Friday, November 30, 2012

Mists Upon the Water


For those readers who follow these weekly posts, you know that I have moved from the hot, dry plains of Oklahoma to the hills and valleys in the Ozarks. My husband and I long longed to live near water where we could heed its siren song and bear witness to its beauty.

The lake we see throughout the day in all seasons of the sun is dark and deep. It shivers in the wind, stirring up shirred fabric so delicate and light. Water birds teach us geometry as they make their way across the cove before breaking for the skies above the hills. So much life, so much movement, yet I would describe my new home as placid because a soft blanket comforts me as I walk along its shore or sit mesmerized as if a gifted hypnotist swung a medallion back and forth.

My favorite time is early, early morning, especially if the moon has yet to disappear behind the hills. This morning, the moon was fat and full, a soft yellow gold baton orchestrating the dawn. The stars had given way pianissimo as the mists upon the water rose toward warmer air, a crescendo of intense interplay between realms on high and those below.

Nothing more would I ask of the day that presented itself in such stealth and beauty.

Reading Challenge:

Enjoy William Wilfred Campbell’s poem about mist upon the water.

            A Day of Mists

The crags and the low shores kneel
Like ghosts, in the fogs that reel,
And glide, and shiver, and feel
For the shores with their shadowy hands.
Earth and heaven are grey;

The worlds of waters are grey,
And out in the fog-haunted day
A spectre—the lighthouse—stands.
And far from some caverned shore,
There cometh the distant roar

Of the lake-surf’s beat and din;
While wraith-like over the land,
From low white isles of sand
Of far off Michigan,
The fogs come drifting in.

I stand in the shrouded day,
But my heart is far away
With a grave in a lonely bay
Where the crags like eaglets cling;
And under the drive and drift

Of the vapors that sometime lift,
And loom, and lower, and shift,
The lake-birds scream and sing.

William Wilfred Campbell

Writing Challenge:

Recall the beginnings of a day that filled you with peace. Describe it.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

While discussing the opening paragraphs of two excellent novels, Into the Woods by Tana French (11.2.2012) and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (11.9.2012), I noted the power of alliteration to emphasize meanings and add rhythm to prose passages. Campbell’s poem makes liberal use of alliteration. Note, for example, the last lines and words that begin with “L:” lift, loom, lower, lake. By selecting such diction, Campbell has delivered a strong closing, one that reverberates, carrying us along with the movement he describes. Find other examples of alliteration used to good effect in Campbell’s poem.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Colors of Promise and Hope: Green and Blue

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Thanks to a dog that has trained herself to void by the clock, I am now often up before dawn, eager to bear witness to the changing colors above. Below are the docks where blue lights glow throughout the night. They’ve put me in mind of Gatsby’s green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, contemplates that green light and compares it to America itself. Men of daring sculpted this nation. They were discoverers and builders. On this continent, they saw promise, but by Nick’s day, the Buchanans and the Gatsbys had stunted that promise. East Coast wealth had become indolent and corrupt. They built nothing; instead, they orchestrated shattered hearts and dreams without apparent remorse.

Gatsby longed to dwell among the great, inherited wealth, but having come from humble origins, he invented a new path: one of law-breaking and squalor. He entertained criminals and show people in order to earn a ticket into the company of men and women who imagined themselves unspoiled by such common venality. They granted Gatsby admission, but only as a diversion, a temporary toy with which to explore emotion.

My dock lights are blue. Like tiny lighthouses, they guide the boatman home after dark. Like the sky after dawn, those blue lights offer hope. Blue is sure and steady, the color advertisers often use for recruiting employee candidates and to communicate trust in the brand. Educational web sites often feature the color blue, suggesting a safe and enlightened place to be. Blue calms us and beckons us to the azure and cerulean waters around the world. Blue also assures us of safe passage, at least according to several religions.

How lovely to dwell in blue. Today, as gray clouds lead winter in, winds overhead blow open a heavenly window to the blue beyond. And tonight, the blue dock lights will glow, telling me that fairy tales can and do come true.

Reading Challenge:

Prepare for the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, due in theaters in May 2013. Read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterful portrait of a nation that troubled his spirit in the early 1920s and of romantic dreams crushed.

Writing Challenge:

Using the color green or blue, convey the meaning of the color through detail and diction. For example:

The sky above blesses me. I know that I cannot be defeated under such a dome. (i. e., The color blue symbolizes safe passage.)

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Commonly Confused Words Amoral and Immoral

Immoral describes Jay Gatsby. During Prohibition, he distributes liquor, ignoring the law of the land in order to grow wealthy.

Amoral describes Tom and Daisy Buchanan. The consequences of adultery and even vehicular manslaughter do not seem to trouble their sleep.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Departures



Phillip Larkin produced a lovely poem, “Poetry of Departures.” Listen to him read his own poem at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rL4EuZPHJUU.

