand cowardly deaths the British Bard’s un-cautious Caesar warned against. But maybe it wouldn’t mean all that after all, those bullies by now fled the building and to us long gone. Or at least so we could hope, since we knew they were still at large in the county and might could still find us and finish up what they’d promised.

Before we ended up scaring ourselves out of it again I wrote a note with both our names on it and that we might know something about the missing officer, and right away slipped it into the hand of one of the recruiters still roaming the halls, a female veteran just back from one of those countries Rodriguez said we’d blown halfway to Hades and where an IED almost ended her life.

By now the handsome black wife and pretty children were gone for good, off in some less backwoods and benighted locale, I reckoned, where they could be with their families and be all sorrowful together. In our next passing period, anyhow, the soldier slipped her own note into Rose’s hand and we read it and ripped it up and headed to our separate classes where after five minutes or so we got the nod from our teachers who’d been discreetly contacted by administrative messenger. And we slipped out and both ended up one after the other in the same room where the principal and his assistant and a pair of soldiers awaited us with assurances that they’d protect us.

The military, we figured, were the ones most likely able to pay that promise more than lip service, but we kept that opinion to ourselves, afterwards ducking into separate restrooms and wandering the hallways a while before waltzing back to class. Each one’s tracks sufficiently cold and our hearts beating only at just a few degrees above their normal relaxed-time paces instead of twice or three times, like before.

The rest I know and can tell only from what I heard through the local mill of fact and rumor and what a couple of unauthorized internet sites put up, temporarily flying under the government censors’ radar – official media being eerily silent, like I’d overheard Rodriguez observe the previous spring just after the murder, dripping with an innuendo and irony that I took my time mulling over. Anyhow, those variously rogue facts and rumors were either confirmed or corrected or dodged later by that same lady soldier before she deployed again to Middle Eastern Hell.

If I was Shakespeare’s frickin’ daughter or something, I could maybe fill out  the story and imagine the scene of the murder and cover-up and all the rest, and pepper it with witty dialogue and an air of timeless tragedy, and make it stick with an underlying wisdom so people would be remembering it three or four centuries down the road, if our species even makes it that long. But I’m not. And I can’t. I’ll have to just tell it as best I can.

But what mattered, Rose kept assuring me, was what we did to make sure of those bastards’ being captured and punished, though the punishment we didn’t know how or when, or whether assisted in their homicidal plot by Turkish Caliphate or stateless Muslim terrorists or Mexican drug lords like some folks said. Or by the resurrected Aryan Goddamn Nation. Or all of the above. Or none.

What best might of happened, anyhow, and I couldn’t help feel sick to my stomach about certain parts of it – like maybe the cure’s somehow worse than the disease? – what seems to of happened is after sitting for a while and re-gathering military resources and making careful plans and studying topographical maps and maybe Google Earth, a military elite first hiked up into the furthest reaches of our national forest lands in a constant autumn drizzle and found the muddy pond, out back the house a couple mile from Perp-Number-One-and-Main-Antagonist where it was thought the recruiter’s car and body had been dumped. There they were, as it turned out, and once both their skeletal remains – the car had been disassembled and brought up in pieces, minus the engine and other usable parts – once all that metal was hauled out of the slime and muck and the body’s remains finally claimed and put in a bag and hiked back over and across and down the same hills they’d followed up, soon as that was done, the rain gradually dissipating, the sky clearing, part of the original elite party and reinforcements perched in their spot above that racist compound, guns carefully aimed on it – and here’s the part our lady soldier most vehemently denied, her denial as vehemently contradicted by all variety of voices including some that might of known – Army-green jeeps and trucks blazed up the broken dirt one-lane at the blood-streaked crack of dawn, and copters converged overhead, and troops swept down and in on them with murderous blasts of fire and fury like we’d never seen in those parts, until first three or four men came out, still in their underclothes and hands in the air, my assailant out front of them according to one version, shouting until a lull in the shooting and they could be heard over the din, pleading that they, the soldiers, not hurt the women and old people and little ones, that they, the men, the maligned, the defeated, offered themselves up courageously and without aiming to murder a single soul.

