Monthly Archives: August 2017

Book Review — Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems

Stumbling Blocks by Karl Kirchwey

Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems by Karl Kirchwey is a collection of poetry centering on Rome. Kirchwey received a BA from Yale College and an MA from Columbia University. Rich with mythical and historical allusion, Kirchwey’s formally assured verse explores themes of loss and origin.

This is a rather mixed collection with many works written as prose rather than poetry. The lines between prose and poetry can be blurry at times but most prose poems express imagery and a lyrical sense. Several of the poems in this collection could easily pass for prose or even informal conversation rather than poetry. The collection opens strong with “Thought Experiment.” Caesar’s last breath of air is still circulating around the earth. In fact, a molecule of that last breath may be in your lungs right now. “Janiculum Passage”, although very much written in prose, captures some of the imagery of Rome. The title poem is also present and explains itself in a historical sense.

The collection is hard to classify. It is interesting in its history and descriptions of Rome. I came away feeling that I learned a bit about Rome, ancient to the present. I can’t say that I will remember this as poetry or as an informal history or cultural lesson.

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Book Review — Warriors of Love: Rumi’s Odes to Shams of Tabriz

Warriors of Love: Rumi’s Odes to Shams of Tabriz by Mevlana Rumi is a partial biography and a small selection of poetry. Rumi was a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. His poems have been widely translated into many of the world’s languages, and he has been described as the most popular poet and the best-selling poet in the United States.

James Cowan provides the introduction and translation in this work. This inclusion is important since the introduction makes up the bulk of the book. Cowan describes the relationship of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. The friendship between the two grew into something that Cowan describes as seeing a reflection of God in each other. Thier friendship expanded into a spiritual love and a great understanding of God. They were both practitioners of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that centers on internal purification and self-discovery. Strict dogma is missing from this practice and includes things that may not be acceptable in stricter interpretations like dancing and being a fool for God.

Much of the introduction concerns itself specifically with Rumi’s deep friendship with Shams and his discovery of poetry in the process of and in remembrance of that friendship after Shamsdisappearence and murder, something Rumi never fully accepted. Comparisons of other very strong friendships are covered before the poetry section.

The poetry is translated by Cowan and represents a more poetic translation of these verses using modern style instead of the traditional Victorian style. He attempts to keep the rhythm and intent of the original poetry intact rather than strict meaning. Shams is presented as the perfect man and the wild one (his dancing in part). The short selection of poetry is interesting in a modern sense and always written in couplets although not rhyming. A translation that, however, does seem to keep the original intent of the writing intact. It is difficult to classify the book itself as poetry since so much is written as an introduction.  However, calling it a biography supported with poetry may be closer to reality.  Either way, very well done and informative.


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Book Review — Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum is the history of Russian-Ukranian relations from 1917- 1934 centering on Russian atrocities. Applebaum is an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author who has written extensively about communism and the development of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. She is a visiting Professor of Practice at the London School of Economics, where she runs Arena, a project on propaganda and disinformation. She has also been an editor at The Economist and The Spectator, and a member of the editorial board of The Washington Post.

The Ukraine is the birth place of the earliest Russian settlements. Kiev is called the mother of Russian Cities or a cradle of the Rus’. The historic flux of borders and conquered lands and peoples had created friction between the various nationalities that became apparent with the fall of the Romanov dynasty.  Ukraine saw it was time to break from Moscow’s rule or rather St. Petersburg’s rule.

Instead, Ukraine found itself in the middle of a battle ground. The Bolsheviks wanted the territory. The White Russian Russian army defended but without much care for the Ukrainians. The people were pummelled by both sides. With the defeat of the White armies, The Bolsheviks systematically slaughtered tens of thousands of Cossacks. The Bolsheviks saw Ukraine as their bread basket. Quotas on wheat and forced collectivization created chaos and mass death. Peasants fought against losing their land, live stock, and possessions. Although there was resistance, it was far from organized and effective. Later, Stalin’s paranoid mind saw any resistance real or imagined as a threat to the USSR. Many were executed for a variety of “crimes.” Many simply just disappeared.

The wheat taken from the Ukrainian farms was not just taken and sold back to the farmers as bread or even used to feed Russia.  It was exported for hard currency.  The five-year plans and quotas existed independently of reality.  When yields were lower than required Moscow took actions like limiting communal tractors forcing more manual and (disappearing) animal labor.  Instead of finding solutions more restrictions were added.  By the time of the 1933 famine, there was not enough healthy or living people to plant and harvest.  There was no carrot and stick only the stick.  The Springtime brought with it not the smell of flowers or new life but the decay of rotting bodies.

