Through My Father’s Eyes, Collected Poems by Sheila Jacob / Review, Interview, Poems

” . . . Two months later
you were hurried to the hospital
and died within the week.

“I stuffed your letters in a drawer
and found your fountain pen,
the ink inside still wet.”

excerpt from Letters From Home in Though My Father’s Eyes



I am often hesitant to review and recommend self-published books. Sometimes it seems that however talented and well-intentioned the poet, their collection needed another eye, an editor. We all need one frankly. Having said that, I am pleased with Sheila Jacob’s book as I knew I would be. Sheila did invite feedback from an editor and other poets before finalizing this volume, which I have now read twice and with great pleasure. Such is our humanity and the power of poetry that we can touch hearts across 3,500 miles and the wide Atantic.

Sheila, whose father died when she was thirteen, and I couldn’t be closer in terms of time (I’m a bit older than she is), roots (working class), and parents born on the cusp of or not long after WW I. Our parents were the hard-worked people of the global Great Depression and WW II. They were people who who kept their pain private, lived in gray cities, walked hard streets to work in factories and knew how to squeeze a penny. These elements are one reason why Sheila’s poems spoke to me, but I also know that her poems – this collection – will speak to anyone who values fine poetry as well as their own roots and their own loves and who have had to come to terms with loss and grief. Who among us has not? This small volume is a victory over sorrow and confusion and it brings to life one father and his daughter in all their loveable complex humanity. Recommended. / J.D.

The Doctors said I was a goner. You know the rest,
duck, an Irish nurse slipped a Lourdes medal
under my pillow and hours later I woke up, found
I could breathe on my own and talk.

You used to love the story.

Ah, yes, I see, perhaps I did make a meal
of it, ignored how I felt living through
the Blitz and coming home on leave
to streets of rubble.

I was loaded with memories
you were too innocent
to share.

excerpt from War Record in Through My Father’s Eyes


The poems and excerpts from poems in Through My Father’s Eyes are published here today with Sheila’s permission.


INTERVIEW

JAMIE: Not to diminish the extraordinary quality of your work and how meaningful it will be to others who read it, but writing these poems must have been cathartic for you. Did you come away from the writing feeling healed?

SHEILA: Yes, I did feel healed. Putting words on paper and clarifying my thoughts helped me make sense of my dad’s death, my reaction to it and my overall relationship with him. It enabled me to continue the grieving process which didn’t really begin until I was an adult and had left home. My parents, aunts and uncles, were from the post-war stiff-upper-lip generation who refused to dwell on grief. After Dad’s funeral they carried on as before with very little show of outward emotion and I was encouraged to do the same. My mum had always been a reserved person; she retreated into herself and never spoke to me about Dad even in the most general terms. I was angry and bewildered at the time though now I understand that it was the only way she could cope. 

I suspect there are poems waiting to be written about my mum’s experience: written, hopefully, with the generosity of spirit I didn’t have as a teenager and young adult. And I’m still writing “Dad” poems. The past never stays still.

I also found it necessary- and therapeutic – to explore my dad’s boyhood, which seems to have been a happy one despite financial deprivations, his love of football, and his time in the army during WW II. This gave me a fresh sense of belonging to and being rooted in my Birmingham past.

JAMIE: I seem to remember that you mentioned having stopped writing poetry for years and then started again.  What triggered your reengagement with poetry?

SHEILA: This began in 2013 during an episode of depression. I consulted a clinical psychologist, a most remarkable man with whom I am still in touch. He’d encountered the work of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath in his professional capacity. When he discovered I used to read and write poetry, he strongly encouraged me to start again. 

I remember how I‘d been seeing him for a few weeks and he suddenly said “Write a poem on the sessions so far.”

I cobbled something together for our next appointment and also dusted off my poetry library, mostly collections by Gillian Clarke, R.S.Thomas and T.S. Eliot.  I continued writing, for his eyes only at first. This gradually expanded. I read a lot about poetry as therapy and wrote a small piece about my own experience for Rachel Kelly’s Blog. Rachel is the author of Black Rainbow, an account of her long struggle against depression and the positive part reading poetry played in her recovery.

I found a website called Creative Writing Ink and took a beginner’s poetry course with a perceptive and experienced tutor, an Irish poet, Eileen Casey. Her feedback was invaluable. I began subscribing to various poetry magazines and, eventually, submitting.  

JAMIE:  In what ways has involvement with online poetry groups been productive for you?

SHEILA: They’ve helped greatly with the quality of my poems. I tend not to write one word when ten will do. I’ve learned/am learning to be more economical and precise with my use of words. My poems are still on the long side but I write in a narrative style that I think lends itself to the longer poem. I’m not a great lover of form but I’ve written sestinas, non-rhyming sonnets, tankas, cinquains and, of course, haiku which really concentrate the mind. I pay more attention to line breaks, line lengths and stanza lengths. I never used to edit my poems let alone re-edit them. Now, I often leave troublesome ones to cook for months before I return to them. 

It’s been enriching to discover the work of a wide variety of poets, living and deceased, and to explore different subject matter. I’ve done courses in ekphrastic poetry, poems of trauma, poems of protest, and poems of place. The most recent course I did was with Jonathan Edwards’ for The Poetry School where he asked us to “step into someone else’s shoes” and write from the point of view of an animal, a building, and an inanimate object, amongst others. I found this very enjoyable and liberating. 

The second benefit of poetry groups is the undoubtedly the fellowship. I’ve received valuable, constructive feedback, I’ve met poets from all over the globe, read styles of poetry I wouldn’t otherwise have engaged with and formed lasting, supportive friendships.