In that same version of the tale, I don’t know if I believe it or not, my assailant wasn’t even involved in the recruiter’s death but only in the disposing of evidence, since he was sure he would be a suspect or maybe just out of chivalrous intention toward whoever really did the deed, or maybe both of those motives together.

And then a woman came out carrying a child that was hit inside, where uncounted other corpses lay crumpled in pooling blood and shattered glass and splinters of wood and metal from the makeshift roof. Meanwhile all Kingdom Come’s right there on top of them, rifles pointed every which way and into every crack and cranny of every feebly standing structure, the woman with the dead baby pushed down in the mud alongside her valiant men who in her defense shouted bloody murder, the loudest of them promptly silenced with a rifle butt to the head so the work of getting everybody tied and gagged and possibly hooded could be accomplished with greater efficiency. That labor done, the compound’s cache of weapons was lifted up to hovering copters. Bodies in chains were scattered right and left across the ground, the living rounded up and the dead left under guard for later evacuation and cleansing of the place of killing – or field of slaughter.

And while all this was going down, before those all-terrain vehicles sped away with their human cargo tossed helter-skelter on the floorboards, at some other extreme of the county Perp Number One’s buddy, who in fact hadn’t been near the scene of the crime on either one of those fateful days, was lifted right out of his bed and packed away for his own conspiracy of sedition and silence.

After I’d managed to piece that horrific story together, my mind lingered like a hovercraft over the befouled place right before the first evacuation, the sound of children still bawling and women raging through my splitting skull, calling down vengeance from the bloody-cloaked God of the Apocalypse before their bodies join the others either shot-through or beaten unconscious, still alive for the purpose of enhanced interrogation. The stench of rancid corpses, meanwhile, baby corpses and old-people corpses, inside or out no longer mattered at this roofless, blighted homestead beneath a scorching early-April sun still wet from rains that wouldn’t return in more than spits or sprinkles for the devil knew how long, since they brought down on us the curse by those unholy prayers.

The reckoning that maybe all of us might of brought crashing down on ourselves, the whole cosmos disintegrating around us in a perpetual climate event to beat all hell while our leaders just sit in their frickin’ huddles, dreaming the blood and profits they can’t give up on. All mortal creatures’ end-times that still might or might not be partly averted.

I wondered about all that one afternoon as I took shelter under a mighty but fading oak, its shade seeming ever fainter as I looked out on the sloping fields behind my grandma’s house, waiting for the fire that in the coming dry-hot months might descend from heaven or from that horizon of woods with its drying leaves and needles just itching for a burn. Bodies of sweating cows, laid out in some sliver of a shadow at the edge of a puddle that was once a pond, vultures spinning overhead like infernal angels of dread and death, circling demons burning bright.

The remains of that black recruiter, anyhow, absent protagonist of this unhappy tale, were taken away in a coffin draped in red-white-and-blue to his mournful widow, awaiting bravely with her grieving children whose upper lips I imagine trained and firm like the pictures I’d seen of JFK’s kids all the way back in November of 1963 – or like MLK’s in the spring of ’68. And who might or might never witness a day when the rains of forgiveness fall on this earth in torment and such hatreds are finally put to rest. And we become true lovers each one of the other’s freedom, as Rodriguez liked to say before he got himself disappeared and me and Rose ran off to join this righteous revolution. So that Dr. King’s prophecy and Mr. Lincoln’s promise might at last be fulfilled for black and brown and white folk and rednecks and ragheads and reformed racists and every damn last one of us in a post-racial, post-apocalyptic, post-police-state American Frickin’ Paradise at last redeemed.


© Copyright 2020 by Brett Alan Sanders

GLEANINGS (Henry James on “Mr. Whitman”; new work by Lynn Strongin; a memoir by Joanna Foreman; audio books of Danish poetry, tr. Michael Goldman)

150th_issue_cover_otu_img[1]1. Received yesterday morning the April edition of the usually weekly magazine The Nation, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary with this 268-page anthology of some new but mostly historical material. In my initial browsing I came upon a November 16, 1865 review of Walt Whitman’s book Drum-Taps (one fragment, now, along with Song of Myself and much else, of his ever-evolving masterpiece Leaves of Grass). The reviewer is Henry James.

