Sunday
Apr212019

Finger of an Angel by Panayotis Cacoyannis. Reviewed by Casey Dorman

Finger of an Angel

By Panayotis Cacoyannis

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

Panayotis Cacoyannis is a master of describing the multiple identities that make up each of us. In each of his novels, both we the reader as well as the main character, struggle with understanding who the character really is. This was most obvious in Bowl of Fruit (1907), in which Jack Faro searched for himself by assuming the identities of others and in The Madness of Grief, where the main character, sixteen-year-old Jane Hareman, was forced to absorb the revelation that her father and his paramour were not who she imagined them to be, a fact which changed her profoundly. In Finger of an Angel, Lily, the protagonist, is aware of her multiple identities. Not only is she a mother of an adult daughter and a widowed wife, she is a sexually free and adventurous sixty-year old who picks up men and allows herself to be picked up by them for gratuitous sex during which both parties conceal their identities. She struggles with keeping her own wildly erratic thoughts under control by relying on “Bella,” a sane and logical alter ego who has been with her for thirty years and speaks to her as a real person.

On a sweltering summer day while driving from a sexual encounter in a secret wood, infamous as a location for trysts, her classic Mercedes’ air conditioning goes awry, baking her in heat and bringing on a hallucinatory aura of an impending migraine. She becomes lost navigating the labyrinthine turns of a narrow road on which she is the only car. Her thoughts begin to wander out of control, only occasionally centered by conversations with the hallucinatory Bella. A fly entering her car is identified as Bella’s muse the angel Ithuriel, then as Tommy, Lily’s son who died at the age of eight. Her husband, Frank’s, voice appears and explains that Tommy’s death was truly an accident, for which he felt guilty, and his own death, by falling in front of a train after a “nudge” from Lily, who wanted him dead, was a suicide on his part. The “devil incarnate” appears in the form of Ben and Darren, two men who try to rape her while her car is stopped, but she is saved by a mysterious stag, who might be the embodiment of Ithuriel, known in  Milton’s poem for revealing the devil’s identity, when it attacks the men, allowing her to flee. All the while, her daughter Gemma is calling her on her dead mobile phone and reprimanding her for her lifestyle. She tells Gemma that she is changing her life because her latest sexual encounter with “Bob” has led to true love.

Throughout Lily’s ordeal we are terrified that Lily will actually come to harm—from a car wreck, a migraine and stroke, a wasp sting (she’s allergic) or from her two attackers, if they are real. Reality is blurred, and we don’t know if she is hallucinating or having a genuine experience. She only arrives home when time begins running backward and she drives back to the turn in the road where she first got lost.

Once home, Lily is no longer alone. Bob, her new love takes her to dinner, Patrick, a former sexual partner and neighbor rescues her from his younger brothers (who resemble Ben and Darren in their behavior), Gemma announces that she’s married Noah and they both come to visit. Lily, and the reader, must straighten all the perceptions and experiences out to determine what is real and what is not as Lily faces real relationships that have to be evaluated.  Each of the other characters reveals him or her self to not be exactly who Lily imagined them to be either. 

This is a marvelous mixture of fantasy, of examination of someone’s psychological interior, and of the many sides that make up a person. For Lily, as for most of us, some of the sides of her personality are ones she doesn’t want to face and some represent efforts to escape them. Lily is complex, but more to the point of a novel, she is entertaining. The story is entertaining, with Lily expressing herself with wit in the direst of circumstances and the situations described with symbolism, artistic metaphors and humor. Cacoyannis is able to peel away the layers of his characters’ personalities in a way that few writers can. This makes his novels difficult to put down and the reader eager to pick them up and continue the fascinating story as we learn more and more of the characters’ inner secrets. 

In what now is an unbroken sequence of brilliant novels, Finger of an Angel more than holds it own respected place.

Finger of an Angel is available on Amazon

 

 

 

Sunday
Mar312019

Imitations of Love Poems by Dory Williams and Dustin Pickering, reviewed by Duane Vorhees

Williams, Dory & Pickering, Dustin

Imitations of Love Poems

Transcendent Zero Press, 2019

“Imitations of Love Poems” (Transcendent Zero Press) is a joint production by Dory Williams and Dustin Pickering. Like most marriages, the book is an odd pairing of two quite different sensibilities. Though both poets write of love and religion, Dory speaks most often of God and Dustin of thwarted Eros. Dory excels at wonderful one-liners like “There is a border at your neck where my lips dare to travel” and “My eyes own a well, built for me, and you are the water.” Dustin takes a more circumspect approach, sprinkling his poems with references to the Classical world of thought populated by Heraclitus, Ovid, and Damocles, and speaking in the voice of Lyndon Johnson’s grandfather, a Confederate veteran who formed the Populist Party in Texas and prefigured many of the paradoxes of the Great Society; generally, his lines are longer and deeper, as in the prose poem “for M. S.”:

When your sweet dreams linger long with afterglow, you will fly like a courtesan of rain through the mysterious sky. Ambivalence is my secret ghost—he tangles your lips with metaphor. The Magi are hopeless in their search for silence. At night, you are a shining star that knows the source of light 

Dory is the mistress of the aphorism, “If you want fame and money without real / Achievement behind it, you’re not greedy enough.” “Youth is a car sale. The salesman lies. / But we get one look at it and it's sold.” “With comedy, / you can forget your problems, and fast. / Unfortunately, it always seems it’s the tragedy that lasts!” Dustin is better at indirection, as in “Angels in the Dark”:

 

Something of passion is here, 

listening. I cannot let it go 

because it holds me in silence. 

I had hopes placed in those lips 

that form the most measureless magic 

of your smile; I wanted to kiss them and hear them 

tell me what the world imparts. 

However, my heart will not stop its ache 

and you cannot stop it even 

if language could cry for me 

as I try, again, in these words 

to tell you my heart cannot leave.

 

Dory is quite capable of paradox, as in “For Me, For You, For the World”:

 

I say the words, “I Love you”, before I speak. 

And I stay before I’m invited

 

But Dustin revels in making language itself a living, mysterious entity, as in two of his poems “For e. b.”:

 

i have usurped your river of thought 

and looked up words in your dictionary 

without your permission.

 

you kiss language, and 

let its free fires fluster and smother 

to bite wisdom in its fearful grip.

 

While Dory wavers between desire and uncertainty (“Angels cannot stop true love. / Neither can demons! / Death cannot stop true love. / But you can!”), Dustin sometimes shows his promiscuous side, engaging in dialogues not with Dory but with his glittering muses Leonard Cohen (“They Won’t Forget to Pray: verses in response to ‘So Long Marianne’”) and Amy Winehouse (“I Cried For You on the Kitchen Floor: lines from ‘You Know I Am No Good’”).

And so it goes. The Dory section and the Dustin section are like mismatched lovers, separate and independent under the same covers but deriving mutual warmth. They do not reflect upon each other, as William Blake did in his contrasting “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience.” They follow their own paths without reference to each other. But, as Dustin reflects,

 

This is how worlds happen

One truth turns into another. 

They lean on each other, 

grieving and burning 

like a small atom dying in friction, 

becoming a grave of itself. 

 

Duane Vorhees, an English collegiate professor for the University of Maryland University College, is the author of  "Love's Autobiography." He also publishes duanespoetree.blogspot.com, which features writers and other artists from around the world. 

Friday
Mar222019

The Lost Heir by Rivera Sun

Rivera Sun

The Lost Heir

El Prado, NM: Rising Sun Press Works, 2018

The Lost Heiri is a sequel to Rivera Sun’s earlier work, The Way Between, both books featuring the young Ari Ara, meaning “not this-not that” as the heroine. This story picks up where The Way Between left off, with Ari Ara in the capital city of Mariana, being groomed as the lost heir of a marriage between the King of the Desert and the deceased Queen of Mariana. 

Ari Ara is a courageous, headstrong twelve year old girl who has a magnanimous heart and is committed to justice and peaceful resolution of problems using “The Way Between,” which is a verbal and physical way of diverting an opponent’s anger and violence using a form of martial arts and mental and verbal techniques. Despite her age, Ari Ara is expert at the method, called Azar, having been taught it by the great warrior Shulen when she first arrived in the capital from her previous home in the mountains, being raised by the mysterious mountain people, the Fanten.

Not everyone in the capital wants Ari Ara to assume her rightful role as heir to the throne. A group of nobles oppose her and many others are suspicious of her. She breaks down the suspicions of the Urchin children when she befriends Everill, “Rill,’ the Queen of the Urchins. She champions the Water Workers, who are desert people who must work to gain life-giving water for their families after the water was illegally diverted years before. The House of Thorn nobles go so far as to try to assassinate Ari Ara, but she is protected by Shulen, by the young champion Emir, as well as by Brinelle, the current queen, and by a mysterious master of the haws, Malak from the desert.

Ari Ara’s will is tested as she is assaulted and insulted when The Way Between, her method of solving conflicts without violence is gradually accepted by more and more of the population and even the guards and soldiers. Her life is constantly in danger, and her fiery temper is in danger of overcoming her dedication to peace and the peaceful methods of Azar. With the help of Rill, of Malak, of Emir and of Korin, a royal friend, and Minli a crippled orphan who has become a scholar, she withstands all the challenges and, in the end, prevails.

The Lost Heiris a true adventure story, filled with action and fantasy. It takes place in a strange land, in which the population is split between different factions occupying different environments and whose suspicion and longstanding hatreds have sowed the seeds of war for years. It is also story of the wisdom of nonviolence and an inspirational tale of the ability of the good side of the human spirit to prevail over the dark side. Both young and older readers will learn about the methods of nonviolent protest and confrontation and how they can be used to oppose evil in a way that upholds the dignity of both sides on issues of difference.

Rivera Sun is a poet and her prose is poetic and full of imagery and figurative language, so that the reader is swept up in the story and his or her imagination is ignited by the  author’s beautifully descriptive and poetic use of language. She is able to paint pictures with her words. 

I’ve given my copy of The Way Between to my teenage niece and now that I’m finished reading The Lost Heir, I plan to give it to her also. I want her to learn the lessons the book teaches. And I know she will be swept up by the story the way she was with its predecessor and the way I was. 

You may purchase The Lost Heir here.

Casey Dorman, Editor, Lost Coast Review

Tuesday
Jan012019

Desert Mornings: Poems from the Coachella Valley by Lucy Wilson

 

Desert Mornings: Poems from the Coachella Valley

Lucy Wilson

Transcendent Zero Press (2018)

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

Lucy Wilson’s new collection,Desert Mornings: Poems from the Coachella Valley is about the desert, about the sun—rising, setting and warming—and about the natural world and the point of view of a human experiencing it. The lines from the opening poem prepare us for the keen observations and the sense of wonder that pervade the book.

Pre-dawn shadow world gives way

to eastern glow and birds in flight;

towering pine trees and regal palms shimmer 

shimmer in reflected light.

 

On the surface of the swimming pool

local mountains and distant skies

repeat this morning ritual 

mirrored in my eyes.

 

The hopefulness of nature and the repetition of each day are reflected in the renewal of spirit that they engender. The poem, “Morning Prayer” captures this beautifully. “Deep breath / clean slate / new leaf / fresh start.” But not all things in the desert are simple and benign. In “Animals or Angels?” the hawk communes with a statue of Buddha, then flies off “to catch finches for breakfast / leaving a trail of bird bones and feathers.”  In “Things I Have Learned Since Moving to the Desert,” we learn that winters are cold and wet and that sandstorms, called “Haboobs” can cover the patio furniture with silt, and “Some desert insects are so big they qualify as small monsters.” The poem “Nocturne” is about the terror of nighttime, “Coyotes / red eyes aglow / drool drifting from bared teeth:” The poet tells us “I am grateful for the seven-foot wall between us.” 

