When a glitch comes in handy

This post will have to be short and sweet, with no photos (“more matter, with less art,” as Queen Gertrude would have liked it), because my computer is in the shop.

I haven’t fallen off the face of the planet and died, although this week has sort of felt like it: this was definitely the most challenging week of our deployment so far. Nothing seemed easy, and I felt my aloneness-with-three-kids acutely. The major trial of the week was unforseen and almost absurd: I showed my two-year-old a little video about using the potty, and brought in our trusty been-through-two-kids-already potty seat from the garage, and asked little Susanna if she wanted to use it. The weird result: she stopped going potty, anywhere.

She would sit on the potty, looking terrified, with her knees clenched together. But with a diaper on, she was suddenly aware that she didn’t like the feeling of peeing into a garment, even a disposable one, and she’d hold her pee for hours on end. Quickly realizing that the very notion of a potty had freaked her out, I put it back in the garage and stopped mentioning it. I decided to just try again in a month or so. But Susanna didn’t go back to using her diaper — like I said, she just stopped using any thing. She’d wait three or four hours, then start to whine about having to go. Six hours later, she’d still be whining, still refusing to pee. It was like having a colicky baby — the constant, incessant discomfort that I was unable to relieve — and there were the two other kids to take care of on top of it, with their own needs for homework help and attention and snacks. For the first time this deployment, I felt like it was truly more than I could handle.

A pamphlet I read once, years ago when we were stationed in Virginia, gave some basic guidelines for communicating with one’s spouse during a deployment. I distinctly remember that it mentioned not complaining to your spouse about problems they were unable to solve from a distance. If you wrote about a child with a cold, or a car that needed repairs, for example, your spouse would only feel frustrated by an inability to fix these problems, and (particularly if you’d written out your complaints by mail) by the time your letter had wended its way halfway across the world into the hands of your spouse, the problem would have long been resolved anyway.

There’s a certain old-school logic to this that I won’t dispute, but it also puts the burden of self-suficiency, even self-censorship, on the spouse back at home. In any case, I have simultaneously disregarded this advice as old-fashioned and borderline insulting (it suggests that your spouse’s hardships are real, and your own are not!) while at the same time trying to follow it. During this deployment I’ve managed to complain to my husband very little — I share the charming anecdotes about our children, and if I’m too tired to say anything then I just don’t say it, I wait until the following night to send an email. This week, however, my self-control took a hit, and I left my husband several messages expressing my distress, all to the soundtrack of a whining toddler. I described the sadness I’d felt having to pin her down to be catheterized, when the pediatrician thought she might have a urinary tract infection. I may or may not have left him a phone message suggesting that I felt “mildly tortured.”

But in an odd twist, one inconvenience of deployment actually canceled out another, because due to the vagaries of long-distance communication my husband did not receive my most desperate, self-pitying messages. Instead, I heard from him a few days later — a puzzled, upbeat “Where are you? Haven’t heard from you in a while.” I felt both exasperated and, well, saved — I was still the stoic Navy wife, but not because of my own strength. I’d been saved by a glitch in technology! I still have desperation as a wild card that I can pull out later, because that potent option hasn’t been used up.

So here we are, with that bad week down, and only about 2 months left in the deployment. Here’s to perseverance, a good dose of ignorance-is-bliss, and the occasional technological glitch that comes in handy.

A Working Home

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Hello from Deploymentland, where we are all hanging in!

The secret to my sanity this last week was the creation of a new euphemism for our perpetually-messy house. I decided to call it, “A Working Home.” (Do not confuse this with a home populated by “working girls.”)

My new “Working Home” designation embraces the idea that this is a home where work is happening. The work of being kids, the work of maintaining a household, the work of being a writer (when time allows). There is no time for “clean” in this house! Clean is for show homes, not for “The Working Home.”

IMG_9089we are working!

That laundry lined up along the counter and in piles on the floor? Working home! The bags of clothes upstairs waiting to be sorted for the Goodwill? Working home (and altruistic)! The unsorted recycling in the garage? Working home (and environmentally conscious)! (Also a little lazy!)

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working hard!

The “Working Home” idea also dovetails nicely with two of my more successful catchphrases from this deployment. I have two of them — “Family Team!” and, “It’s Not Convenient!”

The first — “Family Team!” — has proven quite handy. It’s short and sweet enough for instant recognition, and it sums up what we are about. It’s best in situations where immediate and lasting sucking-it-up is required, as in — Children get tired waiting in airport security line. “Family Team!” barks I. And suddenly they sharpen right up (ideally), reminded of our cohesion and our shared goal of making it to our destination.

The other catchphrase of this deployment is mine alone and functions, in my mind, as a sort of stamp that I put on anything that comes my way. The phrase: “It’s not convenient!” I use it for all judgment calls and it even has an accompanying physical action to solidify my resolve. Example: The kids bring home pamphlets for 5 separate fund-raisers and after-school activities — I make a fist with my right hand, pop it into the palm of the left and say, “It’s not convenient!” Bam, done, into the recycling! I’m approached by a sweetly wheedling mom at school about volunteering for the chili cook-off — bam, “It’s not convenient!” (Slightly raised eyebrows at my weird hand gesture, but whatever, a woman’s gotta stay strong.)

IMG_9003Family trip to the pumpkin patch? Convenient! (“Convenient” is less exciting, visually, as it has no accompanying hand gesture)

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Hope your week will be full of family cohesion, good hard work (and play), and all things fun and convenient.