JAMIE: You chose to self-publish, which is something a lot of readers are contemplating.  Why did you do so and what was the experience like?

SHEILA: I would have preferred to publish my chapbook with an established poetry press but the ones I submitted to didn’t like my work well enough to take it on. I have no hard feelings about this. Maybe I should have tried more publishers and waited longer for submission openings but I’m almost sixty nine and didn’t feel that time was on my side.

There was also an emotional element involved. I wanted closure from this particular set of poems by sending them out into the world sooner rather than later. I’d worked hard on them over the years and felt there was a niche for them somewhere in the poetry world. 

I did a mentoring course with Wendy Pratt, a lovely lady and a very fine poet. I sent her a proposed collection to critique and she immediately suggested that I should focus solely on the poems about my Dad. Her encouragement gave me the confidence to self-publish. I also had a lot of support from a Facebook friend Jenni and a local poet friend David Subacchi who has self-published quite a few books and encouraged me to “just do it” without worrying that they weren’t “proper” poems or that it wasn’t a “proper” book.

Once I felt that the poems were as good as I could make them the actual publishing was very straightforward. I contacted a reputable local publisher, David Bentley, whose ideas on layout were useful. He suggested using a thicker, creamy paper to correspond with the memoir theme of the poems.

This wasn’t a cheap process but I had money saved for it and wanted to be in control of the proceedings on the ground rather than through a computer. If I self-publish again I may well take a different approach.


To purchase this little gem of a volume, contact Sheila directly at she1jac@yahoo.com


POEMS

 The Power of Flight    

 After you died                                 

 the echo of your cough                                          

 roamed the house.

 

When a dark shape 

filled your bedroom’s

open window

 

I ran to tell Mum, 

who ran next door,

both of us unnerved

 

by the bird’s frantic

tumble of feathers

and whirr of wings.

 

It’s just a young one

our neighbour laughed

and calmed it with a lift

 

of her hands,

steered it towards                           

the power of flight,

 

the possibility of song.

.

A Boy Called Anthony

Anthony would serve at Mass, ring the consecration bell.

Anthony would play 5-a-side football, win gold trophies.

Anthony would pass his 11-plus, go to St. Philip’s School.

 

When the midwife cried “It’s a girl” Dad searched

for new names, called me after his favourite sister, he sang

pat-a-cake and bake it in the oven for Sheila and me.

 

I couldn’t be an altar boy but knew the Latin responses,

couldn’t play football but watched with Dad at Villa Park,

passed my 11-plus, went to St. Paul’s where the nuns taught.

 

When end-of-term results grew worse, Dad grew angry.

I scowled, sulked- I’d tried my best, just didn’t like Maths.

You should have been a boy called Anthony, Dad snapped.

 

Anthony would have excelled in Maths, Physics and Science.

Anthony wouldn’t have answered back, chewed his nails,

muttered bloody hell, been sent to his room in disgrace.

 

Anthony, I realised then, would never fail or win, Anthony

couldn’t drink dandelion-and-burdock through a straw,

Anthony couldn’t laugh, skip, scrage his knee and bleed.

 

Anthony would never run to Dad, blurt out I’m very sorry,

I promise not to be rude again. He couldn’t hug Dad, weep

against Dad’s shoulder, smell the Brylcreem in Dad’s hair.

 

Don’t forget it’s nearly Father’s Day                                                 

 

As if I could forget how it fell

two days after they lowered

his coffin into the earth

 

though fifty-odd years ago

I was spared online adverts 

for Ben Sherman socks 

and flagons of Dior Savauge.

 

As I’d have offered such gifts

to a man whose socks 

were hand-knitted, darned

at the heel with love;

 

whose favourite cologne

was pure Welsh water 

splashed from the cold tap.

 

As if I wouldn’t make each day

a day to remember had he lived

He’d be a frail centenarian

 

I’d cosset with chunky scarves

and camphor oil; open the old

draughts board knowing 

he’d outplay me every time.

            

– Sheila Jacob


SHEILA JACOB was born and raised in Birmingham, England and lives with her husband in Wrexham, on the Welsh border. Her poetry has been published in several U.K. magazines and webzines. She recently self-published her short collection of poems that form a memoir to her father who died in 1965. Sheila finds her 1950s childhood and family background a source of inspiration for many of her poems. You can connect with Sheila by email: she1jac@yahoo.com


ABOUT

Recent in digital publications: 
* Four poemsI Am Not a Silent Poet
* Remembering Mom, HerStry
* From the Small Beginning, Entropy Magazine (Enclave, #Final Poems)(July 2019)
Upcoming in digital publications:
* Over His Morning Coffee, Front Porch Review (July 2019)
* The Damask Garden, In a Woman’s Voice (August 2019)

A busy though bed-bound poet, writer, former columnist and the former associate editor of a regional employment newspaper, my work has been featured widely in print and digital publications including: Levure littéraireRamingo’s Porch, Vita Brevis Literature, Connotation Press, The Bar None Group, Salamander CoveI Am Not a Silent Poet, Meta/ Phor(e) /Play, Woven Tale PressThe Compass Rose and California Woman. I run The Poet by Day, a curated info hub for poets and writers. I founded The Bardo Group/Beguines, a virtual literary community and publisher of The BeZine of which I am the founding and managing editor. I’ve been featured on The MethoBlog, on the Plumb Tree’s Wednesday Poet’s Corner, and several times as Second Light Live featured poet.

Email me at thepoetbyday@gmail.com for permissions, reprint rights, or comissions.