Wilson is attuned to the effects of light on the colors of the desert and weaves her observations into her poems: In “Meditations on a Theme: Salute to the Sun” she says, “Below my terrace / east-facing flowers / fill with light / turning yellow to gold / and pink to deepest coral.”

Desert Mornings is a collection of poetic observations of nature from a human point of view. It s a mixture of the beautiful and the frightening, as nature presents itself to us, with the beautiful winning out in the end, as in the poet’s final lesson in “Things I Have Learned Since Moving to the Desert,” that “night arrives early. / The desert night sky is heavy with stars like diamonds / on an old woman’s hands.” 

The poems are about nature and its life, but they are also about the failure and dangers of humans, and several of them have the flavor of social commentary.  They are a critique of “Greed at the heart of ‘progress’ / those who brush off others’ pain like dandruff” and of  ”hypocrites and haters” as she describes them in the poem, “Enemies of Empathy.” In “Another Way” she wonders, “If men carried their offspring beneath their hearts /for three quarters of a year / would there be so many pointless wars, / would we let our children live in fear?” In “Living with the Past” she declares that “Using religion, nationhood, / racial and ethnic differences / to justify murder and mayhem / is the fast train to Perdition.” 

This is a collection that reflects upon nature and upon human nature, finally, as in the book’s final poem, “Inner Light,” recognizing their similarity. As it affirms the beauty of the desert and the sun, it affirms, in an echo of the Beatles (not the only one in the book), called “All we Need” that “Love is the answer that everyone seeks.” The dark, sometimes ugly underside of nature and of humanity is confronted and, with regard to the latter, called out with a plea for something better. It is a hopeful book and a beautiful book. The reader will approach nature with a more observant eye after seeing the richness the author gleans from her surroundings. It’s well worth reading.  

A note about the style of the presentation: The cover and design are elegant and interspersed between the poems are snippets of poetic or literary works that emphasize the points addressed by the author’s own poems. These range from Shakespeare, to Rumi to Nietzsche to Mary Shelley. All in all, Desert Mornings: Poems from the Coachella Valley is a book with the power to inspire.

 

 

Wednesday
Oct242018

The Anti-Austerity Anthology, reviewed by Casey Dorman

The Anti-Austerity Anthology

Edited by Rupert Dreyfus, Harry Whitewolf and Mike Robbins

Amazon Digital Services, 2018

Concern about rising national debts throughout Europe and the UK since the 2008-9 recession, have led to so-called “austerity programs” in many countries. The dual approaches to austerity have been to raise taxes and to lower government spending, although, in the United States then-president Obama’s  response to the recession was a series of “stimulus packages,” which involved injecting government money into the economy to counteract unemployment and business failure. Almost uniformly, the austerity programs have hurt those most vulnerable in the societies in which they were implemented. Depending upon the country, government worker pay, mental health expenditures, unemployment programs, pensions, and most social programs have been cut to reduce spending. Increases in homelessness, poverty rates, unemployment and even death rates have been seen in vulnerable populations.

The Anti-Austerity Anthology, a collection of (mostly) British short stories, poems, and essays published by the Anti-Austerity Collective, which donated the proceeds from the book to food-bank charities, represents a literary response to austerity programs.

Rather than an exposé of the political and economic bases of the recession and the programs designed to combat it, which is well-covered in the Foreword  by Steve Topple and an essay by Mike Robbins, the contents of the anthology are personal stories of the pain, frustration and most of all, the powerlessness felt by the victims of austerity programs.

I felt that the short stories generally worked better than the poetry in this collection, mostly because the stories seemed more personal and the poetry more political. Some of the poems were powerful, however, in their use of words, Matthew Duggan’s “Charcoal,” for instance, or a poem such as “Prole Baseline” by Ford Dagenham.

Riya Anne Polcastro’s story, “The Night Shift” is horrifyingly memorable for the realistic picture it portrays of  a nurse, paralyzed by an attack from an emergency room patient and subsequently denied health and social services as her husband becomes more and more frustrated to the point of violence. Chris Harrison’s “The Bet” is a quirky tale of the inaccuracy of public opinion about those who can’t find jobs and the surprising response of one man who finds out the truth about the difficulty of finding employment.  The extract from her book The Single Feather, by Ruth F. Hunt, reveals how depression and competition for the meager resources available to those with disabilities can turn one person against another and rob those most needing it from support. Mary Papastavrou’s story, “Maria Jumps,” is a frightening view of life inside a dystopian society in which only the powerful survive. A few writers are able to inject humor—black humor—into their stories: Rupert Dreyfus in “Workfarce,” for instance, or Harry Whitewolf in “Word Tax.” The fake and hilarious advertisements of Jay Spencer Green are  a welcome lightness interspersed throughout the book. 

It’s impossible to come away from the Anti-Austerity Anthology without being personally affected. I’ve singled out a few of the entries that struck a particularly responsive chord with me, but none of the stories or poems is weak and all convey a message.The book is a testament to the personal toll on people’s lives that a government more interested in economic matters and preservation of the wealth of the rich and powerful can have. It’s also a wonderful example of how art can be turned to the examination of social issues.

I strongly recommend the book.

 

Tuesday
Oct022018

"Knows No End" by Dustin Pickering. Reviewed by Casey Dorman

Knows No End

Dustin Pickering

Kolkata: Hawakal Publishers, 2018

 

Dustin Pickering’s Knows No End is a long poem, focused upon the death of Hyancinthus, in the arms of Apollo, struck by a discus—a fixture of Greek mythology. At the same time, it is an homage to the dedication of the female painter trying touch the essence of life’s meaning in the natural object of beauty—the hyacinth flower. I found the poem profound and moving. Immediately, the poet projects himself into the artistic consciousness of the painter, confronted with nature and seeking to both find meaning and convey that meaning in her re-creation of what she sees and intuits. The poem cycles through the four seasons, from hope to disillusionment, and finally through surrender and giving of oneself to the creation, to hope again. It can be read at many levels, but for me, it seemed a personal account of the quest for meaning in nature, in the world, in the beauty one sees but may not be able to reach, and in the need for love and to love.

The words are marvelous. In the First Moments:

 The wind is a mild friend

visiting in my doubting hours.

 Then approaching the object in Summer

 I may have offended your repose

but I promise friendship

 In Fall, after failure, her inspiration allows the painter to try again to reach the essence of the beauty she loves:

                                   Yet it doesn’t reach deep enough

and I find that what it says

is only part of what is really said.

How do I pull the essence from this romance?

 

The flower shyly closes its eyes.

seeming to know what I seek,

the Hyacinth protects its interior

but playfully suggests answers.

Finally, the painter asks,

If I become what I admire,

will I know it fully?

In Winter, the painter’s task is to bring the beauty back alive:

As I paint, I am reminded

 

of the reason I began my art.

capturing essence in the fleeting, 

chaotic  existence enclosed within time

is an impossible and dissatisfying task.

 And in Spring, the reality that love is projection is faced and overcome by a higher truth:

Is love too an illusion? Is my heartbeat

merely sensation, something external

to my own existence?

Fortitude teaches me

 

That intense pain and doubt are chained

As prisoners in the dark.

I surrender the unique work created

by my hands to You.

Knows No End is a creative poetic achievement of substantial magnitude. It reaches the depth of the reader’s experience while telling a story of another’s experience, another time, another place. The intense longing, the doubt, the joy and inspiration and, finally, the movement toward greater meaning are all there and the reader is pulled along within the poet’s world, but always touching on what is familiar in each of us. I was frankly, overwhelmed, and I hope this book reaches a wide audience. It is certainly worth reading.

Knows No End is available on Amazon here

Saturday
May122018

"the heart is an attic" by Srividya Sivakumar, reviewed by Dustin Pickering

“Wander my restless heart…”

Review of Srividya Sivakumar’s the heart is an attic

By Dustin Pickering

the heart is an attic

Srividya Sivakumar

Hawakal Publishers (2018)

 

In the heart is an attic, Sivakumar loosens the paradoxes of emotion and the roles we play in those emotions. For instance, she balances the role of being a woman in traditional society with being an iconoclast poet filled with rage and disquietude. One serious discussion underlying the work is the relationship between freedom and slavery.

            For example, in “The Merry Widow” the rage at being an unknown and misunderstood being, such as a poet, is evocatively communicated. Only the poet truly grasps that poetry is the foundation of life. As the final line speaks, “Someone’s walking on our grave.” This statement is bold but it reflects the aforementioned emotional paradox. The poet is balanced with the woman tending her domestic duties. In “Bystander”, the profile of woman’s being is deepened. Sivakumar writes, “now you conduct panel discussions / and my tears are a wall of silence and reproach.” She is able to create an analogy from being woman to being misunderstood generally as a poet. Her actual feelings are ignored for pointless diversions, and her poetry is carved into by critics who fail to see its merits and fullness.

            We are all human, equipped with similar desires and dispositions. Each of us feels misunderstood, neglected, and powerless to a degree. The human soul is deep and full of intricacies we wish to express. Poetry only can fathom these depths and put them in an artistic language. Because the world is overcome by population, a tax on leisure through exhaustion and overwork, and bored clichés, the poet seems like a trivial thing. Combine this with being a woman whose moral and emotional strength is ignored by a masculine world and you can get a glimpse of what drives the language of the heart is an attic.

            Another wish is elemental to these poems. “You do not text or call / or make any move to drive a distance / to come see me…” (“Ironic”, page 51) writes Sivakumar. This is damning of men. She exposes the beast within that behaves selfishly. She sees neglect and lack of initiative in men both as a social issue and an individual problem. In the same way she wants encouragement from the literary community, she wants a man to go the extra mile for her. In “Obituary” she unveils the true importance of her observations: “oh we all die this way / as a poet a lover in eternal disgrace”. She does not speak merely for woman or woman-as-poet, but as an analyst of human relationships. These lines declare that the final aim of all existence is a life of disgrace.

            Such an observation may reflect back to St. Augustine’s discovery of Original Sin. St. Thomas Aquinas, upon reflecting on Plato, discovered just how logical such an idea is. In “Lent”, this truth is embraced in a specifically Catholic symbolism. Two lovers meet at Christmastime and seem like godsends to each other. Love plays at being heaven and at the same time, a gift from heaven. However, the imperfections within humanity resolve into a devastating end, and the poet herself faces the darkest hour. “All the / colours fled, swept away by anger and regret. / i gave you up for Lent, i said. / i meant for life.” The ritual is complete. We must forgive and realize all becomes ashes.

            Permanence doesn’t appear too dominant a theme but the human condition is called for what it is. In “Congé”, the poet writes “take this soul that wasted so long / and this secret that it has kept.” In our innermost depths, our heart does its most pertinent adventuring. We come to know ourselves and hence, others. When we move outside of ourselves, we face that heated rejection we fear most. In this poem, the poet reveals her anger at lost time and the dissolution of a long-time relationship. In her inner world, she can be purely honest with herself. As poet she can communicate her heart. When she faces the real and actual world of reality, these things no longer matter. We cannot bend the will of other people. The poet writes, “Love is a tchotchke.” In this poem (“Tchotchke”, page 35), she also writes, “But the entrance into this world of mixed tastes and deep heartbreak, is often, almost always, a quick trolley ride down an aisle full of mines.” Here we face ambiguity, the confinement of choices, and the confusion of a multitude of choices. The poet reveals the reality of love as volatile and fickle, thus exclaiming it as something with neither anchor nor guarantees. This is an essential human truth we pretend doesn’t exist.