 

‘Still, the Sky Clears’: Two Poetry Collections Reviewed by Caroline LeBlanc

I rarely get poetry reviews for this blog, so I was pleased when poet and Army wife-and-veteran Caroline LeBlanc contributed this in-depth, very smart poetry review, a Jungian analysis of two collections by contemporary poets. It previously appeared in Poetry Matters, July 2014.

Here, LeBlanc looks at the collections Local News from Someplace Else by Marjorie Maddox and The History of Bearing Children by Jacqueline Loring, who is the wife of a Vietnam veteran.

This is not a quick read, but a meaty one. LeBlanc makes great connections across pieces — from Persephone and the pomegranate seed, to folklore (Baba Yaga, the Slavic witch!). And these lines from one of Loring’s poems stopped me in my tracks:

Still, the sky clears, our bed stays warm,
our children grow, fathered by that
uncursed piece of you we hold.

Poetry fans, Carl Jung fans (are you out there?), sit back, relax and enjoy —   Andria

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COMPARATIVE REVIEW OF LOCAL NEWS FROM SOMEPLACE ELSE BY MARJORIE MADDOX & THE HISTORY OF BEARING CHILDREN BY JACQUELINE MURRAY LORING

Caroline_LeBlanc_3By Caroline LeBlanc (poet, Army wife-and-veteran)

We cannot get away from violence/tragedy in our world, though we can make a good stab at it if we live in the right place and have the right amount of money. Even then, as the title of Maddox’s book, Local News from Someplace Else, implies, the daily news brings us with reports of violence/tragedy from around the world.

Although no more than 1% of the US population has a member of the family serving in the US armed forces, hundreds of thousands American men and women have served in combat during our last thirteen years of war. Their return and reintegration into family and community is too often complicated by the physical and /or emotional wounds of combat. This was also true of those returning from the war, about half a century ago, which set Loring on the path of wife to a Vietnam veteran. The History of Bearing Children recounts the effects of war on the returning soldier, spouse and family. In the books under review, Maddox and Loring each take on matters easier swept under the rug.

 

PrintLocal News from Someplace Else, with its three sections and 65 poems, includes poems prompted by both tragic and comic headlines, as well as mainstream family concerns. History, with its 32 poems, offers us pictures of how a wife and family can choke for years in the aftermath of the early life war experience of one of its members.

After considering several organizational schemes, I decided to structure the discussion according to a condensed outline of Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey, her variation on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey—both books worth the read, if you haven’t already. Having spent twenty years as Jungian psychotherapist, I find archetypal layers in many things. My apologies to the poets if I am reading things they did not intend into their poems.

In my opinion, both these books describe a version of heroine’s journey. They contain accounts of wrestling with darkness in the process of birthing self in relationship with others: spouse, children, and anonymous others who impact their lives through personal contact or the media. Both compassionately imagine and engage their own and others’ suffering during the steps of their heroines’ journeys recounted in the poems.

In this review, we will look at ten poems, two for each of the following stages of the heroine’s journey: her ordinary life; her call to the heroine’s journey; her trials; her underworld experience; and her step onto the road of return, or in more mythological language, rebirth.

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I. Ordinary Life

Most of us quite reasonably want a happy, comfortable, and rewarding life. Some of us are lucky enough to get it. What ends up being ordinary for one person may not be ordinary for another. And poems about ordinary life events, especially those written from the distance of time and experience, often contain foreboding about the challenges life, or fate, will throw in along the way.

thehistoryofbearingchildrencoverLoring’s poem, “Engagement,” starts with a trip to Boston antique shops to find just the right ring. The search brings back memories of her Aunt’s stories that “in the sun along the riverbanks/of the South China Sea stones lie,/fill with hope, wait for lovers.” Romantic images on first reading and until the reader realized that Vietnam is on the South China Sea. The ring, with its smooth jade stone and sharp cut diamonds, is “[a] part of my life,” what outsiders see as well as the meaningful and mundane chores of family life. To this point we have a moving poem about the symbolism of a jeweled ring. It could easily fall into sentimentality. Like a snake in the South Asian jungle, the poem turns, at first, almost without our noticing. “Sometimes in sunlight/I caress it, stare into the opaque green/ consider my vows, imagine/other settings, aunt’s yarns”—but these are not yarns about “scarabs and jade” in rivers. These are “yarns/ of damsels in distress, a captive princess,/lady warrior: all with blessed hands/they wore their rings into battle.” The poem ends with the tension of these images, moving us from the smooth “jade” life to the sharp facets of a cut diamond, a marriage that will also be a kind of battle ground.
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Like a number of Maddox’s poem, “Indelible” is a tongue-in-cheek account of an absurd mythological-underworld-like wedding where the groom added a wedding ring tattoo to his extensive body art. In a delightful play on image and word, the wedding included on the spot tattooing, after which “fuchsia-dyed cake injected, / inconveniently, with badly burnt brandy/ was cut in precise slices.” And here, with this “fuchsia-dyed cake…/ …placed on a skin of napkin//which is what I ate,” we slide into a hint of Persephone’s story of eating the pomegranate seed, which forever joins her to her underworld lover. But the speaker inverts the image. She ate the cake deliberately “the moment I saw your permanent eyes, /a half-heart tattooed so vividly/ on each matching lid.” This could be an applied tattoo, but I read it as the delicate web of blood vessels often visible on human eyelids. Consequently, instead of being imprisoned in the underworld, this cake eater lands in the world of the ordinary love, remembering, however, the “burnt taste” hint about what other elements ordinary life might entail.
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II. The Call

Historically, child birth has been an ordeal on the order of male combat, since so many women lost their lives in the birthing bed. While modern women seldom die in childbirth, and have more control over question of whether and /or when to become a mother, pregnancy remains a tricky threshold event. Pregnancy opens the door into what happens after the pregnancy—whether it results in the loss of a child or the obligation to raise a child to adulthood. It is such a womanly and common patch that it seldom gets recognized for the heroic series of ordeals that it entails.

