A Poem of Unequal Meters, for an Unequal Subject
Love is a thing that has no whys and wherefores
Love is a thing that comes but once a year;
Or once a century, or once a fortnight,
Love has no rationale, it’s oh! so clear.
Love is betwixt and between the poles and deserts,
Love is both hot and cold, angry and shy,
First we cast it off, and then we seek for it,
When we want it, then no love can we descry.
Love is both sure of itself and quite uncertain,
Love can’t decide whether to go or stay;
Where other things crawl and lump along life’s toll road
We often expect love freely to make its way.
We pay a huge price for love, yet eagerly give it
Many times to such contenders as value it not,
And whatever we have to invite its honest presence
Others would give up for what we have not got.
For lovers’ sakes we pull our hair, and beat our breastbone,
Like to a host of cannibals on the prowl,
Such spiritual nourishment torn from human sources
In a case of symbolic replacement, any old how.
On the days when love’s spirit, though, doesn’t plague us,
We fall for love’s body, a hand, a lip, an eye:
Yet always we find ourselves incredulous
Whatever our own appeal, that love passes us by.
For it doesn’t matter how modest we are, or how clever,
We’re born with a sense that it’s a democracy,
Yet often when love overtakes us, aristocratic
Norms prevail, and do not set us free.
So take your best shot at it, or forego it,
You’re born to it! Or, you lack love’s troublesome spark,
But be sure should you falter in love’s path, my dear, you will know it,
And find yourself lost and stumbling in the dark.
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/11/17
For the occasion of the publication of this poem, I don’t mind revealing that it is a poem based on fact, and is written for a friend whose presence will be sorely missed. We’ve all lived through such an experience, when all the little debates and differences of opinion we go through with our friends are suddenly less important than the friend’s upcoming departure. Debate is often a luxury of presence, and later unity of mind and temper prevail, so that we can express what we deeply and truly feel, at the last possible moment, when absence will begin to be felt.
To a Departing Friend
Yes, I am full of commonplaces,
Some not new, some all my own.
I say to you,
“‘…the feast of reason,
And the flow of soul.'”
And in search of some universal
(Or at least particular) truth,
You say in frustration,
Considering my options,
And reviewing my mistakes,
“This is all I can do,
This makes me survive.”
In search of making myself and you
A little more perfect,
If such a thing could ever have degrees,
You point to this as my
Don’t chase your own tail, my friend,
That’s a ploy for kittens and puppies,
Who don’t yet recognize
The other end of themselves following.
The fact is,
That my life has been made so much better
By your intercession for me
With the storms and high winds
The visits of the gods,
And you have for a while
Kept me most divine company
In the space allotted us
Before the great dark.
Who knows if what heaven there is
Is not arranged and populated
By such conversations as ours,
And the sorrow and laughter
We have shared
Are not apportioned out
To all who would live on
Beyond their death?
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 9/29/17
Though it’s sort of cheating to cap off a philosophical poem with a rhyme when the rest of it basically hasn’t rhymed, as if that answered the question and said it all (which it doesn’t, really), there’s irony even in the final couplet, for those who prefer their philosophy tough and mean.
Irony, Solipsism, and the Conceptual Slant
At the heart of the matter
Is humanity’s love of the absurd
We laugh together
At what makes us cry alone
In the silence of the night
For the absurdity
Of only feeling real oneself
With another soul
Groping, seeking the light,
It is as if we were perpetually
Self-seeking, and needed a reflection
But that the reflection
Could not look like us,
But must look like another
To set us straight.
We are full of doublenesses,
And parleys with the other,
But really we ask ourselves
“Are we touching infinity
When we reach another mind,
Can it be that we make contact
With all that is grand and noble
When we seek with what we call
Our inner selves,
Or is it all shadow play,
In front of an audience of one
From behind a white curtain
Put there by some overlord we don’t yet know?”
And as yet, there is no answer.
At the present time, we’ve more or less
Had it with the overlord idea,
So, we guess and think and pause
Still inept to fight off the notion
Just because someone suggested it
Who had the same right to comment
As we do,
A license to deflect our attempts
To touch minds with him.
So it may be that philosopher
Was only talking to himself, too
But we can at least overheard him,
And can comment in turn
On his ranting speech,
As if he were a penny actor
Whom everyone could afford.