            Finally, Sivakumar creates an intriguing metaphor for life using daily routine. The poem “Impressionist” disguises a mild cynicism but also curtails in a revelation of beauty. Life requires illusions to soothe desperation, but these illusions skirt the actual truth. T. S. Eliot wrote that we can only handle so much reality. Those who deny the presence of illusions are the worst sort of megalomaniacs. Too much sensory data leads to fight-or-flight reactions. Knowledge seems like balm in Gilead but, like love, it is only such as illusion. Ideal forms are not substitutes for the things-in-themselves.

            The heart is an attic is an enjoyable read for its feminist rage and symbolic realism. In writing this collection, the author dives in and reveals herself in lucid honesty. You may find hidden gems of passion in this slim volume. Attics hold the priceless artifacts of our past experiences. As you climb through Sivakumar’s attic, you may recognize something of yourself. Attics also accumulate dust and spider webs. As you enjoy these verses, wipe away the refuse and relish the language. It signifies a distance between Self and Other, Reader and Author, and Subject and Object. It is more than an awakening of consciousness. It is an awakening of identity. 

Dustin Pickering is Editor-in-Chief of the literary journal, Harbinger Asylum and founder of Transcendent Zero Press.

 

Thursday
Apr052018

The Madness of Grief by Panayotis Cacoyannis, reviewed by Casey Dorman

To say that Panayotis Cacoyannis’ characters, in whichever of his books one is reading, are not whom they first appear to be, is as much of an understatement as saying that Donald Trump sometimes stretches the truth. This is no less true of the characters in his latest novel, The Madness of Grief. The story is a coming-of-age tale told by the protagonist, 16 year old Jane Hareman. It is a recollection, with the immediacy of a current account, perhaps triggered by the taste of a Black Forest Gateau, reminding us of Proust’s Madeline Cake-inspired return to the past.

The plot is simple, if circuitous. At the moment of a young girl’s tentative sexual awakening, a series of events reveals truths about her father, his lover, her aunt and the boy with whom she is enamored. The deceptions that have hidden many of these truths are mostly a reaction to the death of her mother, ten years earlier. But, as each façade is removed, the underlying reality becomes less certain and more mysterious, culminating in answers only in an epilogue-like chapter occurring fifteen years later.

The events cover a mere several days, but their impact is Titanic on the lives of those in Jane’s immediate circle. Jane seems to be the only one who is sure about who she is, yet it is her life and the changes in her perception of those who surround her, that are the focus of the book.

The characters are complex and entertaining. There is  Jane’s father, George—Mister Magikoo—a retired magician who, after accidentally electrocuting his wife during one of his performances, runs  a magic shop. George hides his grief behind a gruff and manly exterior, which also shields, among other things, his tender and loving feelings toward Jane. Aunt Ada, George’s sister, has taken Jane under her wing, but is hiding her own secret behind her anger at her brother for killing Jane’s mother. Mia-Mia, the live-in brainless girlfriend of Jane’s father, turns out to be Jack, the educated and sensitive live-in boyfriend, and Karl, the musical prodigy who Jane feels is her closest friend and confidante, betrays Jane in her most vulnerable moment.

None of the above descriptions adequately captures the complexity portrayed in the nuanced interactions of any of these personalities. Beneath their deceit, which we see is based upon the grief that each of them feels and is trying to deny, is a humanness that Jane’s innocent and trusting perceptiveness is able to reveal. The events of the few days in which the novel takes place tumble from one revelation to another, and for both Jane and the reader, the truth that was hidden behind the magician’s curtain is shocking, while at the same time it initiates the next step in her appreciation of a reality that is far less simplistic than she had thought. As each layer of each character is pulled away, the reader finds himself more deeply engrossed in the people about whom he is learning. Jane’s acceptance of the necessity of these illusions for the survival of those she loves (and her stark awareness of the tragedy that results from stripping them away), provides a blueprint for the reader’s suspension of his own judgment in the service of understanding other people’s foibles as essential aspects of their selves. Along with Jane, the reader is able to grow and accept what might have seemed odd or even grotesque if he weren’t able, through Jane’s eyes, to see it as an expression of human nature—and human love— with its myriad complications. In this sense, The Madness of Grief represents a coming of age in which the reader finds himself taking an active part—no mean feat for a short novel such as this.

As in all Cacoyannis novels, the language in which the people and events are described is impeccably precise and evocative. Throughout the novel, there is a balance between the humor implicit in the recurring revelation that people can also be their own opposites and the underlying tragedy of the difficulty of coping with this all too human predicament. The story moves rapidly, contains a genuine mystery, and is thoroughly entertaining. I found it to be a story that left me with a deep sense of satisfaction about the potential within my fellow human beings.

 

 

Tuesday
Mar272018

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, reviewed by Casey Dorman

The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh  Nguyen

Grove Atlantic, 2015

 

I was on my way to Vietnam to visit my wife’s family and needing something to read on the long flight to Ho Chi Minh City via Tokyo, so I decided to read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, which I had bought six months prior, but only gotten forty pages into. The debut novel of the USC professor was the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize and it seemed appropriate reading for my trip.

The Vietnam War (or for Vietnamese, the American War) is still a touchy subject in America and particularly among the Vietnamese immigrant community, many of its older members of which (including three of my brothers-in-law) served in the South Vietnamese Army and were imprisoned in concentration camps following the war. My own wife escaped her native country fourteen years after the surrender of the city where she grew up and lived, following a difficult two-year journey by land and sea and residence in a refugee camp, finally arriving in America. I, on the other hand, a college student in the 1960s, had protested the U.S. involvement in the Southeast Asian war and had viewed it as an internal civil strife with no clear good or bad side, and better left alone for the Vietnamese to solve. I learned a different side of the war from my newly acquired relatives after I was married and after I traveled back and forth to Vietnam on several occasions to meet my wife’s remaining family in Saigon.

Things aren’t what they seem when one is presented with only one side of an issue, or even when presented with both sides, but within the framework of a doctrine that interprets all information from a single point of view. Life is complicated and the human mind prefers simplicity. We welcome divisions of black and white, of right and wrong and have great difficulty balancing ourselves within the gray interface between conflicting ideas and positions. Actions are difficult to plan or justify when we see too many sides of an issue.

The dilemma of straddling the middle, either because our sympathies are split between opposing forces, or because we insist on seeing a deeper view of reality than the tunnel vision of allegiance to one point of view affords, is the subject of The Sympathizer. The novel focuses upon the end and immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, seen through the eyes and heard through the words of a Communist Viet Cong spy who is positioned within a South Vietnamese Army intelligence unit and who accompanies his commanding general to America following the collapse of Saigon. In Los Angeles, among the refugee community, the protagonist’s job is to send back, by secret code, information on the plans of the exiled general and others to return to their country to try to retake it from the Communists who have won the war.

The descriptions of the fall of Saigon and the desperate efforts of those who will fall prey to the victorious Viet Cong to escape with whatever valuables they possess, but often with just their lives, are hair-raising, but the characterization of the intricate plotting within the exiled refugee community, amidst the prejudice encountered from Americans is even more telling. Within the American government there are elements for whom the sting of an American “loss” in Vietnam is unbearable and who are eager to promote the efforts of the displaced South Vietnamese veterans to return to their country to fight again. At the same time, the majority of Americans just want to move on and the presence of Vietnamese refugees in their midst is an unpleasant reminder of an ignominious period in recent U.S. history. Most don’t want to see the civil upheaval caused by the war reemerge. The refugees themselves, often former army officers, distinguished teachers, or successful business people are reduced to being pizza deliverers, chefs, restaurant owners, or menial workers in their new country.

The narrator (he only is referred to as the “Captain,” and never by name) is sympathetic to the plight of his fellow immigrants while he remains a believer in the revolutionary ideas and mission of the followers of Ho Chi Minh. His life and his feelings are complicated by having two best friends—“blood brothers” from childhood—one of whom is a former South Vietnamese soldier who lost his family and is active in developing the resistance army that will return to his homeland to fight, and the other who is his Communist contact in Vietnam, who receives his coded messages and sends him his orders. At the same time he is having an affair with a Japanese-American who sees all of this focus upon one’s country of origin as wasted effort and regards herself as just “American” and resents being treated as if her Asian roots were the most salient thing about her. 

Needless to say, the narrator’s sympathies are torn in a number of directions and the beauty of the novel is the electric, humorous and cynically perceptive style in which the author portrays this dilemma. Viet Thanh Nguyen has been compared to Graham Greene and Franz Kafka, but I found his ability to reveal the absurdity of such a human conundrum with sparkling, often hilarious wit, reminiscent of Saul Bellow. The ingenious use of humor and creative riffs of ludicrousness are enough to carry the novel by themselves.

The delicate balance the narrator tries to achieve is doomed to failure, because his efforts are to be judged by one side or another in a split population of opponents who have chosen vehement rejection of each other as the sine qua non of their identity. When he returns to Vietnam as part of an opposition reconnaissance force hoping to foment counter revolution (but all the while being a loyal spy for the Communists who now run the country), he is captured and must try to explain himself to the “Commissar” of the prison camp to which he is sent. His “confession” to his Communist captors, which is the first 307 pages of the book, is too nuanced, too impartial and even-handed in his appraisal of both the enemy and of his own side, to pass muster. He cannot be forgiven and return to his homeland unless he re-assumes the kind of tunnel vision necessary for a revolutionary. He cannot do it; in fact, he disagrees with the premise. He argues that the revolution, which sought to overturn greed, prejudice, and inhumanity toward one’s fellow, has become the very thing it despised, mostly because it makes all humanitarian, liberal assessment of one’s fellows subservient to its rigid dictates. Fortunately, the Commissar who turns out to be his childhood friend, appears to sympathize with him, but disagrees in terms of what the revolution requires in order to succeed. The Commissar recognizes that the narrator cannot survive in the new Vietnam and allows him to escape, albeit as a “boat person” with an unknown fate, presumably back in America.

While “The Sympathizer” may be a Vietnamese American’s attempt to voice the dilemma of a people who split themselves in two and a large segment of whom became strangers in strange lands, caught between trying to assimilate and trying to remain loyal to the history and culture they continued to value, it is also a brilliant description of the anguish of maintaining one’s thoughts and sympathies poised in the crux of cognitive dissonance. Reality is many sided and multilayered, and to try to see it clearly is not just psychologically painful but also leads to rejection from a society that prefers loyalties, opinions and thoughts to be phrased in black or white. For the immigrant or refugee this dilemma may be more explicit as he or she weighs assimilation against retention of culture and loyalty to one’s past, but the quandary is present for all of us.

The Sympathizer is about the Vietnamese-American experience at the time of the first great influx of Vietnamese into the United States. It is also a story of the human psyche and the human condition, which transcends that particular experience and thus has a message for everyone who reads it.

