For your Summer reading pleasure, hope you’ll consider books from my growing NeXTeXT collection. With last week’s publication of Sarah Knorr’s poetry, you can choose from a Charlottesville novel, a gripping story collection, a memoir of the Greatest Generation, and two books of poems. All available on Amazon (or ask for them at your local bookstore). Have a great Summer, everyone – read on!
The last time I saw my friend Sarah Knorr was a month before covid shut everything down. We met at my favorite bakery Sub Rosa on Church Hill, sitting side by side on a bench along the wall, sipping tea and nibbling a cinnamon roll. Through the bakery’s tall picture windows, we watched a horse-drawn funeral cortege round the traffic circle just outside, both of us smiling at this augury, the kind of correspondence poets live for. Sarah had recently stopped chemo. She said her flaming red hair was beginning to sprout again, but as always in public she wore a wide straw hat, movie star sunglasses, and a Kate Hepburn scarf around her neck. She asked, as usual, about my writing. She never mentioned, ever, her own.
This time last year we were all in covid lockdown, and Sarah lay dying in Verona, in the house my dear friend her husband Ken built atop a river bluff amidst trees alive with birdsong. He nursed her for months as her body failed, no visitors allowed because covid, then in mid-July she died, not of the virus but of the cancer she had danced with for so long (Sarah hated it when people used verbs like “battle” or “wrestle” or “fight” to describe the cancer experience. She corrected one friend with, “This is not a fight. It is a dance, and when the music stops I will sit down.”)
A few weeks later, Ken and Sarah’s estimable sisters Anne and Ginger invited me to look through three boxes of Sarah’s writings, and in those boxes I discovered pages and pages of poems, a few from as far back as high school, others written as recently as 2017, some published in literary journals. I’d known Sarah and Ken for twenty years, she had acted as a fierce and inspiring champion of my writing, and yet for reasons I don’t understand she never mentioned her own work. I knew her as a relentless advocate for people with disabilities, the person who could figure out funding, housing, or caregiving for the weakest among us, tirelessly untangling the state’s byzantine social safety net case by tedious case. Those were the things she talked about when she wasn’t praising some bit of writing I’d shared. Never her own writing ever.
As I sorted through her boxes, and the poems piled up on my desk, it quickly became clear what had to be done. Sarah was not a hobbyist or Sunday poet. She was a hard-working, steady, and focused artist. Her poems are tightly wrought and physically acute. They typically strike flint-like on sharply drawn images of quotidian life, sparking evocative links to myth, symbol and mystery. They reward close reading and re-reading, both individually and in correspondence with each other. They deserve an audience.
So I decided to collect them. It took nearly a year of mostly weekend effort, since I was teaching covid-inflected courses at VCU, but over time a sequence of 80 poems came together. As you might imagine, there were varied versions of many of these poems. I made the best decisions I could about which might be the final versions, winnowing as I went along. Some of the poems had been published in literary journals, so they were easy to figure out. Others were crossed over with edits, so I did the best I could. In no case did I alter a word or even a comma. This book is Sarah’s.
In reading the collection you will see, as I did, that Sarah was an accomplished lyric poet. Her voice, her cadence, and her vision clearly and consistently speak from poem to poem. The best lyric poems, through some magic trick, make personal experience universal. Sarah’s achieve that high bar.
One way to measure originality in an artist is to clock their influences. Many of Sarah’s poems work as compact parables, drawing insight from nature, as Mary Oliver’s do. Some draw from her childhood ranging over the family farm on horseback, attentive to rural lessons as Wendell Berry’s do. That said, no one but Sarah could have composed these poems. Her intimate acquaintance with cancer (she suffered surgery and radiation in her 20s, and lived with the expectation of recurrence) taught her how tentative and precious life is. Yet the poems don’t mope; they praise each moment of lived existence with a fierce, terse insistence.
In closing, I’d like to thank Ken, Anne and Ginger for sharing Sarah’s work and letting me take a shot at collecting her poems. Thanks go to Sarah’s lifelong friend Adele Castillo, who found a painting (by the local artist Carol Baron) of Sarah’s spirit animal the heron for the cover. And to my visual artist son Stephen for cover design. One last thing, proceeds from sales of Sarah’s book will go to one of her many charities. I’m so glad to be able to share this collection with you all. Here’s where you can get it, in paperback or e-version. Enjoy!
One year ago, they killed her. Here on this sorrowful anniversary is the foreword to my manuscript of poems in her honor, Breonna: Poems after Sappho.
Parodies can be satires, but not always. They can also be loving tributes, which is my intention here.
Breonna. If you take a moment to look at that viral photograph of a uniformed Breonna Taylor — proudly smiling before the seal of the City of Louisville, with a bunch of flowers and her award for stellar service as an emergency medical technician in her arms — don’t you feel like you knew her? Don’t you wish you had? She reminds me of some of the best people I’ve known, nurse’s aides and medical assistants, and other allied health providers, who can stanch blood, restart a heart, safely take down a person in the grip of psychosis. Women whose examples of professionalism, dignity and self-effacing humor taught me, in my health care career, the easily overlooked things that matter so much. How to turn a frail patient or sit patiently for a half hour, spooning food and chatting. How to wipe the ass of an elderly man, powder it, and discreetly dispose of the mess briskly and efficiently, while sparing him any shame or embarrassment. These are not little things. They are acts on which a civil society hinges.