“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.”  Lucille Clifton



“Nothing Remembers”, Michael Dickel / Review, Interview, Poems

…………………………………..The memories
of living fall around the lives
once lived, leave a hole in the
pumice. The emptiness fills with words –
narrative and song. That is why I write
with rain drops on your windows
as the train speeds by the valleys
indifferently. That is why the ghosts
do not speak to me or to you.
That is why no one noticed

as I left the train again.

except from Return from Pompeii in Nothing Remembers, Michael Dickel



In his latest collection, Nothing Remembers (Finishing Line Press, August 2019), American-Israeli poet, writer, songwriter, photographer and artist (also husband, dad, teacher), Michael Dickel takes us with him on a wide exploration of our world in all our recollections and amnesias, a distant contemporary relative of A la recherché du temps (In Search of Lost Time/Proust). It is rather noble in its observations, I think, calling us to the domain of our questions and sacred imagination, exploring the place of memory, re-visioning, and of human activity and perception in the varied landscapes of our hearts and souls and this Earth.

I found Nothing Remembers to be in effect a guided meditation on the vista and meaning of history and culture, personal and communal pathways, and the possible/probable relevance of memory, poetry, and connection: humans and their experiences as part of nature, as geologic memory, as archives of history. Recommended without reservation.

The poems from Nothing Remembers are published here today with Michael’s permission.

INTERVIEW

JAMIE: In reading the poems in this collection, I felt strong sense of their rising out of the ancient soil of Israel and other geologies of heart and soul. Would you speak to this, to what we could perhaps say is the collection’s ontological roots?

MICHAEL: I suppose exploring metaphysical questions such as memory and death (or its perceptions and effects)—main themes of Nothing Remembers—invites a metaphysical question about how these poems came to be. The title poem in particular rises out of the geography of Israel, my mother’s death, and buried in the detailed description of place, the ruins of Tel Megiddo. Tel Meggido is better known by its ancient name of Armageddon, the site of a great ancient battle that inspired apocalyptic visions down to our time.


Nothing remembers
where in our times we these rocks piled into buildings
that fell down a thousand years ago dis(re)membered from war
or earthquake raised and razed again into where nothing
recalls again the warm day anemones bloom hollyhocks
poppies forget no one and another rain day another dry day
pass hot and cold while an orvani drops blue feathers in flight
a hawk sits calmly on a fencepost and flocks of egrets
traipse toward the sea no cattle no grains all harvested
in this place we would call holy land nothing left to it but conflict
with the passing of her life that tried so hard to hang onto one
moment many moments missed so many more empty echoes
a difficult way to say goodbye to a mother watching her
evaporate like rain in the desert her mind dust that dries
lips her droned words faded as warmth from a midnight rock
meaning what the layers of history these rocks un-piled
reveal sepia photos a couple of tin-types dust school
reports cards newspaper holes the shells of bugs raised and razed
again and again into our times where nothing remembers
.
The poem Nothing Remembers is also on The BeZine, along with two other poems .

MICHAEL: That poem and this book as a whole, however, are more related to the archaeological term tel than to Armageddon. A tel is a place that has been built, razed, and then rebuilt on the ruins so many times that it makes a large layered mound—often a sizable hill with steep sides. Layered beneath the latest new construction, these ruins shape the base (the hill), but also the culture, legends, and of course the history of the newest “place.” In our times, many of the constructions at the top have also become historical ruins.

Memory is like this. Metaphorically, every pace has these deep layers. The human layers only make up a thin part of the geological layers. And perhaps memory has this depth too. So do our lives. And, in fact, so does death. All of these ideas have roots in geology, geography, culture, language. And from those roots, perhaps, grow (at least some of) these poems.

So from where specifically do the poems in Nothing Remembers get their being? Certainly in place, and the deep geology of place. Israel, where I’ve lived about a dozen years now, has amazing geology. Seabed thrown up to the sky. Basalt outcropping from volcanic action. The deep rift of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, the Mediterranean basin, deserts, mountains. The human layers, geography (and history) go back before modern Homo Sapiens, with Neolithic sites. Flint ridges and springs of the Jerusalem mountains border the Mediterranean basin and Judean Desert, and have attracted migrating human ancestors and humans for millennia.

In addition, many of the poems started in Italy, during my sojourn there for the 100 Thousand Poets for Change International Conference, Salerno, Italy 2015. Thus Pompeii makes an appearance or two, and while only named perhaps once, the streets of Salerno, as well as the rest of the Amalfi Coast. The layers are no less deep, and the histories of Italy and Israel intertwine back to the Roman era, at least.

JAMIE: It sounds as though place is important in your writing. Are you saying that you write about place?

MICHAEL: I don’t think so. Place definitely matters to me and often place—its resonances and dissonances in particular—thus inspires and informs my writing. But always place arrives for me necessarily through its human dimension of how it shapes human perceptions and understandings. Often, especially in the last section of the book that focuses more on mortality—funerals, mourning, and again, memory—place emphasizes both the fleetingness of life and the longevity of memory. Geology is a form of memory. The limestone and its fossils reminds us of long gone seas and creatures. Perhaps we will one day be fossils, too. We spring from geology and we return to it, in the end. Several cemeteries appear in the last section. Yet, I don’t think I’m writing about the places, especially the cemeteries. I’m writing about humanity. I think.

Ultimately, of course, the poems come into being in me, from how I experience and think in the world, and my contemplations, such as what I’ve just laid out about our human place in this vast geological tel called earth. But that’s a different sense of place—where do we belong in the world, not where are we in it. Maybe, how we belong in / to the world, and how the world belongs in / to us. Belong isn’t quite right, but I’m not sure what is better. Fit? How do we fit in the world, how does the world fit in us? Perhaps this is as much about displacement as place, the displacement of memory.

