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The Value of a Good Ship

Viking Ship Museum: Oslo, Norway
The Vikings are a trendy topic in museum circles these days. The British Museum has a summer exhibition open now, with Viking runes, relics, ships, and cultural and military exhibits gathered from the Scandinavian and Celtic north. Viking culture is known to us from Viking era relics found in bog and mound burials (sometimes entire ships with their deceased owners and belongings), sacrifices of weaponry and wealth (and sometimes people), and of course Viking coins and decorative animal iconography dispersed by way of trade around the world. The Danish National Museum has a tremendous permanent exhibit, and the Danes view Viking culture as a somewhat artificial bracket around a greater timeline of Paleolithic development and anthropological phases of Nordic exploration and settlement.

A point of Nordic pride, the Viking period from 832 to roughly 1100 was a period of fierce raids, astounding technical seafaring exploration, tribal domination and strategic expansion. Viking shipbuilding during this period was distinctive and well-adapted to sudden raids and rapid escapes, enabling Vikings to mount terrifying and indefensible attacks on coastal settlements from the outlier North Sea islands to Ireland and Great Britain, even down into the Franc (French, Germanic, and Belgian) lands by river channel. Vikings represent that part of the human psyche that thrills and glories in adventure, dangerous raids and strategic conquest.

Having spent the last few days aboard the Sea Explorer, a ship designed for Arctic exploration, and roughly speaking, a wide-bottomed rubber ducky pitching on the seas, I can tell you I now fully appreciate the construction of a good seafaring boat. Viking ships were bellowed in the middle for stability in the harsh seas and the ability to navigate shallow coastal waters and rivers, high-prowed at both ends for maneuverability, and equipped with both oars and sails - the better to depart in any direction as strategic attack required. Indeed, the words associated with early monastery records of attacks by Vikings describe them as fierce, indomitable, “hoardes of thunderous heathen evil,” etc.. History admires Viking seamanship and boat design (watertight, stable and fast). And in the face of risk, a fearless lust for the unknown, for opportunities beyond the horizon.

I think what I most admire about the Vikings is this latter outlook: that what lies undiscovered is sight-unseen worth the risk. That discovery is inherently profitable to spirit and community. That the gods favor the brave, and success rewards the undaunted. Vikings were the pioneers of the Nordic seas. The spirited designs and relics of their era speaks to human wanderlust. When I think of our domesticated modern lives in sequestered urban/suburban structures, I can’t help but look at these high seas crashing outside the potholes and wonder at what we lose when we cease to boldly explore. Yes we explore intellectually – through the questions and necessities of science. But space is our last geographic horizon; our remaining frontier. I hope that we continue to say yes to our inner Viking and keep on with the quest. Less raiding, more discovery.

(And as I am now dizzy from using a keyboard on a swelling sea, time to post. Back on the satellite Internet when I can, friends.)
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A Glimpse, Sideways (Revisited)

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
By Billy Collins

Sometimes I see it as a straight line
drawn with a pencil and a ruler
transecting the circle of the world

or as a finger piercing
a smoke ring, casual, inquisitive,

but then the sun will come out
or the phone will ring
and I will cease to wonder

if it is one thing,
a large ball of air and memory,
or many things,
a string of small farming towns,
a dark road winding through them.

Let us say it is a field
I have been hoeing every day,
hoeing and singing,
then going to sleep in one of its furrows,

or now that it is more than half over,
a partially open door,
rain dripping from the eaves.

Like yours, it could be anything,
a nest with one egg,
a hallway that leads to a thousand rooms—
whatever happens to float into view
when I close my eyes

or look out a window
for more than a few minutes,
so that some days I think
it must be everything and nothing at once.

But this morning, sitting up in bed,
wearing my black sweater and my glasses,
the curtains drawn and the windows up,

I am a lake, my poem is an empty boat,
and my life is the breeze that blows
through the whole scene

stirring everything it touches—
the surface of the water, the limp sail,
even the heavy, leafy trees along the shore.

The first time I read My Life by Billy Collins, past poet laureate of the United States and arguably one of the most popular and well read contemporary poets in America, I was years younger than I am today. What stands out this morning as I share this poem with you is how different stanzas resonate for me now than did then. Lines once evocative but not familiar are now familiar, evoke an accumulation of yesteryears. Perhaps a poem taps a tuning fork within us, the base note ever changing. How can one poem do this? Ripple through our consciousness, pick and thread through dreams? My Life offers language to rest on as we journey the unknown. We read "everything and nothing at once" and find solace and recognition. A stream of islands that glisten in an existential sea - some inhabited, some not at all. Delicate, ephemeral, sturdy, sharp. Bones cast shadows in sunrises of wishfulness. Tide pools of regret shimmer at our feet, and above our heads move clouds of utter hunger. Our feet find "a dark road winding" and cross toward tomorrow - making, leaving, already moving on.