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Marjorie Maddox

 

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Jacqueline Loring

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In Maddox’s “PLEA TO AN EMBRYO,” the speaker, in the voice of a parental “we,” addresses her unborn child, barters with the embryo inside her about all the things a parent and teenager barter about. The bitter sweet implication is that the embryo is as willful as a human adolescent. The dream, hope, plea is that the fetus will stay put in the womb long enough to have a chance at becoming an adolescents. This child is wanted and already loved, and the parents who love her beg her to “Wait, take your first breath. Think/before you split/ into nothingness. You’re still//under our roof/and rules.” The speaker seems to understand that she has a greater chance of enforcing rules with a rebellious adolescent than she does of forcing the unstable fetus to “[s]tay put.” The poem, its tone rooted in good old-fashioned sympathetic magic, ends with a variation on one of the most common promises made by exasperated parents, “you’ll understand/ if you’re older.” If the poem has not already left the reader breathless, the substitution of “if” for “when” will knock the wind out of her.

In Loring’s “Perpetual Ritual,” the “normal” dynamics of mother/fetus/father are intruded upon by the husband/father’s flashback from his time in Vietnam. All starts well. “My finally pregnant belly/ outlined safe and high, adjusts to your gentle rocking.//I watch you/stroke our unborn child.” As if the poet counted, bad luck enters on line 13 when the father’s “suddenly closed eyes” cue eight lines of “booby-trapped memoirs” about the wartime death of a pregnant Vietnamese woman, “her yellow gaping belly, that child,/your bloody friends all dying.” The speaker also grieves, “I kiss your mouth too late/ to save you from this battle.” And, as happens after every death, there is eventual resignation and acceptance, and the rhythms of life go on, however stark and limping. The last line reads, “In the morning I’ll change our sheets.” These parents do not seem to be in danger of losing their child, but the traumas of war leave them both in danger of being lost to that child as they embark on the simultaneous journeys of child and each other rearing and recovery from combat related trauma.
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III. Trials

Carl Jung said that if we do not choose to follow our destiny, it will come to us as fate—tempted or survived. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of the University of Maryland defines the “fatal flaw” as a past decision that has negative consequences the character did not foresee when we made the choice. Once she has answered the call to the heroine’s journey, the heroine must make the best choices she is capable of and hope they are the choices that will lead her to the treasure.
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In Maddox’s poem TWICE, a man and a teenage woman, with no connection to one another, both survive their encounters with lightning. TWICE is written in couplets with an irregular pattern of near rhymes. And I must mention the lovely, and humorous (in a black-humor way) allusions Maddox works into the narrative, which serve to lift the mundane story into at least the literary, and perhaps the archetypal, heights. When he was struck the man was below a “split tree/ spread-eagle above him like a Frost poem / wounded. And that made all the difference.” Meanwhile, the teen fell victim to “lightning’s long finger tapping her twice, / a parody of the daVinci painting? /For weeks she was a celebrity.” Both tempted fate and both won. To this point, this is a nice narrative poem, with some classic allusions. But as in many of her poems, Maddox follows the story with reflective stanzas.

But what odds we all give and take,
daily loading blank dice into our hopeful palms.

Bad things happen in threes,
but it’s twice, the highly unlikely,

that slips in in the middle
and slips us up.

Maddox could end the poem on this hopeless note. Instead she ends with a challenge to “the survivors of ‘bad things,’ / of storms blindingly fierce and electric.” Storms—natural, emotional, bodily—that leave us asking if

even on clear, bright days,
will we continue, with hope

or fear, to look up straight
into whatever warms us?

We could claim, as the poet reports the papers said, “He is a fool,…/and should have known better.” But, in fairy tales it is often the fool who survives the trials, finds the treasure, rescues the captive, returns home. Heroes and heroines often tempt fate, remain or go when good sense cautions the opposite. There’s the famous line the Russian-Fairy-Tale-Ivan answers to Baba Yaga’s terrifying question, “Were you forced to come or did you come of your own free will?” The correct answer is “Both.” If not before, then certainly after she is a survivor, after she had answered the call, each heroine—dare I say, each poet, writer, mother, wife, et. al.—must decide if she will continue “to look up straight / into whatever warms [her].” TWICE is a good example of how Maddox takes tragic or quirky headlines, and invites her reader to reflect on what they represent when considered from a meta-perspective.
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Loring’s “Curse the Rainbow” also recounts a thunder and lightning storm. “Curse” is almost a concrete poem, in that the lines flash about, much as lightning bolts would, until the poem resolves and the last four stanzas settle down. The images are reminiscent of combat and war: “the sky brightens,” “children flee… / after scattered horses,” “mist…blurs your face/criss-crosses your eyes,” “[y]our plea through distant thunder.” “[L]ightning / strikes” and “pounding memory / darts/ among / the branches.” And then the flashback: “that girl /who still runs from her burning skin.”