I am in the end, I would say, more interested in the vast networks of relationships and associations we make with others, with this world we live in, with geography and with geology than I am interested in place itself. What you call geologies of heart and soul, that’s my “place.”

How can I paint these multiple relationships in words and images? How can I echo them in sound and rhythm? Can I even know them? Probably, I can’t know, and I can’t rely on memory to tell me.

So, I resort to images. Poetry, for me, is most about images placed in context to each other in such a way as to shift our perceptions. Place, geography, geology, the tel—these are all images standing in for where I can’t articulate what I sense in the world.

JAMIE: What is the one key thing you would like readers to walk away with from this collection?

MICHAEL: I would like people to walk away with a sense of contact with the poems, a sense of more than the surface of the world, just beyond our understanding, waiting for us to notice it. Perhaps, they might have a sense of our shared humanity, and a sense of their own depths of connection and unique perception of the imagery in the poems. I hope people walk away with a curiosity and questions to which they would like to give consideration…on their own paths, in their own journeys.

JAMIE: When does Nothing Remembers come out? Where can readers purchase it?

Nothing Remembers is due in late August. I’ve heard from the publisher that the printer has been behind schedule with other books this spring, so I’ve been saying late summer. Right now readers can place advanced orders through Finishing Line Press .

JAMIE: What’s next on your literary journey/adventure?

MICHAEL: My life journey has taken me into the medical world with a diagnosis of and treatment for non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. (Treatment has proceeded well, and my prognosis is excellent.) I am now mostly writing from the experience of cancer and incorporating that into my poetry. I am writing memoir or journals (I think Audre Lorde possibly wrote the definitive Cancer Journal)—or not yet, anyway, I should say as I don’t know where the writing will take me.

The first published piece from this work, The Crab, in The BeZine, is flash fiction that, like much fiction, captures some emotional reality of (my) having cancer (the crab). I have sent some poems out for consideration. And a folder floating on my computer cloud has more work, not all of it finished. I expect this work will be a future collection when the body of work is there. The working title is Etz Chaim (Tree of Life). As always, I continue writing about social issues, the 100TPC and The BeZine themes of peace, sustainability, and social justice.


Teachers
For my children
i
Teachers come to us again and again
and we learn from them what we will.
We give them in return only a
thin immortality. We hope for gentleness.
We dream of our old teachers often.
The bullies shout, “get the lead out”
as every muscle concentrates
on the knowledge that we cannot win this race.
ii
Teachers come to us again and again
and we learn from them what we will.
We give them in return only a
thin immortality. We hope for gentleness.
The gentle ones quietly step away,
letting go as we pedal furiously and discover
that miraculously we have found balance
while pushing forward to the next road.
iii
We sat at table eating phô, another lunch
where you ask questions that I never thought.
I try to catch these waves as they break toward shore
and wonder that you came to me last night in a dream.
In our own teaching, we find our voices
raised all too often. Yet, somehow, I step
back as you light into a world I will
not know, unless you take me along.
excerpt from Nothing Remembers

Michael Dickel

MICHAEL DICKEL (Meta /Phor (e) /Playhas won international awards and been translated into several languages. His latest poetry collection, Nothing Remembers, will come out late summer 2019 from Finishing Line Press. A poetry chapbook, Breakfast at the End of Capitalism, came out in 2017 (free PDF ). His flash fiction collection, The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden, came out in 2016. Previous books include: War Surrounds Us, Midwest / Mid-East, and The World Behind It, Chaos…(archived free PDF ). He co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36, was managing editor for arc-23 and 24, and is a past-chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English. He publishes and edits Meta/ Phor(e) /Play and is a contributing editor of The BeZine. He grew up in the US Midwest and now lives in Jerusalem, Israel.



ABOUT

Recent in digital publications: 
* Four poemsI Am Not a Silent Poet
* Remembering Mom, HerStry
* Three poems, Levure littéraire
Upcoming in digital publications:
Over His Morning Coffee, Front Porch Review
From the Small Beginning, Entropy Magazine (Enclave, #Final Poems)

A mostly bed-bound poet, writer, former columnist and former associate editor of a regional employment newspaper, my work has been featured widely in print and digital publications including: Ramingo’s Porch, Vita Brevis Literature, (Meta /Phor (e) /Play, Connotation Press, The Bar None Group, Salamander Cove, I Am Not a Silent Poet, The Compass Rose and California Woman. I run The Poet by Day, a curated info hub for poets and writers. I founded The Bardo Group/Beguines, a vitual literary community and publisher of The BeZine of which I am the founding and managing editor.

“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.”  Lucille Clifton



“At the End of War”, DeWitt Clinton / Review, Interview, Poems

“Prayer is said Standing
A Barechu, a call to Worship
We have not bothered, we are weak
We are too weak to even Speak
Every day is our Yom Kippur”
Reading the Tao at Auschwitz, VII, DeWitt Clinton, At the End of War (Kelsay Books, 2018)



DeWitt Clinton’s At the End of War moves with a graceful precision weaving Old Testament  stories with contemporary life, visits to the opera or cafe. Here and there are notes of humor as in On Leaving Socrates with His Jailer and hints of middle-America folksy, as in On the Way to Church Camp, Mother Meets the Devil. He speaks in many voices, blending the perspectives of Judaism and the Tao, slowly moving into the unspeakable tragedy of World War II and the Jewish Holocaust. This is the main event, if you will, of the collection, the obscenity of it layered with sacred ritual and text, an unflinching attempt to come to terms, to find identity, to rise above, to move past. The collection derives its name from the closing poem, which is after Wislawa Szymorska’s The End and the Beginning. 