A glimpse, sideways.

I wrote the above post August 8, 2013, and thought of Billy Collins's poem again today while exploring the Danish National Museum, thinking about the ways in which travel - "transecting the circle of the world" - changes our frame, alters perspective, and pulls what we take for granted out from under our feet. A shift that enables us to think about and see with uncommon acuity the ordinary human customs familiarity blinds us to. All day I wandered the centuries, steeped in the Danish perspective on natural and cultural world history, their own place in the human story. Theirs is a perspective of small politics in an empire world. Nordic adventure and discovery. Sustainment. Devastation and damage at the intersection of too many continental wars. Intertwined cultural realities. An awareness of the linkage between the development of human liberties and the building of peaceful borders. The unique heritage of belonging to continent and sea.

Denmark is a self-aware, self-questioning country. I am struck by an uncommon intelligence in the national cultural dialogue regarding modern issues of ecological preservation and human happiness. From my limited, evolving perspective, my sense is that the central idea in Billy Collins's poem MY LIFE mirrors a personal cultivation and reverence for small scale intimacies Danes are well-aquainted with. The water, the wind, the moment. An empty boat; air and memory.
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Kathe Kollwitz, Köln, Germany
still there is mercy, there is grace

how otherwise
could i have come to this
marble spinning in space
propelled by the great
thumb of the universe?
how otherwise
could the two roads
of this tongue
converge into a single
how otherwise
could i, a sleek old
curl one day safe and still
beside You
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours.

- Lucille Clifton, from the poem "Brothers"

I think frequently about the matter of grace. What it means to be given a certain unconditional regard in this life. We are travelers on this planet, passing through the uncertain ambitious foothills of ego and desire. By what measure are grace and mercy so freely given us? Is grace the wide embrace of a spiritual or primeval forgiveness? A kind of No Fault clause provided as part of the whole "living on earth" enterprise?

Forgiveness is not quite the correct word, I think. There is no judgment in grace. Grace rains upon every living thing, generous as the beat of our hearts. Mercy on the other hand, falls closer to an individual acknowledgement of the real-world struggle and challenge of life. The human soul grasps and yearns. We are capable of craven, violent, selfish choices - the most despicable actions on the behavioral spectrum. Yet often we give what might be gained away, without regard for self or reward. Generosity and compassion, tender and courageous. Grace offers acceptance of this imperfect free will. Mercy is benevolence toward its imperfect expression.

This lovely stanza from Lucille Clifton's long poem "brothers," is part of an eight part poem conversation between an aged Lucifer and God, although only Lucifer's voice is heard. I read these wonderful poem conversations in their entirety and think of humanity and its perilous, hungry, blind tangle of infinite strength and yearning. Perhaps universal grace and individual mercy are the balance given to human nature. Perhaps we are not merely to acknowledge but practice both qualities. For ourselves and others. To find our way, the "traveler,/ curl one day safe and still/ beside You."

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Spring Reads

What life is, we know not. What life does, we know well.
- Lord Perceval (The epigraph to Elizabeth Gilbert's "The Signature of All Things")

This year has been one of the most remarkable book seasons for readers in recent memory. One of many varied, beautifully-written, and meticulously researched stories by fresh new authors and authors we already know and love. Stories that span the gamut of interests in fiction and nonfiction. If your late spring offers time for reading, these are a few of the books that have crossed my desk and left memorable impressions:

THE EMPATHY EXAMS, by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf Press, 2014)
Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Leslie Jamison is completing a PhD in English at Yale. THE EMPATHY EXAMS links essays about the concept, practice, and meaning of empathy in ordinary lives. From her experience as a "practice patient" for medical students, to cooking chicken at an ultra marathon designed to torment and reward its runners by equal measure, to delving into the after effects of random violence, Jamison explores the limits and expressions of human empathy with clear engaged language, dispassionate awareness, and with such inward and outer honesty, I recommend this book without reservation. Empathy, I believe, is the root of human compassion.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS, by Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking Press, 2013)
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the adored memoir EAT, PRAY, LOVE, returned to fiction in 2013 with this wonderful novel of adventure, exploration, research and the history of botany, experienced by the tough, outspoken, wildly original Alma Whittaker. Spanning much of the eighteenth and ninetieth centuries, this is a novel to lose yourself in for days.

