Thursday, February 28, 2013


Vietnam, or the Vietnam War

My friend Palmer Hall recently died of lung cancer. He was a poet friend I only met face to face twice, but we carried on a correspondence, and I read his blog post memories of his years in Vietnam, and his poems about Vietnam.
 Palmer Hall in the late 1960's

Palmer in recent years

I love this piece by Palmer about poetry as a companion to him while he was in Vietnam:

        Some nights in Viet Nam, when I stood alone on the top of
a bunker staring out into a night that contained armies at war,
armies made up of small groups of men searching for each
other, lying in wait, trip wires and claymores, M-16s and AK-47s,
I would see a red cluster of flares shoot into the sky followed,
frequently, by slowly parachuting amber flares that lit the dark...
soft light reflected on piles of hand grenades, belts of fifty caliber
ammunition for the big machine gun, smaller belts for the M-60,
huge cartridges for the M-79 grenade launcher, lighting me wearing
Army greens, flak jacket, camouflage boots, helmet. 

         During those times, letting the two other men, asleep in the
bunker, rest, thinking that an attack might be imminent, my eyes would
drift over the perimeter, looking for any trace of movement out of the
ordinary.  What came to my mind then, what I whispered into the dark,
was poetry that I had memorized long before; mostly, I confess,
poetry about leaving such places.  As the sky lit up at night, I would
whisper from Yeats, "I will arise and go now and go to Inisfree..." or
from Eliot, "Let us go then, you and I / when the evening is spread
out against the sky / like a patient etherized  upon a table." 

         Somewhere off in the distance, I might hear a fire fight near
where I had seen the red cluster flare; and Hardy's "Convergence of the
Twain" would breathe out from me.  There was great consolation in poetry,
Innisfree almost becoming a mantra.

        In those days, not writing, I lived poetry, sucking it in and
blowing it out.  In Dak To, when I listened to my radio, heard a boy
named Bao report on American convoys leaving the camp for Pleiku and
heard the jets strafe and napalm his position, the poetry that is Yeats
and the poetry that is Stevens (O blessed rage for order,
pale Ramon!) mingled with red dust and death.

        I can remember still, through something of a red haze, getting
absurdly drunk on a fifth of ruffino's chianti (the club was out of scotch
and all other drinks) and wandering down to the perimeter.  I climbed up
on the berm and looked out at the valley and the hills, Eben Flood had
nothing on me that evening; and I held the remains of the bottle in my
hand, seeing only one moon, and out Heroded Herod in declaiming
the opening lines from Shakespeare's Henry V, snarling the words,
"And at his heels leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and
fire crouch for employment!" and moving on to "Once more onto the
breach, dear friends, once more / or close up the wall with our English

         And then moving to Hamlet and the first great soliloquy, "Oh
that this too too solid flesh / would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a
dew / or that the Almighty had not fixed his canon gainst self-slaughter." 

         I remember all the details of the Shakespearean soliloquys and the
poems I sang into a drunk night during the Tet Offensive of 1968,
but I remember none of the generalities.
       (  Orig. Pub.: Texas Writers Newsletter.  Fall, 1995)

Here are two of his poems:

"From the Periphery"


Spotlights shine out a hundred  feet
or more, show tufts of green where grass
plowed under, struggles, shoots up. 
I whisper to Claymores, 50 calibers, 
M-60s, hold the dead weight of an M-79, 
listen to the sounds of water buffalo and
of a distant firefight.  

In that dark, men I have not really
come to know wait quietly, barely breathe
in fear that someone else will hear their breath,
hunker down, eyes barely  open, listen
to their hearts beat, to night sounds
grown suddenly quiet. 

The singsong cries of hootchmaids
bring me back from a place I will never go
and only, so far down inside, almost
convince myself to regret never having been. 


One  morning in Dak To, I saw five men
who had been six, LRRPs, kicking dirt 
into the sky,  eyes focused  straight ahead,
silent, wrung dry in the hot sun.  

Sometimes commerce can not exist.  Language
can not always be enough, words can not
translate what eyes have seen.

