Book Review — Langston’s Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem

Langston’s Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem is an examination of Hughes’s work from a political, religious, and social perspective. Best is a professor of Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University.  He specializes in 20th century African American religious history. His research and teaching focus on the areas of African American religion, religion and literature, Global Pentecostalism, and gender and sexuality. He has held fellowships at Princeton’s Center for the Study of Religion and the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.

As a man, in America, Hughes had four things against him — He was black, and accused of being an atheist, a homosexual, and a communist. As an African American his poetry, especially the earlier work, was written in the contemporary African-American language complete with the slang bringing criticism for its unpolished uneducated appearance. Atheism was closely tied to his work “Goodbye Jesus.” Best devotes a great deal of time discussing this poem, its meaning, and reviews.

Hughes’ supposed homosexuality, mentioned but not discussed deeply in this book, is strongest tied to his writings. Hughes writes several of his poems as a convincing female. This may not be an indication of anything today,  but during his lifetime it made a convincing suggestion. Accusations of being a communist are tied, and discussed in this book, to Hughes’ trip to the Soviet Union for production of a film. He also appeared before McCarthy on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The treatment of blacks and darker skinned peoples in the USSR was a refreshing change from the US. In the US, Hughes lost his dorm room at Columbia because the admissions department thought he was Hispanic. His application was sent from Mexico where his father lived.

Best is a religious scholar and also teaches African-American studies. He examines Hughes religious upbringing, mostly from his aunt in Kansas. He visited Catholic churches in Mexico and attended services. In Harlem, he visited and wrote about the store front churches. In his writing, particularly in the plays Black Nativity and Tambourines of Glory, center on African- American religion. I, however, was not convinced that his interests in religion were totally spiritual. Church architecture, especially old Catholic churches are interesting whether or not one is religious and the same can be said of the ceremony. Hughes, too, makes no overt attempt to convert or go to other Catholic churches. Tambourines of Glory reflects the African-American churches in Harlem. Here the draw could have easily have been cultural instead of purely religious. Hughes seemed to write more from a cultural perspective than a religious one. In my take of Best’s research, I see culture and racial politics as the subject and religion serving as the background.

Best presents a well documented and informative study of Lanston Hughes’ rather extraordinary life.  Although religion does play a key role, one does question its role in Hughes writing.  While I may not always agree with Best’s assessment and explanations, he does provide thinking points and a wealth of information on Hughes and African-American culture of the period.  Langston’s Salvation is well worth reading for those interested in Langston Hughes or Africa-American culture in Harlem as well as America in general.



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Book Review — Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History

Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History by J R Miller is the study of actions and reforms in the Native Peoples’ treatment and standing. Miller is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Saskatchewan. He is the author of numerous works on issues related to Indigenous peoples including Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens and Shingwauk’s Vision, both published by University of Toronto Press.

I picked this book up as a comparison to how the Native People were and are treated in the areas that are now the United States and Canada. The US Native Americans have and continue to be marginalized. Life on the reservation remains poor. Those outside the reservation must adapt to a Western way of life although the social pressures of “fitting in” have been lessened as society evolves. There is still violence as Wounded Knee in 1975 showed. Presently Standing Rock shows how capitalism trumps treaties and sovereignty.

In my reading and study of history Canada played only a minor role mostly in the War of 1812, WWI, and as a Cold War partner. Treatment of the Native Peoples never made headlines here. The general assumption was, by comparison, Canada did rather well. The reality of that assumption is another matter. The Canadian government teamed up with the four major branches of Christianity — Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian. The government wanted inclusion in education and health care. The church(es) wanted conversion. The churches had the drive and motivation to carry out the work.

The residential schools were disastrous and brutal. Most ended in the 1970s with a flurry of civil suits against the government and churches. Churches and the government started a process of reconciliation with apologies and compensation. Miller covers both sides and details the progress and hangups. The continuing work of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal people and the Constitution Act of 1982, section 35 recognizing Aboriginal rights has brought about a great deal of change although not it is not complete it does recognize the errors of the past.

Residential Schools and Reconciliation documents the struggle for rights of Aboriginal peoples of Canada and the progress made so far. It also shows a more conscious effort to correct wrongs and improve the current situation. It is not complete but by comparison, it is much better than other aboriginal peoples have fared. A well-documented history that seems to honestly describe the issues and errors of the past.

Available November 7, 2017

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Poetry Review — Supply Chain

Supply Chain by Pimone Triplett is a collection of modern poetry from Kuhl House Poets of the University of Iowa Press. Other poets in this group include Vanessa Roveto, Sarah V. Schweig, and Randall Potts. Triplett is the author of The Price of Light (Four Way Books, 2005) and Ruining the Picture (Triquarterly / Northwestern, 1998). She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa. Currently, she teaches at the University of Washington and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

Supply Chain is an interesting collection of modern or non-traditional poetry. Most of the poems are short rapid fire phrases and thoughts when the line are read as natural stops. Perhaps this may be the links in the supply “chain.”

The opening poem “Round Earth’s Corner”:

Take operation’s shimmy all the way back
to the spot where my hand on the fridge handle
unhands whole networks: PG&E pumping

Tracing the fridge handle back to its basic raw materials.  The mining of the coal.  The supply chain that allows you to reach for leftovers inside your refrigerator.

Triplett sets together poems of connection and contrast. “On the Nutshells of Unexplained Death and Other Miniatures.” was another favorite of mine made even better after reading the notes on the poem. It was inspired by the forensic work of Frances Glessner Lee, who created detailed dioramas of crime scenes. Words take meaning in shades some subtle like, “Dreaming, our genie, en-gendering ingenious edens on set” and others quite are obvious like the play on Laika in “I Dream of Jeannie: Parabolic Lens”. “To All the Houseplants I Have Killed” is a wonderful collection of words, meanings, and images.

Triplett writes poetry that appeals to a deeper and thoughtful reading for its full enjoyment.  One must watch the words and feel their meanings.  A complex but rewarding collection.

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Poetry Review — Attributed to the Harrow Painter

Attributed to the Harrow Painter by Nick Twemlow is one of the Kuhl House poets’ publications from University of Iowa Press. The Kuhl House series is dedicated to contemporary poets who write outside the usual traditions. Twemlow’s work includes Palm Trees, and his poems have appeared in Court Green, jubilat, Lana Turner, and the Paris Review. He co-edits Canarium Books and is a senior editor at the Iowa Review. He teaches at Coe College and lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

The collection starts with a poem the poet taking his son to a museum and asking the child’s opinion of Schnabel’s The Death of Fashion to which the child gives a very expected opinion. The Harrow Painter, likewise a painter but in ancient Greece, is described as minor, but with some charm. That is the life of most. We travel a fairly linear path with some peaks and valleys. Twemlow travels back in his mind and poetry to the high and lower points of life. In particular, his English teacher Mr. C seems much like mine Ms. H in brutality. There are good times with friends and of course experimentation with drugs in his younger days. The poet is holding the future in his hands (his son) and looking at how he arrived at the present, but with an eye still, too, on the future for his son.

Although this collection isn’t traditional in form, it is much closer than works like Eric Linsker’s La Far. The lines are short but the poems are long. There is a stream of consciousness flow in the poems but it is very structured. Alliteration and a strong rhythm are felt throughout all the lines. The reader can easily get caught up in the rhythm of the writing. A very good collection of experimental poetry that is not too far from traditional poetry or even lyrics.

Available November 1, 2017

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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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