Friday, April 19, 2019

The prodigal sons

After Luke 15:11-32

One ran off, lived indulgence
one remained, lived selflessly

One left, and wasted everything
one remained, and stewarded everything

One left, wallowed with pigs
one remained, caring for goats and sheep

Two prodigals

One left, and spent it all
one remained, and served but
   wrapped himself in service
   and wanted a fatted calf
   his own, to recognize
   what he’d done, to celebrate
   what he’d done, to honor
   his self-control, self-discipline,
   his righteous anger justified

Perhaps it should be called
the parable of the sinner
and the Pharisee

Photograph by Rishabh Butola via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Six heads of lettuce

I’ve never tried growing them
before, but now I’m tending
six heads of butter lettuce, 
watering and fertilizing and
tearing away dead leaves
(not too many yet) and casting
the evil eye on infernal rabbits
(a redundant phrase). 

My six heads of lettuce, soon
to be joined by six tomato plants,
are my nod in the direction 
of local agriculture; in fact,
this is about as local as you
can get: my backyard patch 
of ground 4 feet x 12 feet.
Each day, except when it rains, 
or when I forget, I fill 
my watering can like
Wendell Berry, and I bathe
my lettuces while reciting
the occasional poem. 
My timbered choir is more
like a timbered soloist, aka
the river birch sitting 
in the corner of the yard
a few feet away, dropping 
twigs and small limbs
instead of arias.

I used to work for one
of those giant behemoths
of agriculture so disdained
by Mr. Berry, but I didn’t
mind; I liked his poems
and his centeredness
in place too much. I often
told colleagues to read
his novels and poems
if they wanted to know
what the criticisms were
all about, but they didn’t
seem to mind either.

The editors of Tweetspeak Poetry are hosting a 30-Day, 30-Poem Challenge for Earth Month entitled, appropriately enough, Poetic Earth Month. Today, the featured poem is “Li Po,” and the poetry prompt is to choose a historical or modern-day figure involved with agriculture and compare yourself this figure.

Photograph by Stephanie Moody via Unsplash. Used with permission.

“Power in the Blood” by Michael Lister

John Jordan is 27, working as a chaplain at a prison in Florida. He’s also recently divorced, a recovering alcoholic (the divorce is a result of his enabling wife not wanting him to go sober), and a former police officer in Atlanta who cracked a child murder case. 

He’s arriving at work when he sees a typical morning scene. A prison guard is routinely stabbing at backs of trash, making sure no prisoner is using the daily trash pickup to attempt an escape. The routine is meant to be a deterrent to prisoners. This morning, however, as the guard stabs a trash bag, he hits something other than trash. As Jordan runs to assist, he’s hit by an eruption of blood from the trash bag. Inside the bag is an now-dead inmate, one who was HIV positive. 

Michael Lister
An official investigator is appointed – Jordan’s former father-in-law, who despises Jordan with a passion, not so much for the divorce from his daughter as professional jealousy and an inability to deal with his own alcoholism. The warden also asks Jordan to informally investigate, working with his former father-in-law.  And what they begin to uncover is a sordid sex trafficking operation, run out of the prison and involving prisoners, correction officers, and outsiders.

Power in the Blood is the first of some 20 John Jordan mysteries by Michael Lister. Lister knows the ins and outs of prison ministry – he was a prison chaplain himself for almost a decade with the Florida Department of Corrections. In addition to the John Jordan series, Lister has published three novels in the Remington James series, five in the Merrick McKnight series, five in the Reggie Summers series, three in the Cataclysmos series, six in the Sam Michaels series, and three in the Daniel Davis series.

Power in the Blood, originally published in 1997, has been republished in a new edition. It’s fast-paced, full of twists and turns, and ringing with the authenticity of prison life. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Lessons I Learned from the Hardy Boys

When I was about nine years old, I discovered the pleasure and excitement of reading The Hardy Boys mysteries. Ostensibly by an author named Franklin W. Dixon, these fast-paced mysteries filled with adventure were usually set in or near the fictional town of Bayport, likely somewhere near New York City. The books began to be published in the late 1920s and continued for decades. When I began reading them, there were somewhere about 50 Hardy Boys different mysteries.

Frank and Joe Hardy were 17 and 16 and dark-haired and blond, respectively. Frank, as the older brother, was the more serious of the pair, while Joe was more the “shoot-first-ask questions-later” character. They rode motorcycles. They could drive a car. Their father was the nationally known private detective Fenton Hardy, while their mother generally stayed at home and worried. Frank and Joe would often get themselves involved in the fringes of their father’s cases, often landing right in the middle of the action. And they ingeniously caught crooks and villains.

Who wouldn’t want to be Frank and Joe Hardy?