Even the wife’s response is full of war imagery: “blood red sunset,” I “damn the storm, the barbed wire between us, / want to scrape napalm / into your memory / to ease your pain.” How bad must the pain be if napalm would feel better? How desperate must a woman be to consider napalm a possible cure? How desperate was our government to douse Vietnam with napalm? You get the idea.

The next seven lines are full of despair and hopelessness. “[N]either your laughing children / nor my patient love / can keep you / from this moment. // I wonder if I can go on.” Again, the poem could end here, but the poet, like the heroine she is hangs onto a thread of courage and determination, and a vision of coming through the ordeal. The poem’s last lines, also cited earlier, introduce the speaker’s persevering and loving perspective in the face of challenges that would overwhelm many.

Still, the sky clears, our bed stays warm,
our children grow, fathered by that
uncursed piece of you we hold.
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IV. The Underworld

You might well object, “Have we not already been mucking around in the underworld? It sure feels like it.” True, the tone of the poems has gotten dark. But the underworld implies surrender, a dying to all one has clung to for a sense of self and place in the world, and our previous poems ended on hopeful notes. Hope is false in the underworld, even if we pray desperately for it to not be so. It is important to not conflate the heroine’s journey underworld with any religious conceptions of hell as a place of punishment for wrong doers. It is an all too neutral place of darkness where the heroine realizes that cherished formulas for a good, happy life do not guarantee that life. The gods and fate are fickle.
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Loring’s poems “Forward” begins, as many of hers do, with a homely task—this time cleaning the china cabinet. Two items set the course of the poem. First there is the tea set her aunt sent from Japan, when her aunt “was young / and thought a crisp salute / was the only price she’d pay / for her freedom.” A sentimentally archaic image for an archaically naive belief. Next the poet reaches “back into my yesterdays / to other teas and services,” specifically her wedding with its “forgotten …vows and promises.” This is a very ambiguous line. What kind of forgetting is recalled? The words of the ceremony, or has the spirit of the words been forgotten in the reality of her marriage? She continues her chore—in her dining room and in the poem.
[I] unwarp the porcelain bride and groom
who stood guard for us in frosting,
touch the bride’s cold cheek,
follow her lace bodice to her band,

the groom’s left arm, waiting,
trace the tear-drop beads
painted on her graying gown
wipe dust from her eyes.

Like the rich poem it is, “Forward” presents us with a simple story even as its images entangle us in multiple levels of meaning: from “forgotten wedding vows and promises,” to enduring porcelain that “stood guard” over dreams as insubstantial as frosting, to cold cheeks (no longer warm in the flush of romantic love), to “tear-drop beads.” All these images tell us of romantic love, tarnished by war, and tested by years. Romantic notions, which the poet has tried carefully to hold onto along with the other fragile treasures from her earlier life, have proved misleading. They have not stood the test of time. When she wipes the dust from the statuette’s eyes, she wipes the dust from her own eyes which “look through the pane / of the still-open door.” Leaving remains an option. The door is “still-open.” She could leave this heroine’s journey with its trials, try for a simpler, more ordinary life. Instead, she watches her “aproned reflection, // move goblets to hide the groom.” She stays, but she “buries” the notion of the romantic handsome groom and what, for her, has become a fairy tale version of marriage marketed by the wedding industry. As the marital enrichment movement folks maintain, a wedding does not a marriage make. The wife in this poem has accepted her consignment to the underworld that is her marriage. She has surrendered to her fate, which does not include the kind of marriage she hoped for as a young bride.

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Even if you have never driven through dead and dying mining towns around the world, a careful reading of Maddox’s poem, “Minersville Diner,” will give you a good sense of the barrenness the industry creates, and the even greater despair it leaves behind once it has exploited the people and the land’s resources. It represents the underbelly of the good life most people seek. It is a manmade underworld which I visited many times when I was a consulting occupational health nurse with the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (now defunct).

People not relegated to life in dead company towns, even if they are visiting family rooted there, are always and only “[e]n route to somewhere else,” someplace implicitly better. They are uneasy with the stark surroundings, at once stifled and titillated by the intensity and dramatic despair of the place. Yet, the place is paradoxically somehow more invigorating than the suburban “dust of who-walked-out-on- whom,/ … our [own] abandoned mines of what is worse / than flipping fried eggs alone.” The tone of the poem reminds me of when, as a nursing student struggling with my own late adolescent depression, I would find perspective and a new energy for life when faced with the suffering of patients in the inner city teaching hospitals. There is a hierarchy to suffering, which does not negate the fact that no suffering feels inconsequential when we are in the middle of it. A visit to the Minersville Diner hits us over the head with the fact that, despite what corporate America and Madison Avenue tells us, the American dream does not guarantee “the good life” or freedom from painful experiences.

The poet’s image of the hot, cracked sidewalks before the diner takes us to the tenacity humans display when faced with surrendering to the vagaries of the underworld. As we should, we plan and scheme, and try with all our might to create a better life for ourselves and our loved ones for, “[w]ithout the planned gaps, / there’s be a hundred tiny fractures / in concrete, breaking more / than mothers’ backs.” We care for ourselves and each other with restaurants and bakeries, “‘Coming soon!’” We build churches to protect us from the fickleness of fate, to find peace with our place in things. Yet, even with the “blue dome of the church, its painted god stars winking knowingly, … we pass into the life we [can only] pretend is safe from explosion, from unexpected and total collapse.”

