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Recommendation: Deborah Cummins’ “Counting the Waves”

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Deborah Cummins, author of Counting the Waves (Word Press, 2006), summers in the same area I do, on Deer Isle in Maine, so I expected to find things I like in her poems.  There are a few local references, such as to folks at the town dump, but much of her material could be in many places; she has been in many places, and has given them all the same careful attention.  The title poem plays off an overheard conversation:

Child” “I’m bored.”
Mother: “Go count the waves”

Cummins imagines that the child who tried this impossible challenge would discover, “as he loses count, the waves’ myriad glittery eyes.”  “Counting the Waves” is a good title for the book, because while Cummins doesn’t do much counting, she uses close observation to bring out the details of what is immediately at hand on a walk along the shore, or out a window, or while she reads on her deck.  The opening poem tells us to expect this: “Inheritance” describes how fortunate she feels on an “about-to-be-golden” morning and her relationship to the world around her:

For now, I embark into the day,
my luggage light―some nouns,
a peppering of verbs―all I need.
And the landscape too lacks nothing.

Except for, with me in it, my responsibility―
ah, here’s the obligation―
to look and look.

The book is a gathering of scenes described through her eyes.  Odd things, like an old apple tree being moved on a flatbed truck.  Gentle things, like a swallowtail that comes right up to her or the luminous glow in a parking lot at sunset.  There are forty poems, divided into three sections.  The reader becomes comfortable with this detailed seeing in the first section, and then it is a shock when she turns in Section II to serious issues of relationships: difficulties with her mother, troubled neighbors where she grew up, a woman walking the shore who cannot recover from the loss of her husband.  All of these she treats with clear sighted compassion.  In the third section she turns back closer to her own life, but includes issues like losing keys and the way the body betrays us.  The poem “Keys” turns from the frustration of the lost keys to this:

Who would like the day of dog or wren,
days undifferentiated by yesterday or tomorrow?
No before-the-keys, no after-I-find-them.
Those places in between here and there,
between lost and gone.

As a sample of a full poem, one which focuses on the near at hand, here is

The Season’s First Apples

At the farmstand, among the crates
of late tomatoes and corn, the season’s
first apples blush at their debut―

smooth, unmottled beauties too pretty to eat.
For days, the ones I choose
adorn my kitchen shelf, their stout stems

like perky caps, tams, perhaps,
the kind without protective earflaps.
At the open window, wind is disguised

in the stillness of trees, the luffing
sails in the harbor.  Nowhere
in my radio’s broadcast is there a forecast

of snow.  I have no need
for socks or a sweater.  But at the sound
of my first bite of the season’s first apples,

boots crunch through icy layers.
Frozen tree limbs stutter
against the roof and gutters.

And the stove gapes open, ready
to make of another cord of wood
ash.  How solitary

the flame of a single struck match
that on certain cold nights
seems like the only salvation.

I like the word play.  Any apples might blush, but these “blush at their debut” and I see debutantes being presented.  Apples may crunch, but here it is boots that crunch and we are in a new scene entirely.  The music of these lines, with their rhymes, usually not end rhymes, and enjambments (as in wood/ash. How solitary/ for instance) is typical of Cummins’ work. It is a pleasure to read.  You can find it at: http://www.word-press.com/cummins.html

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Thanksgiving Walk

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The blog’s new header is intended to reflect my interest in nature and native plants, a “third side of one mind.”  It is a close up of a cottonwood tree I saw at the Bosque del Apache.  Today’s post about my Thanksgiving features other native plants.

 

Waiting at the copy center in Staples I listened to the customer in front of me and the salesclerk chat.  “I hate Black Friday,’ the clerk was saying.

“So do I,” the customer said.  “Maybe if you’re poor it makes sense.”

“I’m poor,” the clerk responded.  “And I’d rather spend time with my family than save $100 on a television set.”

Recovering quickly the customer said, “I’ve been there too.  I felt the same way.”  When I was done my business I told the clerk “I hope you survive Black Friday!”  She smiled.

Desert Willow

For me, “Black Friday” is a day to stay home, catch up, finish cleaning up for Thanksgiving.  One of many things I have been and am grateful for is the extended family and friends who came to our house for Thanksgiving every year for many years: anywhere from six to seventeen people.  That left a lot of next day cleanup to be done, but it was worth the effort.  I am also grateful that we no longer do that.  We do a Thanksgiving dinner for ourselves, because for us, next after family, Thanksgiving is about the leftovers: the sandwiches and all the stock for soup, the many uses of turkey chunks.