Thoughts lie fallow, spears of grass
that can not push up or out. 

This, then, is what war must be:  a walk
in the night, heart held in the hands of those
who walk beside you,  breath held in each
other's mouths, smell shared in such a way
that all scents are one, touch only
a light pressure, hand on shoulder,
eyes searching for movement in the dark.

        (Orig. In From the Periphery: poems and essays
            Chili Verde Press, 1995)

Hospital Visit

--For the survivors

I give her a puppet--an armadillo,
fuzzy and warm, to slip over her hand
in the dark when there is no one near
only time to think and a dark marble of fear
that awakens, pulses deep down in a silent

spot that no one knows but she. Tom,
her husband, died somehow in Viet Nam
and she has kept the pain in that same place
for all these years, has hardly talked
of those deep jungles where his body lay.

The doctor comes and speaks of this and that,
cool and calm, detached: of the mastectomy
to be deferred for chemo, the bone scan positive,
biopsy positive, mestastasis into the bone. Sterile words,
remote from the throbbing space that whispers in her blood.

"Yes, it's raining." I say.
"Yes, your sons are here."

She feels the lump in her breast, a pressure, a weight.
She says "I don't need it anyway. My sons are grown."
She says, "My husband died so long ago. I don't need
to talk about the war." She strokes the puppet. "I want
quiet, rest and peace." A steady stream of visitors troops

into her room, brings sweet flowers with perfume
that palls and mingles somehow with the silent
drip of an IV in her hand. A slow anointing,
laying on of hands: fingers trace a cross with water,
touch her head, but it is not the sacrament of the dead,

only a rite for healing, something to contend with that
central core where dark shapes gather. How hard
it is to be polite, to kiss, to hug, to shake each hand.
"I'm fine," she says. "I only need a little sleep."
She smiles. I take her hand, slip the puppet on.

These poems are reproduced from an anthology of poems and essays
dealing with Viet Nam, (Hall, H. Palmer. From the Periphery: Essays and Poems.
San Antonio: Chili Verde Press, 1994.).

These were posted on the website

Wednesday, February 27, 2013



I’ve been re-reading the essay on Metaphors in Steven Dobyns’ great collection  Best Words, Best Order.
It’s really helping me as I read and comment on my students’ work.
I’m teaching a 300 level course called Poetry Workshop this semester, though before the semester started I decided to have the “workshop” part done online, in a discussion board that Moodle provides. It reminds me of the 30/30 one  from Inside the Writers’ Studio which I loved, and miss. ( It is still in existence, but I haven’t used it for a long time and neither have most of my poet friends from that time)
Anyway… the online workshop is going pretty well, though I have two or three students who are not posting poems for comment. They are not very secure about their poems, though I know no one in the class is going to say anything really critical about their poems. It’s all a matter of development.

Why did I decide to put the workshop online instead of devoting each class to it? Because I read Tom Hunley’s book Teaching Poetry Writing – A Five-Canon Approach. He said that the workshops work for MFA or other graduate classes, but the undergrads don’t know enough about the craft of poetry to give really constructive suggestions during a workshop.  Since I did have the experience of teaching a 200 level creative writing class last year, where we did have in-class workshopping, I agree with him.

So in class we have been writing, and for homework they have been writing. So the class before Spring Break, each member of the class had to turn in 12 poems to me. I’m reading them over break, and will meet with each of them in a one-on-one conference the Thursday we come back.

My twelve students run the gamut as far as talent/skill go.  They all need work… as I did when I was 20 years of age , and as I still do now.  So I know I am going to use some of what Dobyns says when I meet with each of them next week.

