Heat, love, fear, discovery–literary suspense in Pen’s and Bruni’s “Desert Flowers”

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

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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One of the Drawbacks of Representational Art–“Frustration With Representation”: A Poem

Borrowing and altering the phrase of the American Revolution “No taxation without representation,” this poem comes up with a different type of rebellion, sort of, against representational art in some of its manifestations.  Representational art, as you probably know, is art that’s made to resemble what it’s “about,” or “realistic” art, so-called.  This poem takes up only one issue of representational art; that is, whether or not it’s always convenient and pleasant to see something realistically portrayed.  Non-representational art has its disadvantages too, as the poem mentions.  The adage referred to is the one symbolic by now of Philistine, or plebian taste everywhere, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”  Unless memory deceives me, the phrase was first used, or at least occurred, in William Dean Howell’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham.

Frustration With Representation

Two wooded winter snow scenes hang on opposite walls,
One painted by a friend's former daughter-in-law,
Better, really, in its way
Than the larger one across from it,
Bought at an art sale.
The daughter-in-law
Painted from a fenced-in backyard
High atop a mountainside,
(Pioneer-style split log fence)
Looking over a frozen lake down below.
Water, other than snow, wasn't left out
  of the other painting either,
Only it was a scene of flatland
In the woods
With a stream and rushes meandering through.
High and low, snow everywhere,
And yesterday was the near-middle of March,
When we expected
The biggest storm of the season.
Why no flower- and sun-lit meadows to look at,
Why no autumn foliage,
Why no spring daffodils?
Isn't it enough that we have to see it outside
This late in the season,
Without seeing it inside as well?
Some things are more beautiful only at a distance,
But painful reminders up close.
Or, how about gazing in bewilderment
But also with fascination
At the field of yellow,
Yellow alone,
Painted by another friend,
Entitled simply "Blue."
Why that?
Why not "Blues," in justice
To the bright yellow blare
Of horns and saxophones
The mellow ochre of a clarinet,
Or was yellow
A state of contrary sadness?
Who knows what it meant,
But it's better than snow-for-snow,
However good the art,
At least from the perspective
Of knowing what one likes,
As the old adage phrases it.
Today, though, the sun is bright,
Yellow indeed,
When representation is true,
And not blue, except for sky,
And I listen to a little jazz (not blues),
In the spirit of the day:
We all have our representational moments.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 3/15/17



 

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A Masterful Job of Novel Construction, as Proven By a Mistake–Anna Quindlen’s “Still Life With Crumbs”

Normally when reviewing someone else’s work, I delve around into all the many thoughts I had about the book while reading, put together my sense about the book and what my experience of it led to in a general way, and then commence writing my post about it.  But in the case of Anna Quindlen’s novel Still Life With Crumbs, what happened was that my experience was what you might call a “nouveau” reading session, unintentionally taken on through a mistake in the website, while the book itself, though masterful, was more or less a straightforward read.  There were small flashbacks and flash forwards, but the flash forwards predominated over the flashbacks and were nearly always heralded with the tantalizing phrase which I came to look forward to, “but that was later,” or “that happened later.”

Here’s what I thought happened the first time through:  I started with a novel chapter entitled “A Young Agent, An Old Photographer,” which was fairly self-explanatory.  As I read forward from that chapter title, I was occasionally puzzled by references to characters and events that I didn’t recognize, but was able to piece together enough of the elliptical story to follow where the author was leading.  Things were clear as they developed from that point on, though I felt adrift from moment to moment, and had to stop and remember a few things more than usual in order to understand what was happening.  When I got to the last chapter, I was thoroughly startled:  this was simultaneously one of the best novels and absolutely the shortest one I’d ever read.  It was rather more of a skeleton of a novel, charming as that technique and difference from others was, than it was a full-fledged development.  Nevertheless, at that point I did what I usually do, and keyed into the website to go back to where I had started in order to write down names, plot formations, and details in order to revive the experience of reading for this post.

Imagine my surprise (and also a strange sense of letdown, oddly) to find that through some glitch in the library website, the book was actually much longer at the beginning than the point at which it had originally situated me!  In fact, the point where I had begun is roughly three-fourths of the way through the novel!  Dutifully, I read through the actual first three-fourths of the novel, and found that to my delight I had managed to get almost all of the story correctly as it had developed from the real first page!  When I thought about it, that gave me my topic, my new topic, for this post–how many novels you’ve read can you say were actually so well put together that you could follow the storyline that late in the novel and not be totally at sea, all the while feeling still excited both by the shorter storyline and the original true full length novel?