“Minersville Diner” recounts the speaker’s travels through and respect for the underworld, rather than her personal time served in that forsaken place. But her astute observations of the reality and how it lies in wait for each of us, make it quite clear that she is no stranger to its existential realities. In this poem the speaker serves as something of an experienced mentor or guide, for those who would dare undertake the heroine’s journey.

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V. Return/Rebirth

The most stripped down description of the archetypal cycle is life, death, and rebirth. Not all heroes and heroines complete the cycle. In myth, fairy tales and stories, the rebirth or resurrection represents the climax of the story. The denouement, or the resolution, of the story involves the heroine’s successful return with the treasure or elixir of life, etc. The return is often the step most difficult to accomplish. The next two poems place the poet on the cusp of rebirth, on the lip of the birth canal. Their creations, including the books under review, are proof that they made got the treasure back to the ordinary world, which is forever changed as a result.

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Interestingly, winter storms figure in both “The Nor’easter” by Loring and “Ithaca Winter” by Maddox. What better image of death and the underworld than winter, and its accompanying frozenness, death, burial under mounds of snow?

In its eight lines, “The Nor’easter” “helps focus survival thoughts / empties my head of inside things.” All her other troubles are small compared to life or death situations, be they literal or figurative. When you are in the underworld, your every thought is for survival and return to the living. Next is the “swirl of stripped leaves, / whip of limbs, /the pelt of rain,” all classic images of internal turmoil as well as external storms. Still, the poet fears the next step, the sacrifices demanded if she is to be released from the stormy underworld of her war torn life.

The heroine writes, “I latch shutters, / resist the howling / of what wants out.” Is she caught in her fear of the next step, the sacrifices required to be released from the underworld of her war torn life? Is she refusing to leave a dangerous situation that someone, not so foolish, would walk away from? Or is she simply closing the shutters in order to seal herself in an alchemical container? We have only to read the last three lines together to find the answer: “resist the howling / of what wants out / on paper.”

The line breaks in “Nor’easter,” especially in the last two stanzas allow for multiple readings and create tiered meanings. As is her way, Loring creates depths of meaning through the intensity and intensly personal nature of her imagery. She is not a mere confessional poet, nor are her descriptions of violence in any way gratuitous. They are her lived experience and the lived experience of thousands of family members in love and relationship with men and women who served in the combat theaters of our nation’s wars, even when our political leaders sent them to fight in questionable conflicts. Loring’s poems are profound, skillful, and poignant documents about the effects of war.
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“Ithaca Winter” by Maddox, is about a woman who goes into a winter storm to “undo who I was.” To let the wind “[unzip] / eventually what isn’t.” To let the snow “white-out absence,/ lost the clean slate entirely.” The last is an extremely stark image of wished-for self-annihilation. Until the penultimate stanza the poem consists of a beautifully lyrical, yet rather one-dimensional narrative about an existential crisis of some sort. The speaker is in so much pain she almost wishes for death in the underworld.

Then, the first line of the penultimate stanza catapults us out of sequential time and narrative. “I had a life disappear once.” When was “once?” Just before the events of the previous four stanzas, or another time? The rest of the stanza leaves me wondering. “I stepped out if it into the snow / …an old name and sorrow / stuck at the bottom in a drift.” Did the life disappear or did she leave it behind? The life or the disappeared life? Are they the same?

This poem makes the reader work hard. It’s a good thing the language is so beautiful. A definite but only implied shift occurs into the last stanza. The shift is reminiscent of a major scene change in cinema or TV. We aren’t prepared for the shift but, if we pay attention to details, we realize we are in a different setting. “When I stopped shivering, behind my teeth were words.” If the speaker stopped shivering, then she either froze to death, or she came in from the cold.

My vote? She came out of her winter underworld, out of its cold. But while her teeth chattered in the cold, they tapped out, quite musically in this poem, the words that now fill her mouth and, implicitly, wait to be—or have been—put to paper.

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Those of us fortunate enough to never have had violence/tragedy, and their aftermath, intrude first hand into our lives often have little reason to deeply contemplate how it—and our denial of it— impacts our families and society. And it is not only war or school shootings in suburban schools that scream for attention. The poor and racially disenfranchised in America and the world, civilians in war torn areas, imprisoned and/or displaced people around the world—these and others live daily with suffering caused by violence and class related tragedies. We can easily be overwhelmed with the weight of it all. And yet, even if we don’t live in such conditions, or volunteer for war, or love someone who has, most of us watch the evening news, as well as movies and TV shows about war, tragedies, danger and heroism. Maddox and Loring redeem our often macabre fascination in their poems. They debunk feel good stories, and digest headlined and personal experiences of violence and tragedy. Their poems serve up their reflections, invite readers to ingest the bitter as well as the sweet offerings on the table. In this way, they cull some redemption out of otherwise senseless happenings.

Veterans and their families are, and are not, terribly different from other Americans. They, like others, including many poets and the disenfranchised featured in the headlines Maddox contemplates, know that suffering cannot be avoided. They have joined the ranks of those who know it is difficult, if not impossible, to bargain with the gods. They know that feeling betrayed when the gods are erratic in their regard for human welfare is self-deluding.

Marion Woodman insists that we can suffer neurotically, or we can suffer redemptively, the latter a requirement for living more consciously. Loring and Maddox are poets of witness who write about that which we would rather not see.They give voice to the unspoken, and what many consider unspeakable. In the process they redeem the suffering that motivated their writing. Their two quite different books share deep truths, and give voice to shunned, yet compelling, human experiences, with compassion, and without swinging a political ax.