 

Wednesday
Nov012017

Dovecote by Anne Britting Oleson. Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

Dovecote by Anne Britting Oleson

Bink Books

Fairfield, CA

2017

 

A small English coastal village is where widowed Gwynne Forrest finds herself after inheriting the tiny Gull Cottage owned by her late great aunt Gwynneth Chelton, her American grandmother’s sister whom she had never met. It’s a house that seems unfriendly from the moment she steps into it. There are strange sounds in the night, a garden with brambles that not only grow back as soon as they are cut, but which reach out their grasping vines to slice her skin when she walks among them. And then there is the mysterious garden beyond the gate, the garden containing the abandoned and decaying dovecote, even more forbidding than the house itself. The only saving graces are the people who come to tend the house: Mary, the housekeeper and Colin the handyman who brings the wood, both having served her great aunt for years. As it turned out, they were years of unthanked service, since Gwynneth Chelton was a morose and lonely woman who asked and gave almost nothing to those around her. But Mary and Colin were devoted to her, as they soon are to Gwynne.

The setting of Dovecote is at least half of the novel’s charm. The homey, English ways of making tea, of walking from one place in the village to another, the familiar names of kitchen utensils and furniture. Gull Cottage and its surrounds are fully picturable to the reader.

But what starts out as a cozy story of settling into life in a new, classically English surrounding soon becomes a story of mysterious and unseen forces, dominated by the personalities of the dead occupants of the cottage and the message they have for Gwynne. Her great aunt’s life was an unpleasant one—fully attributable to her husband— and after his suicide she live for 50 years as a solitary widow, telling no one of the horrors of her marriage. But Gwynne, whose own life and marriage and the death of her own husband mirrored that of her great aunt’s, has been summoned to the village and the house, through the inheritance, for a reason, which she and the reader will slowly and circuitously find out as the story progresses as a first-class mystery.

Did I mention that there are ghosts? Well there are, and although I don’t generally enjoy ghost stories, this one is as much a story of emotions and relationships as it is one of ghosts. Gwynne’s great aunt has something to tell her and Gwynne finds she has a task to perform—if only she can find out what it is. And finding out involves learning about her great aunt's first love, Martin, who, although now 94 years old, joins Gwynne in solving the mystery. And Colin, who becomes a lover, but finds that the same emotional blocks that strangled the life of Gwynneth Chelton for 50 years, have their hands about the heart of her niece. Only solving the mystery of Gwynneth Chelton's marriage, life, and dath can save Gwynne, who is in both emotional and real physical danger.

This is an excellent story for lovers of mysteries, ghost stories and of excellent, literary writing. The author, Anne Britting Oleson is a first-class poet and she writes beautifully, sensitively and tenderly, exploring emotions as well as a complex plot. I recommend this book to everyone. It will keep you reading and guessing and simply enjoying the act of reading until you reach the very end.

Casey Dorman, Editor: Lost Coast Review

Tuesday
Sep122017

The Nature of Man: Fry and Tomasello reviewed by Casey Dorman

Fry, Douglas, Ed. (2013). War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, Michael (2016). A Natural History of Human Morality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

 

Those of us who favor nonviolence and espouse cooperation over conquest in both everyday interpersonal relations and politics, including relations between nations, cultures and religions, are often accused of having our heads in the clouds.  Human nature, we are told, is naturally aggressive, based on dominance of one person over another, and follows the Darwinian rule of “survival of the fittest.” The strongest will always win in the end and those who can display the most aggressiveness toward their more weak-willed neighbors will reap the largest rewards. To argue otherwise is to deny our basic nature as human beings. Athletic contests, political elections, economic and military competition between nations, and even conversations on talk radio, TV panels, and on social media are all based on this premise.

But is human nature inherently  aggressive? Is interpersonal dominance the rule that governs human social interactions? Are we doomed to solve international conflicts on the basis of whose weapons are most powerful? Two recent books suggest otherwise.

War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views is a 2013 collection of essays and studies, edited by Douglas P. Fry, Chairperson of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. In addition to an introduction and conclusion by Fry, it contains sections on Ecological and Evolutionary Models, Lessons from Prehistory, Nomadic Foragers, The Primatological Context of Human Nature, and Taking Restraint Against Killing Seriously. A common theme is to examine and refute the view of man as a “killer ape.” The volume includes 27 chapters contributed by 32 scholars.

One of the main themes of War, Peace and Human Nature is that our most  immediate genetic relatives in the animal kingdom, Chimpanzees and Bonobos are not as vicious toward one another as some accounts have portrayed them. Bonobos, which form into matriarchal troops, are particularly nonviolent toward others of their species, and in fact there is no record of them having deliberately killed one another. Chimps are less so, but actual killings are rare and although there is some cooperative behavior involved in some attacks, actual wars between troops are nearly unheard of. Most aggressive encounters result in one or the other Chimp backing down. Another theme is that archaeological records from the hunter-gatherer period of human history, which comprises 99% of the history of genus homo, and is generally accepted as the period in which most of our uniquely human genetically based behaviors evolved, shows almost no evidence of inter-group wars (with one exception), although there is evidence of death by probably intra-species violence (i.e. murder). An increase in intra-species violence, and the advent of inter-group warfare occurred in coincidence with the agricultural revolution about 10,000-12,000 years ago. Studies of  modern “primitive” groups include true foraging hunter gatherers, equestrian (horse-dependent) hunter-gatherers and sedentary hunter-gatherers –who remain in one place and often do slight farming. Some of these groups, for instance some Native American equestrian tribes, were quite warlike. But as several authors point out, Native American use of horses was a consequence of the presence of Europeans on American soil and their behavior represented a reaction to European-American incursions into their land as well as their relations to other Native American tribes. Most of the sedentary hunter gatherers likewise represent an existence within the context of a larger developed community around them. The few true foraging hunter-gatherer groups studied are not warlike, but they do sometimes kill each other, usually as a result of wife-stealing, revenge behavior, or insults to honor.

In both primates and humans the rarity of actual killing of other members of the species is moderated by the development of a number of behaviors aimed at restraint. Such behaviors, which are also seen in other mammalian species, include the use of aggressive and submissive displays, mock fighting (often involving no actual physical contact), avoidance behaviors, and advantages in conflict that accrue to whichever animal is on its home territory or holds a position of dominance within a group. Chimpanzees are known to show “reconciliation” behaviors to reestablish harmony within a group after an aggressive encounter.

Humans, in particular, have evolved a number of signals involving gestures and expressions, which signal a reluctance to fight. The reluctance of modern humans to take another human being’s life is illustrated by studies of men in war in which it is revealed that the majority of soldiers in battle either don’t fire their weapons or don’t fire them at another person. This reluctance to kill may be diminished as we proceed to a greater use of missiles, airstrikes and drone killings, in which the actual presence of the person to be killed is not experienced.

A common theme in War, Peace and Human Nature is that our cultural biases have promoted assumptions and research biases that have led to erroneous conclusions about the degree to which a “killer instinct” and a “tendency toward war” are embedded in our evolutionary history and, as a consequence, in our DNA. The data, this book insists, do not show it. War is seen as an “atypical” type of behavior of humans, one that developed late in our evolutionary history and is much more a cultural adaptation than a genetic one, although these influences are never just one or the other. Even killing of another human being in isolation is not a typical behavior, although it has been seen throughout human history. Cooperative behaviors involving restraint on our aggression are much more the pattern seen over eons of human development.

Michael Tomasello’s  A Natural History of Human Morality (2016) is concerned with the same issues as War, Peace, and Human Nature, but comes at it from a different angle. Tomasello’s goal is broader; it is “to provide an evolutionary account of the emergence of human morality…” which he says arose through the dual pathways of “sympathy and fairness,” both of which were part of the evolution of cooperation as an interpersonal and then intra-group adaptation. His analysis focuses primarily upon both primate behavior and that of human toddlers.

Tomasello cites studies that show that Chimps and Bonobos will share food and other resources and, when they do so, they show an increase in the mammalian “bonding hormone” oxytocin, suggesting that the immediate instigation for sharing is a sense of sympathy for the other primate. On the other hand, they show no sense of fairness in terms of comparison of portions of resources either received or given to their compatriot primates, although humans do. Although chimps will show reciprocity – they help or share with those who help or share with them – Tomasello argues that this is based on sympathy, not a sense of fairness. This leaves the development of a sense of fairness as something that must have evolved through uniquely human pathways.

 A great deal of Tomasello’s argument is conjecture. He notes that Chimps and Bonobos engage in group hunting,  which is not common in non-human animals, although neither species is dependent upon group hunting for survival. But such group behavior, he suggests, is a basis of more sophisticated group interdependence that developed in early humans and was, in his terms, obligate, in their hunting and foraging activities; i.e. they were dependent upon it. In order to collaborate in mutual activities, early humans had to have joint intentionality—a sense of “we” as they both attended to the same task—and some sort of sense of equivalence—if either one didn’t do his or her part, the collaboration would be unsuccessful. In Tomasello’s words, “based on the recognition of self-other equivalence, there arose a mutual respect between partners and a sense of the mutual deservingness of partners, thus creating second-personal agents.” The collaborative aspect of early human behavior, which probably developed as a result of hunting larger game, replaced the primate reliance on dominance to determine relationships and settle disputes. Instead, early humans developed pair bonding among mates, emphasizing also recognizable sibling relationships, which reduced intragroup aggressiveness, and food sharing following collaborative hunting, which produced “social selection against bullies, food hogs, and other dominants, and thus social selection for individuals who had a greater tolerance  for others in cofeeding situations.” Additionally, collaborative childcare developed. These social situations led to greater survival and thus natural selection of “less dominance-based interactions and more gentle personal temperaments,” resulting in “a greater balance of power among individuals.” Studies of modern foraging hunter-gatherers show a remarkably egalitarian social structure in their groups, with a variety of subtle and not so subtle pressures against any one individual asserting dominance.

One result of this greater interdependence  in the context of collaborative foraging was the selection of greater concern and sympathy for conspecifics who were not relatives, but potential collaborators. In fact, human toddlers show evidence of helping others based on sympathy before they develop a sense of altruism based on reciprocity. This sympathy is a “first step on the road to modern human morality” and includes empathy, in which we feel bad for someone, even if they are not feeling bad themselves (e.g. a handicapped person), based on how we think we would feel if we were in the same state. This type of empathy is based on the self-other equivalence that developed out of collaboration.

Collaborative activity also relies on and selects for those who possess a sense of mutual trust. We can count on the other to fulfill his or her role. Research on human children shows that they expect such behavior and try to reengage someone who stops collaborating, while Chimps never do. Not only do human children expect to be able to trust a partner, they engage in behaviors that show others they are trustworthy partners themselves. They adhere to standards of trust (“normative trust”) the violation of which leads to not just sanctions from others, but self-criticism as well. All of these behavioral tendencies are related to what Tomasello calls a sense of “deservingness” in dividing up rewards evenly; something found in young children but never in primates. What is created in young children, and presumably in early human groups, is a social contract, what Tomasello calls “the original ‘ought’.”

Tomasello goes on to describe the development of more complex and sophisticated morality based on these precursors that comes from collaborative activity and the development of a sense of “we” based on equivalence and role changeability in performing collaborative tasks. In hunter-gatherers, social structures develop that sustain and constrain moral behavior based on conformity and imitation and the development of a cultural identity. Eventually this led to a group identity and in-group/outgroup favoritism and in-group equivalence, accompanied by a sense of knowing what others in one’s group are likely to think even if one has never interacted directly with them. From these beginnings, social norms and a sense of the right and wrong ways to do things, based on how one’s in-group does them developed. Although these latter developments are social phenomena, based on observation, interaction and communication, rather than directly on evolved genetic mechanisms, they are ultimately dependent upon the selection of tendencies for sympathy and fairness among our ancestors.