Clearly, Breonna understood that life is hard, especially for a Black woman from the working class in a famously racist city. She did not turn away from that knowledge. She chose to help in the most direct way, serving people in emergency. She died at the hands of others paid to “protect and serve,” a tragic irony that we White folk have only begun to appreciate.
Breonna was killed at the very beginning of the pandemic, just weeks after beginning work in the emergency room at a hospital that, as I write this on New Year’s Eve, 2020, is overwhelmed by Covid patients. Think of the lives Breonna might have helped save this year, that she might have yet saved in the coming year, and on down through a long career.
Sappho. The great poet of ancient Greece, acknowledged as such even during her lifetime, her work surviving only in a few allusive, fragmentary verses. What’s left has been translated into English several times. The version I have is Mary Barnard’s from 1958. Succinct, to the point, beautifully spare. Each time you read through its 100 snippets, you learn more. Sometimes I think you could create a whole culture from the collage left us. At other times, I marvel at Sappho’s delight in small things, her passion and concern for others. A few poems speak of early death, of a young person taken too soon. I think that’s what made the link for me.
The poems. If you care to compare, this book closely follows Barnard’s translation of Sappho. Some of the poems alter only a few words, and a few fragments are not changed at all, because they seem to apply perfectly across the ages. Two of Sappho’s most famous poems resisted my twists and substitutions, so I replaced them with my own, attempting to mimic Barnard’s style. The idea has been to shape an evocative collage of Ms. Taylor’s last day and its aftermath, or what I know of it and can imagine from the news. Awakening at dawn to face the sirens, the rush, and the pain of the emergency room, grabbing a quick lunch with a friend, returning home to her boyfriend Kenneth, to rest her weary bones, so she could do it all over again tomorrow.
Not hard to visualize what happened next. We’ve seen versions in a hundred cop shows and movies. The assault, the victims on the floor, the grieving families, the rigged justice system. And in Breonna’s case, because enough was enough, the rousing protests around the world. Not hard to imagine at all, but not easy to rest with either. A lot happened in 2020. Breonna’s story sparked some of it. We owe her so much, but that would be true even if those cruel, heedless detectives had not battered down her door. I wanted to speak to that somehow, and Sappho (please forgive me) came to mind.
So no, this parody is not a satire. More a eulogy and reflection, at least that is my aim.
The University of California Press, which owns Ms. Barnard’s Sappho translation, has refused the right to publish this manuscript, so I’ve been posting the poems in sequence, two a day, on my Twitter account since mid-February. There are 100 poems in all, and I’ve posted 52 so far, the rest to come. If you care to read them, you can go to @tony_gentry on Twitter, scroll down to the first one, and then scroll up through them all. Or if you like, leave a comment here with your email address and I’ll send you the whole collection as a PDF.
One more thing, if you’re interested, The New York Times has posted an 18-minute video that details what happened at Breonna Taylor’s apartment one year ago today.
Just before the pandemic shutdown, I visited my friend in federal prison. A couple weeks before that, I’d sent him a copy of my debut poetry collection Yearnful Raves, along with some other books. Check this out: I’m standing at the guard box in the visiting room when he strides through the prisoner’s door, and before we even get to the one allowed hug he’s saying, “Man, take this the right way, we liked your novel and your stories, all good, but these poems, that’s your sweet spot, man!”
We took our side-by-side plastic seats and he continued, frankly blowing my mind. He said (paraphrasing), “I went around showing off the book and guys were like, poems? I told ‘em they were by the fellow who sends us books, so they were like, okay, show me one. The ones about your dogs? Guys went, ‘That’s some truth.’ And a half dozen brothers, I wish you could have seen them debating this one poem. It’s the one where the space aliens are trying to figure out how to conquer us and they hit on the idea of color? One guy says, ‘This is about black power!’ Another frowns at him, says, ‘No, it’s the power of words, man. It’s how just little words can mess with your mind.’ They went at it for I’m not kidding a half hour, and they were still talking about it at chow. That poem about your brother, that was killer, man. Guys sobbed reading that! Things you can’t fix in your family, they know what that is.”