Famine is perhaps not the most accurate word for the human catastrophe in Ukraine.  There was food but it was for the consumption others outside the Ukraine and even Russia.  People were dying in front of rows of grain.  Stalin feared Ukrainian nationalism as a threat to Soviet power.  Lenin recruited Ukrainians under the guise of Soviet unity rather than Russian unity.  Stalin, however, simply wanted to crush any resistance from organized threats to women and children stealing a handful of wheat.  It is estimated that three million Ukrainians died, mostly of starvation,  in 1933.  Applebaum also describes the process of starvation on the body and the mind.  Using declassified records and documents along with first-hand hand experiences she captures the systematic terror and suffering that is one of the worlds mostly forgotten tragedies.  When the world was not looking, Stalin waged war on people in his own country killing millions with systematic starvation.  Red Famine details the atrocities, failures, and indifference that allowed the senseless slaughter of millions.


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Book Review — The Writing on the Wall: On the Decomposition of Capitalism and Its Critics

The Writing on the Wall: On the Decomposition of Capitalism and Its Critics by Anselm Jappe and translated by Alastair Hemmens is a study of capitalism and its future failure. Jappe grew up in Cologne and in the Périgord. He studied in Paris and Rome where he obtained, respectively, a master’s and then a doctorate degree in philosophy. In his writings, he has attempted to revive critical theory through a new interpretation of the work of Karl Marx. His book Guy Debord was an intellectual biography of Guy Debord, the prime mover of the Situationist International.

Marx’s specter did put a fright into Europe in the late 19th century. Industries treated employees better. The work week was limited. The industrial worker now enjoyed something new called leisure time. The specter seemed satisfied and a new era of growing wealth and security that lasted until the out break of WWI. Unions and socialists still kept the pressure on governments and industries, but failed to keep workers from fighting other workers who lived under a different flag. After the war and the Russian revolution, governments and industry struggled to prevent socialists from rising to governmental power. There was a rise in anti-socialism backed by industry and wealth. This was best seen in Germany and Italy. In the US, socialism was controlled by laws, especially the espionage acts that put Eugene Debs in jail. There was also violence against unions.

Marx predicted that Capitalism would fail. It was a beast that consumed everything in front of it and would eventually devour itself. Workers were the first to get eaten and spit out broken. When they fought back the jobs left or they were replaced. Now, it is resources and our planet, in general, that is suffering. Industrialization and consumerism have upset the environment from climate change to pollution, to the giant island of floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean. Wages of workers remain stagnant while the top percentage of white collar workers see increases in earnings. Industrial jobs are moved overseas for the cheap labor and lack of regulation. Countries like China and India benefit only because they were so far behind the Western World. Workers there are paid low and are worked long almost like the industrialized revolution here. Some benefit greatly the vast majority do not.

Jappe leads the reader through his thinking with ten, very well documented, essays. One point that particularly stuck in my mind was behavior. We have four taste senses; sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. A child will only ask for sweet and salty. We learn to like the other tastes and develop an appreciation for them with time. Cut out the learning and what we have left is basically McDonald’s — salty food and sugary drinks. Cut out the education, or dumb it down, and we have people whose only qualifications are unskilled labor, the so-called McJobs. What is needed to pass high school today is a lot less than fifty or seventy years ago. An associates degree that would secure a tech job in the past carries much less weight today. Jobs that used to have insurance, vacations, pensions, and holidays don’t anymore.

We are in an era of “Bread and Circuses.” The system is starting to consume itself and we are told not to worry. We have cable television, cell phones that are used for mindless games rather than talking. Social media that helps pit one side against another.  In America, our political system is split into only two sides an “us versus them” scenario. Realistically the parties are not that far apart on the political spectrum. It is not socialism versus fascism.  The rich still benefit no matter who is in control.   The system encourages people to vote against their own interests with sound bites and catch phrases rather than thoughtful discussion.  The idea of capitalism trumps the idea of democracy.

