Friday, May 6, 2016

A little longer

After John 13:31-35

I told the children I would be here,
here if only a little longer, and
when I leave, I must leave alone;
the children cannot follow, they
cannot come with me now,
on this journey I take,
this final walk.

They will stay, but with purpose,
the purpose a simple one, really,
the purpose of loving one another.
This is how people will know,
how people will know them,
will know you:

they will see the love you bear
for one another, the same love
I have born, and bear, for you.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Poetic Voices: Elizabeth Onusko and Athena Kildegaard

Two poets – Elizabeth Onusko and Athena Kildegaard – have published new collections that both examine society. Each are individual poets, with distinctive voices, and each uses a different lens. And yet when we are done reading them, we come to similar conclusions and understandings.

Onusko’s Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor considers society through the filter of illness – disease, self-diagnosis, examinations by medical specialists, treatment, and success or failure. It’s an arresting idea – and one Onusko extends in the poems in the collection, such as the title poem.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

An unexpected conversation about schools

A seminary professor is talking with a small group of mostly older adults.

“We’ve had to change how we teach our courses,” he says. “Half of the students in our classes have made it through high school and college without reading a book. They can’t write an essay. They don’t know how to spell or anything about grammar and punctuation, because they were never taught it.

“These are young men mostly in the mid to late 20s. If they went to one of the better public high schools or a private school, they’re in better shape. If they went to an average high school or worse, they’re in worse shape. And they made it through college without reading a book.

“Boys are taught differently in schools than they used to be. They’re expected to behave like girls so the teachers can teach them all the same. If they don’t, and most of them don’t, they’re doped. Given Ritalin for years. They sit in the back of the class with their baseball caps on backwards and looked spaced out. However, they usually find ways to rebel.

“Do you know what it’s like to be talking with a 28-year-old who discovers his intellectual potential for the first time in his life? When he realizes he isn’t stupid?

“The first thing he understands is how many of his years have been wasted. And then he realizes just how many people participated in that waste.

“This has been going on a long time.”

This short conversation left me stunned. It came up independently of the subject at hand, which wasn’t about schools or young people or the state of American education.

A student can enter a seminary after graduating from college and high school and never have read a book. Students can walk in the door having never understood or even glimpsed their intellectual potential. Students can walk into a seminary without knowing how to write an essay.

And if it’s true for seminaries, it’s also true for business. And government institutions. And non-profits. And schools.

Yes, this has been going on for a long time. We pulled my oldest from public school after 6th grade – and we lived then. As we do now, in one of the best school districts in the state, with the second highest paid superintendent.

We pulled him because his English teacher kept sending notes to parents about classroom activities – and the notes were filled with misspelled words and grammar and punctuation errors. The English teacher didn’t know grammar and punctuation. Or how to spell.

This was in 1993.

A generation ago.

Photograph by Ian L via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Billy Coffey’s “There Will Be Stars”

I’ve read all of Bill Coffey’s novels, from Snow Day (2010) to The Curse of Crow Hollow (2015). And I’ve watched his work grow and develop and take on a shape both unexpected and delightful.

And now comes novel #7: There Will Be Stars.

Coffey’s been bending genres for some time now, moving from general fiction to more speculative. There Will Be Stars almost defies categorization. It is speculative. It is suspense. It is mystery. It is imagination. It is faith. But it’s also something else.

It’s what I would call literary.

Coffey has been moving in this direction, but There Will Be Stars plants a flag.

The story: Bobby Barnes, the official town drunk in the small Southern mountain town of Mattingly, wakes up one morning, thinking through the recurring nightmare of the night before. His twin sons Matthew and Mark accompany him to the local filling station for gas and beer. After an altercation with the station owner and the sheriff, he heads to another filling station, where he runs into Junior Hewitt, a kind of bully who lives in the past glory of a minor league baseball game. Junior hears Bobby say something about Junior going fishing – an ordinary statement in and of itself – but Junior realizes Bobby has seen something unexpected – the future. And junior knows what that means.

Junior grabs Bobby and takes him to the house of the Widow Cash, who has just started lunch with a few friends – a young boy named Tommy, a young woman named Laura Beth who wears sunglasses all the time, the retired high school teacher George, and the Methodist preacher Juliet Creech. Gradually Bobby comes to understand that the people sitting around that table are dead, reliving the last day of their lives in an endless loop. It’s a loop called “The Turn.”

Billy Coffey
And Bobby realizes something else: he’s in his own Turn. And that must mean he’s dead.

This is not a story about zombies. It is a story about sin and redemption. It is a story about how the spiritual and the real are interwoven in daily life. It’s a story that’s powerfully written, with a command of the narrative that is amazing.

It is also a literary work. As readable as it is, it lifts the reader to a higher place. We move out from what is simply a good story and discover ourselves in a different place altogether. Great fiction aims for this, and There Will Be Stars succeeds at it.

Related: My reviews of Coffey’s books

Snow Day (2010)

Paper Angels (2011)

Photograph by Jonathan Norris via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.