This quieter Thanksgiving allows me time to take a walk.  This year I walked into

Apache Plume

the arroyo behind the dam that is built for a 500 year flood and rarely sees more than a few small ponds in the rainy season.  Now it is quite dry.  I found many things to be thankful for, including desert willows whose long seed pods showed me how many flowers I’d missed seeing by not being out their way in the warmer weather.  There was apache plume which was still “pluming” – its sprays of seed pods not yet blown away.  And most pleasing of all, there were buffalo gourds.  These grow on large leaved plants which have gotten scarce in the last year or two because of the drought conditions.  I picked up a few for my Thanksgiving table decoration.  It was a longer walk than I had taken in quite a while.  But I knew I would have Black Friday to rest up.

Buffalo Gourds

Accidents for Sale

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 I inventoried my storage closet recently and discovered that I have a huge box of copies of my first chapbook.  Accidents was published by Finishing Line Press in 2004.  I bought out their supply of the book because then I felt better about submitting again.  I think my second chapbook is even better than my first, but I’m still happy with the way the first came out.

The title refers to the small upsets of the domestic sphere.  I created the cover picture of a spilled coffee cup and tipped house plant to suggest those little crises.

I have already published one poem from this chapbook on this blog. “Decaf Please” on October 3.  Today I’m offering another example, the title piece, called “Accidents Will Happen.”

Accidents Will Happen

A spill on the stove.
Wiping up is holding action:
minimize the damage.

To empty the pot, replace
the cooktop is too much
lost: the moment.

Repair, reuse,
mend the frayed edges
of a day in tatters.

The world still rocks
on its axis like the cap
on a pressure cooker.

Yes there are days when I’ve felt like this.  Perhaps you have too.  There are twenty-one poems in the chapbook.  I am now offering copies of Accidents at $5.00 each, including postage.  Use the contact page to get my email and address.  They could make good Christmas gifts for your reading friends, and you won’t have to tell them about the bargain price.  Or you could boast about it at a $5.00 gift exchange event.

Up-to-date In Kansas City: From the Biography

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At the end of the nineteenth century, Kansas City was an exciting place to be.  Businessmen were optimistic, having survived a local real estate bust in the 1880s and the national economic crisis of 1893.  John Emerson Roberts’s “Church of This World” fit right in with the sense of progress.

People back in Michigan, where Roberts had grown up and where he returned each summer, took notice of his success.  In a long interview reported in the Grand Rapids Herald, Roberts was asked about his church.  He responded:

“We don’t deal with anything of which we have no knowledge. We have quit fooling with phantoms and ghosts and the future. We are satisfied to live in this world and to study life here rather than what we are to enjoy hereafter. We don’t lie about what we don’t know. As for prayer and that sort of thing, I can’t see any occasion for it. Christ never prayed in public.”

When the reporter suggested that the Gospel of John indicates otherwise, Roberts argued that that book was written long after the events, and that the writer had no personal experience of the case.  At the end of his article the interviewer referred to Roberts as “the Kansas City up-to-date minister.”

            In 1900, Kansas City was “up to date,” a phrase widely used at the time, in a number of ways. The “skyscraper” celebrated as “seven stories high” in Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for Oklahoma was actually ten stories tall. It was the New YorkLifeBuilding at 20 W.    Ninth Street. A few other buildings had reached eight stories by 1900. The city’s boosters were eager to make a national impression. They persuaded the Democratic Convention to meet there in July, in the Convention Hall they had built with private money the year before. They got more attention than they expected. Convention Hall burned down in April. A campaign began immediately to rebuild. City leaders assured the Democratic Party that the work would be done in time and it was—just barely. The convention itself brought in plenty of business but it was not an exciting event: The nomination of William Jennings Bryan was a foregone conclusion.

 

The excerpts above are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher (Xlibris, 2011).  For more information, see the Books page or contact me.

A Special Place in New Mexico: Bosque del Apache

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This past weekend I made a trip up to the Bosque del Apache to see the cranes.  The Bosque is a national wildlife refuge established twenty-five years ago to provide winter forage for migrating sandhill cranes and snow geese.  The refuge is only about 120 miles north of where I live, not a long distance by New Mexico standards, especially on the Interstate, but I had never been there during the winter season.  There were a fair number of cars taking the loop road and stopping to see the ponds and fields, but I am sure I avoided much larger crowds who will come for the Festival of the Cranes next weekend.

Geese on the pond

The Bosque del Apache takes its name from its use by Apaches during the Spanish era as a camping ground.  Now the area is turned over to the birds.  Fields are planted and ponds are maintained to provide the habitat needed.  (I think this is a great use of my tax money.  When the refuge was first created, the sandhill cranes were in serious decline.  Now there are plenty of them.)

Cranes in the field

I missed the move of the geese from the pond to their roosting areas.  The pond had hundreds of geese in it when I drove into the area.  Cars were lining up along the pond to see the “show.” When I completed the loop road the geese had flown, leaving the water to a few brown ducks.  I had come to see the cranes and I did.   They were moving in small groups from field to field, feasting on the only young green plants for miles around.