Tomasello’s arguments are a based on a collection of primate observations, research with human children, anthropological accounts of hunter-gatherer communities, and historical accounts of codified human morality. What emerges is a picture of human beings whose social structures are built, not on dominance and aggression, as are those of Chimpanzees, but on sympathy, helping, collaboration, a second-personal sense of agency involving putting oneself in the other’s position and viewing an activity as a product of “we” as much as “I,” and finally, a sense of fairness, in which one’s own interests must meet the same standards as others in one’s group.

 

War, Peace and Human Nature and A Natural History of Human Morality are two very different books, both relying upon evolutionary arguments, but one, the collection by Douglas Fry, with a more limited goal of showing that man is not inherently warlike, based on voluminous pertinent research, and the other, the book by Michael Tomasello, based also on research, but with a more ambitious goal of showing how human morality developed and basing its thesis on a great deal of speculation. Both volumes provide a welcome contrast to current popular views of man as a naturally aggressive and warlike species in which dominance over one’s fellow men is the basis for our evolved social structures and a fact of human nature to which we are inextricably, and perhaps catastrophically, tied.

Casey Dorman, Editor Lost Coast Review

Author of "2020" a new political novel

Tuesday
Aug292017

Solitary Stillness by Kiriti Sengupta, reviewed by Uday Saha

 

Stillness, a Companion! 

Reviewed by Uday Saha

 

 

Title: Solitary Stillness

Author: Kiriti Sengupta

Illustrations: Joyeeta Bose

Published by Hawakal Publishers, Calcutta. 2017

ISBN: 978-81-934230-6-6 (Paperback)

Everyone talks about chaos but very few venture into the world of stillness. There is an entire universe within the stillness which is to be explored; and there is immense stillness to be discovered. Stillness allows one to reach beyond the mundane while appreciating and experiencing a universe that is different to the one most people are aware of. If you can still your mind you’ll feel different. No longer will the chaos be a hindrance; it will rather make you desirous to explore the undiscovered stillness. The chaos is already present and apparent, so the question is, how can you enter into the world of stillness that runs parallel to the chaos?

Kiriti Sengupta’s newest collection of poems, Solitary Stillness, is quietly affecting and has all the potential to inspire readers both in India and abroad. Even so, the most striking aspect of Solitary Stillness is how Sengupta’s thought-process and poetic mind have changed over the years since the release of his first book in 2013. On the 43rd page of Solitary Stillness there is a declaration — “The camera mocks the disguise/ and celebrates light.” Walking along “the concrete lane” Sengupta has celebrated the light within stillness of things and objects of his interest. Here the subjects of the verses differ from each other but they induce stillness to the readers. They bear an impeccable quality of being meditatively still.

When India is witnessing much of communal and political imbalances of late, and opinionated people often question a poet’s stand, Sengupta has meditated deeply to absorb much of the existing anarchy and put down his thoughts in “solitary stillness.” The collection is comprised of twenty “writerly texts,” which compel the readers to work at understanding and interpreting them. To Sengupta “Poets are loners, no doubt!” And undeniably the question like “Where do old birds go to die?” can come upon them.

The journey starts with “The Pilgrimage” where Sengupta has reflected on the proverbial saying: “The ants grow wing to fetch death.” To say, the two-line piece of work is subtle, for the ants (like the human beings) fizzle out to see through because of besotted ignorance. In “The Bengali Phenomenon” Sengupta is loud as he sneers the nonchalance displayed by the Bengali people. He writes: “It took ages to savor the ecstasy/ until Lapierre released his City of Joy.

City of Joy (1985) is a novel by Dominique Lapierre. It was later adapted into a film by Roland Jofee in 1992. The book chronicles despite facing hunger and death the people still hold on to the belief that life is precious and worth living, so much they named their slums “Anand Nagar” that translated into English to become “city of joy.” In “The Bengali Phenomenon,” “Jubilation ahoy” and “…released his City of Joy” if read together, it does poke different nooks and corners.

In “Quietude and Loneliness” Sengupta writes: “For God’s sake don’t take silence for granted.” I would rather say: For heaven’s sake don’t take solitude for granted. While reading this verse readers will notice the use of space in between these lines:

You never know if it will declare you dead

 

And then you see the resurrected spirit

 

The space carries forward the silence until the spirit is resurrected again. Here Sengupta significantly maintains the poise to create an imposing effect. “Tournesols” is a highly symbolical poem. I’ll consider it homage to van Gogh. The water as mentioned here is redemptive; it’s like sprinkling water upon the artist’s own dry leaves of life. But, the last two lines of the poem, “Life would not have stilled/ had there been water in the vase,” have words that are not “signifiers,” for a reader can not have a specific “signified.” What I mean is that the poet’s approach in this poem follows Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure looked at language diachronically. He traced words over time looking for the changes in sounds and meanings. And if based on deconstruction, the signifier and signified in “Tournesols” are unstable, and they can take on multiple meanings.

A picturesque portrayal pervades throughout “The Shoreside.” Topographic details of the site (mountainous rocks — sharp, edgy, and difficult ... boulders were loosely bound) did not escape Sengupta’s eyes. “The Shoreside” is rich in imagery:

Small waves came to merge…

Small waves failed…

Large waves failed…

Larger waves appeared…

 

In all these lines the treatment is kinesthetic. In the garb of subjective images, when Sengupta writes, “The sea sprinkled on our dry skin” we receive a soft, tactile image. Here I must quote Dustin Pickering, “Life is rarely what it seems, and the larger picture sneaks in over the smaller prints (“Smaller waves failed to erase the footprints!”).” Like “Toursenols,” “Manhattan Skyline” heightens Sengupta’s knack toward the great works of art. Here I remember what he wrote in one of his earlier books, Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral: “You have numerous folders in your life since your birth until the last light. In all such folders you are given poetry in its nascent form.” Sengupta strums the chord hard as creative personas like singer, painter or a poet strikes through “the concrete lane” to “mellow the water” or to have “mind still.” In this piece by juxtaposing prose and verse Sengupta has given a pure contemporary touch.

In Solitary Stillness Sengupta has proved that a poetic persona cannot and should not keep mum in the times of chaos and anarchy; however, a poet needs a calm to reflect. When Sengupta asks, “How long does a bird live to be called old?” he echoes the humanitarian voice of Bob Dylan who once wrote, “How many roads must a man walk down/ before you call him a man?” Apparently, Sengupta has sympathized with the state of the careless creatures. He touches so many issues and raises so many questions at the same time when he writes:

I can say, birds heal themselves

and die solitary

amidst the quiet flora — unnoticed.

 

Sengupta’s walk is of a man of flesh and blood while he is putting down the lines, but his heart is of a bird. On the other hand, if we take a look at the poem, we will find the first person “I” dissolves as it reaches the concluding (not a conclusion though) lines as if the writer wants us to feel the silent “we” resonating — “and (we) die solitary.”

In this age of post-truth and nihilistic literature, structuralism believes that the structure of language comes from human mind. It won’t be improper to say that poets are blessed with a third eye. For, only a poet can sense “the trees were paying attention /to the instructions sent from the sky.” (“The Pillars of Soil”); “They will rather find /another summer /to captivate and tantalize” (“Rolling Stone”); “Here lies a merger between two men...” (“Manhattan Skyline”).

Suppose you are left alone with your solitude, what will you think of? What will you look at? What will you write on? You will certainly come out with the realizations like, “birds no longer fly high,” “I no longer seek company,” “I heard my heart first,” among others. And once you realize “I now have arrived to an understanding,” you will spontaneously learn the etiquettes that will keep the aura of stillness alive.

The works of Picasso, Joyce, Camus and T. S. Eliot shattered and overturned everything traditional and ushered in new media. In India it’s Kiriti Sengupta, a poet with tapering fingers and soulful eyes. Solitary Stillness will stir the unearthed stillness and instill new hopes and aspirations in the minds of its readers.

 

Uday Saha was born and brought up in Coochbehar, India. He teaches English language and literature in Uponchowki Higher-Secondary School, Mekhliganj, West Bengal. Saha did his post-graduation in English Literature (M.A.) from North Bengal University in 2008. A bookworm, bilingual poet and co-editor of Mujnai literary magazine, Saha has published several poems both in Bengali and English. He has conducted many workshops in the district of Coochbehar, and as a trainer he has been appreciated in the Ananda Bazaar Patrika in the recent times.

Saturday
Jul222017

Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta, reviewed by Rosalind Princess Reshma

BETWEEN THE LINES AND BEYOND BARRIERS

A review of Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta by Rosalind Princess Reshma

Title: Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta: Breaking the Barriers

Edited by Sunil Sharma and Dustin Pickering

Published by Transcendent Zero Press, Houston (Texas)

ISBN: (Paperback): 9781946460943

 

Roland Barthes, in his monumental essay says, “We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.” This speaks volumes about the impact any written text has on the readers. It would be naïve to say that a work of art has an absolute and/or intrinsic meaning. The enlightenment or simply the pleasure that a reader seeks from poetry seldom lies in the written words but lay hidden between the unwritten lines, waiting to be discovered which in return help the reader reconstruct the poet as an artist and as a kindred spirit. Appraisals: KiritiSengupta is a collection of reflections on poetry and the poet.

Poetry has always been a vehicle of spirituality. The symbolisms and the poetic license to experiment with figurative language helps the reader embark on a journey to understand the poem which is another side of discovering the self. Sengupta’s poems, with their rich symbolisms and universal themes provoke the reader with thoughts which Dustin Pickering aptly calls “an education in truth.” Talking in detail about how the ambiguity in the poems keeps the reader’s curiosity ignited throughout this search for truth, he says, “The way each image twists and turns, perhaps due to its translation, from ambiguity to an unexpected consolidation of objects that have nothing in common superficially, can only be the work of a poet-magician who seeks to grasp the external/objective world by poetic and analytical absorption.” (page 22) This ‘self’ that a poet intertwines with the metaphors and allusions, has traits which are universal, yet subtly colored with characteristics which are culturally significant and unique. As Sharmila Ray points out, “Kiriti’s poems are a montage of responses to the everyday philosophy that runs subterranean in the orient. These experiences are common to all men. But the poet remembers them and gives them form through words without frills.” (page 191) Ray compares the poems with abstract paintings suggesting the active role of the readers in creating the “meaning.” While Sengupta experiments with themes that provoke not only thought but a deep and honest contemplation, he makes sure that these themes are presented through images and experiences that are directly borrowed from life, and thus, the poem as a whole becomes something the reader can relate to. Calling the poems “direct references to life,” Ananya S Guha says, “These poems are not arid intellectualism. They are poetry of the heart, the spirit. Yet, they are complex interfaces of existence.” (p-193)

It is intriguing to notice that the style of Sengupta’s writing is always in sync with the nature of the themes and content. The poet has aptly used free verse to “educate” the readers of truths and perceptions that grow beyond boundaries, and thus, cannot be captured within the traditional protocols of poetic art, such as rhyme and meter. Analysing the prose poems in The Earthen Flute, Susanta Kumar Bardhan states, “It is evidently a modernist-postmodernist venture on the part of artist (who practices this) to explore the multiple facets of the mystery-laden complex reality of existence and its relation with humanity at large and to reflectively as well as aesthetically give shape in a text to those.” (p-216) Another interesting aspect of the poems is the stream of consciousness narration used by Sengupta, making his work tangentially touch different genres while not digressing away from the theme. This can be attributed to the complexities of the issues the poet handles in his work. Placing the different sides of these socio-cultural issues in a particular order will not do justice to the consequences of the same which impact the ‘self’ that the reader is attempting to discover and understand. In the words of Usha Kishore, “The narrative moves from light hearted satire to sobriety, to counter narrative and philosophy. The issues of gender and transgender transcend the experimental format and venture into the realm of Indian socio-politics.” (p-156)

While poetry helps the reader discover the inner self, it also acts as a medium through which the reader bonds with the creator of the work. While deconstructing the poems based on its umpteen linguistic and literary aspects, the reader is also reconstructing the poet as an artist and as an individual who has been influenced by the time and place while influencing the same through his art. Sengupta has been described as a “romantic poet” by Ananya S Guha who says that his poetry contains the very essence of romanticism; “idealism,” “pantheism,” and “humanism.” However, by refusing to be confined within the stereotypes of a genre, he lets the universality of his themes blend in with the uniqueness of his perspectives. In reference to “Saffron” Koushik Sen writes, “This is a vivid yet disturbing image that Sengupta produces, and establishes the fact that Sengupta is here to stay — he is not just another writer among the mass.” (p-250) The various reviews in the collection help the reader see Sengupta not just as the globally recognized poet and blogger but a good human with interesting thoughts on the things that surround him. He is also described as a good friend who values relationships by those who have had the privilege of knowing him personally.

Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta is not merely a compilation of interpretations and perspectives on Sengupta’s poems, but a detailed synopsis of the many sides of his poetry and the diversity of his thoughts and opinions as a poet and as a human. The book, on one hand, answers the many questions that arise while reading Sengupta’s poems, and on the other hand, it gives the reader new questions, to find the answers of which a re-reading of the poems becomes inevitable. Apart from fulfilling the academic and literary needs of the critical reader, the collection also satisfies the curiosity of a poetry lover who just wants to know more about the creator of the poetry which has so beautifully appealed to the intellect and the imagination.

 

Rosalind Princess Reshma is an educator and a poet who has recently published a chapbook, Lost Interpretations. She holds a Master’s degree in Linguistics and applies it in the creative use of language. Being a polyglot and an admirer of languages, she is interested in reading and analyzing translations of literary texts.

 

Wednesday
Jun142017

Ten by Joe Lyman, reviewed by Casey Dorman

Ten by Joe Lyman

Amazon Digital Services, 2012

Ten, the 2012 novel by Joe Lyman, is an unusual book for many reasons. It is too long to be considered a novella, but at least a hundred pages shorter than the typical novel. It begins as an intimate story of the daily lives of a normal middle class family and ends as a semi-horror story, worthy of Stephen King. It is a hard novel to pigeonhole. But despite, or perhaps even because of this unique quality to the book, it is highly absorbing, to the point of becoming one of those stories that is difficult to put down.

The leisurely pace and plain-talking narrative of the beginning of the book is masterfully done. One of my favorite writing styles, best exemplified by William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, is the minimalist, ordinary-language sentence that seems to provide a precise mirror of the reality it is describing. Joe Lyman’s sentences, as he describes the daily life of 9 year old Dylan playing football in the street, his mother shopping, or his father tinkering in the garage, are each laid out carefully and with precision and economy. We are provided with a detailed picture of an American family with the assets and flaws that make the portrait seem real. Although the setting is today, I was reminded of my own childhood or the families of my childhood friends.

In the midst of this not idyllic, but decidedly pleasant family life, disaster strikes in the form of Dylan’s family’s uninsured home burning down and the story begins to take a turn toward the dark side. Dylan's mother becomes psychotically depressed. His father moves the family to a remote trailer park near the desert and only visits every few months. Dylan meets a gang of trailer park kids.

At the beginning of Dylan’s association with the other boys from the trailer park, we learn that they are secretive and can be cruel. Dylan, who has led a relatively protected middle class life up to the point his family moved to the trailer park, wrestles with the same issues of manliness, courage, pride and saving face that were issues, but minor ones, in his neighborhood football game but now are the determining factors in how he will be accepted by his new peers, and perhaps whether he will join them or be a victim of their violence.

Instead of engaging in delinquency or criminality, as one might expect for a group of poor boys, engaging mostly with each other and under no adult supervision (a situation reminiscent of Lord of the Flies), the boys, under the iron-handed leadership of Nico, the most powerful of them, play a ritualistic game of “war” each day. The game is played with toy guns in the middle of a dense forest near the trailer park. It is a mysterious game in which the lines between reality and imagination are blurred to the point of surrealism. We are unsure whether it is life-threatening or just a game.

Dylan goes through all the stages of hazing and finally acceptance into the group until he finally is not only a full-fledged member, but also a leader—strong enough to challenge Nico. I won’t give away the ending, but it is as surreal as the moments leading up to it.

Ten is a small book but it is a finely drawn picture that addresses childhood at multiple levels, taking the reader from the surface of childhood musings, to the deepest and darkest depths of fantasy. It is a highly original work from a talented writer. 

 

Ten is available in Kindle format at Amazon.com

Monday
May082017

Watershed a New Novel by Colin Dodds, reviewed by Casey Dorman

Alternate Reality Or The Real Thing?

Review of Watershed by Colin Dodds

Casey Dorman

 

Watershed by Colin Dodds

Published by Amazon Digital Services

Release Date: May 12, 2017

 

I love stories involving alternate realities, especially those that take the trends of the present and project them—in exaggerated form—slightly into the future. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the classic film, “Bladerunner”) is a famous example. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history that has recently been resurrected through Amazon’s hit series based on the book. Although Dick’s dystopian novels were, during his lifetime, enjoyed mostly by his sci-fi fan base, they have since been recognized for their imaginative vision as major literary accomplishments. Modern writers as diverse as Philip Roth, William Gibson and Kazuo Ishiguro have achieved literary success with the genre. Currently, Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian view of a repressive, ecologically damaged, United States is the toast of streaming television.

Colin Dodds has achieved a highly readable, quirkily creative alternate reality that comes frighteningly close to real life in his new novel, Watershed. The United States described in his story is one in which most people live half in and half out of complete absorption by their electronic equipment—cell phones, total wall video screens, streaming information across their cars’ windshields and so on. It is the present taken to its logical extreme. The lines between entertainment and reality have been blurred to the point of farce. On the anniversary of the 9/11-terror attack, the country assembles, either in person or around their video screens, to watch a reenactment of the disaster as a planeload of prisoners flies into a reconstructed version of one of the Twin Towers. Half the watchers cheer for the fake “terrorists’” and half for the imagined victims.

Amid this projected vision of today, six people live out an interconnected plot, which is intricately related to the environment around them. Norwood is a Ludlite, one of the minority of citizens who reject the electronic domination of their world by eschewing smart phones, using old-fashioned emails on computers, which they borrow from internet cafes, and watch movies on DVDs. They are Luddites with enough use of modern electronics to make the Luddite “lite.” Norwood is a sculptor, who, when he was consigned to sculpting cartoon video characters, chose to raise exotic snakes instead. Raquel, an expensive prostitute who parachutes, nude, into his life one night as part of a performance/sexcapade, becomes his lover, wife and perhaps the mother of his child. Both are pursued by Hurley, the genetically strange and long-lived former senator, illicit lobbyist and millionaire who avails himself of the latest surgical and electronic advances to change his identity whenever his adversaries begin to close in on him. He believes that Raquel’s child may be his. One of Hurley’s pursuers is Wilhelmina, a woman detective who used to be a man before having his genitals shot off. Wilhelmina also employs Norwood in a devious plan to profit from the 9/11 reenactment. Both Norwood and Wilhelmina are targeted by Hurley’s assistant, Tyra and her hired goon, Gavin, a part-time financial advisor who enjoys killing, and is employed by Hurley to kill both Wilhelmina and Norwood. The story concerns Norwood and Raquel’s attempt to elude Hurley and his hired staff and establish a “normal” life in a Lublite community somewhere in the U.S.

The convoluted story treats us to a tour through this future possibility United States while also leading us on an exciting chase by a cast of characters, each of which is explored in greater depth than would be usual for a thriller-genre story and rivals some of Dick’s stories in terms of the nuances of twisted personalities. Identities are acquired and shed, sometimes via paperwork and just as often through plastic surgery. Norwood and Raquel are the definitely good and sympathetic heroes of the novel and Hurley is the villain with few redeeming qualities. Everyone else is too human to be classified so easily and this fact draws the reader deep into both the story and the characters’ personalities.

Watershed is indeed a watershed when it comes to revealing the dominance of our electronic, internet based world on our lives. I of course was aware of this before reading the book, but it did make me self-conscious about my own obsessive reliance on new (mostly trivial) information streaming nonstop into my brain through various devices. But Watershed is much more than social commentary. It’s a genuinely captivating edge-of-your-seat thriller, which kept me reading from beginning to end, looking forward to each new chapter. My only self-conscious pang of guilt came from the fact that I read it on a Kindle device instead of as a hardcopy. But then Kindle books probably qualify, along with DVDs and audiotapes, as Lud “lite” devices. At least I didn’t read it on my smartphone.

 

Watershed is scheduled for release as a Kindle ebook on May 12, 2017. Find it on Amazon 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Mar072017

Polk, Harper and Who, by Panayotis Cacoyannis reviewed by Casey Dorman

To read a novel by Panayotis Cacoyannis is to delve deeply into the psyches of always complex, and often unusual characters. Although his latest book, Polk, Harper and Who has it’s requisite number of kooky people, the two main  characters, Adam and Eva, are not strange at all. That is not to say that they are simply drawn. Both are complex, Eva is, by far, the more complicated of the two. She has secrets, from her best friend, from her husband, and from herself. But they are not secrets meant to harm anyone, only to protect. Her greatest secret is why she continues to play the role of daughter to her stepmother, concealing that her real mother died to everyone, including the husband with whom she shares almost all else. We never learn the why of that particular secret, except that to divulge it, at least while her stepmother is alive, would threaten the delicate balance she has achieved in living under the parenting of a woman she hates. I must keep the other secrets hidden in this review, as they might spoil the story for future readers. Adam, her husband, although complex in terms of his art and his views, is more straightforward with those he loves, almost to the point of perfection. The reciprocal love of these two persons is the central theme of the novel.

As with other Cacoyannis novels, the language, the cleverness, the juxtaposition of heartbreak and humor and the presence of truly hilariously drawn characters is at least half the pleasure of reading the book. The author has a way of describing mundane scenes in  ascending lines of subtle  humor that, for me, often results in an outbreak of irrepressible laughter by the end of the scene. The attention to detail and the complexity of  his desriptions of both character and setting are captivating.

I live a busy life with a crowded schedule, much of it consumed by reading and writing. It took me awhile to finish this book, but I must say that it was the pleasure to which I turned at the end of each day. It is well worth reading.

Wednesday
Jan182017

The Image Maker: A Collection of Poems by Donald B. Colson reviewed by Casey Dorman

The Image Maker: A Collection of Poems

Donald B. Colson

Createspace Independent Publishing Platform 2017 

 

At 78 years old, Donald Colson is a “new” poet, publishing a collection of 39 short poems, each with an accompanying prose “comment” explaining the poem’s “origins and meanings.” The poems are arranged into six themes: State of Mind, Relationships, Mourning, Nature, Ageing, and Faith and Spirituality.