Wislawa Szymorska begins her poem with:
“After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.”

DeWitt Clinton closes his collection with:
“Brooms. everybody, find all the brooms.
Can anyone send a letter? We need to let
someone know this has happened.

“Tomorrow we can start burning our families.
Surely someone will see the smoke.
Surely someone will come.”

We are in tears as we close the book. We are at once bathed in despair and hope. How many brooms will we need to clean up after all the wars and genocides? Do we finally grasp the futility of war? Will there ever be an end to the genocides of which twenty-four are happening as we “speak”? / J.D.

The excerpts from At the End of War are published here with permission. This book is recommended. / The quotation from The End and the Beginning is from Miracle Fair by Wislawa Szymborsk, translated by Joanna Trzeciack (W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 2001), also recommended.


ON LEAVING SOCRATES ALONE WITH HIS JAILER

(for my students of The Symposium, The Apology,

 Crito and Phaedo)

What started out as a sex wine party turned into a major

Mind concussion for my students, but still, we waded

Through the prose, hopeful they’d find out why

He insisted on so many questions, so many questions,

So many disillusioned Athenians. Yet toward the end,  

We could only face the charges, something about impiety

And influencing the youth, both trumped up, of course,

Mostly as a ruse to run him out of town, if he would go.  

But we knew he would not go.  We voted to acquit,

Even invoking Johnny Cochran’s “if it doesn’t fit,”

But sadly they were only seven at the time, more up

On Paris’s short sojourn than old football stars facing

Bogus trials.  Late in the day, we even considered assisting

Our friend out into the dark, but as you must know,

He trusted in the Laws even if the Laws never assumed

It would go this far.  We talked about “Prison Break,”

But few even had time to watch that, so busy chewing

The dense prose of friend/reporter Plato late on the scene.  

Most of us were quite done in by all the “soul talk”

Of those last pages, and then, we had to leave, some students

Actually having lost their speech, some needing crutches,

Some on life support, leaving our friend wandering

Through the underground calling out for Homer or Orpheus

Or anyone who wouldn’t mind sitting down for a very long

Conversation about nearly everything, since time is now

Beyond even Infinity.  That’s when I left, too, our poor

Cave-like classroom a faux jail cell, wondering if any of us

Could have comforted our gadfly, our inquirer, who is

Just now lifting his cup, resigned, cheery even. Au revoir,

Old friend, let’s hope your students do well on their final.

– excerpt from At the End of War  

INTERVIEW

JAMIE: I think it takes enormous courage to visit Holocaust sites – even to visit the museum in Los Angeles – and then to relive the experience through your writing. Would you speak of that?

DeWITT: One of the more provocative statements about art and The Holocaust is Theodor Adorno’s comment, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”  This remark can be taken several ways, including any poetry about anything after Auschwitz, or as I take it, poetry written about Auschwitz after Auschwitz is barbaric.  And why is that?  Perhaps because for all who died, and the few who survived at Auschwitz, and at all the other work and death camps, there was nothing “artistic” about it.  

Ralph Fiennes, playing the character of Michael Berg, in the film, “The Reader,” asks a child survivor of Auschwitz, “Did you learn anything?”  The now aging daughter, played by Lena Olin, replies, “People ask all the time what I learned in the camps. But the camps weren’t therapy. What do you think these places were? Universities? We didn’t go there to learn.” She continues by saying, “Nothing comes out of the camps. Nothing.”  

The death camps were neither schools, nor artistic experiences, but it is through art that we can at least remember some of what happened, even if it did not happen to the artist.  I’ve been writing about historical events for a number of decades now, and while the art is anachronistic, I think it is also an extension of that history as well.  I recall writing about the Spanish conquistador wars against the native Maya, Aztec and Incan tribes, (The Conquistador Dog Texts, and The Coyot. Inca Texts, New Rivers Press, o.o.p.) and the poetry is certainly not “accurate,” as a historian might write, but it is an artistic rendering of the horrible inflictions the native tribes experienced.  The same may be true for writing about the Holocaust. 

I’ve read historical renderings of the Holocaust, and read poetry and plays and memoirs about the Holocaust as well, and the latter are far more interesting to me as an artist. While studying the Tao de Ching with my undergraduate students, I began to consider a new path that I might take in trying to remember my experience of visiting Auschwitz I and II camps several years ago.  The result is an unusual fusion, and quite anachronistic, but I hope readers will ponder the insights of Lao Tzu as they read “Taoist like” poems of what the prisoners might have thought about as they were starving to death, or what they might have wondered as tens of thousands were marched to the gas chambers and crematoriums.  

I have read a number of artistic renderings of Holocaust experiences, and I hope anyone who reads “Reading the Tao at Auschwitz” will be open to considering a new lens to consider the horrors experienced by all who died, or survived.  I can also appreciate how survivors, or children, or grandchildren of survivors, might be appalled by such artistic renderings of mine.  It’s a long and difficult to absorb poem, but I hope it is also a valuable contribution to Holocaust literature.  

JAMIE: As a writer, what drew you to poetry instead of other literary options?

