Saturday, March 01, 2014
What is wanted now is not simply the Christian who takes an inner complacency in the words & example of Christ, but who seek to follow Christ perfectly, not only in his personal life, not only in prayer & penitence, but also in his political commitments and in all social responsibilities.
— Thomas Merton
Thursday, February 27, 2014
To draw, you must close your eyes and sing.
— Pablo Picasso
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Playing on the Old Banjo
Consider, for a moment, the humble banjo. Folk I travel with are fond of such jokes as “You know what you got when you throw a hundred banjos in the ocean?” The banjo is almost ridiculous in appearance, when compared with its cousins, the guitar & mandolin (add a bass, and you've got a bluegrass group). It has a loud brash sound, which cuts across the dreadnought guitar, chopping mandolin, and the dancers' feet.
Dave Bonta considers the banjo with just the right mix of seriousness and humor in his latest chapbook, Breakdown: Banjo Poems (Seven Kitchens Press). These poems take the reader on a little history of the instrument, both literal and imaginative.
The collection begins with the ominous sounding “Banjo Apocalypse,” which borrows heavily from the Book of Revelation. This may seem irreverent, and the more tender and easily offended reader may close the book immediately. It would be a shame if you did; you not only miss the fun of this first poem, but the fun journey of the poems which follow.
An “apocalypse”, of course, is a story of the end times (I write this on the supposed date of Ragnarok). And it seems odd to begin a collection with thoughts of the end times. The poem begins by giving the angels of John's vision seven banjos rather than seven trumpets; this seems right — the banjo blares & blasts (in its way) like a trumpet. After an imaginative breakdown of the banjo's construction, the poem closes with these lines:
And the seven angels
which had the seven banjos
This suggests that what is to follow are the sounds of those banjos, for the angels' trumpets sound in John's vision prior to the opening of the scrolls which describe end time events. Immediately, the collection turns from future end times to history — the fraught history of the banjo, which reflects our American history.
For we can't fully consider the banjo's history without addressing the issue of slavery. The banjo was stolen, in a sense, with its owners when European nations kidnapped people from Africa and brought them to the U.S. It's a troubling history; this collection does not shy away from it.
The fourth poem, “Catskin Banjo” is especially telling and (compared to other poems in the collection) relatively graphic. The narrative revolves around a cat, but it could also be about a female slave. The cat's fear could also be a slave's fear.
I don't want to give the impression that the collection dwells on this early history — just the first few poems directly reference the banjo as a slave's instrument. Other poems reference early minstrel days (five have “Medicine Show” in the title). One of the poems in the “Medicine Show” set reminds us that Shackleton took a banjo & banjo player to the Antarctic.
As a watch-repairman's son, I especially enjoyed “Open-Backed Banjo”, which compares it to “our only god the clock”, asking
Where's the balance wheel?
The gear train?
There's nothing there “... but a bare rod / & the smell of rain.” The ghost in its machine calls the narrator to make his hands those of this time-keeping machine, to
Play it, son!
Make it ring like a hammer on steel
& rattle like a Gatling gun
until it smokes.
Bonta's irreverent sense of fun returns with “Banjo Proverbs”, which "steals" from the KJV translation of the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, substituting "banjo" for "fool" or "foolish" in the original. Perhaps it's just me, but the banjo here seems more than merely foolish — it “mocks at sin”. A player returns to it as a dog returns to his vomit. “Forsake the banjo,” we're told in the final stanza, “and live”.
Many poems deal with the origins of the banjo, from the gourd in “How Jefferson Heard Banjar” to the mechanisms detailed in the opening poem and “Open-Backed Banjo”. One of my favorites is “Banjo Origins (3): Jesusland”, a playful imagining of how banjos might grow on trees. And how the banjo once followed the Grateful Dead. Side note: Jerry Garcia was a bluegrass fan, as detailed in the documentary “Grateful Dawg”.
Although the collection is headed “Breakdown” there is no other reference to bluegrass in the collection. Elsewhere, Dave has said he prefers the claw-hammer style to Earl Scruggs' new-fangled style. Earl Scruggs is best known for his partnership with Lester Flatt, but he began his career with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys; it was Scruggs' banjo which gave the genre its distinctive sound.
A breakdown may be an instrumental (e.g., Foggy Mt Breakdown) or a break in a vocal song. This collection is an extended piece, with theme & variation — history, dream, myth, wonder. It's a charming collection, a worthy co-winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize.
The chapbook is worth its $9 cover price. I also encourage you to preview the series on Dave Bonta's Via Negativa site, where they are prefaced (or presaged) by a series of Moving Poems.
Order a copy of Breakdown: Banjo Poems from Seven Kitchens Press.
Wednesday, February 05, 2014
Saturday, February 01, 2014
Thanks for our senses
Blessed are you, Lord God, for the gift of our senses; you fill creation with delight. We hear your word above the storm; we feel your voice behind the wind. We hear your word in stirring leaves; we feel your voice with every heartbeat. Grant we train our senses to perceive your good news in all creation. Grant we share your delight with all your creatures.
I am facilitating a class that uses haiku as a spiritual discipline to be fully present to God's creation. We are using the book Clear Water by Jeannie Martin as a guide. Tomorrow will be the third meeting of the group. I have asked the group to journal on a different set of senses each week. The prayer above is my response to tomorrow's assignment: hearing & touch.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Shock the tongue
jump start the nerves
coffee's first sip
Saturday, January 25, 2014
Friday, January 24, 2014
On the meditative benefits of befriending a cat, from Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from Kensington :
If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp. The light from a desk lamp … gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.