For example, he says:
“…”Obscurity must be a tool. It works to force the reader to ask questions that will direct him or her to an understanding of the poem. Any question that does not increase our understanding detracts from it. It hurts to be obscure about the intellectual, physical and/or emotional contexts of the poem in the same way that it hurts to be obscure about the object of the metaphor.
… Often, when one of more of these contexts in unclear, a poem will be criticized as being too private which usually means that the writer is withholding too much information. The result is the reader isn’t able to examine the relationship between one or more of the three contexts and the narrative, which limits his or her access to the poem.
…when the intellectual context is exaggerated, the poem tends to become emotionally barren, and when the emotional is exaggerated, the poem becomes sentimental. The overly discursive, the decorative and the sentimental all attempt to function independently of the whole and to affect the argument of the poem in a way that is basically rhetorical.  (31)

“Suggestion won’t work until the reader has enough information to brood about. The poem works when the reader can contemplate the relationship between its parts.  Ideally, the more he or she thinks about that relationship, the more it ramifies and the more the poem gives back.  (34)

I also love his examples.  He gives these what he calls Asian figures; I believe they come from a book by Merwin.  I’m going to separate them with some evocative photos:

The hissing starts
In the free seats

Close to death
See how tender
The grass is

Who looks at a mirror
To see a mirror

Candle flame
Wind coming    (18)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Raised Catholic

There I am at age eight with my May Shrine... fuzzy photo with fading color from 1956.

Raised Catholic

In February 2010 I attended the AWP’s National Conference in Washington DC. The AWP stands for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.  I love this conference; it’s the second one I’ve attended. Meeting my poet friends in person – people I’ve corresponded with, have been Facebook Friends with, those with whom I’ve interacted at the West Chester Poetry Conference over a number of years – they are all there!
The panel presentations are worthwhile, too!  But this year I went to one called “The Rosary Effect : The Challenges of Writing from a Catholic Perspective” One fellow said that he was “still Catholic” but the other four writers were “fallen away.”  However, they all said that they were “raised Catholic.” 
This must be the same for Jewish writers.  It must be that the Catholic culture has permeated their unconscious even when they no longer espouse the practice of the religion.  However, I fervently wished that I had been invited to be on that panel, so that I could speak from the vantage point of one who was “raised Catholic” but who, in adulthood, had made the choice to be a practicing Catholic – and not only that – to enter a religious community – and to remain both in the community and in the Church --- in spite of everything.
In the last few years, really getting to know my Mennonite first cousins and Amish second cousins, I’ve come to realize how their history is filled with their persecution by the Catholics, and I am glad they don’t hold that against me. I’m glad to be united with them in the Gospel.
I have had conversations at poetry gatherings with other writers who ask me that question: how can you stay a member of this Church when women are treated as second class citizens? When the authority structure is medieval? When the clergy abuses have been made public and have scandalized so many?   Good question.
I don’t have a practiced apologetic answer.  All I can say is “This is my Church.  I love Jesus, and find his presence here, in the People of God.”   My Catholic culture perfumes my writing, for sure, in so many images and attitudes  - that attitude that , as my friend Hopkins says,
“the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The sacramental inscape of things and persons.

In my opinion, self-righteousness is one of the most dangerous sins – the sin of good people – the sin of the Pharisees. 

As my friend Eliot says, I’m here to kneel where prayer has been valid… and humility is endless.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Sense of An Ending

The Sense of An Ending
 “We live in time — it holds us and moulds us — but I've never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing — until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.” – Julian Barnes

Last week I finished listening to this novel on my iPod.  Have been putting off listening to it, and I am not sure why, since it received such glowing and interesting reviews, and since it won the Booker Prize this past year.
Now that I have it in my inner life, I know it was an important book for me. Not so much for the narrator, who by the end of the novel was really annoying me with his compulsive emails and controlling personality.  It was the novelist’s comments on time and on regret that got me. I think that few people younger than 60 ( maybe 50) can really grasp this topic.  For example, he has his narrator observe:
“Or perhaps it’s the same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history - even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?” ( Barnes)
I went to good old Google and read some reviews, too, and am including some of the reviewers’ comments here :
Andrew Blackman in his blog The Writer’s Life talks about Julian Barnes’ novel  The Sense of an Ending.
“much of what we think is important is rendered utterly irrelevant by the passing of time.” (bold and italics mine)
“The original explanation was that the friend killed himself because he had rationally thought through the nature of life and acted on the consequences. But the truth, we suspect, is more complex, more emotional, less intellectually pure, and the hints at a different conclusion are what keep us reading.” ( Blackman)