DeWITT: I’ve always imagined writing screen plays, novels, stage plays, short stories, novellas, and an array of other genres of imaginative writing, but I’ve been drawn to poetry ever since a college professor asked me to rewrite a prose piece to poetry.  Then I enrolled in a poetry writing workshop with the same professor my last semester, and though I can’t or don’t want to remember what I wrote in that class, the experience was quite wonderful, especially the instructor’s wife’s cookies.  I’ve been drawn to poetry workshops, classes, conferences, and retreats for quite some time now, and do I know why I’m still drawn to poetry?  No I don’t, even though I am still poking around for images and lines.  It’s just a huge joy to be able to still compose poetry, no matter what evolves from a writing session.  

JAMIE: As a beginning writer, what poetry most inspired you and why? 

DeWITT: I took a copy of Coney Island of the Mind with me to Vietnam in late 1969 and read it over and over, but not when we were being shelled or fired upon.  I may have taken other poetry collections, perhaps The Wasteland, but I’m not sure about what I read.  But I did enroll (by correspondence) in an extension class from the University of Kansas at Lawrence. The course was a fairly traditional reading class of modern poetry, and though I enjoyed it, I soon asked the professor if I could send him some scraps of poetry I’d been writing on a 105 howitzer firebase in Vietnam which would later become “The Spirit of the Bayonet Fighter,” published in Harper & Row’s Winning Hearts and Minds.

By the end of my tour, I was hoping to enroll in grad school at Wichita State University which offered a M.A. in English & Creative Writing, and later an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing at Bowling Green State University (Ohio).   By then, and then was a long time ago, I was interested in what would later become a career of teaching English and creative writing, and hopefully, writing more poetry, and finding a few kind hearted editors.  The teaching career is over, but I still look forward to writing new poems, and I’m still sending out a few now and then.

JAMIE: What’s next on the agenda for you?

It occurred to me only a few days ago that I may have a third collection of poems (a second collection is in production with Michael Dickel, Gary Lundy, and Is a Rose Press, an adaptation of Kenneth Rexroth’s 100 Poems from the Chinese) as I’ve been writing much more since I retired from teaching a few years ago.  I’m not quite sure it’s ready for submission as a book, but I’d like to keep working on it.  One press has a deadline in late August, and I’m hoping to aim for that as a possible submission.  Poetry isn’t everything in my life, as I also appreciate the benefits of Iyengar Yoga, and training for races and triathlons.  The next big one is in Berlin, one of the 6 world major marathons.  I certainly did not qualify to be in the race because of my lightning speed, but instead I earned a “lottery” ticket, which was a random selection of thousands of hopeful participants.  Sightseeing a few days after, including a short trip to the Wannsee chateau where during a luncheon in early 1942, high ranking Nazi Party and military officers designed what was known as “The Final Solution.”  


“From this place
Ashes rising from this place
Ashes circling as far as one could see
Ashes circling over All
Over Everyone over Everything
Circling a constant circling
A rink forever circling
a constant ringing s’hma Israel”
Reading the Tao at Auschwitz, XVIII, excerpt from At the End of War  


Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ecḥad
Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One


Photo by Meredith W. Watts, “For Good” Photography​

DeWITT CLINTON  is the author of three books of poetry:  The Conquistador Dog Texts and The Coyot. Inca Texts (New Rivers Press), At the End of the War (Kelsay Books, 2018), and a fourth collection is coming out in late 2019 or 2020:  On a Lake by a Moon: Fishing with the Chinese Masters, (Is A Rose Press).  His poems and essays have appeared in The Journal of Progressive Judaism (with co-author Rabbi David Lipper), Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, Cultural Studies< => Critical Methodologies, Storytelling Sociology: Narrative as Social Inquiry, and Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (Oxford U Press).

A few recent publications include The Last Call: The Anthology of Beer, Wine & Spirits Poetry, Santa Fe Literary Review, Verse-Virtual, New Verse News, Ekphrastic Review, Diaphanous Press, Meta/Phor(e)Play, The Arabesques Review, and The New Reader Review.  He is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Wisconsin—Whitewater, and lives with his wife, Jacqueline, in Shorewood, a small village one street north of Milwaukee.  

DeWitt’s Amazon Page U.S. is HERE.
DeWitt’s Amazon Page U.K. is HERE.


ABOUT

Recent in digital publications: 
* Four poems in “I Am Not a Silent Poet”
* Remembering Mom in HerStry
* Three poems in Levure littéraire
Upcoming in digital publications:
“Over His Morning Coffee,” Front Porch Review

A homebound writer, poet, and former columnist and associate editor of a regional employment newspaper, my work has been featured widely in print and digital publications including: Ramingo’s Porch, Vita Brevis Literature, Connotation Press, The Bar None Group, Salamander Cove, I Am Not a Silent Poet, The Compass Rose and California Woman. I run The Poet by Day, an info hub for poets and writers and am the founding/managing editor of The BeZine.


“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.”  Lucille Clifton



 

A BOOK REVIEW BY JAMES COWLES, RESIDENT SKEPTIC – Saints, Sultans, and Submission: The Tyranny of Interpretation

Editorial Note: As soon as I dipped a toe into the waters of The Saint and the Sultan:  The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by Paul Moses (a documentary version recently aired on PBS), I knew I had to ask James to write a review.  James gracefully rose to the occasion as he always does.

James R. Cowles is a member of The Bardo Group Beguines and a regular contributor to Beguine Again, the sister site to The BeZine … His healthy skepticism may or may not make you happy or angry as the case may be, but James will always make you stop and think. That would be a good thing, my friends. Enjoy this fine read. / J.D.