This is where I confess that I have never read anything by Henry James, though I am familiar with Henry’s brother William through The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Louis Menand’s book about the American Pragmatists. Henry, according to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, “was a regular contributor of reviews and short stories to American periodicals” from 1865 on, so this review would have been one of his first. Some of his novels (like Portrait of a Lady, 1881) are “chiefly concerned with the impact of the older civilization of Europe on American life”; and in others, more specifically English in setting and content, “he analysed English character with extreme subtlety, verging at times on obscurity.”

I stop on this background on the reviewer for what it might explain of his negative take on Whitman, a less disciplined and mannered writer working in a distinctly American style: a new kind of poetry – ecstatic, ebulient, rough around the edges – that quite deliberately ran away from its European predecessors.

“Mr. Whitman,” writes James, “prides himself especially on the substance – the life – of his poetry. It may be rough, it may be grim, it may be clumsy – such we take to be the author’s argument – but it is sincere, it is sublime, it appeals to the soul of man, it is the voice of a people.”

In James’s view, Whitman’s poetry is quite simply “an offense against art,” and James has some specific advice with regard to it: “To become adopted as a national poet, it is not enough to discard everything in particular and to accept everything in general, to amass crudity upon crudity, to discharge the undigested contents of your blotting-book into the lap of the public. You must respect the public you address, for it has tastes, if you have not.”

image097[1]In the retrospect of 150 years, that dismissal might well strike one as a tad snobbish, but at least James has his standards. The general American public, in any case, from northern to southern hemisphere, seems to have had a different view of things – or perhaps just a different understanding of artistic taste. Be that as it may, Whitman is honored and imitated perhaps more than any American poet before or since. His chief imitator would have to be Carl Sandburg, who wrote no less ecstatically, in free and ranging verse, of his rough-and-tumble Chicago. And who, like Whitman, was a great admirer (and in Sandburg’s case, biographer) of Abraham Lincoln.

The poems that immediately follow Drum-Taps, entitled Memories of President Lincoln, include the much-anthologized “O Captain! My Captain!” This elegantly crafted poem, which I recall teaching to my eighth-grade English students, is surely proof that Whitman could write a perfectly disciplined poem if he chose to.

As for Song of Myself, while the poet does seem to go overboard from time to time, I have come to find it quite admirable in the sheer boldness of its scope. And where at times Whitman may seem a bit full of himself, possessed of boundless, perhaps excessive self-regard, it is at least partly because of the inclusiveness of his usage of the pronoun myself, which intends to include everyone. If perhaps not so much the more elitist, Europe-gazing Henry James.

The individual poems in Drum-Taps were unknown to me before a couple of years ago, more or less, when I finally got around to wading through the immense entirety of Leaves of Grass. I have to say that it particularly moved me. In part because for the first time, it seemed to me, the poet’s seemingly boundless optimism was brought to its knees, overwhelmed by the horrors of an internecine war whose wounds, this century and a half later, are still not completely acknowledged, let alone healed. And, in the face of this day’s apparently endless international “war on terror,” I needed him to acknowledge the limits of optimism.

That impression is perhaps most clearly expressed in the following short poem, which I cite in its entirety:

 Year that trembled and reel’d beneath me!

Your summer wind was warm enough, yet the air I breathed froze me,

A thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,

Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself,

Must I learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled?

And sullen hymns of defeat?

It seems to me that our political discourse, of late, could stand a dose of this modesty. Before the present drum-beats to war with Iran turn the whole region, and perhaps the world, into a conflagration that is bound to decisively give the lie to all our exceptionalist triumphalism.

2. Have been acquainted with Lynn Strongin, strictly by long distance, since editing some of her poems during my year as managing editor of the online journal New Works Review. She has an extensive body of work since the Sixties and seems to have no intention of slowing down in her own seventies, having two new books (one just published, the other forthcoming) in 2015.

As she has herself pointed out, Strongin has been exploring essentially the same subject and themes for all these years, over and over and yet never the same: every poem, every particular narrative, seems completely fresh and original despite the familiarity. And by no means less skillful than earlier work.