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About the reviewer: Caroline LeBlanc, MFA, MS, RN is a former Army Nurse, an Army wife & mother, and retired psychotherapist. As the Writer in Residence at the Museum of the American Military Family since 2012, she wrote the script for the museum’s Summer 2014 exhibit, Sacrifice & Service: The American Military Family. She co-produced & wrote the script for Telling, Albuquerque (part of the national Telling Project), a 9/11/2104 testimonial theatrical event where military veterans and family members perform their own stories. In 2014 she directed & performed in 4 Voices on the 4th, a collaborative spoken word performance with three other women military family members. Since relocating to Albuquerque in 2013, she has hosted a writing salon for women military veterans and family members. In 2011 Spalding University awarded her an MFA in Creative Writing. Her poems have been published in her 2010 chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle, as well as online and in a number of print journals. Her art work has also been included in a number of Apronistas Women’s Art Group shows in the Albuquerque area.

About the poets:

LeBlanc3Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published Local News from Someplace Else (Wipf & Stock 2013); Perpendicular As I (1994 Sandstone Book Award); and six other award-winning books, as well as over 450 poems, stories, and essays in journals and anthologies.

Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation was a runner-up, finalist, or semifinalist at 30 national competitions. Local News From Someplace Else has been a finalist for the Samuel French Morse Poetry Award, sponsored by Northeastern University; for the Kentucky Women’s Prize, sponsored by Sarabande; for the Magellan Prize, sponsored by Button Wood Press; for the Mammoth Books Poetry Award; the Ashland Poetry Press Prize; and a semifinalist for the Crab Orchard Poetry Award, and elsewhere.

She lives with her husband and two children in Williamsport, Pa., birthplace of Little League and home of the Little League World Series. She is the great-grandniece of baseball legend Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who helped break the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson.

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LeBlanc2Jacqueline Murray Loring writes scripts, poetry and stage plays. Her poetry collection The History of Bearing Children won the 2012 of the Doire Irish International Prize. History was awarded 2nd place in the 2012 New Mexico Press Women competition. Her plays have been produced at the Provincetown Theater Company, Provincetown, MA. Her full-length play, Reflections for a Warm Day, was presented in 2007 at the Provincetown Theater/New Provincetown Players Festival. No Matter What, about trafficking of women in present day, was stage-read in 2010. Fight for Right and Freedom was produced during the 2012 Provincetown Theater’s 24-hour Playwrights Festival.

With the support of the Nam Vets Association of the Cape and Islands, she is presently working on a nonfiction book, Surviving The Peace After War. As the wife of a Vietnam veteran, she was one of the performers in Telling Albuquerque’s Fall 2014 production. She and her family live on a ranch in Albuquerque’s South Valley.There she writes, and helps her daughter care for the horses in her equestrian therapy stables, Enchanted Equine Adventures New Mexico, LLC.

Flashes of Reading

books_in_car There’s so much to read in the world, and so little time! But I sneak in my moments… books_in_car_2 The minute this kid dozes in the car, I have a stack of books waiting for me. I think I might actually cackle with glee as I peel into the nearest parking lot and peruse the small library on the floor of my van. Then I crack open a warm diet Coke, because I have bad habits. (I don’t prefer warm diet Coke, I should clarify, but it, too, is kept in my van, although if I’ve been in a shady spot for a while it can tend toward pleasantly tepid rather than all-out hot-and-frothy). Then I sit back and I enjoy my little slice o’ heaven until my two-year-old wakes up again. You wouldn’t think you’d get a lot of reading done in stolen moments, but somehow my recent reading has added up, and I realized the other day that I’ve read quite a few good things this way in recent weeks. Worth mentioning, in my humble opinion:

1. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach — one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time. This one was sitting in the little free library at our YMCA. The free library is only two narrow shelves tall, back by the women’s locker room and the big standing scale where my son always asks to be weighed in the hope that he will finally have broken 46 pounds. It’s full of lots of James Patterson and Nora Roberts, but when I spied The Art of Fielding I pounced on that bad boy before you could say “Henry Skrimshander” (the novel’s unassuming hero). Further piquing my interest was the fact that whoever left the book there had somehow scored an advanced reader’s copy, with the publisher’s publicity plan outlined on the back and all the acknowledgments still forthcoming. In our midst at the humble YMCA was a local literary scene-maker, perhaps, some reviewer or critic who scored an ARC and then passed it on for the benefit of the hoi polloi.

Anyway, I dug into the book, and laughed on nearly every page. I laughed out loud, in my car with a sleeping toddler, and later in a handful of public places, and I didn’t even care who heard me chortling away. The Art of Fielding is just a darn good story, the tale of four unlikely friends at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, three of whom are baseball players and one of whom is the daughter of the college’s president.

The young fellow at the heart of the story is a shortstop, the aforementioned Henry Skrimshander, a prodigious talent who’s devoted himself to an almost spiritual athletic practice following in the footsteps of his hero, major-league player Aparicio Rodrqiguez, author of the Zen-like manual called, also, “The Art of Fielding.” In the opening chapter of the book Henry is spotted by the baseball team captain, a lovably depressed Classics major named Mike Schwartz, who then makes it his life’s mission to recruit Henry and nurture his talent in the hope of bringing their beloved team, the Harpooners, to postseason glory.