The fear that capitalism will fall to socialism is not one that is based in reality. Capitalism will destroy itself and it will not be a workers revolt that will rise but rather barbarism. Much like a building crumbling to the ground and new better building will not arise unless there is the organization, skilled labor, and a popular willingness to build a new, better building.  That is what is missing and the system, in order to protect itself, the system works to undermine that organization.  Society is not going to fall into socialism when capitalism fails. Mankind will enter a Hobbesian state of nature.  Jappe explains to the reader that the writing is on the wall and it is up to us to first notice and then react.

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Book Review — The Reminiscences of a Marine

“The key to combat effectiveness is unity — an esprit that characterizes itself in complete, irrevocable, mutual trust. Now my infantry trusts my artillery and engineers, and my artillery and engineers know this so they will go through hell itself before they let down the infantry. My infantry believe that with such support they are invincible-and they are.”
John A Lejeune


The Reminiscences of a Marine by Major General John A. Lejeune is an autobiography of a United States Marine and 13th Commandant. The Marine Corps’ history has been filled with boisterous leaders and heroes. In his address as Commandant of the Marine Corps (1921), he notes that Marines have been fighting for America (or American interests*) 90 of America’s 146 years. Much is forgotten about America involvement overseas in times of peace. Little is remembered of interventions in Chile, creating Panama, China, and Latin America in general.

Lejeune lived in interesting times. He secured a position in Annapolis and received a naval commission. He then spent two years on naval ships after graduating where he was introduced to Marines serving on naval ships. He was impressed with their work and esprit de corps. A senior naval officer who put the young Lejeune in charge of a squad of Marines with the advice and recommendation of not micromanaging them. He was told to give his orders to the sergeant and step back. Noncommissioned officers in the Marines supervise the troops. Lejeune was again impressed. When his time came to chose his path in the navy, he chose Marines rather than the engineers. He actually had to fight the system that wanted him to become an engineer.

Lejeune served on the USS Cincinnati during the Spanish-American War and later on the USS Massachusetts. Where there was trouble he seemed to find his way there.  In his writing is easy to read and although he writes of accomplishments there is an absence of the usual Marine bravado instead there is a deeper professionalism.  During World War I, he was recognized by the French government as a strategist and leader, earning the Legion of Honor, and the Croix de Guerre.

To most Marines, Lejeune is remembered for establishing the tradition of the Marine Corps Birthday recognizing all Marines past and present and home to the 2nd Marine Division, Camp Lejeune.   Lejeune was instrumental in transitioning the Marines from naval infantry into a professional fighting force, although still under the navy.  He founded the Marine Corps Institute and Marine Corps schools.  Lejeune was a quiet professional who served two terms as Commandant of the Marine Corps.  He retired on on the 154th Marine Corps Birthday (1929) and accepted a position as superintendent of Virginia Military Institute.  He retired in 1937 and died in 1942.  In his autobiography, he covers over forty years as a Marine and service to the United States. Even in the title of his autobiography is titled “Marine” instead of his own name.  Well written and an informative history of a man whose life was service.


*my interjection

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Poetry Review — Best American Poetry 2017


Best American Poetry 2017 series edited by David Lehman and guest edited by Natasha Trethewey is the 30th edition of this collection. Lehman is a poet and the series editor for The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City. Trethewey is an American poet who was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 2012 and again in 2014. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her 2006 collection Native Guard, and she is a former Poet Laureate of Mississippi. She is also the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, where she also directs the Creative Writing Program.

It has been a troublesome year for many. Lehmann opens with the controversial selection of Bob Dylan as the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The selection divided many in the poetry field and was met by disappointment that a woman was not selected. Other were satisfied that some in the more bardish sense had won. Shortly afterward the United State held an election that further divided the country. Many in the arts were unhappy with the electoral results. Soon Twitter was ablaze with the “Resist” message from poets and writers. The new year also seemed to fill its pages with stories of police shooting unarmed men, women, and even children of color with follow-up stories of no charges filed against the shooter. For many, it was a fearful year and that despair is also reflected in this year’s collection of poetry.

Bob Dylan only gets a passing mention in this collection by Chase Twichell in “Sad Song”. However, the rest of the collection does reflect the other concerns in the previous paragraph. For those who read poetry because it offers an escape from modern problems and takes the reader to their own “Tintern Abbey”, this collection is a reminder of the real world and your news feed. From the opening poem “Weapons Discharge Report” by Dan Albergotti through Monica Youn’s “Greenacre” the tone is set. Pamela Sutton’s “Afraid to Pray” almost seems to predict the recent trouble in Charlottesville.  R.T. Smith’s “Maricon” reminds the reader that hatred goes deeper than race.  The poems are not all of rage but of reflection.  Danusha Lameris’ “The Watch” runs deep.