Courtesy Maria Popova's Brain Pickings site.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Bring Your Own God
Review of Bring Your Own God: The Spirituality of Woody Guthrie by Rev. Steve Edington; 3.5 stars
This book covers an aspect of Woody's life no other biography spends much time on: his spirituality. The basic case is made in the first chapter; the remaining chapters strive to support the argument. The author is a Unitarian minister, and possibly reflects some preference toward portraying Woody as a self-taught Unitarian. Having read much of Woody's writing beyond Bound For Glory, however, I agree with this portrayal.
The author's approach is not chronological, which I found interesting — though I was not sure why he approached the topic in this fashion. It certainly helped that I was already familiar with Guthrie's biography from three other sources (Bound for Glory, and Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein & Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Ed Cray).
The book includes much of Woody's writing that I have not seen elsewhere, especially letters he wrote in response to condolence letters after the death of Cathy ("Stackabones"), and much of a play written after he was hospitalized with Huntington's. For me, these selections were worth the $4 for the Kindle edition.
The book does become repetitive in the last few chapters, which is the main reason it falls short of a four-star review. Otherwise, I would definitely recommend someone read this as a supplement with Klein or Cary's biographies to get a full picture of the man.
Thursday, January 09, 2014
The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.
— Pablo Picasso
Wednesday, January 01, 2014
The rich have everything they want except happiness, and the poor are sacrificed to the unhappiness of the rich.
— Thomas Merton
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Diving into the Ocean
There is a risk, when a book is written in the first person, of assuming the story is autobiographical. The reader imagines that the thin letter I is a sort of doorway through which the author is peeking. Neil Gaiman has written several short stories and graphic novels which are written in the first person, and I suppose the narrator of each of those tales shares some things in common with the author, but I don't suppose any of them are autobiographical in the same sense Henry Miller's or Charles Bukowski's novels are.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Mr. Gaiman's first adult novel written in the first person (also his first since 2005). I suppose it to be one of his most personal novels — it was written for his wife, Amanda F'ing Palmer — and I suppose the narrator to have many traits in common with the author. But I doubt it is autobiographical, not in the traditional sense.
Like many of his fans, I was introduced to Neil Gaiman's writing through The Sandman comics. I was working at the Infernal Bookstore, and a coworker loaned me the Seasons of Mists set. This was an excellent place to begin reading this series, and led me to read the whole series from the beginning. I then went on to read many of his other comic series, graphic novels, short stories, and novels.
The Sandman comics made me aware of some common themes in Mr. Gaiman's work: the nature of identity; what becomes of the old gods; and the betrayal of innocence. There's a degree to which Ocean touches on all three of these themes, but the emphasis is on the betrayal of innocence.
Innocence is betrayed when a child is traumatically exposed to adult concerns. Child abuse is an obvious example, famously explored in The Doll's House portion of The Sandman. The trauma in Ocean is the suicide of a lodger. This trauma sets the main action of the novel in motion.
I hardly know how to classify this novel — fantasy, horror, or myth. There are fantastic elements, the most apparent being that the ocean of the title actually appears to be a regular farm pond. The lodger's suicide creates an opening, of sorts, for a horrific and malevolent being who tempts humans with money.
Then there are the three women who live by that pond which may be an ocean: daughter, mother, grandmother. They are a mythic type readers of The Sandman will quickly recognize: maiden, mother, crone: The Fates. This distaff trinity pre-dates the Christian trinity, so often seen as male-dominant. This feminine trinity has many names: as the Fates, they both give life and end it.
I believe Neil Gaiman to be one of the best authorities on myth since Joseph Campbell. So I think he uses “the three-faced goddess” intentionally. The narrator is reflecting on the events which followed that initial betrayal of innocence. The narrator ultimately examines his life.
Myth, as Campbell would say, causes us to examine our lives. Myth can become a sort of pilgrimage, where the reader journeys with the main character and recognizes a new strength, or realizes new meaning, through the journey.
Gaiman creates this mythic space in many ways, primarily by his use of detail — or lack of it. The first person narrator, for example, is never named; thus, the reader is more likely to identify with the narrator. Likewise, we're never told such details as what he looks like, even what color his hair or eyes are. All we know is that he is seven — not too young, perhaps, for a country boy to encounter death, but certainly too young to be exposed to a suicide.
There are, in fact, very few named characters in the novel – only those three women, the Hempstocks; that malevolent force (which takes the name Ursula Monkton); and three cats (two kittens of unknown gender and one tom). The reader becomes more involved in the story by filling in these blanks.
The houses are described in fairly general detail — with the exception of three rooms in which the narrator sleeps. I've read that many readers picture their own house when imagining the narrator's.
This is a bit of a spoiler, but for me, the element which solidifies this as myth rather than horror or fantasy is a sacrifice. This sacrifice is not ritualistic, but more in the nature of a soldier sacrificing her/his life for a fellow. This element causes the narrator to question whether he has lived a life worthy of that sacrifice.
For myth to serve as pilgrimage rather than a diversionary story, the reader must exert some effort. As I say, the author has left some details out; it's up to the reader to fill them in. The reader may be intellectually aware of certain mythic tropes — the Fates, the ancient evil — but it's best to set that knowledge to one side; it's best to allow it to play a quiet counterpoint to the story. The pilgrim reader will allow herself to walk along with the narrator; may find himself seeing his own reflection when the narrator looks in the mirror.
The reader who has thus identified with that unnamed narrator, who has allowed himself to be vulnerable to the rhythmic beats of the novel, will likely find himself asking whether he has lived a life worthy of such a sacrifice. Perhaps, more than any turn of a calendar leaf, the pilgrimage through this mythic novel will lead to a resolve to live such a life.
Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.
— Carl Sandburg
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Saturday, December 14, 2013
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