Just to clue you into the gist of the novel, it’s about a late middle-aged photographer, a woman, who is supporting both her aged parents to some extent and also contributing some money to her talented son’s well-being, in addition to supporting her own career in two different homes.  Money troubles as well as a curve in the nature of her subjects cause her to rent out her New York City apartment, which she loves, and rent a small cabin in upstate New York, a place with which she has no initial innate sympathy, lacking country roots.  Gradually, she starts to shoot new subjects and to become aware of an entirely different lifestyle and group of friends.  She is touched as an individual not only by the newness of it all, but by all the incidents which involve her friends, both old and new.  I won’t spoil the ending for you by telling you how it ends, except that it develops in a way which seems totally natural to real life, as people call it.  Though there are no improbable leaps of the imagination called for, however, the pace never lags, the interest never wanes, and the whole is a tour de force of full blown fictional creation in very simple words and sentences.  Once one has read the whole in its proper order, the last fourth of the novel, which I had at first assumed was all of it, clearly and cleanly concludes all of the foregoing material and tops it off very neatly and happily.  Yes, it has a happy ending, after various trials for the characters, and a few unhappy internal events.  And what’s more important, the happy ending is neither soppy nor improbable.  The whole gives the impression of having been written by someone well-versed with the particular sort of life lived by the heroine.

Though I’d never read Anna Quindlen before, she is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, and her writing shows quite obviously why she was given this award.  She has written both fiction and non-fiction.  Another book of hers which I’ve heard of before but never read is One True Thing, a title which may well be as familiar as you as it is to me.  I think I’ll look for it on the websites soon, because as curiosity provoking as her title Still Life With Breadcrumbs is, One True Thing is, as a title, equally enticing.

 

 

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An Ironic Look at the Process of Inspiration–“The Formula”

It’s been a little more than a week now since I’ve had the opportunity to put up another poem of my own, and while I understand that one can’t always be inspired to work on specific things or in specific ways, there’s still that sense of frustration that arises when a “dry spell” occurs.  So, I decided to write a poem about that; one gets one’s topics where one can, after all!

The Formula

"Sit and think for a bit,
It'll come to you;
It always has before,
Why should now be any different?"
And yet, now is now
And then was then,
And poetry
Is not made to order.
Unresponsive to logic
Even in its most rhetorical form,
It follows a line and melody
All its own,
Declines to be summoned
Except with most respect;
Stays only to hear
Its own self speak,
Though it insists on
Not being thought
A pompous twit, a prig,
But a voice from a heavenly aether,
Or a cloud.
What a put-up job!
Attributing itself
To a series of unknowables
Or unmeasurables, in the course of things,
Like muses, twilit nights, the moon,
Sorrows, radiant sunshine,
Genius or capacity for self-deception,
Anyway--
Really, what has ever been
More uncompromising than poetry?
More querulous, hard to please,
Stubborn, self-dramatic,
Quick to anger,
Slow to compromise,
And all-in-all
Difficult to compose
And call one's own?
Yet, I suppose
If I wait for just a bit,
Give it a chance to seem humble
As if dropping in on me unawares,
Uninvited and unheralded,
Then I won't have to threaten it
With becoming prosy,
With writing a short story instead.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2/28/17

Who knows if I will be able to continue poetry posts in the near future?  Yet I couldn’t resist sharing this wry expression of frustration at an at least mild case of writer’s block.  Shadowoperator

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A Longer Narrative Poem–“The Traitor (A True Story, for Della and Tom)”

This is a poem which is mainly factual, within the limits most of us can assign to our own self-awareness and self-knowledge.  It’s about a time in my life when I was fairly naïve and unknowing, and I’ve written it for two friends of mine who were, I think, concerned when they read another poem I’d written and wondered if it were true.  This one is.