And if after all my thoughts
Are sitting there on the conceptual slant
Where you can lift them from their box,
And your thoughts likewise
I can avail myself of,
Then, don’t we have some consensus,
Though it’s boring not to revert
To our first, fine humane notions
That we spoke mind to mind,
Whispered thought to thought,
Felt heart to heart?
I write a poem,
You write a treatise,
I read aloud,
You mutter your clauses in an undertone,
Both testing them out
To see if they pass muster,
Each having that “ideal reader”
In mind whom so much ink has been spilled about.
Well, my friend, to paraphrase an old, silly catch-phrase,
If you read me and I read you,
No solipsist can part us two.
Two ideals obsessed with ideals we’ll be,
Of tone and temper bold and free.
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 9/27/17
Autumn is the time of year for saying goodbye to many people and things, summer among them. Here is a poem for parting lovers who want to mitigate their suffering.
They each had deep-laid plans
For neither would be left;
At least, they thought of it
As not to be bereft.
One thought of life alone
After the ship had sailed
On love for the last time
And often wept and railed.
The other thought of days
Spent doing what he list,
Post facto happiness
At not to have been kissed.
For kissing would imply
That he had returned love,
And would incur the wrath
Of those ruling above.
And too, he thought of it
As generous and bland
To garner love and trust
With a well-opened hand.
And, who’s to say he’s wrong
When all is said and done?
Love listened to and heard
Is love near half-begun.
Nay, it’s no breach of faith
To say what’s possible;
Refuse to war with rules,
To cite life codicils–
You know, those edicts all
Follow when pressed at last
When thinking of breaches
Committed in the past.
Examples rule the day
For either of the pair,
One quoting poetry,
The other, custom’s fare.
So finally, they part.
While one will stay and mourn
The other seeks new shores
And who knows if he’s torn?
But both were well-prepared
Despite sorrow and dole,
Or using partial ways
To make a brand-new whole.
The first said to herself
“I will be left someday”;
The other said, “It’s time–
I must be on my way.”
Of Circe and Calypso
One could debate and ask
If such impediments
Made worse Ulysses’ task.
Odysseus was wise
Though wiser still may be
To love and count as nothing
Love’s inconvenient sea.
But both had planned ahead
As far as they could see,
And so my lovers end
Not so unhappily.
Though it is difficult,
Still, they can well forfend
To utter irked retorts,
Reproaches at the end.
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 9/19/17
Paul Pen’s novel Desert Flowers, translated by Simon Bruni, begins with a simple, natural, and graceful flow of narration as–and for that matter stands as–an overwhelming and sometimes frightening testimony to family and parental love, no matter the cost or parents involved. Daily routines, though sometimes seeming a trifle eccentric to one or the other of the family’s members, are the accepted currency from each of them to the others, the things they are teased about or provoked into sharing and demonstrating. And though romantic love “like that in the novels” between individuals, whether younger or older, is featured as a corollary subject, it is made to seem smaller, less compelling, and in the end less significant in some respects, than the deep and abiding love that a child and parent (or the two parents of a child) have for each other, even when one or both are in the wrong.
Desert Flowers, named for the mother and five daughters at the center of the novel’s focus, all of whom have floral names, is also a tense and original suspense novel, one which manages to paint in the hues and tones of mystery here and there amidst the familial picture as it develops. It is possible almost to breathe in the sere desert air, to observe the changes of morning, night, sunrise, twilight, to sense the quotidian dangers of the plants and animals around about, to live with the characters in their pictured surroundings as the prose first pauses, then races ahead, then takes a moment to accustom the reader to variations of momentum and balance as quickly changing as a desert sky and as awe-inspiring. After a heart-stopping opening prelude introducing the parents, Rose and Elmer, at night, when they at first believe (prophetically enough) that there is an intruder in the house, we change to a slow adagio of a first movement, which blends various repeated melodies of the family’s daily harmonious routines, making them seem uncharacteristically bland at first by comparison with Rose’s initial panic, which smacks more of the usual self-proclaimed suspense novel. When the reader has been kept waiting a bit impatiently to find out the cause of her alarm for a sufficient period of time in which to wonder about Rose herself, however, the pace quickens suddenly and unexpectedly with the addition of a different theme of a stranger appearing without warning in the center of the family group when Elmer is away from home.