UPDIKE, by Adam Begley (Harper Collins 2014)
A book I read in galley, this outstanding biography by the acclaimed critic Adam Begley of America's great gentlemen of letters and art criticism, John Updike, contains gems by both Updike ("Beyond the also uncreated but illegible stars," from Updike's "Toward Evening") as well as Adams ("Updike's ideas about Nabokov spring from a root sympathy: shared delight in the aesthetic bliss of wordplay."). Begley writes lightly and fluidly as he shines a scholarly yet intimate spotlight on the life and career of this fascinating, often contradictory American writer.

MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH, by Rebecca Mead (Crown, 2014)
A lovely read, particularly for fans of George Eliot, Rebecca Mead fashions this story of her own life entwined with that of Eliot's tale Middlemarch in a novel sparked by the idea that a passionate lifelong attachment to a great work of literature can shape our own lives and guide us to read our own histories. A wonderful read.

Never one to shy away from the humorous and daunting realities of middle age, Annabelle Gurwitch, famous for her documentary Fired! based on her memoir and play Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, & Dismissed, is a familiar humorist, writer, and frequent commentator on NPR. I SEE YOU MADE AN EFFORT is a rib-cracking collection of tales from the precipice of modern life. Essays about falling in lust at the Genius Bar to petty theft to fund retirement are but a few of the topics Gurwitch hits as she declares the many ways in which 50 is not the new 40, but, oh dear, really 50.

AN UNTAMED STATE, by Roxane Gay (Grove/Atlantic Press 2014)
This powerful debut novel by critic and essayist Roxane Gay, author of a soon-to-be-released collection of essays, BAD FEMINIST (Harper Collins 2014), will sweep you off your feet and into a world where survival sets its own rules. The story of Mereille, a married woman of privilege on vacation with her family in Haiti when she is kidnapped by a band of outlaws, the novel tells the harsh story of Mereille's survival in captivity as her brutal captors seek ransom from her wealthy father, who vows not to meet their demands. AN UNTAMED STATE explores the socio-economic consequences of vastly polarized wealth, personal crisis and it's consequences, and what it takes to live and survive regardless of the circumstances. A riveting read.

THE GOLDFINCH, by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown 2013)
Donna Tartt, known for her novels The Secret History and The Little Friend, has, after a long absence, produced this monumental novel of obsession and circumstance. Marked by a telling epigraph, The absurd does not liberate; it binds, by Albert Camus, THE GOLDFINCH tells the tale of a boy, Theo Decker, and the violent event that binds his life forever to the fate of a painting. As Theo grows older, he struggles to define himself in light of all that has happened. Beyond loss, beyond displacement, beyond his unbreakable connection to the painting that is his secret, his life. Told in language rich in imagery and philosophy, THE GOLDFINCH is a big read for endless lunch hours in the sun.

Let me know if you've read any of these recent books. I'd love to know what you think. Summer will soon bring its own new bounty of fabulous books and I'll post a fresh list then. As always, enjoy the read!

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The Hidden Ordinary: Two Poets (Book 2 of 2)

GENTLY READ LITERATURE, editor Daniel Casey, has just published its Spring 2014 issue. You will find a link (to copy into your browser) to this fine online journal below. In this issue I reviewed two extraordinary poets, Catherine Barnett and Jack Ridl, exploring themes of "the hidden ordinary" in their recent poems. This duet of reviews is the feature of today's post. I hope you enjoy and seek out their work.

Spring 2014 Issue

The Hidden Ordinary: Glenda Burgess Reviews Two Poets
The Game of Boxes, Catherine Barnett, Greywolf Press, 2012
Practicing to Walk like a Heron, Jack Ridl, Wayne State University Press, 2013

The two poets Catherine Barnett and Jack Ridl speak well beside one another. Their poetic styles and themes resonate uniquely in these books of collected poems. Impressions, delicate and telling, fossils of the hidden ordinary and intimate.