The Traitor
(A True Story, for Della and Tom)

I can remember what was once the new grade school
From when I, too, was new;
I remember the high, tall trees behind it,
No good for climbing, because the branches
Were so far up from the ground,
Like a prince's cleared forest,
And no underbrush.
There was picking up acorns to put in piles,
One acorn I recall,
And wondering if I should take a bite
As I had seen the squirrels do.
And then the teachers shushing us to the hallway again,
In a line,
And we filing back into the long, low, brick building.
Now there are times
When I think of being one of many,
Mostly the same to others looking in from outside,
Our biggest difference who was rowdy, who was quiet.
I was quiet, except that I talked in class
To others, whispering, getting caught,
But having no close friends
Until a few years had elapsed.
A test divided us into two different groups,
One "more gifted," one "less gifted,"
To make two sections of each grade
From one to six,
And I furrowed my brow over the test
And was deemed more gifted,
While some happier-go-lucky souls,
Probably just as quick,
Were destined for the "slow" group.
The second year,
We were supposed to be grateful
Because the big trees had been cleared away
To make the boys a basketball court
And the girls a volleyball court,
Although I still preferred the round games
And ring games we girls played
Down in the dell below where the trees had been;
There was at least still grass down there.
For that, "I was going to Kentucky, I was going
  to the fair,
I met a señorita with sparkles in her hair--"
And "Round, round, round she goes--"
Third year, fourth year, fifth year,
We grew and grew,
And for one year, at least I had a little
  double chin,
Which promptly disappeared the next,
Due to parental diligence.
Sometimes, there was occasion
To get punished:
Being paddled in front of the class.
In those times, it was allowed
Just for laughing at a teacher's
  quavery voice when she sang with us,
For unkindness used to merit
Strict measures.
And then, getting taken
To the principal's office
For not doing a homework assignment,
"Because if you don't do it,
And you're a good student,
What will the other students think?"
Helping keep up the side for the teachers,
Clearly, was an important matter.
Or, maybe, being stood out in the hall
Outside the classroom
For using the word "lackadaisical"
In a poem, a word the teacher didn't know,
And which he suspected therefore
Must be copied from somewhere,
Stuck out in the hall for when the principal,
Who often strolled by on his rounds,
Would come by and demand an explanation.
No fodder that time for punishment, however,
Since despite suspicion, I was able to give
A dictionary definition.  I knew they thought
I was a smart ass, and normally I cared.
All of these small adventures,
And having my mother hear me recite
Required memorizations at night,
And doing previously forgotten projects
With her help at the last minute,
Getting frustrated because
She made me come up with the answers
  myself,
All lead up to the year
Dad got sick, the fifth grade continuing to
  the sixth;
And there was the slight accident
With me in the car and his blind spot
In the forefront of the matter,
For then he was allowed to drive
No more.
It was, as I recall, in the middle
Of a Saturday afternoon, maybe,
Or early before dinner on a weeknight,
Or maybe even some midmorning when
  she had taken a break
That my mother called me into the basement
And said, "I think Daddy's going to die.
But don't tell your brother; he's too little
To understand."
I didn't understand either,
Though "cancer" was a word I'd heard often
  enough,
And "brain tumor" sounded lethal too,
Since I had been taught so early
To respect my brain and all its works and days.
There were no tears,
And "separation anxiety" wasn't a thing
I would've known about either,
Because it was a term from later on,
A thing people discuss now.
I think I felt a blank, no anxiety,
And the blank continued to function.
Not denial, really,
But just a space
Where other things might have been.
I even think I stopped loving him then, sometimes,
And was callous sometimes, in the way of children,
Angry at him, perhaps,
Dissatisfied that now I had to be one of those
Who were different.
There was a day before the end
When someone, perhaps him without permission,
Took me out to the lake where we had a lot,
And he and I walked in the woods,
Which I know now to him meant peace.
And looking for signs and symptoms,
I noticed not his sudden slenderness as we walked,
His wan face and occasional stumble,
But his arm, where the veins stood so prominently.
Whether it was vicious of me to say, I know not,
But I touched his arm and asked,
"What's wrong with your arm, Dad?"
He just looked at it, then at me, and said,
"Nothing, I don't guess."
Maybe that was a child's way
Of asking after his health,
Or maybe it was a way of acknowledging things
  better not spoken of out loud,
Or maybe he felt glad to be able to deny
Any culpability or wrongdoing
On the part of that limb.
I fought with myself at the funeral,
But after, I had no tears,
To my mother's fear and upset,
So one night in the kitchen,
Only female relatives sitting around
In a circle,
I was gently ambushed,
Forced to cry by overdone sympathetic
  gestures and words,
And then I think they were satisfied,
And left me to myself.
For the years afterwards,
There was the hardening of my heart
In adolescence,
A necessary thing, by some accounts
Of experts we read now,
But it was the end of childhood
True and proper
At my mother's frustrated words,
"Honey, you can cry,
He's your father!"
Refusing
To sanction the traitor who had left us,
My heart at almost twelve retorted,
"No, he's not!  Not anymore!"
And as with that of others,
Life went on.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2/18/17

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