The characters are so good-natured and well-meaning, to a man, that about halfway through I felt the slight misgiving that the book was taking on a sitcommy feel. But it roped me back in again, because there’s depth here in addition to all the good humor and patient striving. The relationship between Mike and his adoring protege Henry is especially well-done. When Henry’s lifetime of startling talent takes a sudden plunge and he goes on a streak of bad luck, the pain he feels is very real. There’s clarity, Harbach posits, in doing just one thing and doing it well — a virtue lauded again nowadays, at least among epicureans and hipsters, with a newfound championing of niche crafting and artisans — but what happens when someone suddenly cannot do that one thing? Who are they, and how can they go on?

And for Mike, ever the lovingly forceful teacher (a common refrain among this crew is the oddly affectionate promise, “I’m gonna run you til you puke”), the questions looms: who will he be when he is no longer the guru Henry needs?

I loved this book, and it made my toddler-naptimes pass all too swiftly.

2. Relatedly, I’m also reading Moby Dick. Embarrassingly, I’m an English major who’d never read in its entirety. This was a great companion read to The Art of Fielding — which is, oddly for a novel set in the upper Midwest, an homage to Moby Dick and to Mellville.

Anyway, when my smarty-pants sister-in-law and I both realized that we hadn’t read the whole book (in her case, it’s excusable — she’s a landscape architect), we vowed to read it together, one chapter at a time. Ishmael is even funnier and more manic than I remembered, and I found myself jotting down phrases and notes all over the place as I read. (“Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.”) So, while I will not be reviewing Moby Dick here on the ol’ Mil Spouse Book Review (“Has anyone heard of this hidden gem of a novel?!”), I am greatly enjoying it.

3. I devoured Katey Schultz’s collection Flashes of War, and shared a few thoughts on it here.

4. Lastly, I re-read Amanda Coplin’s gorgeous sprawling novel, The Orchardist, and reviewed it here. Wonderful wonderful, as Lawrence Welk would say.

5. Really lastly, I’m reading Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War and Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, and am so full of thoughts that my response to them is starting to look like a senior thesis.

The Future Loomed: Amanda Coplin’s ‘The Orchardist’

I’ve read Amanda Coplin’s debut novel,The Orchardist, two times now, and I think I’m game for a third.

orchardistSet in the late 19th century, The Orchardist revolves around an aging orchard-keeper named Talmadge whose quiet life is interrupted by the arrival of two young, pregnant women on his land. They hide from him and steal fruit from his trees, but instead of turning them away he takes them in and helps them. Though his intentions are good, this act of kindness leads to a sudden, shocking event that will change Talmadge’s life forever, binding him inextricably to the younger of the two girls, Della, and to the infant who will become his adopted daughter, Angelene.

orchardist2author Amanda Coplin

This book reminds me of a lot of things — Talmadge is quite similar to his fictional contemporary, Robert Grainier, from Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. They share a similar near-silence, a personal history of loss, a dogged manliness that is neither aggressive or violent, and a subdued awe at the world they see around them. This is a great kind of protagonist to write, I’d imagine, because the power of your novel’s events can only echo through such a silent and solitary person, gaining power as it does so. The Orchardist waxes lyrical more often than Train Dreams does, but there’s a common thread running through them both — they are novels set in the West that are not quite Westerns, though they are paeans to its landscape and plumb the race,-class,-and-sex relations that were inevitable in such a harsh, land-grabbing life. Johnson and Coplin also use the newness of technology — in Coplin’s case, two separate incidents where characters are getting their photos taken for the first time — to show these characters’ innermost thoughts and fears. Della, for instance, begins to realize her feelings for the Nez Perce man named Clee:

She wondered that evening, watching Clee move around the fire preparing supper, what his image would look like, captured in a photograph….She thought of the photograph of him that was not taken. That night, taking out the photograph [of herself] as she lay on her bedroll and looking at it in the firelight — her own small, pale, startled image — she imagined this invisible counterpart alongside it, giving it substance and weight.

But what The Orchardist reminds me of most is, surprisingly (to me), Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Take the plot: Gentle older man takes in a dying woman, promises (not in so many words, with Talmadge, but through a sort of unspoken agreement) to care for and raise her child, delivers on his promise and passes the adoring child along into a future without him. A man who’d lived fully unto himself has been broken open, hurt and healed, changed by the arrival of another soul (not an uncommon plot line — I thought of the wonderful 1996 Czech film Kolya, and of course Baby Boom, with Diane Keaton!).

The wild card in Coplin’s novel — and the twist that sets this book apart from other, similar stories — is Della, the runaway girl whom Talmadge is never fully able to claim, to grasp. She’s a young woman constantly on the move, unable to hold still, to fully see others, to love or be loved. She’s damaged goods. It’s honestly heartbreaking, and I can’t think of another recent novel that’s done this so well. The way Coplin makes this hurt — for Talmadge, for the reader — can’t be overstated.

Della puts herself in danger constantly, as if curious in some distanced way whether she might live or die. It’s not that she doesn’t feel pain — she does — or that she doesn’t care — she does — but she lives in a sort of shadow world, a liminal existence that feels very realistic. Traveling the Northwest wrangling horses and felling trees, she volunteers for the most dangerous jobs every time. She rides rodeo, though the men around her disapprove, and even (or especially) Clee is disgusted.

Just last year a rodeo man had mounted a bull and been trampled to death before the bull reached the arena. The entrance was unnecessarily dangerous…That dread, that sureness that she was going to fail, was why she did it. She craved, for some reason — she would not look at it directly — that sense of despair.

Now, in the chute, hovering over the horse, her extremities emptied of feeling…She dissolved.

