Monthly Archives: July 2015

Book Review — Early Poems (William Carlos Williams)

Early Poems by William Carlos Williams is a collection of the poet’s early work from Dover Thrift Publications. Born in America in 1883 Williams is a contemporary of Ezra Pound and Willaim Frost. His work is associated with modernism and imagism. Williams work reflects the American identity of poetry breaking away from the strict British and European form. It was a raw, fresh, and grew from the American experience.

This is a collection for those who think they might like poetry but are afraid of the baggage that accompanies poetry interpretation. Williams style is simple and contains plenty of imagery that any reader can easily understand by all.

There is a bird in the poplars!
It is the sun!
the leaves are yellow little fish
swimming in the river.
The bird skims above them,
day is on his wings.

~ Metric Figure

Williams not only examines nature but man-made objects like harbors and includes a lengthy poem on a train station, “Overture to the Dance of Locomotives”, which is perhaps my favorite from the collection. There is nothing complicated to the reading. It can be read simply for enjoyment without worry of iambic meter, fertility references, or fear that your thinking of the poem is wrong. Thoroughly an enjoyable collection poems. This edition is available as an ebook for just over two dollars also eliminated the worry of spending too much money on a subject that the reader is unfamiliar with. A very worthwhile addition to anyone’s library.

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Book Review — Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed

Dirty Blvd. by Aidan Levy

Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed by Aiden Levy is the latest biography of legendary punk rock icon Lou Reed. Levy has written for the New York Times, the Village Voice, JazzTimes, and the Daily Forward.

I remember hearing “Walk on the Wildside” on AM radio as a child. I had no idea what it was about or why the colored girls were singing. “Colored” was at the time still an acceptable adjective. But I was told not to sing bits of the song. I sensed there was something my eight-year-old brain was missing, and I was right. The radio was always playing when I was growing up and rarely was it ever turned down except when Lou Reed played.

Music stays with us our whole lives and I still listen to the groups and people that made an impression on my young mind — Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The New York Dolls, and the Ramones. Growing up in Cleveland we had a progressive radio station, WMMS that kept Clevelanders listening to the best music in the nation despite the cities many other problems. The music had a lasting impression on me.

Lou Reed is the angry, non-melodic, speeding, crass, poetic, godfather of New York punk. That line pretty much summarizes Lou Reed. He pushed limits and saved rock and roll from corporate arena rock and disco. Levy takes the reader through Reed’s entire life from childhood, to the Velvet Underground, through the solo years, and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Dirty Blvd is heavy on detail and periphery information. The making of all the albums are covered in detail as well as almost a blow by blow account of the making of Le Bataclan ’72, by far the most interesting story in the book. I did find myself a bit overwhelmed by details rather the story after “Sally Can’t Dance” but held on because I really wanted to read about my favorite album “New York.”

Several interesting points and people are presented in the book. I always thought of the Velvet Underground as a New York City band, but they were a Boston band, going to where they were the most popular. Although today, we wax about The Velvet Underground and their importance, they were never that popular when they were playing. The one person who impressed me the most in the book was Maureen Tucker, the drummer for the Velvet Underground. When most people are asked about the woman in the Velvet Underground they think of Nico and not Tucker who was the longest playing member of the band except for Sterling Morrison. Reed was difficult to work with and critical of others. He mocked Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia when it was released in 1976 with a who cares, I am radio Brooklyn. Interestingly it was Patti Smith who would later induct both The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed (posthumously) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Dirty Blvd. is a good biography of Lou Reed and those around him. I am a fan of Lou Reed and his work, but something was missing from this biography. It didn’t grab me the way I would expect it too. The writing is clear. The information is plentiful, but I felt myself trudging through it at several points. A good book but doesn’t quite live up to my expectations of a man whose death was noted even by the Vatican’s cultural minister in a Tweet. Perhaps it is more research project than a heartfelt biography. I will give Levy the benefit of the doubt and not let my personal feelings interfere with my opinion of the book.

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Book Review — The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong

The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong

The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr is a systematic critique of a poem nearly everyone knows. Orr is the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review. He is the winner of the Nona Balakian Prize from the National Book Critics Circle and the Editor’s Prize for Reviewing from Poetrymagazine. Orr’s writing has appeared in Poetry, Slate, The Believer, and Pleiades magazine. He holds a B.A. from Princeton and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

We all have been taught to follow the road less traveled if we want to be successful, to get ahead, to live a life adventure and prosperity. Our teachers and parents told us this and it is advice from one of America’s great poets.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

How could this advice possibly be wrong. I thought about this and reread poem again and again. What was actually written in the poem and what we have taken from the poem are two different things. It is a twenty line poem and we take from it only the last three lines with the assumption that it must be a summary of the entire poem. In fact, it’s not. Much like the Indian parable of the five blind man and the elephant, we only listen to one blind man to form our decision.