Scan the article cited at the end of the sentence, then scroll down, and listen again to another person, Deborah Garrison, reading the same poem at http://www.new yorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/04/philip-larkin-reading-cooperunion.html.

Delightful poem, isn’t it? Honest portrait of the itch that won’t be scratched without uprooting ourselves and discovering new terrain. The wise ones among us will count their blessings and stay put, but others among us will cry, “Full speed ahead!” and charge off for parts unknown.

I am in the process of doing just that. I’ve had an itch to live someplace other than Oklahoma with its gale-force winds blowing the hot, blistering heat against my face; its red cedar infestation stirring asthma and sinuses into full-flown attack mode; its redder than red voting populace; its churches that outnumber museums by the hundreds; its parochial, provincial, yet cowboy ways. My husband’s itch is more intense; he’s never lived elsewhere for even short bursts as I did during college and graduate school. He yearns for another life. No amount of anti-itch medicine has quelled that itch so we are off.

The house has declared war against me as I pull its guts from behind closet doors and try to fit them into bins, boxes, and bags. Forces heretofore unseen in the universe have besieged my troubled mind as the closing date for our new home grew from four weeks to six, then six to eight before landing upon a date 78 days from the day we made an offer. I hardly dare believe that it won’t be pushed back again. Like Stoppard’s version of Rosencrantz, I’ve begun to think of my new home as a “conspiracy of cartographers,” assigning a spot on the map to a place that never existed and never will.

I’ve also learned new cajoling skills as I plead and barter with movers, furniture stores, and insurance companies. I wonder if some doubt about my character and veracity creeps in upon them, but I am grateful to them for their kindness and considerations as they’ve changed dates and deadlines to match my needs. I’ve not found a Papa John or Robert Murray in charge anywhere.

Above all else, I grieve. As I wrap each decorating touch in bubble wrap and bury it in cardboard, I mourn the lost color, warmth, and welcome. With each print and painting, I weigh its value and usefulness as I am doing what many my age now do: downsizing. I will not have room for every one of the vases, prints, frames, pots, and what-nots that define my home as mine. These walls and rooms blush as I expose their bones for all to see. I dream of them as they once were.

I fear that the new 728 fewer square feet may never delight me as the greater, roomier home I’m leaving did. I fear the neighbors will not like me. I’m terrified that I am, indeed, leaving a life that is “reprehensibly perfect,” never to find that again. I lack the swagger required, but go, I will.

My husband and I will embark for a life we’ve not tested or tasted: a condo overlooking a lovely cove on a huge lake with lots of havens, harbors, and fingers. We’ll buy a boat and try not to sink. He plans to drop a fishing line into water, but it will lack bait and hook. He wants to contemplate and photograph beauty, both human and divine. He’ll make friends easily as he always does, and he’ll laugh as he tells his stories.

We’ll reinvent the people we’ve become, put on new clothes suitable for the place, and walk more than we do now. We’ll play board games because that’s what people on vacation do in inclement weather. We’ll sit on our deck and admire the changing light, the coming season and the one fading. We’ll live.

Yes, Mr. Larkin. We’ll make that “audacious, purifying, / Elemental move” and go to a place where no one knows our name.  We’ll shed this life, now “in perfect order” to sally forth and create another order. The notion sings its siren song to us, and we hasten to our end. We only hope ours is not a “step backwards,” but one very much forward.

Reading Challenge: “Poetry of Departures” by Phillip Larkin

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
It's specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I'd go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo'c'sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren't so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

Writing Challenge:

Write a journal entry about an upcoming adventure or a move you’ve made.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

My husband is eager to make a new beginning. I am anxious to do so.

Both words, eager and anxious, describe emotions related to new beginnings. Eager has positive connotations while anxious has negative ones. A person who is eager looks forward to a change or something new; a person who is anxious merely hopes but does not expect the outcome to be pleasant.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: Powerful Beginnings in Fiction


Basic story ingredients, introduced in the first paragraphs and chapters, include the setting, characters, and conflict. Into those, an author tosses his own particular yeast--his style--to cook a book. Logically, then, the first words are crucial to a full understanding of the book about to unfold. Kevin Powers’ first novel, The Yellow Birds, a 2012 National Book Award finalist in fiction, illustrates the power in beginnings very well.

            The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.
            Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a white shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.

Like Tana French, the writer featured last week, Powers makes use of alliteration, a figurative device easily identified. The initial letter that weaves throughout the opening paragraph is w, a letter that we speak by exhaling a wee sigh, a breath of air before pursing our lips to give that breath shape. Adding an h just behind the w embellishes the sigh. As a result, the letter w and letters wh effectively re-create or enhance the forlorn wind on those windswept paths. The wind is a natural phenomenon that seems to underscore loneliness and alienation within a human heart as the men move through the terrain of war. Powers deliberately crafts a paragraph that introduces the setting and its atmospheric tone by picking and choosing from many word options available to him.