Edward Stratemeyer
The series was created by a writer, Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930), who organized the Stratemeyer Syndicate to write and publish The Hardy BoysThe Bobbsey TwinsThe Rover BoysTom Swift, and Nancy Drew, among others. While the books carried one author’s name (like Franklin Dixon, Carolyn Keene, and Victor Appleton), they were churned out by a host of writers under contract to the syndicate. 

I recently reread the first two books in The Hardy Boys series, The Tower Treasure and The House on the Cliff. We had given a set of the first 10 in the series to my oldest grandson for Christmas, and I wanted to see if they could still hold my interest today.

They could and they did.

The first thing I discovered (or rediscovered) was the astonishing use of explanation points. Stratemeyer must have mandated a certain minimum use of that punctuation in writing contracts, because the books are loaded with them. The exclamation points underscore action, fast pace, tension, unexpected events and people, and more. 

Second, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger (and usually an exclamation point). It’s like a roller coaster ride of successive hills and valleys, with the chapters ending at the top of each hill. And like a roller coaster ride, you want to keep going and read on.

Third, each chapter has a title – and the titles are designed to attract interest and add to the building tension of the story. So, you find “An Unexpected Find,” “Captured,” “The Hidden Trail,” “The Holdup,” and “The Threat.”

The main characters have simple names, one syllable for teenagers and two for adults. So we have Frank and Joe (it’s never Joseph) with their good friends and partners in detection Chet and Biff. Adults have names like Fenton and Oscar. Important secondary characters have colorful names, like “Pretzel Pete,” while the villains have names like villains – Felix Snattman, for example, is a smuggler in The House on the Cliff.

Fifth, the language is simple. The only words that may send you to the dictionary are the period, old-fashioned ones, like “sleuth” and “roadster.”

What all of these style tactics do is talk to, not at, the reader. The books never talk down to their audience. They meet their readers right where their readers are. They want to engage you, and they want to put you in the characters’ places. The teens are all recognizable – the serious ones, the geeky ones, the one who eats too much, the fun-loving and daring one. 

Many of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books have been updated for more contemporary sensibilities. Those are not the ones to read. Instead, you have to search for the ones originally published in the 1920s to 1940s and then reprinted through roughly the 1960s.

 I like the original Frank and Joe Hardys. Yes, they seem a bit old-fashioned (no laptops or smart phones, no political issues) but they’re all about telling an entertaining story.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Beneath the grass

People seeing it for the first time
called it, variously, jungle or
desert, the grasses taller than
a man on horseback. Westward
wagon trains passed lightly 
along ruts carved through 
by natives or buffalo or fire
or previous trail cutters,
grasses simultaneous wonder 
and irritation. No one looked,
or realized, what was beneath
the grasses, vast and deep
communities of insects, roots,
soil, reptiles, bacteria, organisms
of the grasses often as deep as
the grasses visible. Not until
the farmers came, paused,
then stopped, did what was
underneath become an object
to consider, a barrier, an obstacle,
something only useful for a roof, 
to expose the soil below, waiting
for the wind.

The editors of Tweetspeak Poetry are hosting a 30-Day, 30-Poem Challenge for Earth Month entitled, appropriately enough, Poetic Earth Month. Today, the featured poem is “Do the Shells” by L.L. Barkat, and the poetry promptis to consider the “deep-downness” of things. 

Photograph: Restored prairie at Shaw Nature Reserve, Franklin County, Missouri.

Poets and Poems: Nick Laird and "Feel Free"

It’s like walking into a traditional small bookstore. You see the shelves and tables set out before you. You inhale the smell of paper, ink, and binding. The counter clerk knows the inventory and can make a recommendation within 90 seconds of beginning a conversation. You see an elderly man sitting in an overstuffed chair, adjusting his glasses as he reads.

You think to yourself, “I’ve come home.”

That’s the impression engendered from the very first poem in Feel Free, the newest collection by Irish poet Nick Laird. And that impression is an odd one, given that the first poem (entitled “Glitch”) begins with splitting one’s temple apart after a fall at home. Except like most poems, it’s not really about an accident but about escaping the circumstances we often find ourselves in, creating “the sense / that lasts for hours of being wanted somewhere else.”

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

Monday, April 15, 2019

Interior darkness: May 1999 and April 2019

Interior darkness is
what I remember most,
a soft darkness, mellowed
by centuries, a friendly
mystery to wrap myself in
as I walked through wood
and stone. Candles, lit
in supplication all over.
Lots of people, speaking
a babble of tongues, usually
looking up and pointing
to the darkness clustered 
on the ceiling.
The darkness remained,
though, until I turned
and saw the window,
a rose of glorious colors
even without direct sun.

I saw the rose again,
twenty years later
almost to the day, but
this time a view from
the outside, and the rose
backlit by yellow-orange
light. I thought again
of that older darkness,
now dispelled for a moment
at least, and I wished 
I could have had
the darkness back.

Photograph of Notre Dame du Paris Cathedral by Daniele D’Andreti via Unsplash. Used with permission.