This year’s Best American Poetry is not the escapism or the celebration usually associated with a “best” series.  It takes poetry as a voice of resistance and information.  Like people, in general, poetry can hide in the background and not become a political or social tool for change, but only for so long.  Arts are meant to be a reflection of society.  Today art is being cut in public schools to save costs.  The current proposed budget plans to cut both the NEA and NEH.  When art, as well as people, are threatened they fight back.  Here, poetry is using its voice to remind us what society and its leaders have become.  We are losing our ability to evade the outside world with arts be it reading, painting, or music. Although it would be hyperbole to compare this collection to Picasso’s Guernica, it is a warning.


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Book Review — The Naval War of 1812: A Complete History

The Naval War of 1812: A Complete History by Theodore Roosevelt is a history of the US naval battles in the War of 1812. Roosevelt was the twenty-sixth President of the United States, and a leader of the Republican Party and of the Progressive Movement. He became the youngest President in United States history at the age of 42. He served in many roles including Governor of New York, historian, naturalist, explorer, author, and soldier (posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2001 for his role at the Battle of San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War).

A few things I remember about the battles of War of 1812. From school: The Battle of Lake Erie, the burning of the White House, impressment, and the Treaty of Ghent. From Johnny Horton, I learned of The Battle of New Orleans. Mostly, I learned it was the final test of American independence. America earned its place at the table of nations and like many wars, it one that diplomacy could have handled better.

Roosevelt presents a dissertation on the naval war written at the age of 23. This book was carried on naval ships and used as a text book at the naval academy.  Roosevelt chooses to concentrate on the naval warfare as the land war was pretty disastrous. Although there was a national army most of the forces remained in states as militias. The navy had a more centralized command and with privateers was far more successful although woefully unprepared for war.

Roosevelt provides more of a study of the naval battles than a history. Histories are readable in almost a story form. Here the information is more a debriefing or after action review. Ship tonnage, guns, crew and officers, and battle drawings are given. It is more of a study of tactics and how numerical superiority, strategy, and training play a role in victory and defeat. This was the height of British sea power, yet the unprepared United States had plenty of fight.

Primary source material from both sides is used and text is heavily cited showing the depth of the work.  Roosevelt had a great interest in the navy and its role in US power projection and defense.   He served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1897 -1898. He resigned to fight in the Spanish-American War.  In his short service, he was responsible reading the navy for war and as president responsible for the “Great White Fleet” tour of the world.  Perhaps, one of America’s first role in power projection.  A well-written research project by a man responsible for the modernization of the US Navy and full-time Amerian naval power.  An excellent reference.

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Book Review — Skinheads, Fur Traders, and Djs: An Adventure Through the 1970s

Skinheads, Fur Traders, and DJs: An Adventure Through the 1970s by Kim Clarke Champniss is a biography and a bit of a musical history. Champniss is a Canadian television personality and musician, best known as a VJ for MuchMusic during the 1980s. This is his second book.

Champniss lived an interesting life over the time covered in this book. England wasn’t doing well. He didn’t do well in school. So he made a choice different than most. Instead of joining the military or taking up a profession that would be considered illegal, he took a job with the Hudson Bay Company and spends a year in Eskimo Point (now called Arviat), Nunavut (Formerly part of the Northwest Territories). Here the former biker/rocker turned disco fan finds himself in the wilderness isolated from music and the fashion of the times.

Champniss writes well and makes life sound exciting even in difficult times. Going from London to a town of 750 people of a radically different culture presents interesting adaptations and for the most part some humorous stories. After leaving the Hudson Bay Company he talks about other struggles of attending college and trying to hold a job in rather poor economic times. Through everything, he has his music and the music blends with his lifestyle. He follows his dreams of becoming a DJ in Canada. Champniss includes quite a bit of music history, but mostly of the disco and dance variety. Those looking for Lou Reed, Led Zeppelin, or even Rush will be disappointed. KC and the Sunshine Band is, however, mentioned more than a few times.

This is an engaging and well-written biography. Although a few years younger than Champniss, I remembered all the music and world events including the inflation and unemployment. To be completely honest, I had no idea who Champniss was but the subtitle “An Adventure Through the 1970s” was enough to hook me. Well done.