Other repeated letters in the first paragraph make those words more emphatic, the setting more alive and vivid. In spring, with greening grass upon the hills, the men patrol, making paths like pioneers once did, and as they do, their fatigue presses upon them. The weight of their work contrasts with the energy and lighthearted renewal often associated with spring. Clipped, staccato sounds made with the letter p enhances the heavy effect of men at war.

Most apparent and most significant in the first two paragraphs is war personified as a character, the narrator’s antagonist, his villain, bred and spread by another natural force, fire. War opposes the narrator, its function to kill the patrol with an apparent biological imperative like animals with wide open eyes, white in the dark.

In the second paragraph, Powers explains more about the setting and about the character, war. It brings oppressive, blinding heat during the summer. Worse, it is the most frightening sort of antagonist, one without motives or logic. Neither cause nor effect, good or evil moves war. It takes randomly because it is merely an opportunist, taking those who have families and those who do not, some who have great character and others who have none. War is an equal opportunity killer; thus, anyone and everyone may die.

With only 245 words, Powers has declared war upon our hearts by revealing how ruthless war is. He invented a chilling character, one that is amoral and unsympathetic to the men on patrol. War lives to kill; killing is its function and purpose.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. You will not regret it.


Writing Challenge:

Using no more than 250 words, create peace as a character and setting.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Good practice--in other words, good usage--requires that we learn to make words speak to words. Alliteration is one method.

Review your 250-word passage from the challenge above. Revise to move words, change words, and effectively choose words that speak to other words as Powers did.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Powerful Opening Words: Tana French's 2007 Novel, In the Woods

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In the few book clubs I’ve been part of, I’ve often heard a fellow reader heap praise upon a book because of the opening words, the beginning sentences. You know the ones I mean: the ones that pull you in.

In this post, I’d like to share a few opening words, some that I have savored, some that made me smile, glad to begin a friendship with the author. I’d also like to share why I think the selected words are so masterful, testaments to the author’s excellent craft.

First, from Tana French’s award-winner, In the Woods:

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. In tingles on your skin with BMX wind in the face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping-chants, ‘one! Two! Three!’ This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory. (Prelude, Into the Woods by Tana French)

If you haven’t already visited your favorite online book site to order this 2007 novel by Tana French, you must own it already. The flavor of this particular paragraph persuades me to read on. Here are a few reasons:

First, author Tana French makes use of alliteration to emphasize key words and enhance the rhythms of language. Consider the use of words beginning with an “s” (in bold font above): summer stolen some set small subtle seasons sized soft summer silkscreen summer sweat squirting skin skipping summer starts slow silhouetted.

The eye and ear note the presence of a repeated sound that now takes on greater significance. Our minds hit the sound like a hand upon the drum, and the rhythm underscores a mood, an atmosphere being created. We feel the presence of summer, a word repeated four times, five if you count the second half of an invented word, Everysummer. We feel the lazy ease of summer in words such as soft and slow. We feel summer is a comfortable sweater wrapped around us.

Second, French makes use of words beginning with “b” for a different effect:

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. In tingles on your skin with BMX wind in the face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping-chants, ‘one! Two! Three!’ This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory. (Prelude, Into the Woods by Tana French)

Whereas the alliterative s-words flow throughout the paragraph, the alliterative b-words tend to dominate in the middle of the paragraph where French has packed diction and detail that appeal to the senses. First is the taste of summer: blades of . . . grass, clean sweat, biscuits with butter, and bottles of . . . lemonade. Second is the texture or feel of summer: BMX wind and ladybug feet tingle on . . . skin. Third is the scent of summer: mown grass and wash hanging on the line. Finally, French conveys the sounds of summer: birdcalls, bees, ball bounces and chants. These chime, and in an unusual use of fountain, most often used as a noun, French suggests that those sounds fountain or flow constantly up, adding to the energy implied in the word, summer. The paragraph closes with a touch of the ominous, with things that make the woods, at night, threatening: the sounds of bats speeding through black lace trees.

One reviewer, using the online name “switterbug,” describes French’s style as being “literary, layered, full of allusion, and linguistically lush.” I agree (and acknowledge that the reviewer has used a bit of alliteration him--or her--self).  Such lush language invited me in to the world invented by French and promised that I would enjoy the journey. I did.

Next Week, November 9, 2012, Opening Words by Kevin Peters in The Yellow Birds, a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction.

Reading Challenge:

Read Tana French’s In the Woods or another Tana French novel.

Writing Challenge:

Describe a season, using the same techniques that French employs. Write quickly, then begin to rewrite, changing words and phrases to achieve an alliterative effect and appeal to the senses.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Tried and true writing advice includes a prohibition against repetition, but repeating a word exactly or in a different form serves style very well when used mindfully and sparingly. Consider Tana French’s use of the word, summer. It appears five times in a short passage without seeming redundant or repetitive. One reason is that the uses are parallel; each follows a verb, most often the linking verb is. And parallel constructions are powerful. They emphasize ideas, and they focus our minds upon the message.