River Shadows – a poem

This poem was recently anthologized in an Emerging Poets volume; came to me after a day of hanging out by a mountain river up past Floyd with my friend David Clark.

Have you seen
the somber
loom of winter
trees lay stripes
on clear water —

maybe a trout
stream
after snow?

The penciled
line jagged
along the
rocky bed
overdrawn
by a skittering
rippled lid

like time
what flows
like hurt
what won’t

a day underway
a smudge beneath
that will not
budge or sway

the current ignites
and scatters
the shadows
lay down the law

or is it two truths
that interplay
you go you stay
stubborn rule
that cannot hold
the flow at bay?

How Mama Remembered Christmas

In her old age, Mama surprised us all with a memoir she’d typed on a second hand manual typewriter picked up at a yard sale.  I hand-bound a few copies for the family and Mrs. McGehee printed an excerpt in the Fluvanna County Historical Society Bulletin.  On this Christmas Eve, thought I’d share a brief chapter:

These were the Depression years and times were hard for everyone, but especially difficult for my parents as my father being a sharecropper worked the farm and received only two-thirds of the crops he raised, but we were furnished with the house in which we lived.  No potpourri was needed in this farm house.  An apple orchard grew on the farm and the aroma of ripening Winesaps scented the entire house from several barrels of apples kept in the attic bedroom for our consumption during the winter months.  Peaches, berries, grapes and cherries grown on the farm along with the apples provided the fruit for the family needs.

Today being blessed with four grown children and six grandchildren (now eight) and enjoying being in their homes especially at Christmas and watching them enjoy the many toys they find beneath the tree, I am happy for them, and my mind goes back to other years long ago and Christmases in my home when I was a child.  Stockings were not hung at our house.  Instead we selected shoe boxes during the year that were placed in special corners awaiting Santa’s arrival.  This remained the custom in my home while celebrating Christmas in later years with my own children and what a happy and special time this was for me.  We never decorated a tree at the old farm, but it was Christmas nevertheless, and we knew we were celebrating Christ’s birthday.  I still recall the feeling of anticipation on Christmas Eve and the excitement of Christmas morning as we rushed down the narrow stairs to find what was in our boxes.

There was always one special toy in each, a handful of hard candy, a few nuts and an orange.  This was the only time of year when we saw an orange, as they were not in the store except at Christmas.  The toy we received was the only one we had from one Christmas to the next.  I never remember having a birthday cake or getting a gift on that day until after I left home.  But at Christmas, my mother always baked chocolate, coconut and caramel cakes for us to enjoy during the holidays.

One Christmas stands out in my memory.  I found a small brown teddy bear in my box.  For some reason, I didn’t like the fuzzy toy with the bead eyes.  I tossed it under a chair and never touched it again.  Now I know how badly my parents must have felt when I rejected the toy they had chosen and sacrificed getting for me.  Today I have a similar one sitting in a rocker in my living room that I cherish.

Prologue to my Novel The Coal Tower

My debut novel The Coal Tower is available now in paperback or Kindle versions (you can request the book at your bookstore, too).   Here’s the prologue:

Every town has a place like this.  In Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s the coal tower.  A squat, concrete bunker roughly the shape of an enormous thermos bottle, it stands shaggy with kudzu on six ponderous concrete legs next to the train tracks that run east and west through downtown. A few coal and gas trains still run along these tracks, rumbling between mines up in the mountains and power plants dotted around the Virginia Piedmont, but now that all the revamped warehouses have gone electric or solar, the tower serves no purpose.  Its steel-reinforced walls are too sturdy to dynamite, and so far no developer has imagined a way to turn it into condos.  At one point, years ago, a sculptor built a 20-foot tall dress frame atop the tower, then draped a giant’s white cotton dress on it, naming the work in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally Hemings.  He meant it to be a thought-provoking, lovely memorial and provocation, and it did serve — if nothing else —  as a middle finger aimed at Monticello, the Founding Father’s hilltop home.