Lynn Strongin as a childMost evident in all her work is her experience as a child victim of polio, which left her in a wheelchair but did nothing to inhibit her intellectual and artistic adventuring. This infuses her work with a particular sensitivity to young people of any day, whatever the specific troubles physical or emotional that sometimes isolate them. Additional themes that resurface in her work include the menace of the Holocaust and other forms of marginalization and prejudice manifest variously in our shared human experience.

In a sense, one might say, her concerns are at once universal and unifying, touching on the world of nature as well as on the varieties of human experience. I especially remember some moving passages, in previous work, on the recent nuclear disaster in Japan, connected as that inevitably is to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to nuclear talks today between Iran and much of the developed world, to traumas both physical and spiritual from the Middle East to urban and rural North America.

None of which is to say that her work is oppressively dark or depressing, quite the contrary. Rather it seems to burst with light and possibility. Her voice is distinct and wholly original. One might say that her words shimmer.

The following radiant poem (I love the closing image!) is from The Burn Poems, just published in time for International Women’s Day on March 18, by Headmistress Press (Sequim, Washington) which specializes in publishing chapbooks by lesbian writers:

Were those sorrowful times

Back on Cook Street?

Did it all melt down to kitchen?

That galley that hung

Me with gin?

Why should those times be more sorrowful than these? Ruined cities always were in my spine:

Fort Mason. Fort Saint John. Fort Spaceman.

To a child it was cruel. To be a woman? There are no words:

Instead I trap


Cup a bird in hand

And let my tears bathe him. 

The lyric novel, Fabrytius’ Chylde (Albuquerque, New Mexico: Casa de Snapdragon), forthcoming later this year, has the feel of an extended prose poem, its narrative comes forth in shimmering blasts that allow the story to emerge slowly, with repetitions of phrase and image that help reinforce it. At slightly over a hundred words, it begs to be read at least twice: once straight through to get the feel of it, and again lingeringly to take it all in more completely.

The title alludes to a 17th-century painting by Carel Pietersz Fabritius, “Rembrandt’s most famous pupil,” with whose subject (the painter’s daughter) this 21st-century narrator self-identifies. She is an older woman, looking back on a lesbian relationship of some fifty years. The painting is The Goldfinch (1654). The following passage, from the beginning of chapter one, helps to set the stage:

This is the story of Velvet and Angel. Velvet was the name given me when Velma-Sue was outgrown, just as Angelique, with whom I fell in love, became Angel, and these names remained ours for life. If I was a Dutch painter’s dream of a girl, Angel was a burly, Roman woman with brogue shoes, a broad-muscled soldier. Her years as instructor had developed her biceps. Her crop of chestnut hair, bangs glistening as though painted with thick oil paints made her resemble a small woman, Roman soldier who fought on burning bridges and canals by sun, lit like candle. She was a delicious woman, Hercules.

the-know-it-all-girl-joanna-foreman-sm[1]3. Recently joined, for support and companionship, the Southern Indiana Writers group, which meets occasionally in Indiana’s original frontier capital of Corydon, at about an hour’s drive from my Indiana home in Tell City. As a former Mormon missionary in South America, no longer practicing the faith but by no means hostile to it, I was interested to read group member Joanna Foreman’s The Know-It-All Girl: A memoir of a former Jehovah’s Witness. (2013. Madison, Indiana: Hydra Publications)

Our experiences have been very different, though both of us have turned against the patriarchal and doctrinal certainties of our former faiths. In her case, I think, the experience was on the whole more restrictive, mine less so given the existence within Mormonism of a distinctly more liberal and expansive wing in opposition or counterpoint to the anti-intellectual wing that, at least in my particular experience, came to suck the original joy from Sunday worship and daily practice. Some of that, both the positive and the negative, is at play in my new Young Adult novel, tentatively called Original Sins and still looking for a home, whose lead protagonist is a Mormon girl (as opposed to her classmates who are not Mormon) with a dilemma (what to do if her boyfriend turns out to really be gay). And who tries to solve the dilemma by drawing some risky lessons from the Mormon version of the Adam and Eve narrative. But that’s a whole other story, which I don’t need to get into just now.