The Game of Boxes by Catherine Barnett, recipient of a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2012 James Laughlin Award from the American Academy of Poets, comprises a collection of poems crisscrossing themes of vulnerability and intimacy. Barnett, author of the poetry collection Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced, extends her archeology of human loneliness and dislocation in The Game of Boxes, a rich work of intellectual and thematic poetic dialogs that riff off concepts from sources as various as Darwin and biological diversity, categorical thinking by Kant, a phrase from Keats in a letter to J.A. Hessey, even the reasoning of the Renaissance physician Paracelsus that “What makes a man ill also cures him.” This scholarly grounding informs much of Barnett’s poetry on motherhood, the erotic, child and parental bonds of trust, the alienated modernist’s soul. A thin dividing line on the page wavers between ecstasy and dread expressed in Barnett’s lyrical unwavering language, “Depends on how you define ‘nothing’-/ I think it’s a little shard of the whatnot/ I keep trying to name.” Barnett digs at the double-talk of passion and reason, “little shocks of pure mind,/ and I like them there, yes, ageless,/ persuasion’s design and rush.”

Perhaps what resonates deepest is Barnett’s ability to build on themes of cognitive- spiritual dissonance, evoking in these poems the very contradictions she deplores: the gap between sureness and mystery, need and abyss, the material and the unknown. In writing of absolution, of the verbs listen and forgive and the unique forms of human suffering, Barnett describes people in “Chorus [We didn’t believe]” entering a church transformed as animus shapes of personal pain and endurance. With this exquisite image of tangible wounded-ness, Barnett speaks of an elephant,
and her eyes
they shone like glass before it breaks. She looked
like she might fly but only walked down the aisle
in a dirty gown of wrinkles, so wrinkled and slow
and vast and silvery, the whole galaxy shivering.

Barnett’s themes shred intimacy as a draining, a taking, a trickle-down, a loss; “she’s already given herself to the world” she writes. Bare poem fragments hint of Bacchanalian appetite and aftermath:
I know agape means both dumbly
Open and not the kind of love,
That climbed the stairs to you.
(Of All Faces)

Barnett’s ability to find the inner nerve and follow it to and away from regret make her poems ring like powerful fables.

Practicing to Walk like a Heron by Jack Ridl, professor emeritus of Hope College, comprises Ridl’s second book of poetry. His earlier work, Broken Symmetry, was named best book for poetry by The Society of Midland Authors, and Ridl was named Michigan’s Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and coauthored with Peter Schakel Approaching Literature. Ridl observes, with an almost Darwinian eye for that which endures, the nature of the long familiar: couples, childhood, the human obsession with the bizarre...and the hidden alone. Ridl’s poems on what draws us into connection provide a thoughtful counterbalance to Catherine Barnett’s study of what then happens within.

Sections of Ridl’s collection – From Our House To Yours, The Enormous Mystery of Couples, Interlude: “Heh Skinny, The Circus Is In Town,” and The Hidden Permutations of Sorrow – gather poems around emotional epiphanies in the most daily of moments. Family life, preparing for the holidays, clearing up after a storm, an itinerant’s life on the road, moving past loss. These are poems that explicate and punctuate: the death of an arielist, the turning of seasons, the lost and the dislocation of memory. Writing of the routine that is love, and the intimacy that is routine, two lines stand out: the infinitely rich, “We will sleep/ within the muted infinity of each other” (The Enormous Mystery of Couples), and the wry, “Sometimes sentimental is our way/ of holding on.” (Ron Howard’s on the Cover of AARP). In imagery that does not err, Ridl addresses the acceleration of modern life, musing on the manual labor required to restore function to the tools of old. In a poem titled, “My Wife Has Sent Me an Email,” he writes,
After lunch
today, I’m going to find the trowel

my father used. I’ll get a rag and
some rust remover and bring it back.

Jack Ridl sparingly inks in tender everyday experiences in poems that both startle and reassure. When we are at our most human and alien: when we discover ourselves in the process of losing reassurances of what we thought we knew. In the title poem, “Practicing to Walk Like a Heron,” Ridl’s narrator practices stepping across the room in “the walk of solemn monks.” Lifting his legs one after the other in stilted stillness
the heron’s mute way, across the
room, past my wife who glances
up, holds her slender hands
above the keys until I pass.

Why mimic the heron? Perhaps Ridl’s answer lies in the collection’s closing poem, titled simply “The Heron.” Here we find language that touches – even evokes – spiritual transcendence,
...she would bend
her knees, raise her wide wings,
and lift into the welcome grace
of the air... her great feathered cross moving above the trees.
(The Heron)

Jack Ridl’s work is grounded in observations of the extraordinary ordinary, and the subject matter of how we spend our days compelling when read beside Catherine Barnett’s profound spiritual and philosophical rhetorics.

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The Hidden Ordinary: Two Poets (Book 1 of 2)

Gently Read Literature
Spring 2014

The Hidden Ordinary: Glenda Burgess Reviews Two Poets

Review is posted below:
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