It isn’t the applause or occasional win that fills Della — “what she wanted was the despair….But the moment she was inside it, she failed to find what it was she wanted so badly. And so she would ride again.”

This — in both the death-defiance of the rodeo itself, and the feeling that drives it — calls up Jack Twist, the heartsick cowboy in Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (Jake Gyllenhaal plays him in the movie). Jack knows what he’s risking when he rides rodeo, when he ventures repeatedly to Mexico for sex and engages in trysts with men closer to home; he’s waiting for the void.

In a world without therapists or Prozac, without any hard drugs beyond grain alcohol, and without much human kindness to take refuge in, the repeated adrenaline rush of danger keeps Della alive. But, as with all drugs, her tolerance only increases, and Talmadge is right to fear for her.  Near the end of the novel, he finally leaves the orchard with a clear plan to save her — from the law, from her childhood abuser who has resurfaced, and most of all from herself.

Though all Westerns and their descendants are grim, The Orchardist has such a core of love and survival that its harsh reality never feels oppressive. Instead, as with Train Dreams — always and forever one of my favorites — the bonds between characters, their quiet perseverance, lends a sense of hope to the narrative. And with any novel set in the 19th-century American West, the sheer sense of promise, of what is to come for this fantastically wild part of the world (tragedy and triumph alike) simply can’t be contained. Even Della can feel it: “Each morning she was fortified by hope,” Coplin writes: “the future loomed.”

Coplin, Amanda. The Orchardist. HarperCollins, 2012.

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Buy The Orchardist

Visit Amanda Coplin’s web site

The Gladwell Effect: A Review of Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”

by Pastaveia St. John (Air Force)

I recently watched a Q& A with Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, about his thoughts on social media and other various topics. Toward the end of the video, the interviewer, Michael Lewis, coined the phrase “The Gladwell Effect” — after a conversation with Gladwell, he now viewed the topics they’d discussed differently.

Malcolm-GladwellWell, I, too, have encountered the Gladwell effect, and I now understand why his writings are extremely popular. Gladwell has a fascinating way of conveying complex topics into very simplistic terms. Regardless if you agree with his point of view or not, he succeeds in getting a conversation started – to get you thinking, and that is what matters in the end.

Like a good reader, I started with the first book he wrote, the full title of which is The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. When I first saw the title, I thought, That’s very wordy – what does it mean exactly?

Tipping-Point

Well, what Gladwell masterfully does is theorize about how social influences (people, places, things) and behavior have primarily dictated how we live our lives. What caused [insert a phenomenon here] to be such a “BIG” deal? (Justin Bieber, for example: the kid came out of nowhere and became a huge star! Or a simple product like coconut oil: how did it shift from something used by a small number of health-conscious individuals, to its current mass-market reputation as a miracle oil?

It’s all about the small things becoming BIG things. Is it because the “right” person sees or hears a song, a play or movie, a fashion trend and then it becomes a BIG deal? Partly, but that’s not the whole story.

There are people Gladwell calls “market mavens.” Mavens are everyday people who we typically go to when we are seeking advice about random bits of information. They are “information brokers, sharing and trading what they know – they are not persuaders.” One such maven, for example, is Mark Alpert, a man who reads Consumer Reports for fun but will also write to Consumer Reports if he finds that something reported is incorrect. After reading about Mark, I thought to myself, I’d like him with me if I go car shopping.

A social phenomenon, as Gladwell tells it, builds from one person to the next and then it multiplies and BOOM! Then it’s all the rage. The maven is simply sharing the information he or she has learned. You don’t have to do anything with it. But most of us do — we tell other people about the new information we’ve learned and that’s where the tipping point happens. It’s a collective movement among people with similar interests.

Another, early example: the explosion of sales from Wolverine, the company who make Hushpuppies. It’s a classic example of the wild success of a product by word-of-mouth. A few kids in a chic part of New York began wearing the shoes, shoes they purchased from second-hand stores. A popular fashion designer (Isaac Mizrahi) saw the “kids” and wondered where they purchased the shoes from. He called Wolverine so he could place an order and add them to his fashion show. That single phone call was made by a BIG somebody and then multiplied to a dozen phone calls by other BIG name designers, such as Anna Sui and John Bartlett.

All this success was simply because of few kids who were trying to be different by shopping at second hand stores, maybe because of limited budgets. Without knowing it, they simultaneously began a huge fashion trend.

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Throughout the book, Gladwell effortlessly shares a wide variety of stories – from how infectious agents such as syphilis increased due to the heavy use of crack cocaine, to an uptick suicides in Micronesia due to trivial or embarrassing reasons (such as seeing a boyfriend with another girl, or getting caught in an extra-marital affair). Social epidemics, he claims, have the same effect as health epidemics.

Gladwell explains things in a simplistic way, which makes you wonder, “Why hadn’t I thought of that before?” If you’re in the mood to learn new tidbits about life and gain a new perspective on social phenomena, this is your book. If social phenomena and random bits of information aren’t your thing, read The Tipping Point anyway – you’ll learn something unexpected and you’ll gain a new perspective.

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Read more
about The Tipping Point and Malcolm Gladwell. (The Telegraph, in British fashion, calls him a “zany brainbox.” I can’t NOT hear that in a British accent. – Editor)

Buy The Tipping Point

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pastaveia1

About the reviewer:

Pastaveia St. John served twelve years in the Air Force and now works for the Department of Homeland Security. She writes a funny and inspirational blog called Be Fearless. Check her out on You Tube (her videos are full of all kinds of great tips!) and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.