Joanna’s narrative, in any case, is an affecting account of spiritual struggle and growth which should have large appeal to anyone who enjoys reading popular biography and memoir. While the Organization, as it is called by its members, became too restrictive a place for Joanna’s adventurous and inquisitive spirit, the story of her relationships within the faith with, in particular, her mother and a dear girlfriend, are for the most part positive. As is the overall thrust of her narrative, which ends in a good place and is related with appropriate and abundant humor. The title alludes to the illusion of sure knowledge that the faithful have through reliance on the church elders or patriarchal leaders: because, whatever question anyone could have, they claimed to know all the answers; so all you had to do was listen and obey.

The following passage, part of a chapter that develops her ultimate relationship with belief and doubt even more fully, I particularly admire:

 Most days, I don’t believe there is a god anymore. Occasionally, I think maybe there is, but for me, He or She or It is not a god who knows our every thought (or even cares what we’re thinking), who will strike a match and torture us forever if we refuse to follow specific, complicated and oftentimes silly rules. When I hold a newborn I believe there must be a god. When I see violent anger and hate among the human race I figure there cannot be a god. I walk outside on a spring day – birds sing and a fresh breeze ruffles my hair – or I witness a glorious sunrise; then I think maybe there is a god. But when I see the insensitive, unnecessary bickering and wars between people of various religions, I truly believe with all my heart that if a god exists, he is involved in the self-serving beliefs of the people only in their imaginations. I confess I want to believe in God, first of all because I followed that comfortable path for nearly half a century; second, I like the feeling of having a higher power watching over me. 

It seems to me that Joanna may be leaning toward the American Transcendentalists’ sense of God in Nature. Aside from Emerson and Thoreau, whom a high-school English teacher taught me to appreciate, I am also thinking of Emily Dickinson whose poetry I am presently reading. She has a Transcendentalist sensibility, anyway; and when Joanna speaks of appreciation being superior to worship, I think she means the same thing as Dickinson does as she re-defines worship: “My period has come for Prayer – / No other Art would do – ” she writes; but several stanzas later, at poem’s end, she has come to a new place:

The Silence condescended –

Creation stopped – for me –

But awed beyond my errand –

I worshipped – did not “pray” –

(poem # 525)

And then there’s this little jewel, one of my favorites (#23) in its utter simplicity:

In the name of the Bee –

And of the Butterfly –

And of the Breeze – Amen!

Benny Andersen

Benny Andersen

4. Finally, in passing, a note from my translator friend Michael Goldman, whose rendering of a poem by Danish poet / lyricist Benny Andersen I re-published here (it originally appeared in the Cincinnati Review) on October 23, 2013. It seems that he has some audio books out with Andersen’s poetry and that of a pair of other Danish poets. If relaxing to someone else reading fine, accessible Danish poetry sounds like something you would enjoy, then here’s your ticket to poetic bliss. I have not listened to these particular tapes, but I have heard Michael read his poems on more than one occasion – in person and online – and can thus assure you of their quality.

Here’s the link:  http://hammerandhorn.net/audiobooks-3/ Happy listening!

And as a bonus, here from Michael’s website is a short essay called “Translation is Like Carpentry” (his day job, by the way, is carpentry), a profound poetic glimpse at the craft of literary translation:

I was out on a snow hike last night,  imagining that a piece of Danish literature is not unlike a Danish house to which only someone fluent in Danish has a key.  As a translator and student of literature I have access  to enter that building and experience it in all its facets.  I perceive the building elements, the blueprint, the intent behind the construction.  And I can reconstruct that house, make a replica, though not an exact twin.  Not every screw and nail will be in precisely the same place.  It could be that the original wood is not available anymore.  But the building will appear and feel the same, inside and out.  It will be the American-English neighbor.  And the English reader can enter with their key and experience the same mood as inside the original house – experience the same rooms, the dimensions, the decor, the usefulness and the whimsy.  It takes an enormous amount of work  to replicate literature, of course, not unlike building a house.  And not just to build it, but also to find people who will come and enter, and stay for a while.

February 20, 2015