Of the many impressions I had of this collection, three things stood out: the honesty of the observations, the sense of self-discovery, and the inventiveness of the imagery. Several of the poems are a faithful, sometimes brutal, often stark examination of the poet’s thoughts and feelings. “Writer’s Despair,” in which he confesses to longing “for recognition/by others with talent” is one. He examines the emotion of “Shame,” noting that “As a snail touched/reflexively withdraws/into its shell, shame burdens/ and turns us away from others.”  The poems, “Temptation,” “Help,” “Obsolescence,” “Metamorphosis,” and “Here and Not Here” are all searingly truthful in their examination of the poet’s emotions. The most memorable lines of emotion and truth may be contained in his prose prefaces to each poem, particularly when he is talking about the loss of his wife. “We agreed to meet after her death at a specific time (2 p.m., April 15) and location” he tells us while introducing “Awaiting Jane,” a heart wrenching poem in which, as he waits for the mystical meeting he had hoped would emerge, he finds that, “Although I linger/you do not answer” so that he responds, “Mute and hollow/my heart and hope/shrivel and sink./Salvation lies in/a return to grief.” Memorable, honest, and depressing, but not hopeless observations. In his introduction to “Love Long Lost” he says, “If we are fortunate we have experienced love so intense and deep that, for many years, the loss continues to be like a searing pain, penetrating to our center.”

The self-discovery, which is not unrelated to the collection’s honesty, is primarily related to the poet’s appreciation of the influence of his immediate ancestors, his parents and grandparents, on his conscious and unconscious thoughts and, indeed, on his being. His father was Jewish and his mother Catholic, though neither of them practiced their faith. Their parents, while living on a farm in America, were from Europe. The poems “Mother,” “Grandma’s House,” and “Paternal Grandmother,” among others, focus upon how he gradually came to realize how his memories shaped his own life and the genetic gifts, which he inherited, were evident in even his own children and grandchildren. Curiously, he wonders about his own legacy, although we see the rich legacy of his own parents and grandparents in his memories.

What makes these poems so remarkable and pleasing to read is Colson’s facility with figurative language. Immediately, in the first poem, “Night Train,” we are presented with a beautiful image, followed by a poignant association: “Wistful as the wail/of a night train passing./A mother’s cry/sad longing.” Then, we hear the interweaving of sensory experience with imagination as he describes the sound of the receding train as “Leaving a whisper/of roads not taken.” In “Kentucky” he describes “Fireflies, like stars/stream by the moisture/streaked car windows.” And in “Metamorphosis” he talks of faded passion as, “Longings like railroad tracks/parallel but never converge.” Colson is both imaginative and inventive. In “Grandma’s House” he recalls being soothed to sleep by the “buzz and hum of tires” on the two-lane highway that passed the house, then ends the poem with an echo, recalling his grandfather’s use of Canadian French to speak to him, as a sound, “for me as comforting/ as the buzz and hum of tires/on the highway.”

This is a remarkable collection by a poet with a remarkable ear and even more faultless vision of scenes, objects and nature, which he is able to transform into poetic images. He explores the layers of consciousness as found in both dreams and memories. He lingers on the loss that defined much of his life, and how he tried to cope with it, always holding onto the memories, even of the pain. Each poem is both a pleasure to the ear and a revelation to the heart and mind. This is a collection well worth reading—and re-reading.

The Image Maker is available from Amazon Books

Casey Dorman

Editor, Lost Coast Review

Saturday
Nov122016

On The Edge Of A Very Small Town: Poems By Mark Jackley reviewed by Elizabeth Conte

Pure Poetry.

I don’t say this lightly.

Mark Jackley’s new book of poems, On The Edge Of A Very Small Town, is exactly that and more. His words are visceral and beautifully crafted making the reader not just read, but live his words:

 

Shuffling,

she clutches

her coffee like a torch.

 

Although writing is subjective, to me, poetry is the purest artistry form of writing. It is the closest you can get to painting a picture with words. On The Edge Of A Very Small Town is a colorful detailed piece of art soulfully crafted with a mixture of keen wit, cynicism, love, and loss:

 

Undertaker

Once you’re there, death

just isn’t the same, he thinks.

 

He carefully sews her mouth

to keep the secret in.

 

Reading Mark Jackley’s poems made my mind escape from life, and indulge in serenity. A serenity of spirit and mind.

How often does one get to do that?

His words transported me to a quiet space and gave me the luxury to indulge in the observation of life, people, places, and things. Nothing bold, of things imminently important, nor of things deeply philosophical.

This collection of poems is a picture of moments that most of us forget. A simple day in February, Milk And Eggs, or an old love named Kathleen. Quick observations that have such meaning, yet we rarely take time to remember…remember what affects us the most.

 

In a kitchen window, the silhouette

of an enormous man who thinks,

grazing at the train,

he could love anyone on board

 

Poetry changes. It’s purpose, it’s style, and it’s expectations. Stream of thought has dominated the poetry scene for a while now, making me forget how utterly lovely poetry can sing with so few words; how it can transport you from the mundane of every day to the majesty of every day. Mark Jackley’s book of poems is the gift of simplicity that explains everything, makes you feel everything, and makes you see everything. His substance is not simple, but simply said in a way that makes this book something special…and reminds you that the beauty of life is truly in the ordinary.

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Nov032016

A Box of Ticky-Tacky by Somdatta Goswami, reviewed by Dustin Pickering

            The generation gap is an age-old theme in world literature from certain ancient Greek myths to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Human society, in assimilating variety, assembles old and young side by side. Naturally, tensions arise from both parties’ fears and abilities. The young are alive and healthy, preparing for a full life. The elders, having already lived long, impart their wisdom. The old perhaps see a semblance of their former selves in their children, and the young may fear guidance because of their own stubborn wills.

            In A Box of Ticky-Tacky [Chitrangi, Calcutta], characters are influenced by such generational differences in a profoundly distinct way. In “Old Papa Crown” we are met with an elderly gentleman who refuses to succumb to his old age. Even in sickness, he rebounds with humor and meets with the schoolchildren he greeted every morning from inside his house. This seemingly trivial detail reminds the reader that the smallest of gestures still resonate in life’s expansive dream.

            These stories, told imaginatively and recounted as vividly as actual memories, are united morally in the reminder that life is not to be taken for granted. “To Fly to Zurich” is amusing and ironic as well as instructive in this central motif. An elderly woman’s trip to Sweden is complicated by several small misunderstandings until she finally loads a plane without trouble. When she arrives in Zurich, she has no way to contact her son who she was to meet after landing. Overall, we perceive her as one resolved to visit “the most beautiful country” even if she gets lost in it. As she recounts the tale she explains to her listener, who is surprised at her determination, that she had nothing to lose after so long a life.

            Our elders aren’t the only celebrated heroes of this collection. In “The Queen of the Roads”, a young woman learns to drive by competing with her father. She becomes an expert on cars and driving. When she stops to help an older gentleman change his tire, the crowd is in awe of her unique capability. This story has other strange surprises. I found it to be the most amusing and imaginative writing of the book. The situation is possible yet undeniably fantastic.

            A more universally valuable lesson is uncovered throughout.  This lesson is easily recognized in “The North Wind”, a story about a university student who is bored of the classroom and her studies. The last sentence of the story reads, “Life holds our key to happiness in such very insignificant things...and it is for us to discover and recognize them...they are there...just under our noses...for us to find them!” The collection proclaims an honest optimism to supersede pain, error, and harsh circumstances. In “Welcoming William”, a severe accident alters the course of an arranged family. In “The First Day of Baishakh”, a marriage is suddenly cancelled to the couple’s despair, but the disappointed bride-to-be restores her family’s fortune with her patient efforts and optimism. The example is one of outstanding resolution. Even when faced with sudden heartbreak, forbearance makes flowers bloom. At the end of “Baishakh”, she acknowledges the approach of her own life’s end and prepares to let go for the sake of her grandchildren. Her struggle in these final moments is poignantly detailed.

            The title of the collection seems silly and ultimately frivolous. Perhaps Somdata Goswami intends to be playful yet wise. Ticky-tacky holds things together and keeps them in place. These stories show life’s wisdom to be one of guiding us proper to our highest lights, and holding life together even when it is passing.

            The collection ends with “The Sign of Love”, the most delicate and touching story in the collection. The truth contained within it exhibits a sharp contrast to the book’s other themes. Instead of a celebration of life, we see the despair of unjustified killing and vengeance. In this example, we are reminded that life is precious by an entirely different situation. As the hero is gunned down violently, his final gesture is the sign of love to his deaf students. Our imaginations are left to reflect on what could have been; why was such a heroic and gentle man murdered by misguided revolutionaries he once sought to benefit? Why is their ideal counter to the act and results of the act?

            Somdata Goswami is a careful storyteller. Her thoughts are masterfully disguised within the narratives so the reader can investigate. The circumstances of the stories are unique and excite the imagination. Her ability to guide the reader as plot develops toward resolution demonstrates the patience of intellect and clarity of thought necessary for genuine storytelling. Each character created by Goswami is perhaps a figment of our own consciousness, some hidden invention of our daydreaming, or a unique characterization of our innermost desires. While we read to entertain our longing for escape, these stories read our hearts for the reason we wish to escape.

 

Dustin Pickering is Editor-in-Chief of Harbinger Asylum and founder of Transcendent Zero Press,

 

 

Monday
Oct242016

Selfhood: Varieties and Experience—Afterword by Dolonchampa Chakraborty

Editor's Note:Varieties of Experience is a remarkable collection of poems and essays involved in the discussion of the meaning of Selfhood. This anthology will be released in America by Transcendent Zero Press and in India by Hawakal Publishers. An introduction by Lyn Coffin, whose poetry and prose has appeared in Time Magazine and Prairie Schooner among other publications, questions the similarities and differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of Self. Lyn Coffin is also the recipient of the Republic of Georgia's Saba Prize in 2016. The engaging questions of identity, one's relationship with the world, and the influence of culture on the human mind are addressed lucidly and openly. Poets both highly respected and emerging are included. The anthology will be available on Amazon for $8.00 by the end of October. 

  

 

Afterword: Selfhood Anthology

          As I started my journey through the Selfhood anthology, the word “self” formed a little misperception. The word “Selfhood” in its general sense had provided me a notion of a personal consciousness, an emotional state and an insight about vivid experiences in life. However, as I kept delving further, it became palpable that this book is not restricted to the strict and prevalent idea of the self’s day-to-day existence. I realized that my delusion about the word “self” was rather deep-rooted in the passive practice of my Hinduism, while the use of “self” probing through the book has a far wider spectrum of meaning.

         “Self” in a more ancient Eastern term means atta (Pali) and atman (Sanskrit). The Atma Upanishad thus establishes the idea of atma (Soul or Self) dividing it into three categories known as Bahyatman—the physical person; Antaratman—the inner person who sees, thinks, distinguishes and Paramatman—the supreme source or reality.

         In contrast to these teachings of Hinduism, the main doctrines of Buddhism abide by the concept of anatma (no-soul or no-self). It clearly rejects the Vedic notion of the soul or self and states that there is no soul inside a living human body and hence it cannot be a connection between the mortal self and the higher immortal self. The Buddhist viewpoint, however, is in stark contrast to materialistic annihilationism, e.g. Charvaka; according to it, there is no soul, no self, no karma, no rebirth, and no afterlife. Tathagata advised against this practice known as Natthikavada. However, there seems to be a twilight point where Buddhism strongly insists the human body has a soul or self but does not acknowledge that the self does not exist either; because in order to accept it, first the existence of soul will have to be accepted.