In summary: A man walking in a forest comes to a fork. Which fork to take. One has underbrush. The other is grass. They are both equally traveled. He chooses the grass. Years later his future self will recall the incident and with a sigh and a stutter, say he took the road less traveled and it made all the difference. The last three lines do not seem to accurately summarize the event.

Orr takes the reader through a short biography of Frost to include his created image of a Yankee farmer and the spirit of American individualism. His public image much like the last three lines of the poem does not live up to the reality of the situation. Frost was not much of a farmer, and had to travel to England to get his work published in something more substantial than a poultry magazine. He met and befriended Edward Thomas, who took a liking to Frost’s work. Frost and Thomas would take long walks through the forests and Thomas always hesitated and second-guessed decisions when choosing a path. After Frost returned to America in 1915 he wrote a draft of his famous poem. The poem’s original title was “Two Roads,” and he sent it Thomas, as a joke, playing on Thomas’ indecisiveness. Thomas did not catch the joke and thought the poem was exemplary.

The poem was more than just a joke, however, it became one of the most quoted poems in America. It also goes deeper as Orr shows the reader. Orr makes a note of one reviewer (Kathryn Schultz) calling the poem “The Path Not Taken.” It is a common mistake. You do not have to be a trail runner like Schultz to know that the woods contain paths and trails and not roads. Orr claims that this is deliberate. Roads are man-made and lead to a specific place, unlike many trails. Why doesn’t Frost’s traveler consider the destination when following a road? Why doesn’t he consider what most people would — the distance, the effort needed, and the destination? His only concern was which was more traveled, and they are both equally traveled.

The examination of the poem brings to question several items that are clearly visible in the poem. The traveler does not reflect on his choice, but the opposite. He sees his future self talking about this seemingly trivial decision. He sighs — sarcastically? He stutters on the word “I” like he is trying to quickly think of why he chose the path he did. He creates a reason that is different from what he observes on the road and makes it out to be much more than what it was.

Orr, a lawyer, tears apart the poems and like a lawyer, examines detail and shows, much like a TV defense lawyer, that what we thought happened certainly did not occur as we perceive it. Orr does this by examining the poem, the writer, the history, and the philosophy. I did not take his thesis too seriously until I reread the poem and discovered that there is much more to it than the last three lines. Orr’s research is very good and his explanations are clear and well presented. His depth of coverage is much deeper than what I presented here in my own summary in the fifth paragraph. Moreover, it’s rare that book makes the reader rethink something they believed their entire life and that is so well known in our culture and shows it to be wrong. Even the poem’s title is a bit misleading. All the difference is made from taking the road less traveled, then why is the poem titled after the road not taken?

Poetry is written to make us think. Once we take something for granted, on the word of others, the poem no longer holds it value as a poem and becomes something of a cliche. A friend with an English Ph.D. perhaps summed this up the best when she said, “Every thoughtful reading is legitimate.” That, perhaps, is what is needed of everyone — Read, think, form opinions, support those opinions, but most of all investigate. Orr opens that door for the reader to investigate.

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Book Review — East of Coker

And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

~East Coker, T.S. Eliot

East of Coker by Andy  Owen

East of Coker by Andy Owen is a story of damage and recovery of the human psyche in the aftermath of war. Not since the Vietnam War, in America, have we seen so many veterans suffer from the effects of combat. It is not limited to America either. The coalition that struck down the Taliban government after 9/11 and the coalition that brought down the regime of Saddam Hussein all have service member suffering from the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For some coming home is being dropped into an unfamiliar environment. Nothing is the same and there are dangers lurking in broad daylight. Common noises bring back memories of shelling and explosions. Everyday events bring back memories of war. Some who come back manage to cope. Others live in a near paranoid state. Still others, tragically, can not adapt and chose their own way out of life.

East of Coker is the story of a British combat soldier who makes it back home alive but damaged. The story is told in a stream of consciousness first person view. It first narrator, the soldier, tells his story in a flowing near poetical fashion. Whether this is intentional or my fault for beginning this book while reading a poetry collection, it works extremely well. The lyrical flow adds depth and deeper meaning to the words. Emotion is packed into each sentence.

