To the Upstate Wilds of New York

Tomorrow I fly, headed for the tiny burgh of Nichols, New York, where my daughter’s family lives, including my three-year old granddaughter. A second granddaughter is due in a few months so I’m taking this “quiet-before-the-storm” time to visit. They live on a large piece of land near the Susquehanna River and in the woods. I’d like to use up some of the area’s blessed stillness to write while I’m there, but we’ll see.

I have numerous projects in the works, primarily the poem-a-day challenge for April. In the first 15 days I’ve managed to write five, which sounds abysmal if you’re counting. I’m not. Each morning’s prompt either immediately inspires me or doesn’t, and if it’s the latter I simply don’t force it. New York state’s quiet openness will no doubt add some inspiration.

I’m also determined to finish my review of J.P. Reese’s wonderful chapbook, Dead Letters, and wouldn’t mind writing a few schmaltzy blog posts about the region while I’m there. I’ve been there several times, and have visited many of the tiny towns that dot the upstate landscape. It will be nice to slow down, nicer still to have a few conversations with the three-year old. Her philosophy’s much less complicated than mine.

Last night there was a “blood moon” eclipse. This morning one of my friends writes that the event carried some amount of bad karma. I’m not sure I can agree, but I won’t argue either. I recall that the last time I was in Nichols, my daughter and I were driving east toward Binghamton just as the moon rose right in front of us. Through the earth’s atmosphere it appeared three times larger than it does when overhead, and we marveled over and over at the thing. Karma being what it is (or isn’t), the moon has always been kind to me. I’m off to see one of my children, and the moon seems to like that. Enough so that for a moment it turned red.

If I don’t write while I’m away I either don’t have an internet connection (we should all be so lucky every now and then) or the moon and I are having some all-important conversation again. Either way, it all seems like good karma to me.

Or not.

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He’s Got This

I don’t normally write about politics directly, primarily because long ago I realized we’re mostly convinced our politics are proper. Two friends discussing whether one’s Catholic service is better than the others Episcopal service will always be friendlier than two friends with opposing political views. As I think of it, political argument between American friends, as opposed to religious argument, is much more fraught with landmines.

The other day I posted a link to Facebook related to events in Ukraine. I did this to provide vital information for my American friends on current events in the Crimea. Considering it was written by a westerner, the article came quite close to properly explaining the extremely intricate problems between Russia and Ukraine, and I thought my friends would be interested. Yet the first comment to the link was this: “Don’t worry, he’s got this.”

The comment, written by a conservative friend, obviously referred (derogatorily) to President Obama. And all I could think was: why would someone inject American political argument, seemingly thoughtlessly, into a subject that demands us to learn, rather quickly, how the issues in Ukraine came to fruition? So the comment was non sequitur, a fairly unfeeling jab thrown at our president. It had nothing to do with the situation in Ukraine. It seemed loosely callous.

This is why I’m not a fan of meaningful debate via Social Media. Communication requires words and body language, but Facebook only contains one of those elements. Online, you edit your argument, you make it tricky, clever. But we forget: without the face-to-face, the body language, something strange occurs where we think we can get away with any comment we want, especially the non sequitur. In five words, my friend indicated to others that she has little regard for Ukraine other than to indicate her belief that our president’s inept. It’s what’s between her words that matters most, the parenthetical.

I know this person isn’t callous or mean-spirited. I know she’s bright, and that she knows a lot about the former-Soviet Union. But without the face-to-face she inadvertently injected something into a dialogue that doesn’t belong, something I doubt she’d ever do in a roomful of Americans discussing the Ukrainian situation in a meaningful way.

While I’m at it, there’s also that peculiar sort who seems to think one can get away with any comment if it’s followed by an emoticon. They’ll write: “At least the president recognizes he’s a socialist, huh?” Then they produce a winky face. The resultant message is masked, couched in the wink. Actually, it becomes hyper-vile, an incorrect mixture of winky face and meanness. It’s schizophrenic, confusing.

Listen, if you want to be bitchy, be bitchy. Just don’t be a bitch about it. While we’re all scoring our imaginary political points, Ukraine, a country most of us know nothing about, is burning, as are numerous other countries.

I’d like to suggest we stick our politics in a bottom drawer for a minute to discuss the issues. You know, like big kids. I’d really like to. But reality gets in the way: we Americans draw our conclusions up front, with little understanding – or much regard – for the complexities that surround them. You can’t imagine how complex the Ukraine problem is, but contributing to the conversation with political pricks is contributing nothing at all.

But don’t worry. Because we’re able to whittle it down to five words these days, well under the maximum 140-character limit related to tweets. And really, how sad is that? ;-)

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Scott Edward Anderson’s ‘Fallow Field’

Years ago, while talking about Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” with one of my English professors, he related that he’d once asked a friend to read the great novel. The friend did, and after a week or so my professor asked him what he thought. His friend paused, then finally answered simply: “The guy,” he said of Melville, “really knew his whales!”