         Anatta (anatman) doesn’t mean that there is no afterlife, no rebirth and no karma, Buddhism does not recognize the ideas of Hinduism which particularly upholds the theory of eternalism and says that every living human body is an adhaar (container) of a soul; and that this soul is a part of a greater reality, immortality and a hypothetical existence—hence, each and every human being is also part of a greater immortal being (Paramatman). This concept known as Atthikavada is also judged in Buddhism. The Theraveda Buddhism destroys the “I,” and “I am” by an inflexible practice of the Anatta doctrine as it defies that particular effort to become one with the apparently unknown and the Supreme One by destroying the active and the innermost ego of a person:

 

सब्बे धम्मा अनात्ता

(sabbe dhamma anatta—all things are not-self)

एतं ममम एसो ‘हम अस्मि, एसो में अत्ता ती’

(etang mamam eso ‘ham asmi, eso me atta ti’— this is mine, this I am, this is myself)

 

         Thus, when a mind is trained enough to detach itself from all forms of obsession, demand, expectation, revenge, pride, love, fear, loss, it comprehends the Shunyata (vacuum or emptiness) by realizing that everything in this world is devoid of a “self” or ego and attains Nirvana (salvation). This supreme attainment ends the cycle of suffering, death and rebirth.

         The central focus of the Nirvana Sutra is the Buddhadhatu—the nature of Buddha, an ultimate blissful form of “self” is present in every man. It is said to remain when all—every form of non-self is perished.

         Mark Blum writes: “He [the Buddha] makes it clear that while he will disappear from their sight, he is not going to die, because in fact he was never born in the first place. In other words, Buddhas are not created phenomena and therefore have no beginning and no end.”

         While Hinduism says that the Atma (self, soul) is the ultimate reality of human life—an unbound, free, uncreated, unlimited, immortal and liberated divinity because it existed even before the Universe took shape (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad); hence it is the same as the Brahmana—the omnipresent, unbounded, genderless, and eternal reality which has not changed since time immemorial and so, he is one with the Atma, which is indestructible.  According to The Vedas, the Atma (Self, Soul, Brahmin) is the cosmic principle as it was there, will be there. Similarly the concept of the ultimate attainable vacuum or Shunyata as advised in Buddhism and as the Buddhadhatu in every human being and the ultimate feature of Tathagata— the one and only true bliss and truth, it is free from all earthly cycles of suffering and at the same time it is the cause of everything which was never there, never born, hence never dead.

         In my opinion, the poets in this anthology have touched upon fascinating contrasts and similarities of these most practiced faiths in their extremely intelligent poems and essays, and by a habit of keen observation and listening to others’ stories.  

        I did not try to decipher the poems, rather searched for some connection with the parallel worlds of art and mythology that have filled them with an eternal fountain of bliss, even when their expression is of despair, grief, hollow—certain memories which date back centuries as they do not belong to a single entity but connect the whole universe, instead of expressing torn and broken pieces of a particular nation. They make every individual as one of the many children of Gaea—the Supreme Mother.

         In the very beginning there is the mention of the “door-keeper” and the “human-headed bird” which apart from their biblical referents, strike me with a humble yet bold appearance of the soul/self:

 

Open to me, the door-keeper.

My human-headed bird

steps from the niched recess

in your night chapel—

(“Ancient Spell” by Elina Petrova)

 

         Ba (a human-headed bird, especially a Falcon) is the classic Mediterranean example of the spiritual manifestation of soul through the concept of rebirth; while it is a part of a complex polytheistic interpretation practised in ancient Egypt; the mention of a human-bird is found in many other texts (Japan, Tibet. Garuda, the mythical bird-man creature mentioned in the Hindu epic Ramayana and other folk-tales, actually represents anonymous entities or powers and the ultimate survival of a “being.” It is being called upon by the door-keeper whose desire to become a bird is a symbol of liberty and movement  which is even more established by the rivers rapidly advancing through unchosen, random valleys, to keep the cycle of life alive and vibrant.

 

I roamed in an indigo sari

through jungles and villages

of my chain dreams:

(“Ancient Spell” by Elina Petrova)

 

         Roaming in a dream and draping oneself in a colourful saree denotes a very special social life that starts with settling down in a marriage or being involved in a spiritual quest. As for the color psychology here, Indigo means a communication with the intensified spirituality of oneself as well as celestial guidance. In terms of the emotional spectrum, Indigo suggests the compassion part of the rainbow—as if the person is developing an intuition towards serving the humanity guided by the inner wisdom (antaratma).

         The dreams are vivid in terms of color and objects—the Indigo saree, the turmeric splash of sun, Indigo scarabs—all point to a curious and empathetic mind—and also perhaps suggest an essentially sensitive mind, as all these point towards the possibility of traveling a tranquil path toward attainment. The dreams create a mysticism, though seeing scarabs emphasize rebirth, cleansing of the soul and protection from evil, while listening to music always fills the dreamer with a positive, harmonious feeling.

         The piece [“Finding the Courage to Always Be True to Ourselves” by Elizabeth Esguerra Castillo, page 21] on the theme of Paolo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello is an interesting one.  While we should have the courage to be true to ourselves, that seldom happens and the truth lies buried somewhere inside our eyes. The part where Roscoe Snowden is quoted: “There are at least two kinds of cowards. One kind always lives with himself, afraid to face the world. The other kind lives with the world, afraid to face himself”—reminds me of Korean director Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring—a film released in 2009.

         Had it been a western film, the same operational structure that tells the story of a child and the Buddhist monk residing in a small cottage in the middle of a vast lake—even within the basic Buddhist platform would not fit. Because it is the difference of the Western ‘I’ and the Eastern ‘I’ that makes the treatments discrete. Basically, what we face is the changing time and the changes time makes in our lives. Hence, it is possible to disagree with what Snowden said in the context that everything is ever-changing and nobody can either keep oneself from facing the world or the self.

         On another note, “bedlamite” talks about an ethereal connection between everything said and unsaid, written and unwritten, accumulated and un-accumulated, done and undone:

 

all the unsaid bliss, compressed & hardened

to hieroglyph, to silence, to belated indifference

unable to share the stories fast asleep inside you & me.

Unlike accumulation,

there is something evanescent that no one sees,

that shapes us, drives us, binds us

within the optimistic brilliance of hope—”

[“bedlamite” by henry 7. reneau, jr.]

 

         Every person has a story—whether it will be told or not, it is a part of the great cosmic vacuum; because the eternal, ethereal Om [ॐ] is out there, has always been there since even before the creation of the universe. First ever mentioned in the Vedic text, Upanishads, the Om is also known as the mystic syllable which refers to the Atman or the self and the Brahmin—the ultimate divine and supreme entirety. The factual statement, “a broken self cannot mend other broken selves – he must heal himself first” refers back to this mysticism of the Om.  He must connect to his own self, cleanse it of all ill-feelings and learn to accept life’s vastness as it is.

         “A Special Sort Of Box” by Anya Ezhevskaya reminded me a very old saying: It is the giver who is blessed and should be grateful to the receiver for accepting a contribution with benevolence. The lines of a very popular poem by Rabindranath Tagore are along the same lines:

 

What I gave you was yours in reality / you’ve brought me in your debt by accepting it.”

 

         In an effort to achieve attainment, it is essential to forget the ego-consciousness, to cleanse the self or no-self off greed, hatred and ignorance.

 

 “But we are leaving us, we are leaving us… We are within me, the distant residence of that forlorn spring. Miles after miles sunflowers are blooming, where we kissed death.”             [“Words” by Niladri Mahajan]

 

         The language of this poem is uniquely associated with the theme of the book. We’re leaving us—the ego, the self and moving towards a non-self, thus gradually achieving a completeness in its entirety. But I feel that there can be another angle to it—a rather mundane and non-philosophical angle that hits our restricted entities every day. In my experience I’ve seen that the language of companionship is same all over the world, irrespective of the philosophy and politics of the geographical influence. The reminiscence of such a bond remains alive even after centuries have passed. That keen sense of togetherness expressed in a field bright with sunflower colours reminds me of Les Alyscamps—a pair of paintings done by Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in 1888. From companionship comes a sense of belonging which in turn becomes an obstacle to Nirvana.

         The first few lines of “A Bankrupt Strategy” by Lucy Wilson are harsh and so is the whole poem named “Witch Hunt” by Jennifer Lagier, but these are realities especially in the developing as well as the war-torn nations even in the 2nd decade of the new millennium. Anger, frustration, helplessness are piling up to avenge the agony caused by the influential half and leading to the production of such lines with utmost mockery. “Conversation with a Dream” by Sasha Kamini Parmasad discusses the ancient account of the Vedic text:

 

“Wish I could wish

to show you Allah

as I promised

but in this life

I have lost my wisdom

finally

and can only point

to your own image.”

 

         Pointing towards one’s own image stimulates the energy of awareness which is mainly controlled by Agni (fire)—supposedly, one of the main ingredients of human body. Incidentally, children are supposed to be the image / mirror image of their creators—this book started acknowledging the Supreme Mother, Gaea, who had apparently removed the void, chaos and confusion—to give birth what mortal life is today.

         The book perseveringly tests the efforts to break the idea of “self”—as practised in the West in its quest for the unseen and unidentified entity and consequences:

 

“You have thrown the spear

through the eye

of my I.”                  

[“Conversation with a Dream” by Sasha Kamini Parmasad]

 

         “I” is not only the uncleansed self, it is also the ego—aham that collides with the super-ego, which is omnipresent in every life and simultaneously nowhere to be found.

         In “Not My Own” by Susan Summers, the mother sees her unborn child which is supposed to fill the would be mother’s life with magnificent goodness as two different minds, unknown to each other, connecting with each other’s consciousness. An eternal question is posed in this poem about the very existence of humans.

         The last poem of the book is named “Krishna” (by Kiriti Sengupta, one of the editors of Selfhood anthology). In this poem, Krishna delivers the message of The Gita. He is not only the offspring of the body (Devaki) and the life-force (Vasudeva), he is also considered the God of eternal love. While the concept of the soul is ambiguous, love can seldom be eternal. It is also a form of Maya. Hence, these lines are strikingly truthful from the days of ancient epic war to our contemporary age of false living:                                      

 

No matter if someone indulges in an unfair deed, the gods would suffer through us, and thus, we would remain unaffected.

 

         The peacock feather on Krishna’s head denotes freedom—a detachment from all earthly ties which keep humans from moving towards the salvation.

         Lyn writes in the introduction: “The anthology Selfhood encourages us to regard familiar intellectual territory in different contexts and varying lights.” As a reader of Eastern and Western treatment of practices I would say that this book deals with many and tangled theories of simple faith—faith that talks about happiness, peace and bliss in today’s untrue times and makes the reader communicate with one’s innermost fear, truth, and liberty.

 

Dolonchampa Chakraborty

Nagpur, India

 

A translator and transcriptionist by profession for last twelve years, Dolonchampa Chakraborty has authored two collections of Bengali poetry. She is currently the executive editor of a Bengali Webzine, www.bookpocket.net and is also the Chief Editor of The Nilgiri Wagon (www.nilgiriwagon.org), a webzine dedicated to Indian, Spanish and Greek literature and art.