One wonders if the narrator is reliable in his words and emotions. He is suffering, but how much control does he have of his thoughts. Reliability comes through in a unique way. He is not rambling incoherently. Here is a soldier making references to Koheleth, Charon, Isolde and refers to plants by their latin name. We have an intelligent narrator who has control over his higher thought functions.

The story has breaks and changes in the narrator. The soldier’s wife tells of her observations and distress. The third narrator is the Iraqi father whose son is translating for the invaders. This shows that it is not just the western soldiers, but the residents of the invaded country who are affected. He presents some serious but points that are overlooked by the “liberators.” The two additional narrators complete the circle and present the problem in as a multidimensional issue.

There are no simple answers. There are physical aspects as well as mental, with addiction playing a large role. The search for solutions creates its own problems. There is a dark feeling of dread that searches for hope in unusual ways. The story of the Polish musician creates its own warped sense of accomplishment. The sense of drowning physically and emotionally is a common theme throughout.

East of Coker presents an emotional look at a growing problem among younger veterans. People who volunteered to protect the security of their country’s citizens and found themselves trapped in a horror they could not imagine. The author has told me the proceeds will benefit a veteran’s charity that specializes in treating PTSD. This is fiction that mirrors real life. A timely subject of a tragedy that began the twenty-first century and will remain for years to come.

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Book Review — The Best American Poetry 2015

The Best American Poetry 2015 by David Lehman

The Best American Poetry 2015 edited by David Lehman is a sampling of the best poetry of 2015. In 1994, Lehman succeeded Donald Hall as the general editor of the University of Michigan Press’s Poets on Poetry series, a position he held for twelve years. In 1997, he teamed with Star Black in creating and directing the famed KGB Bar Monday night poetry series in New York City’s East Village. He has taught in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City since the program’s inception in 1996 and has served as poetry coordinator since 2003. He has edited The Best American Poetry Series since 1988.

The good news is poetry is still alive and well in America. The even better news is that unlike much of today’s published literature women poets hold the lion’s share of this collection. There is also representation on of writers with Asian, Indian, and African backgrounds. There is diversity in American poetry and it shows in this collection.

The poems cover a variety of style from rhyming lines, to non-rhyming couplets, free verse, to verse paragraph. The subjects also carry a wide range of topics. Opening with the poem “Bodhisattva” and quickly moving to a very well done poem composed entirely of lines from Craigslist personal ads. Mark Bibbins “Swallowed” pays notice to the nearly lyrical novelist Virginia Woolf:

…I am off

to seize the world, inside of its machine.
This is the way Calen ends, not with a bang

but a river. Woolf, too; she goes out
the same goddamn way.

Chen Chen pledges allegiance to the snow — both new fallen and tracked through. Denise Duhamel writes of fornicating and a breeze through a screen. Noah’s Ark is the subject of two poems and in Ellis’ version we read:

God evil
Move the “d”
Go Devil

Galvin writes an ode to wedding dresses. Beautiful dress that are worn once or maybe twice and banished to a closet or perhaps Goodwill. The subject matter is broader than what one would expect in such a collection.

Lehman not only edits but writes a lengthy forward. Guest editor Sherman Alexie “writes” the introduction. It is not a traditional introduction but made up of a series of quotes by Alexie followed by his poem “Defending Walt Whitman.” Although unconventional it works very well. Following the poetry collection is a series of mini-biographies on the individual poets. I particularly like this feature because it allows the reader to know something of the poet’s background, other work, and their perspective.

There is a very good reason why Lehman has been editing this series since 1988. He does an outstanding job of not only bringing the best new poetry, but he covers a broad spectrum of poets and subject matter. I also would like to thank Scribner for allowing me to review the advanced edition of Best American Poetry for the last three years. It is something I look forward to every year, I and am never disappointed. Outstanding contemporary poetry.

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Book Review — Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada

Your Country, My Country by Robert Bothwell

Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada by Robert Bothwell is a captivating look at North American history. Bothwell completed his BA at the University of Toronto and his PhD at Harvard University He is currently Director of the University of Toronto’s International Relations program at Trinity College, where he is a fellow and a professor of Canadian political and diplomatic history.

I was born and raised about fifty miles from Canada and I was well into adulthood and far removed from Ohio before I ever visited the country. I went to Sudan before I ever made it to Canada, and I can easily name more Mexican presidents than Canadian prime ministers. What do most Americans know about Canada? Burning the White House and maybe “48′ 40″ or Fight.” I could add peacekeeping, Trudeau (but, mostly Margret), and the phase array radar off the top of my head, but the answer is very little, even for someone with a history degree.