I’m sitting in this concrete block visiting room bowled over by the whole idea, prison inmates grooving on my poems? Anybody’s poems, for that matter. And then a letter arrives this week from my friend. He’s included hand-written notes from a couple of his pals that read like reviews of the poems. He swore he didn’t ask for them, they just wanted to tell me. So here they are, my favorite reviews ever:
Dear Sir – I want to start this off by clarifying very emphatically that I know NOTHING about poetry…unless Dr. Seuss counts (?) I recently was given the opportunity to read your collection of poetry. I enjoyed your work. I must specifically address two of your pieces…your work on the subject of picking blackberries and the lament of crawling under a house to retrieve a dog were fantastic. The way you “painted” both of these experiences took me back to similar situations from my youth. I will fault you for having me fixate on blackberry cobbler for the remainder of the day…and going to sleep with the reminder of a long passed hunting dog. Thank you. I look forward to your future work. Respectfully, _________
This author does a fantastic job mixing in seemingly humorous concepts with melancholic affirmations of what it means to be human. The most fascinating of the entries is “Weekend Daddy” on page 12. Though only eleven lines, it paints a picture that is laughable and yet all too realistic in its portrayal of what must be the titular character’s living situation. One can readily imagine and “see” the home, and the feelings that come with this flood the mind like New Orleans during Katrina. It’s a visceral torrent of emotion…all within eleven lines.
Another great example is “Alzheimer’s Poem” on page 26. Hauntingly beautiful and poetic are the only words I can think of to express the emotions brought forth by this one.
My favorite, despite my feelings about the former ones, is “Don’t Let This Happen to You.” The message is clear and the warning simple. Through its journeys from present to past and back to future aren’t the most illustrative present in the book, they provide a much needed context for the reader. This one pulls at the heart strings and plucks at the minor chords guaranteed to leave you wondering what happens next. Sadly, there is no next, and that means something in and of itself. From start to finish, this one delivers on the aforementioned concepts and affirmations.
I would definitely recommend picking up a copy of Yearnful Raves even if poetry isn’t your thing. The three above make it worth the price. ______________________
One thing about writing, it’s all messages in a bottle. You hope something you wrote will touch somebody, and you’re grateful for any sign. My friend and his pals clearly get that. Locked up and in so many cases forgotten, their whole existence is like that, books nobody reads. So, as you might imagine, I will cherish these notes. Only wish I could have been a fly on the wall when those guys were debating that poem! And another thing, consider the generosity of these men, currently in their 50th day of unit lockdown for coronavirus. They knew it would matter, cared to reach out, took the time. They have nothing, but they have this. Thank you, gentlemen.
You can pick it up on Amazon now, and your local bookstore can get it for you, too.
When I started work on my debut novel The Coal Tower (https://amzn.to/2HcegCg) ten years ago (there were previous novels, of course, piled in that proverbial drawer), one sweet dream that drove me to get up at 5 am, brew some coffee, and sit down in the light of my laptop to write before work was the possibility that someday the book would come out, and when it did, maybe I’d be fortunate enough to launch it at my favorite bookstore, the linchpin of Charlottesville’s literary scene, New Dominion.
Living in Charlottesville, working as an occupational therapist at UVA-Healthsouth, then starting a community reentry program for people with brain injuries connected to Martha Jefferson Hospital, then starting up an early tech company Cerebreon, along with acute care practice at UVA Hospital, while also starting a family with my amazing wife Chris and our two boys (both out of their teens now), the ideas and characters for this novel did what I guess you’d call germinate. An autocratic neurosurgeon at UVA, one of our brain injury clients who tended to drift off to a homeless camp on the edge of the river, teenaged patients emerging slowly from comas caused by car crashes or shootings, and so on, all this swirled around my busy days with no place to land.
Then there was that tragic shooting at the old coal tower downtown, when a young man with mental health problems killed two teenagers. That event struck me as a metaphor somehow for what I felt about Charlottesville, and its disparate communities, but it took me the writing of the novel to place it. I hope that’s what I’ve done.
Anyway, next week that sweet dream comes true. New Dominion is holding a launch party for The Coal Tower. And what’s even sweeter, they’ve scheduled it during Game Week. The novel takes place in one day – the day of UVA’s first football game of the season – and my reading will be held that same week (on Wednesday August 28, from 7-8 pm). Much of the action in the book takes place on the Downtown Mall, just outside the doors of the New Dominion Book Shop. How sweet is that?
So, if you live in the Cville environs, hope you can come and share in my dream come true. It’s been a decade in the works, but now tastes to me as delicious as a scoop of Chap’s coffee ice cream in a waffle cone!
Here’s the New Dominion link for the event: https://ndbookshop.com/events/tony-gentry-the-coal-tower/. Y’all come, now!
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All stories…end in death.” With ringing lyricism, cinematic detail, and wry humor, in this diverse collection of tales Tony Gentry interrogates that notion.
A father and son share a moment of everyday epiphany on their farm. An elderly widower must choose between a circumscribed life where every breath is an effort and a saving reunion he barely trusts, while another finds solace in the company of an old bear. The ghost of a Confederate general wanders the historic precincts of modern-day Richmond, Virginia. The First Lady deposes the President. A boy finds not love but purpose in a kiss. On a canoe trip, two middle-aged brothers confront mortality and the mystery of what lies beyond. Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars face their demons, seeking reasons to go on. In the longest tale here, a fall from a wheelchair tests the will of a man haunted by the car crash that severed his spine and killed his young daughter years ago. And cancer tells its own origin story, that of a real estate mogul turned megalomaniac. Keenly observed, inventive, and thought-provoking, these stories test the curtain between everyday reality and the tempting whisperings that lie beyond, in that uncanny place where our hearts and minds collide.