-and from Nivedita Barve’s review: “Memory – a reward for having lived a life, having lived it with others, having lived it through events of varying consequences – how trustworthy is it? Sometimes we remember only a smell or a posture and forget the face, or when we meet a person on the street we remember the face - even after years - but cannot find a name to match it. But more often what we remember is only our own response to events, feelings of pleasure or distress without being able to recall the events themselves that had caused them. Tony Webster, the protagonist of the novel 'The Sense of an Ending', faces a similar predicament as he tries to reconstruct the past and has only his imperfect memory to assist him.”
- and from Corinna Lothar’s: “Early in Julian Barnes‘ novel The Sense of an Ending, a teacher asks, “What is history?” London teenager Tony Webster answers, “History is the lies of the victors.” Tony’s brilliant friend, Adrian Finn, “a tall, shy boy,” answers the same question with “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
Adrian’s answer is the leitmotif of this deliciously intriguing novel, as Tony, now a 60-year-old retiree, recalls the events of his life, only to discover that what he remembers and what actually happened are not one and the same.” ( Lothar)

-and from  Justine Jordan  Barnes is brutally incisive on the diminishments of age: now that the sense of his own ending is coming into focus, Tony apprehends that "the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss", that he has already experienced the first death: that of the possibility of change.
“But like all of us, he has carried his youth inside him into adulthood, fixed in vivid memory. Looming largest in his personal mythology is his brilliant, tragic, Camus-reading school friend Adrian (another echo of Nothing to Be Frightened Of here: in that book Barnes remembers a similar friend by the fitting but unlikely name of Alex Brilliant). It is a solicitor's letter informing him that, 40 years on, he has been left Adrian's diary in a will, that sets Tony to examining what he thinks his life has been. ( Jordan)

-and from Liesel Schillinger: “Does character develop over time?” Tony asks himself, wondering at the “larger holding pen” that has come to contain his adult life. Maybe character freezes sometime between the ages of 20 and 30, he speculates. “And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also — if this isn’t too grand a word — our tragedy.”
 “Not long after the breakup with Veronica, Tony had met, married and (eventually) been divorced from a nonenigmatic woman with “clear edges,” someone he knew he wouldn’t mind losing terribly much. In Margaret, he sought a mature, “peaceable” life. Decades later, he sees the fraudulence in that discretion. “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.” (Schillinger)
“Barnes’s unreliable narrator is a mystery to himself, which makes the novel one unbroken, sizzling, satisfying fuse. Its puzzle of past causes is decoded by a man who is himself a puzzle. Tony resembles the people he fears, “whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost,” and who wound others with a hypersensitivity that is insensitive to anything but their own needs. “I have an instinct for survival, for self-­preservation,” he reflects. “Perhaps this is what Veronica called cowardice and I called being peaceable.”
The Sense of an Ending is a short book, but not a slight one. In it Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam.” ( Schillinger)

Back to my own thoughts on this.  That quote “much of what we think is important is rendered utterly irrelevant by the passing of time.”  That is so true when I try to remember some things I thought were terribly important at 18, or at 21, or maybe even at 35.  I am embarrassed by some of them today.  So then, what was important that I didn’t give my attention to?  That I wish I could go back and do again?  Talk with my mother about her family, her childhood.

 For instance: How old was she in this photo?  Whose house is that in the background? Who is taking the picture?

 She didn’t want to talk about her childhood,because she said it was too painful, and I wasn’t really interested in hearing it, either.  That’s just one inquiry I regret not making while she was alive and still remembering.

In another part of the novel, the narrator says
“Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring…you imagine yourself… children growing away from you, friends dying.. loss of status, loss of desire – and desirability… you may go further and consider your own approaching death… But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping.”  ( Barnes 65)
For some reason, that passage really hit me.  Need to write about that more. What are the new emotions that time brings?