A great answer, and I was reminded of it in the middle of Scott Edward Anderson’s wonderful new collection of poetry, Fallow Field (Aldrich Press), so alive with song birds, deer, and remote latitudes that I’m convinced Anderson is as in-tune with the romantic notion as any poet writing today. “This guy,” my college professor’s friend might have said, “really knows his nature!”

Anderson, a former Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony, has been perfecting nature poems for some time (a few poems here were originally published 20 years ago). The secret here, it seems to me, is that Anderson melds nature with the modern world, tying contemporary ideas neatly within the poems and thereby making them wholly modern. “Confusing Fall Warblers,” for example, is a series of questions that begins with mention of a legendary country musician:

Was it Hank Williams
she called the Nashville warbler,
or was it the black-throated blue?

Was it Wilson’s warbler
she heard in the bog up north
chattering chi chi chi chi chi chet chet?

and ends with a sublime and beautiful question: “And tell me, tell me truly, / was it only / that sad country song / playing on the car radio / that made her cry?” The poem, as loaded as it is with “Yellow-throat or orange-crowned” birds, includes an epigraph taken from the great George Jones: “They changed your name from Brown to Jones, and mine from Brown to Blue…”

Anderson slides as easily into nature as the deer in early morning, or wasps and warblers (he gracefully spells out bird songs inside the poems), and just as easily into the state and status of human desire: “He texts her from across the table. / It’s the 3rd word that will stop her, / target of all his desire. / He smiles / as the emoticon returns to her face.

Anderson’s poetry’s been well placed, published first in such journals as The American Poetry Review, The Alaska Quarterly, The Cortland Review, and numerous others. He’s the recipient of the Nebraska Review Award and the Aldrich Emerging Poets Award. He’s extremely active in green technologies, and is a frequent guest on national broadcasts as an expert in the field. So he’s not just a fine poet, he’s devoted his life to the earth and preserving it. Scott Edward Anderson lives the poetry he writes.

For me, the beauty of Fallow Field comes at it’s conclusion, in the long poem “The Postlude, or How I Became a Poet.” In it, Anderson does two things simultaneously: he defines his relationship with nature (the epigraph reads: What dwelling shall receive me? … The earth is all before me. — Wordsworth, “The Prelude”), and gives credit to the woman from his childhood who taught him to do so, Gladys Taylor. The poem, just as the book, delves into all the delights of nature, and we’re allowed to watch as a boy is mentored in the beauty that surrounds him. The parenthetical in the poem is this: nature’s right there, your job is to notice it.

This is a book every poetry aficionado should pay attention to, one that celebrates nature at a time when many contemporary poets seem to have set their sights on how disjointed life is in the 21st century. And therein lies the beauty of Fallow Field: it assures us there’s almost nothing disjointed about life once we get away from the suburbs and cities and find a quiet field in which we can sit still and listen. Scott Edward Anderson assures us, by way of his collection, that if we do we might just fall for all the warblers.

And after all, why shouldn’t we?

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Up and Over the Moon: It Was a Fine (Enough) Year

The year is about to end, with massive snows in Missouri and Ohio, across the midwest and, I suppose, New England and the northern tier as well. Here in Arizona I find time to complain about the lack of a single cloud in a sky that is, just now, the color of certain Navajo jewelry. I somehow find time to complain about 60 degree days.

It’s been a fine year, but just like every year there were hardships to overcome: cancer finally took my brother, and we had to discuss the possibility that Agent Orange, the deadly herbicide sprayed liberally all across South Vietnam 50 years ago, is causing my father very real health problems. And still I have to say, it’s been a fine year.

But we get through complications together, as friends and family, and my father’s sense of humor is still as large as a coliseum, my brother left us in such a state of grace that I can hardly find the words to describe it. I can only hope that I’ll be afforded the opportunity to depart with such grace. Phillip would laugh his ass off if he knew I called him graceful. But he was, and it was his grace that helped the rest of us get through his loss. A final gift from a man who always gave.

Just after the funeral I fell silent. I stopped writing here, tore up entire poems, and then stopped trying. I slowed down, reflected, and failed in a few glorious ways. In November, traditionally a good writing month for me, I didn’t write a word. I missed Robert Lee Brewer’s November Poem-a-Day Challenge, which I’ve taken part in the past three years. I abandoned dozens of poems. What I wrote resembled English 101 essays I’d written so long ago: disjointed, pointless, meandering. Interesting at times, but fragmented.

I know it always returns. In my case, a year like this takes many months of personal assessment prior to being able to put anything in some sort of order. I’m getting there, but it will be after the New Year before I find myself writing very much on point. And I’m okay with that, because it always returns.

And yet I managed to have several poems placed in various wonderful publications: the Virginia Quarterly Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Foundling Review, and Scissors & Spackle (the last two will publish in early 2014). I made fair strides in organizing a new collection, tentatively titled Unusual Sorrows, slated to publish in 2014. So I suppose it has been a fine year, despite the challenges that tried to stain it.