As with many real situations, the characters Rose, Elmer, and the young stranger, Rick, end up playing a game with each other in their struggles to one-up the opponent without departing from the strictures of good manners and seemly deportment. But little by little, a second movement of the piece develops after an interlude of time when Rick is trying to piece together clues about his host and hostess and their family, almost as if he has some reason or other to find them suspect. In this second movement, it is rather Rick who emerges as the questionable party for a time, and we follow his footsteps as he does things which do not suggest that he is a good guest or at least not one without flaw.
To continue the metaphor of a piece of music, the third movement is a movement of secrets half-revealed, with all three of the adults participating in the jumps of logic and understanding taking place, a movement of back-and-forth recriminations and accusations, whether made silently in the quiet of the desert night and one’s own mind, or in the daylight confrontations amongst the three of them. Though the book has been an interesting and pleasurable read up until now, it is this movement which produces that frisson of luxurious fear in the readers’ minds, and a temptation to start choosing sides. But that must not be yet, for there are two more movements to come, and compelling reasons why all three adults are vital and worthwhile beings.
The fourth movement is one of quick and unanswerable violence and retribution, yet exactly who is being punished? The answer is not as obvious as it might otherwise seem to be, as even the children come in for their share of the suffering, however unnecessary or undeserved.
The fifth movement is one full of surprises, not only plot twists and a final, rewarding fictional ending that has elements both of justice served and of a cliff-hanger; there are also surprises, here at the very end, in some of the characters, whom one might otherwise have thought of as already fully developed.
All in all, this is a fine work of what one must after all call literary suspense fiction, since it has both the evocative and lovely language of the portraiture of the characters’ surroundings and the terse, carefully underwritten language of the literary thriller. It’s not often that a book which starts out so very innocently and wholesomely, with a family’s daily concerns and small victories and challenges, has one unable to stop turning pages by a little before the middle of the text, but so it is here. I would recommend it to anyone who truly enjoys literary suspense. Shadowoperator
Teens in extremis and showing that a presence is better than a legacy–Jennifer Niven’s “All the Bright Places”
By and large, I do not read much YA fiction. Nevertheless, I have sometimes been sufficiently attracted by the combination of an appealing or curious title and a front cover which promise between them a “good read,” and so it was in this case. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places chooses to initiate the reader’s awareness of bright places and just what makes them doubly bright sometimes, with her hero and heroine both having made their way individually to the top of a school bell tower, where they become better known to each other while each is in the midst of a personal moment of crisis. The hero, a senior boy named Theodore Finch, one of the “bad boys” and quirkier persons in the senior class, meets up with Violet Markey, who is basically a good student with a deep personal grief in her recent past. Though they are vaguely cognizant of each other as members of the same class, their serious acquaintance has previously ended there, since Violet is leery of being seen as a friend of someone so markedly different. But all that is about to change.
Theo takes it upon himself to rescue Violet from the predicament she’s gotten herself in by not only helping her down from her precarious perch on the opposite side of the tower, but by also allowing her to pretend to all and sundry that it was she who helped coax him out of an apparently suicidal state. Both of them are seeing school counselors already at the beginning of the novel, he for his perverse behavior and school-skipping, she for grief counseling concerning the death of her slightly elder sister Eleanor in a car wreck earlier. Since everyone in the school comes to believe the fiction that Theo was the one helped down, his gentlemanly behavior in deferring to her puts him in an even more serious situation, not only with his counselor but also with most of the students, who consider him a “flake.” With some initial resistance from Violet, gradually the two become co-workers on a Geography project (exploring the state sites of Indiana, which is where the novel is set), then friends, then lovers.
There are other subjects in the novel, however, and the major one does not even become apparent (or at least exteriorized) until near the end of the novel, in Theo’s sections (the novel is divided up into a back-and-forth narration style something like journal or diary entries between Violet and Theo, with occasional quotes from their Facebook messages to each other). Some of these subjects include school bullying, the hypocrisy of some teenage friendships, dating mores, family relationships in split or fractured families or families who have suffered a loss, and parental abuse, to name a few of the more obvious. Over and above all these, and woven in with them as it gradually becomes manifest, the major subject is one which I will not spoil by revealing; it has something to do, however, with one of the reasons the “bright” places seem so very bright in Theo’s and Violet’s world, a reason which Violet only gradually becomes conscious of as she is drawn into the magical, sometimes contrarious, sometimes without-rules world of Theo Finch.