Bothwell looks a the history of the United States and Canada on a single connected timeline. This actually shows how much the two countries are really connected by events and proximity. The connections run deep and throughout both countries histories. Early on, it was Britain controlling the interests of both countries and later it would play the role of the outsider competing for attention. Interesting facts and are brought up throughout the book. The American Revolution (more realistically called a civil war) was devastating for Britain. Britain’s American holdings went from controlling essentially the entire east coast of the northern hemisphere down to the Caribbean to holding a population of less than 250,000 of mostly French speaking people. Inviting the tories from the formerly colonies north to farm did little to grow the population. Growing a population would remain a problem for Canada for some time.

Canada also suffered from being in the shadows. First, it was the shadow of Britain and later the United States. Woodrow Wilson propped up Canada’s prestige early on by supporting Canada’s representation as a nation at Versailles, rather than part of the British Empire. After World War II, Canada was an individual nation on the world stage as a member of NATO. Although not known for its militarism, Canada gave much in people and supplies in both world wars and the beginning of the Cold War. When expressed as a percent of population Canada contributed more soldiers in World War II than most countries and did so without having a draft until November of 1944. Canada later took to peacekeeping and reducing its military budget.

Recent American presidents varied in opinions of Canada. Reagan accused Canada of being light on defense. LBJ “had no feeling for Canada, disliked its prime minister (Pearson), and visited it as little as possible.” Carter and Trudeau got along very well. There were earlier presidents who were just waiting to include Canada into the United States. Peaceful relations between the countries didn’t always mean good relations. Trade had always been a sticking point — First with Britain and presently with Mexico.

Bothwell presents a history of Canada and the United States that is greater than the history of the individual countries. Although our two countries are separate, they are closely related, and the actions of one have a consequence on the other. Canada is fully out of the shadows and makes its own decisions. A recent example is Canada’s willingness to join the United States in Afghanistan after 9/11, but its refusal to participate in the Second Gulf War. Your Country, My Country is an excellent work of history. For the American reader, there is plenty of new information along with, and more importantly, explanations for American historical events that are more clearly explained in their complete context. A very educational and well-documented read.

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Book Review — India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War

India at War by Yasmin Khan

India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War by Yasmin Khan is the history of India’s involvement in World War II both inside and outside its borders. Khan is Associate Professor of History; Fellow of Kellogg College at Oxford University. Her DPhil is from Oxford, in the History of the British Empire. She has taught at the Universities of Edinburgh and Royal Holloway, University of London.

I knew little of India’s role in WWII before reading India at War. I did know of the Indian units in WWI fighting as part of the British Empire produced an impressive of Victorian Cross winners. Khan mentions this when talking about early recruitment in WWII. Older men, at the mention of war, would proudly display the medals they had earned in Europe and the Middle East. The people of Punjab seemed the proudest of their military tradition. India did send soldiers to fight in Africa against the Italians.Their bravery earned them the respect of many of the enlisted British soldiers while doing little to influence the officer ranks. Many who served outside of India were quickly put into uniform without much personal information or record keeping. This made identification and notification of next of kin nearly impossible in the event of death.

India itself was a strategic piece of land. With China slipping to the Japanese, India played a strategic role in resupplying the Chinese and as a barrier to Japanese expansion. Pro-independence India was thrilled when the Americans came to India. They saw an idealized image of America and hoped it would mean independence for them after the war. This hope faded as Indians saw how the black American soldiers were treated — much in the same way the British treated the Indians.

Khan not only covers the mechanics of India during the war but also the growing independence movement. Several paradoxes come to light. India wanted its independence from Britain, but Japan seemed like a more urgent threat. Many knew independence would eventually come from the British. Few believed that if Japan was victorious independence would come at all. There were also loyalists to the British who resisted independence and once the war economy began in full, with American assistance, many people became wealthier and enjoyed the status quo. Like the American move for independence, support was not universal.

Khan presents a detailed history of India during the war. It is much more than a history of a country at war, but a history of a diverse people looking to regain their identity. There is bravery on the part of Indian soldiers and bravery of those at home. India played a pivotal role during the war in Asia. Soldiers, industry, construction, food, and even POW camps were all part of India’s role. The war proved to be a shift in power. Although victorious, with the allies, Britain lost its ability to maintain an empire. Although devastating, World War II may have hastened Indian independence. India earned respect in the eyes of many nations, including Britain. India at War is an important piece of history that is not very well know in America. This is an essential reading for those wanting to know the bigger picture of the world history, outside American blinders.

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