Billy Collins once wrote: “The poets are at their windows,” and if the quote’s not exact I apologize. I’m too lazy to look it up. I suppose I’m cleaning the windows now, preparing to observe again and ponder upon what it is I’m observing. Once the windows are clearer, I’ll return to them full force.

So it has been a fine (enough) year. I visited with my daughter and granddaughter, and found out I’m going to have another grand-something-or-other. I walked around in Boston with my son, and rode the subway until we found Fenway Park, his goal during the trip. I drove my father and step-mother to Kentucky, then returned a few months later to drive their van back to Arizona with their 6,000-year-old dog. En route I got to see step-family in Kentucky, an aunt in Saint Louis, a throng (or was it a gaggle?) of cousins in Oklahoma, and an old friend in Albuquerque.

I continued to work with Holocaust survivors in Tucson, which had its own subset of highs and lows. And it was a fine year working with them as well, even during the lows. Our challenges in the Holocaust program were setbacks, but our victories were glorious.

I’m fairly certain – even as I dare search the future – there will be other years as fine, or finer, than this one. I’m still cleaning windows, but through the small portion I’ve cleaned I can see the pair of mourning doves that continue to visit my yard, and a nice slice of the Rincon mountains to the east where, just now, the sun groans to lift above its central peaks.

In an hour the sky will be turquoise, the doves will have disappeared. It’s time to return, I suppose, to the task of writing, because every point of return is shadowed by the journey that brought it about. A friend assures me I should write what I know. Just now I know enough not to complain.

Too much, at any rate.

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Storming the Castles

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Somewhere Over the Sea of Japan

I generally keep away from discussing my Air Force career here, which ended in retirement 13 years ago. It’s less relevant to me as the years pass. Not that I didn’t love it – I did. But my particular function in the Air Force – as a Russian linguist – is difficult for most to understand, and if I tell an occasional story I often get some hairy looks.

But today, as veterans converge on Washington to “assault” their monuments, I’ve decided to tell a story, which is very true.

My AF career involved flying on specially configured reconnaissance aircraft, skirting as close as possible to Soviet borders without eliciting missile shots from them. I flew my first mission on an RC-135 out of a base near Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1984. I won’t get into mission particulars, but it doesn’t take much to surmise why a bunch of Russian linguists in an aircraft might want to loiter close to the Soviet Union. I was 23, and I was finally nervous.

Up to then I’d worked as an intel analyst in the D.C. area. In 1982 I went to the Defense Language Institute, attending their year-long intensive Russian course, then attended additional intel schools and a week in the woods north of Spokane, Washington, learning how to survive bailouts and crash landings and realizing I probably wouldn’t.

Three hours into that first mission, a Soviet Sukhoy-15 fighter aircraft intercepted us, the first of four that day. Flying 50 feet off our wing, I could see the pilot’s oddly styled helmet with a faceplate instead of an oxygen mask. He was loaded with air-to-air missiles, and I knew he wouldn’t ask questions if we strayed. He was there to kill us if we did. It had happened to US recon aircraft in the past.

My trainer that day was a wonderful guy named Fred, who encouraged me to head back to one of the only windows in the backend to look at the fighter. The Sukhoy-15’s red stars contrasted perfectly against its silver fuselage and tail, its long nose painted an odd, green color. A long probe jutted from the tip of the nose, and I could easily see the blunt ends of his infra-red missiles and the pointed tips of the radar guided ones.

The Soviet looked at me and waved. I hesitated, of course; these missions were all approved at the Joint Chiefs level, and I knew that incidents were to be avoided. Still, I waved back, which caused him to wave more. He wiggled his wings, the international sign for “follow me,” but I knew he was joking and shook my head. He waved his arm in a “follow me” motion, but, in a flash of naiveté, I flashed him a patch on my flight suit: an American flag.

To my amazement, the Soviet saluted sharply, disappearing beneath our aircraft in a barrel-roll motion. The last I saw of him was the thin, black smoke trail he left behind on his way home. I found out later he’d slipped forward to salute our pilots as well.

Many in my career field were killed or lost. They were shot down and killed in crashes. One entire RC-135 crew went down over the Bering Sea, never to be seen again. They simply vanished. The worst that happened to me was blown tires and hot brakes after landing in England one morning. Maybe not, but those are other stories, probably as unbelievable to you as this one.

Today I tip my hat to American veterans, especially those wheeling themselves across the World War II memorial in Washington, storming their castle. I’d love to buy a few of them a beer or two and tell stories, because that’s what veterans mostly do, given time.

But I’m also thinking today of the Soviet pilot, near the Kamchatka Peninsula, who I’d also gladly have a beer with. I’d love to talk to him about what little we knew when we were too young, when we had no idea, really, what hindsight was.

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