For, Theo’s manically-charged celebration of life, which he shares at his best moments with Violet, periods during which he thinks of himself as being “awake,” alternate with black moods like his abusive father’s, during which he isolates himself and calls himself “asleep.” As Violet eventually starts to improve in her own life, becoming less sad and morose due to Theo’s attentions to her, we see Theo beginning to slip once again and in a serious way into a state which has before only been foreshadowed in the novel. Though he does part ways with Violet during a meaningless quarrel the two of them have, he leaves a legacy for her which, nevertheless, though she treasures it, is less valuable to her by far than his presence. It is this legacy, “all the bright places,” that he enables her to enjoy, and the author, Jennifer Niven, comments upon it expansively not only in her sections addressed directly to the reader, but in her list of help agencies and organizations for the benefit of people like her two characters, Violet and Theo.
Having said all that I’ve said about the seriousness of this novel, I think it’s important to add that the material is very lightly handled, and with due respect for the target audience. The attitude is both mature and maturity-seeking, not for a moment “talking down” or sounding a note awry, though there are pictures in the novel of well-meaning adults who do not manage to avoid these troubles. All in all, I think this a novel well worth a read, even for someone who is no longer a teen, or even a young adult. And after all, we were all young once, as people sometimes say, and many of us have confronted similar issues or persons, whether young or not. I hope you will have a chance to read this book, and will share my admiration and respect for its author and handlers.
A Partially Realistic Novel, Yet One Full of Conundrums and Mysteries: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “The Kukotsky Enigma”
The title of this novel at the start prepares the reader for something out of the way and curious, yet it doesn’t come up to the actual novel itself in strangeness and states of compositional alienation. it’s a 2001 novel, hence still fairly recent, translated into English in 2016 by Diane Nemec Ignashev. It is in fact the translator’s afterword which adds part of the mystery to the novel, as it is her word that is the only explanation of some of the outré, bizarre, and fantastic elements of the book itself. And her explanation in at least one particular seems a little off-center. But to begin at the beginning:
“Since the end of the seventeenth century all of Pavel Alekseevich Kukotsky’s male ancesters on his father’s side had been physicians.” As with many a traditional Russian novel of family dynasties, The Kukotsky Enigma proceeds to give some family back history, and then leads into the immediate history of Pavel’s own childhood fascination with his father’s manuals, books, and charts of the human body. The young boy is particularly drawn to the fold-out flap anatomy book, wherein there is a “naked lady” with a fold-out womb and other organs. As a child, he is half-afraid that if he is discovered looking at the book, that he will “get his ears boxed,” but as it turns out, his father actually gives him the gift of a better anatomy book, one with two hundred forty-five drawings, and leaves him to examine it. It is a book by Leonardo da Vinci, “one of only three hundred hand-numbered copies.” From here, the boy spends “his happiest hours” in his father’s study, looking not only at anatomy books, but at books on natural history, zoology, and comparative anatomy. His father’s next munificent gift is a microscope, and from that point on, the course is set for a life in the medical sciences.
One of his father’s friends in obstetrics and gynecology takes the student on when he reaches university age, and though his father dies and his spendthrift mother uses her time trying to retain her former state of elegance in the reduced circumstances of their 1920’s living space being “consolidated” to include three more families, Pavel retains his position and goes on developing his medical skills. Something strange happens to him, however–the first enigma to bear the name Kukotsky. He realizes on examining a patient that he is able to see a “full-color schematic image” of tumorous cancers inside her body without ever opening her up, and this gives him pause. This is a gift which comes from somewhere unknown, which neither his ancestors nor his generous father could have controlled. He calls it “intravision” and never speaks of it to anyone. It has a price, however: even though it improves and increases over the years, he has to live the life nearly of an ascetic in order to get it to operate. Too much food, or physical contact of an intimate nature with women could temporarily disrupt his gift. He, however, in order to further his gift, is willing to abide by ascetic conditions, and misogynistic ones. At this point, he meets up with his future wife, Elena Georgievna Flotov, though he doesn’t recognize her as this at first.
The difference seems to be that she appears on his operating table as a patient, and it is necessary to remove most of her female organs; thus, she is a woman and yet not a woman, a delicate, womanly presence of grace and femininity, yet without the key things that might cause her to get pregnant again. Quickly, he arranges for her, her tiny daughter Tanya, and her servant Vasilisa to come and live with him, and when news arrives that her husband Flotov has been killed in war, he immediately marries her and adopts Tanya.