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Book Review — Lenin Lives!: Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017

Lenin Lives!: Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017 by Philip Cunliffe is a reimagining of world history. Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, which he joined in 2009. He has written widely on a variety of political issues ranging from Balkan politics to Brexit, with a particular focus on international efforts to manage violent conflict since the end of the Cold War.

Communism is something that is really never going to die out completely. Factually, it never really existed outside of writing. Marxism or Communism does not equal Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, or what the Kim Dynasty practices in North Korea. Lenin changed the worker’s revolt to a peasant revolt and finding the peasants unable to govern themselves he created a single party dictatorship. Stalin escalated and created a totalitarian state. Things never went the way Marx wrote. The rest of the twentieth century became a battle between “communist” dictatorships and capitalism with its right wing dictatorships. Much time and effort were spent on establishing and defending right wing dictatorships and condemning those on the left. The people living in these dictatorships would be hard pressed to find a real difference between the two.

Cunliffe’s alternative history is like many. There are plenty of what ifs and almosts that are given new life. The key points that I was looking for in this book were the development of Marxism as intended and how that would come about and secondly, seeing Marxism developed in industrialized societies. Cunliffe’s alternative history does start with the Russian revolution but spreads quickly through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia (with China leading the way).

Lenin Lives! keeps the key point in most alternative history’s alive, that is World War I. That war is the tipping point of history. Without it, empires and monarchies grow. The high cost of the First World War put heavy economic pressure on the great powers from which they would not recover. The war also turned many against governments and against the capitalists who profited from the war. Workers and others were as radicalized as they were when the Communist Manifesto warned of the “Specter over Europe.”

Compromise seems to be the biggest hindrance to worldwide communism. Workers and unions compromised as they did in the 19th century with capitalists. There was good among the compromises shorter work weeks, vacations, and the creation of leisure. Later health care was included in some countries. Compromise moves both ways. Today hard earned benefits are quickly disappearing. What if unions took charge. What if strikes forced the governments to capitulate.

There are many “what ifs” in this book and being able to pick and redirect history into something you desire. There are many places where small changes could have had large impacts. Groups and people in leadership positions would need the highest degree of integrity not to slip into totalitarianism. The benefits of the global spread of communism would have been many including no WWII, no arms race, expansion of science and art in war world without war. The Wilsonian or Liberal theory also would have done much the same. Countries that trade together don’t go to war with each other. Democracies do not go to war against other democracies. Most governments that come to power do so with some support from the people there. There is always a dream of a better life.

Although I enjoyed Cunliffe’s theories and historical paths it is much like the little rhyme, “if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.” The speculative history seems much like something the communists might have produced to lead the population into the future. Marx made no predictions of the future but Lenin and the Communist Party did. Although well written this is a book someone on the left would enjoy mainly because it gives the wanted outcome.

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Poetry Review — Begin with a Failed Body: Poems

If I unravel this body
into a pool of black shimmering,

of ribbons, coils of dance, of flitting—

Begin with a Failed Body: Poems by Natalie Graham is the poet’s first collection of published poetry and the winner of the 2016 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Graham earned her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida and completed her Ph.D. in American Studies at Michigan State University as a University Distinguished Fellow. Her poems have appeared in Callaloo, New England Review, Valley Voices: A Literary Review and Southern Humanities Review. She is a Cave Canem fellow and assistant professor of African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.

This is a collection that I am not a typical audience member. The poems, without a doubt, are from the female and African American perspective. Nonetheless, I found the collection fascinating. In the first section, her work seems to capture Langston Hughes voice and language. The second section moves into religious topics with Judas and Mary Magnaline as subjects. The language of her poems flows well:

The oscillating fan shakes its rickety head.
She smoothes the raised black mane of a tattooed lion
and burns like Moses’s bush, fueled at four a.m.
by God-knows-what.
from “Palatka, Florida”

Graham seems to be greater than her actual age as references to items and activities seem to predate her in several instances. Perhaps this is more of an indication of the standard of living in poorer sections of Florida. This is also reflected in worn out shoes and Sunday dress as well as, for most of us, long vanished Datsun trucks. There is also a great sense of community from family and friends who take on the role as honorary aunts and uncles. Graham also presents a great deal of history included in the collection. Those who are neither not African-American nor from the South may have missed more of the personal references and history involved in the poems.

An excellent collection and an opening to a life that many have not experienced and perhaps a reminder that it should not exist in an enlightened and modern world.

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