For a religious person who is “seeking God’s will,” the most reliable indicator that you are in serious trouble is the belief that you have found it. Paul Moses has, perhaps unintentionally, written a brief but fascinating account of a case in point:  The Saint and the Sultan:  The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace.  Again, perhaps unintentionally, The Saint and the Sultan illustrates the fundamental problem that lies at the foundation of the Fifth Crusade and all similar religious bloodlettings:  the tendency of religious enthusiasts to gloss over the incorrigible ambiguity of all their normative religious texts in favor of an artificially simplistic interpretation of that text’s values, priorities, and adjurations. Both sides in that epic conflict – St. Francis no less than the Christian Crusaders – become prisoners of their own (mis?)interpretations of the Bible in general, and of the life of Christ in particular. The result is a text which, once shorn of its salvific ambiguity, serves as a well-paved road leading to a raw dialectic of power, be it in the prosecution of war or the pursuit of peace. It is a story as old as the slaughter of the Amalekites and as contemporary as Muslim-on-Muslim jihad.

St. Francis Receiving the Stigma

St. Francis of Assisi

Regarding issues of war and peace, the Bible – and the Qur’an, though I will demur from comments about Islam, not being an Islamic scholar – the Bible evinces two complementary attitudes toward war and violence, attitudes that affect the biblical portrayal of the Character of God, and that are no less marked in the Gospels’ portrayal of the Character of Jesus Christ. Especially – though by no means exclusively – in the Hebrew Bible / Tanakh / Christian Old Testament, God is depicted as jealous, prone to irrational outbursts, and possessed of a propensity to punish both His friends (the God of the Tanakh is predominantly male) and His enemies with almost obscenely violent punishment.

Exodus 15:3 (KJV) – The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name.

Furthermore, other texts in the Tanakh valorize similar martial virtues, e.g.,

Psalm 139:21, 22 (KJV) – Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.

Psalm 144:1 (KJV) – {A Psalm of David.} Blessed be the LORD my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight.

Furthermore, the Tanakh’s depiction of the Character of God seems to alternate between savagery and tenderness. E.g., threats to rip open the bellies of pregnant Israelite women — the Old Testament God is not conspicuously pro-life! — exist side by side in the same canon as tenderness and solicitude toward Israel:

Isaiah 40:1,2 (KJV) — Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned

Like many abusive husbands, the God of the Hebrew Bible alternates between fits of insensate rage and moments of repentant tenderness, so much so that Prof. Richard Dawkins’ characterization is by no means exaggerated.

So there is considerable explicit justification in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, for the “Church militant” paradigm as exemplified in The Saint and the Sultan by the Crusaders at the city of Damietta in Egypt, in fact, for the Crusader / Templar / Hospitaler paradigm in general. After all, the God who would not hesitate to either commit slaughter Himself, as with Korah’s rebellion when the liberated Israelites were barely out of sight of Egypt, or who would order it committed by others as with the inhabitants of Jericho and Canaan, and who would mandate outright genocide as with the Amalekites – such a God could hardly be expected to flinch before the prospect of slaughtering the 13th-century equivalent of the Canaanite pagans, especially when the latter were occupying King David’s holy city, Jesus’ hometown, and, indeed, His very birthplace. Notwithstanding that Paul Moses in The Saint and the Sultan is rather explicitly on the side of St. Francis and Franciscan pacifism, and as loath as progressives usually are to face up to it, respect for the integrity of the biblical text forces the conclusion that, however distasteful it is to admit it, Innocent, Honorius, Pelagius, & Co. had a point:  they were being consistent Christian knights.

Pope Innocent III Preaches the 5th Crusade

Pope Innocent III

But there is a parallel tradition, and a parallel ethic, to which St. Francis and his Order were no less loyal:  the life and ethic of Jesus Christ as depicted in the New Testament.  This is rather obviously the tradition that commands Paul Moses’ sympathy, as is pretty obvious from a mere casual perusal of his text.  Hence Moses’ evident, and eminently understandable, affection for St. Francis.  This is easy to do. In fact, this is what one might think of as the “default” position / stance of contemporary progressives:  Jesus as a “kinder, gentler” YHVH. (In fact, this is the position of C. G. Jung in his Answer to Job:  YHVH, the “blood ‘n’ guts” God of the Hebrew Bible was basically raw affect, an unalloyed feral id, a Divine  Amygdala writ large. But YHVH came to earth incarnate as a Man so that YHVH could grow Himself a superego.) Hence “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. Hence Jesus playing with little kids. Hence “turn the other cheek”. Hence “Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword”. Hence “Return good for evil”. Hence “Forgive seventy times seven”. Hence the Passion and the Crucifixion. These themes in this tradition are quite real, also, as real as the sanguinary narratives of the Christian Old Testament. But, as with the Old Testament, there is a parallel tradition within the Jesus / Franciscan / pacifist tradition.  For just as there is the yin of gentleness and reconciliation within the yang of the Old Testament’s tradition of violence and retribution, so also there is a yang of retribution within the Jesus-tradition’s yin of forgiveness and peace. We pick up hints of this in, e.g., Jesus’ initial refusal to heal the woman in Matthew 15:21-28 and His cursing of the sterile fig tree in Mark 11:12-25. We detect considerably more than a mere hint of Jesus’ vindictiveness in Revelation, chapter 19, where Jesus is shown as the White Horse Rider, Who slays His enemies with a sword that proceeds out of His mouth. The Revelation text, of course, should not be taken literally, and the other texts may or may not be. But all may be interpreted as theological parables describing the writers’ (and readers’) estimate of Jesus character, like the story of the young George Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree. (Similar caveats apply about the Old Testament texts, of course.) In other words, these traditions-within-the-tradition concern essences not events.