            The artist was surprised, however, to learn that the dress would not stay on.  He’d get a call at his studio in Staunton and drive over the mountain to find the yards of fabric that made up the sculpture’s dress stretched across the honeysuckle thickets, torn and dirty, as if blown off by the wind.  He’d unstitch it into washable sections, have it laundered and resewn, then spend a whole day with ladders, tools and a couple university students precariously fitting the dress back onto the frame.  Two days later, he’d get the call again.  This happened three times.  After that, he bought a thermos of coffee and parked his pickup behind some scrap lumber by the tracks and waited.  Woke up with a start to find the dress gone again, but this time it was nowhere to be found.  He looked everywhere it could have blown, then noticed something, a crack in the coal chute door.  The door was carved into the face of the tower ten feet off the ground, but he was able to straddle a rail siding in his pickup and hoist himself up from the cabtop.  To his surprise, the door was not sealed at all, just blocked by a flap of plywood that he easily pushed aside.  You couldn’t see much in there, but his flashlight revealed that someone had found a use for the coal tower after all.  A rusty ladder bolted onto the interior wall stretched down to a circular room littered with squatter’s treasure:  blankets, pans, an old mattress and piles of other debris.  Crumpled in one corner, like a deflated hot air balloon, lay the torn and coal-streaked dress.

            The artist climbed down inside the tower and retrieved the dress.  He then notified the police and personally sealed the coal chute door with an old oaken tabletop that he bolted into the concrete.  But he gave up on the dress, leaving the skeletal frame atop the tower, having convinced himself that the sculpture was more interesting that way.  But really, it would have been such a hassle to dismantle it, and nobody cared anyway.  When he left, as far as anybody knew, the kudzu took over.  The sturdy monstrosity squatted ugly and forgotten along the tracks.

            Except not really.  It had taken all of five minutes to pop the door bolts with a crowbar.  The squatter’s camp was back in business in a week.  A seasonal refuge, largely abandoned in the summer and winter, but cozy during the rains of spring and fall, it serves a transient population that the proud, go-getter town does not even imagine. 

 

Fave Books of 2018

Here’s my Top Ten list of favorite books read in 2018 (all are in paperback and only one was actually first published this year).  I’d love to see your list!

The Cartel by Don Winslow.  If you read his Mexican drug war novel The Power of the Dog, then you probably waited in line for this sequel, a brutal masterpiece that continues Winslow’s take- no-prisoners unmasking of the real culprits (allow me to name check the late first President Bush) in the ongoing narcotics apocalypse of North America.  This trilogy concludes with The Border, due out in February, and I’ve pre-ordered that, too.

The New Valley by Josh Weil – A debut novel (really three novellas) set in rural Southwest Virginia, its chiseled sentences and hard scrabble situations spark like a hoe striking stone.  Sent a copy to my friend in prison and he has not stopped asking me for more like it.  Sadly, haven’t found one.

Chattahoochee by Patrick Phillips.  I attended this serious young poet’s affecting reading at St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, then spent a week poring over his rich cycle of poems about growing up alert, hurt, and in wonder at the world about you.

This Young Monster by Charlie Fox.  Fierce, loving essays about monsters that had me rethinking prejudice, disability, my face in the mirror, and all the Others that scare and fascinate us.  Sent me back to Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Diane Arbus’ photographs, to David Lynch’s whole oeuvre with woke eyes.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.  Catching up on the classics, read this feet on the ground/head in the sky epic during a beach week.  Don’t think I’ll ever appreciate an Outer Banks sunrise more.

Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy.  Inspirational quotes by writers for writers, one to a page, glossed by short essay prompts.  Reading a page each morning became an essential element of my preparatory routine for writing.  Lacking a sequel, I’m starting over at page one now.

The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder.  The great beat poet is a leader of the Deep Ecology movement, and these essays may change how you walk in the world.  My favorite quote:  “An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style.  Of all moral failings and flaws of character, the worst is stinginess of thought, which includes meanness in all its forms.”

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.  Snyder the young zen acolyte, woodsman and poet is the star of this novel, which to my mind rivals On the Road.  Somehow had never read it before.  Here’s my take on the book from an earlier blog post:  On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62.

Collected Essays by James Baldwin.  A favorite birthday gift last year, this book burned up my bedside table.  No one has ever written with this intensity and rue about inequality in America.  Start with The Fire Next Time, a time capsule from the 1960s that speaks directly to now.

A Short History of the World by E. H. Gombrich – Yes, this is a children’s history book, and it has you feeling like a child again, sitting on your wise old uncle’s knee as he recounts a life well-lived.  Pipe ash flits onto your p.j.’s, but you don’t care, because the tale he tells has never been expressed so well.  Dare you to find another children’s book that risks a quote this profound:  We are like that.  Each one of us no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time which flow past beneath us into an unknown, misty future.  We leap up, look around us and, before we know it, we vanish again.  We can hardly be seen in the great river of time.  New drops keep rising to the surface.  And what we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave.  But we must make use of that moment.  It is worth the effort.

That’s it!  Tag you’re it!  In 2019, stay calm and read on!