Cottonwood by the trailhead

I had intended to hike and stay until dusk to see the cranes fly to their roosting places, but it was cold and windy.  I decided to start for home before dark.  I had been richly rewarded for my time and travel by this first view of the cranes and the unexpected sight of so many geese.

Parley of Instruments: A Tale

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“I’m feeling off, and achy,” complains the watch as his band stretches around the boy’s hand.  “I’ve been reset so often my knob’s worn down.”

“My time is right,” the clock on the stove calls out.

“So is mine,” the clock on the radio mutters.

“B-bong, b-bong,” the windup clock on the wall begins to chime the hour.

“You’re two minutes early,” stove clock declares.

“Close enough.  I don’t run on current like you.”

“At least we agree,” stove clock assures radio clock.

“Of course!  We run on the same power!”

“You’re grumpy this morning, radio clock,” wall clock says.

“Stove clock’s acting like she’s in charge – again.”

The boy looks at his watch, which is running five minutes slow.  “I’ve still got five minutes,” he says to himself.

“You’re reading the wrong timepiece!” the others cry together, but to the boy they are as silent as the lights flashing at the school crossing, where five minutes is enough to mark him tardy.

“He didn’t look at any of us,” stove clock sighs as the door closes.

 

This little story was a side trip in my journey with William Paley’s Natural Theology.  The image of the watch which opens Paley’s argument is so strong that it took me a while to realize that Paley is not really interested in what watches do, that is, tell time.  He is interested in the watch as a mechanism which must have had a designer.  It is a parallel to the eye, ear, and all the other parts of the body which, it is his project to demonstrate, must have been designed.  Paley’s world view is a topic for another time,. as is our contemporary bondage to clocks and the minutes they represent.

One Nation or Eleven?

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Are we one country?  I haven’t finished reading Colin Woodard’s American Nations, but it already helps me make sense of the chaos, the confusion, the peculiarity of the fall hysteria called a national election.  Woodard’s basic thesis is that eleven groups of people―ethnic groups, class groups, religious groups―came to this continent, beginning with the ones he calls “First Nation” who came from the west.  These eleven groups spread across the continent.  The group that got to any region in sufficient numbers first made its imprint on the culture in that place.  Others who came later, though they came from other “nations,” were absorbed into the existing culture rather than changing it.  The map of the continent showing these nations is a set of very wiggly lines. These lines rarely bear any relation to present state or even national borders.  The territories vary from wide to very narrow bands.  The map, which is on the front of the paper cover of the book, looks like an etch-a-sketch drawing gone wild.

Some of the “nations” make immediate sense.  In particular, the “First Nation” dominates part of Canada, and “El Norte” is the name given for the Spanish movement up from Mexico.  France had a significant influence in the areas now represented by Quebec and New Orleans.  The other nations take some study and persuasion.  Most of them were founded by the English.  The different classes and religious formations, however, produced very different views of what political life should look like.

I won’t go into all of Woodard’s claims and explanations here.  He might be horrified at my simplifications of his detailed arguments. The book is well written and an easy read in spite of the complications of his argument.  I recommend it.

To begin with the founding of the country, I learned long ago that the establishment of the government involved major compromise between the New England and the Southern ideas.  Woodard makes clear that even the language was different.  From the beginning New Englanders, because of their covenantal religious structure, were committed to participatory democracy in town meetings where everyone could speak, but expected considerable social conformity.  They were big on schools, since reading the Bible was important. The leaders of Tidewater Virginia, in contrast, were country gentlemen who expected “liberties” according to their class, and considered government a privilege and responsibility of the elite.

“Midlanders” the “nation” which first settled New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, were a mixed lot, Quaker, Dutch and German, who valued tolerance, with minimal interference in one anothers’ cultures.  A second group came in through Pennsylvania, settled in the interior and then moved down into Appalachia.  Woodard calls these “Borderlanders” because they came from the desperate border areas of Britain.  For the Scots, Irish and Scotch-Irish, the sense of community was in family and clan and they valued fighting skill, honor and independence.  “Freedom” to them meant being left alone, a contrast to the freedom of the Yankees to participate in government.

These groups spread west, so that the Midwestern states are divided in bands of different cultures, with Yankees in the northern sections and Borderlanders in the south, with a narrow strip of Midlanders in between.  My one sentence summaries of their different attitudes should make it clear that these three groups will be seeking totally different conditions in their governments.Yankees want to put everyone in school; Borderlanders want to be left alone.  Midlanders want to get along, both socially and economically.  Thus the Midlanders come to be the swing votes in the swing states.

Woodard claims that it was the Midlander vote going for Obama which gave him the win in 2008.  It will be interesting to see how he characterizes the 2012 election.  He makes me wish we had a lot more “Midlanders” in Congress.  My sense of the election results is that we, the country, are going to need all the tolerance we can get from our leadership.

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