St. Francis Before Sultan Malik al-Kamil

The point is that The Saint and the Sultan altogether glosses over, in fact, ignores, this ubiquitous yin-yang opposition and fails to evaluate the implications for the life of St. Francis and the lives of the Crusade leaders, to be sure, though the book is about St. Francis. Granted, what Paul Moses’ text does tell us is both informative and provocative, e.g., the story of St. Francis’ entire encounter with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, the former’s exhortation to be in submission to Islamic authorities when traveling among Muslims, etc., etc. That is radical enough, even today, when the Sultan probably would not be allowed to fly to the United States, and even more so during an actual war between the Umma of Islam and Christendom. Nevertheless, in the end, we are left with an enormous begged question:  how is it possible for a Christian, any Christian, in fact, a large community of Christians, be it a community of crusading knights and their commanders, or a community of mendicant friars, to simply skate over a motif in their own normative literature that calls into question the normative interpretation of that literature? Might fair consideration to that “counter-literature” moderate what would otherwise be, and was, a naked lust for sheer power, masquerading as obedience to (what, to them, was) the evident will of God? Francis kissed a leper on the lips. Is it really so beyond the realm of possibility that if Pelagius, the Crusader “hawk”, had reflected on the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 33:1-20) that Pelagius might have similarly embraced Malik al-Kamil? Might St. Francis’ extreme – and, let’s face it, grotesquely excessive – demands for poverty from members of his Order have been moderated by reflection on Jesus’ love of good food, good wine, and His (probably exaggerated but no doubt incorrigibly fact-based)  reputation as a “glutton and wine-bibber” (Matthew 11:19)? (Speaking only for myself, of course, if I got word that the monastic Rule I had written with my own hand had motivated one of my friars to repent by eating donkey shit, I would take a couple of steps back and ask myself if, somewhere or other, the wheels had not come off the bus.) The moral of the story:  when we ignore countervailing voices in any text, especially a normative religious text, we become inadvertant prisoners of the very text we claim to revere.

How does this happen?  Why does this happen? How does it happen that in any text – the Tanakh, the Gospels, the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, the Fire Sermon, the Upanishads … you name it … — the countervailing voices are silenced to such an extent that the text, without those transgressive presences, comes to assume a beguiling, but ultimately meretricious, consistency and univocality, speaking the same message with the same voice? Moreover, how is it that most of the time – I am tempted to say “all the time” – that voice usually tells us precisely what we want to hear, much like a Donald Trump campaign speech? Paul Moses’ book gives us some important and critical clues. With St. Francis, this is understandably – because Francis is the protagonist – done explicitly; with Innocent, Honorius, Ugolino, Pelagius, et al., more or less implicitly. But the answer in both cases is the same:  biography is exegesis. There is no bright-line division between the way we experience life and the way we interpret normative texts.  Early in The Saint and the Sultan, Paul Moses devotes the first chapters to a harrowing description of the young Francis’ experiences resulting from his efforts to sustain the honor of himself and his family by being a knight fighting in the war between Assisi and Perugia.  Moses does not say this, but there is an exquisite irony here, an irony no less stinging because Francis could not have known of it. The very Perugia Assisi was fighting was the birthplace and hometown of Perugino or Perugia, who 200-plus years after Francis, would be the teacher, mentor, and friend of the great Raphael Sanzio of Urbino. Raphael only lived to be 37 (1483-1520), but is still recognized for his ethereal and tranquil images of Virgin and Child.  If peace could be captured on pigment and canvas, Raphael did it with his Virgins. And yet, the hometown of his teacher was once the epicenter of a bloody religious war.

St. Francis Receives the Stigmata

Both parties to the siege of Damietta – Francis and the Crusaders – were influenced in opposite ways to interpret their respective texts differently through the screen of their respective life experiences.  Francis’ horrific experience of war, illness, and imprisonment, his personal observation of the carnage occasioned by the Assisi-Perugia conflict, rendered incontestably dominant the primary themes of Jesus’ life and ministry:  peace, forgiveness, temperance, and poverty; peace because he saw the horrors of the war between Assisi and Perugia repeated a thousand times over in the Nile Delta; poverty, because he saw war used as a vehicle for personal aggrandizement and the accumulation of wealth, all under color of Christian piety.  No wonder the parallel counter-narrative of Jesus’ vindictiveness was lost beneath a screen of revulsion at the physical, spiritual, and moral grotesquerie presented by the spectacle of religious war! By the same token, though Moses does not explore this theme, either, no wonder the motifs of God’s loving-care, tenderness (e.g., Psalm 23), and willingness to forgive were largely lost on men who had risen to power, prestige, and prominence by their attempt to emulate Old Testament heroes of martial valor, who exhibited great skill in hewing down their adversaries. When military violence and martial prowess are growth industries, there is scant incentive to meditate on the Prince of Peace. I do not know if Paul Moses intended for his book to be instructive in this latter way. I rather suspect not. But, even if by accident, it provides an indelible object lesson.

Perhaps the most serious warning all monotheistic believers should heed is this:  if you are committed to serving “the will of God,” beware that you do not end up serving the Will to Power.

© 2018, James R. Cowles, All rights reserved

Photo credits:
St. Francis of Assisi … Jusepe de Rivera (1591-1552) … Public domain
Innocent III … Artist unknown … Public domain
Pope Innocent III Preaches the 5th Crusade … Artist unknown … Public domain
St. Francis before Sultan Malik al-Kamil … Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497) … Public domain
The Stigmatization of St. Francis … Giotto … Public domain


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