From here on, the novel progresses for a while as a family novel, not only of this family, but of another family, Ilya Iosifovich Goldberg (a wayward genius geneticist) and his twin sons, Vitaly and Gennady. Ilya is in and out of prisons because of his stated views, not even so much about politics, but about genetics issues which the powers that be believe can affect political things and people. The twin sons, as they grow up, are in friendly competition with each other over Tanya. And then, due to a tragedy amongst other, poorer people known to Pavel and Elena slightly, another little girl, Toma, is adopted into the family, which causes a permanent schism between Pavel and Elena, though they still live together. Tanya enters training in medical research and then due to stresses in her family and society, leaves without warning, staying out all hours of the night and worrying her family. Pavel takes to drinking too much, a habit which stays with him for the rest of the novel. At this point, the realistic quality of the novel breaks off, and Part Two begins.
Another major conundrum of the book, Part Two, opens with a woman lying in a sand dune, and progresses with her joining a group of unknown people without names, who are going from someplace unknown to someplace else equally uncertain, led by a man known as “the Judean.” This part of the novel reads very much like a fantasy novel, and yet it seems to me to be an approximate vision of the afterlife, as it might be. It is this part of the novel which most closely suggests the original title that Ulitskaya, according to the translator’s afterword, had originally given the novel: Journey(s) to the Seventh Dimension. It is all very impressionistic, and yet after a while, one begins to recognize a few of the previously appearing characters in these strange new beings with odd names. Some of them, however, don’t even appear in their realistic guise until the next more realistic section after Part Two, which continues the family saga(s). Though the translator explains that some of the book is supposed to intimate characteristics of Alzheimer’s (which illness Elena gradually develops, particularly in Part Three), I stick by my impression that this section, with all its mystery, is quite like a fantastic version of the afterlife, perhaps Limbo or Purgatory, though without the religious connotations. Then comes Part Three.
Part Three progresses with the family sagas again, until there is a sudden dislocation to talk about the murderous career of a former violent guard named Semion Kurilko. The story follows him for several pages, without explanation, until suddenly he makes contact with one of the characters we’ve been following, and tries to murder him. But then, Kurilko is hanged; still, we don’t follow the other character anymore, and the section ends. Another compositional enigma!
Finally, the book ends with a short Part Four. The subject is of two parts: one is a picture of Elena as “Granny” to her granddaughter Zhenya, after Pavel’s death. Though Granny lives with Toma (the poor adopted child) and her husband in another tiny apartment, it is Zhenya (heavily pregnant) who comes to bathe and take care of her. Elena seems actually to have Alzheimer’s in this section, which was prefigured in earlier Part One and Part Two by some of her moments of disorientation and the odd journal entries she made at those times. So, actually, I suppose, it hasn’t been entirely unprepared for. The second part of the last subject is not of age, senility, or death, but of birth. The book ends with the two sides of the united family grouping around the new birth, and Ilya Goldberg planning to come back from America to see the baby. Thus, Pavel’s original interest in treating the diseases and ailments of pregnant women (not totally to exclude the major subject of his securing abortions for women who desperately needed them, amidst much societal animosity) circles round again in his posterity, though the male line of doctors which was followed at the beginning is at the end replaced by the female line of women giving birth and tending to their own.
I have made much of the curiousness of this book, and I have to say that this does not indicate that I did not thoroughly enjoy it, which I did. It is a fine novel. The puzzles come in when one considers the method of construction of the novel itself, and the sometimes abrupt switches from subject to subject following the divisions into sections. Also, the two major characters in the novel, Pavel and Tanya, both die before the end of the novel, and Elena, a distant third major character in the course of the realistic sections, receives much of the emphasis if one considers that original title about “the seventh dimension” as a synonym for Alzheimer’s, and the fact that she outlives the other two.
All in all, this is quite a major achievement, and it is obvious why it won the 2001 Russian Booker Prize. Such questions and ponderings about the structure and the substance as I have raised are meant not to denigrate its quality, but to emphasize just how much there is here to think about, how much about life we can stand to reflect upon. And it is a rich contribution to literature about Russian life in particular, inasmuch as it locates the characters in their times and traditions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some areas around the Black Sea. It is rare to come across a novel which can not only paint the picture of family relations in a complex situation, locate those families with respect to the professions and trades, and finally put the whole in a societal framework which makes the entire book more comprehensible to readers from cultures all around the world. This novel is such a novel.