All the Ifs, NaPoWriMo, Day 28

My Dearest. I can’t tell you where I’m going, nor when I’ll return. Here—is it pretty? you asked. Perhaps if we were on holiday together. If we could sit at leisure, smell the flowers, and drink the local wine. . . Well, that’s in the past, all the ifs–now the dogs of war yap and bark only for blood, and we must feed them. In the dirty days and unbearable nights, I think of you. In the unceasing gloom, the dismal war rooms, the crowded trains, the stinking rain—and the mud! God, the mud! I long for the touch of your gentle hand and remember your kisses. I long for clean linen and light–and for the sight of you. My darling, I carry your words against, hold them within my heart. Love always, Your Johann.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

English translation: “Labeled postcard from Miss Nördingen to her fiancé John Ostermeir,” first Army Corps, 1st Division, Second Army Regiment. C. 1914-1918.  Wikimedia Commons

 

Today’s NaPoWriMo challenge: “to draft a prose poem in the form/style of a postcard.”

 

 

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Ephemeral Beauty in the Book of My Memory

Monday Morning Musings:

In the book of my memory—the part of it before which not much is legible—there is the heading Incipit vita nova [here begins a new life].

–Dante Alihieri, Vita Nuova

“There are lovely things in the world, lovely that don’t endure, and the lovelier for that.”

–Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song

“People like films because stories are a structure, and when things turn bad it’s still part of a plan. There’s a point to it.”

–Tom Buckley in Their Finest

 

Dawn opens the book

write or draw upon the page

ephemeral life

transitory beauty, grasped,

chronicled by poet’s hand

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Every morning, I wake and turn another page,

what will be written there that day?

Not a book, a story, a movie, a play,

our lives

we plan, we think there is a structure, a plot

reasons for our rhyme

we study the past

but put our trust in hope and beauty

 

My husband and I eat Chinese food

sitting in our living room we watch a movie,

about a woman who lived a hundred years ago in Scotland,

using technology that did not exist in that era,

and that will become outdated all too soon,

it’s a rural life of hardship and beauty,

of fighting and song,

an abusive father, a depressed mother, a brother who leaves,

she puts away her books,

but there is the land to sustain her

she falls in love and marries

but the land is still there,

glowing through the director’s vision,

though the work is hard,

her husband goes to war

(the war that was to end all wars)

it changes him

it changes the nation

and all the nations that lose so many of their young men

the poets write, the tyrants sing

dulce et decomum est pro patri mori

the old lie,

that vicious lie,

life is ephemeral,

but love,

that is true and lasting

 

In the morning, I wake and turn another page,

we see another movie

this one about the next big war

about keeping the spirits up and boosting morale,

the movie is funny and charming and sad,

I enjoy it very much,

my husband does, too,

though he says, “It’s a Merril movie.”

And I guess it is,

though I’m not sure what that means,

the movie is mainly about a woman

who gets a job writing “slops,”

the women’s dialog for war movies,

this one is about unlikely women heroes at Dunkirk

the war ministry wants it to have everything though—

even an American and a dog–

and we see the writing (the clicking of typewriters)

and the construction of the movie

location and studio

while the world around them shatters,

and we know that the world will get worse,

and women will take “men’s work,”

then be forced back into their boxes,

but there is romance and Bill Nighy

and really what else do you need in a movie?

 

After the movie,

the spring day turned fine,

we walk around the old city,

where traces of the past remain,

though much has vanished,

structures, people,

and before that

giant creatures who once walked the earth

 

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American Philosophical Society

 

we drink coffee,

enjoy the view,

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laugh at the booming voice of a tour guide

helpfully informing a group that

“Carpenter’s Hall was built for carpenters.”

(though the term carpenters is misleading)

 

Nearby stood the house of a bodice-maker

now house and man, long gone—along with the fashion

all fleeting moments in time

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Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia

 

In a garden, we see tulips

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but many of the early spring flowers are already gone,

the petals of the flowering trees float to the ground

joining piles of catkins

(leaving pollen to blow everywhere)

the fleeting life of a butterfly,

helping to create beauty in the world,

ephemeral beauty

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the beauty of spring, fading into summer

lovely things that don’t endure

and are they lovelier for that,

and is that the point?

What will I remember,

what will be retained in the book of my memory?

These moments of beauty, I hope.

We go home

feed our cats and ourselves,

the mundane tasks of life

that have their own beauty and joy,

we sleep,

and in the morning

I wake and turn another page,

hoping for beauty, though it may not endure,

wondering if there’s a plan

wondering and hoping

holding love close

 

We watched the movie, Sunset Song, on Netflix. Here’s a review. I haven’t read the book, which I know is a classic in Scotland. We saw Their Finest in a theater. Here’s a trailer.

 

 

 

 

 

For Country and King

 

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Labeled Postcard from Miss Nördingen to her fiancé John Ostermeier and returns. He served in the first Army Corps, 1st Division, Second Infantry Regiment. Wikipedia

 

He wanted to fight for country and king,

To serve and have an adventure.

When life in the trenches was hard, he’d sing,

He wanted to fight for country and king.

But he’ll no longer see the wild woods in spring,

No longer will talk of legends or ventures,

He wanted to fight for country and king

To serve and have an adventure.

 

This is in response to Secret Keeper’s Weekly Prompt. This week’s challenge was to use these words: woods/legend/wild/hard/serve. I wrote a triolet.

 

© Merril D. Smith, 2016

 

 

 

 

Art and Shadows

Monday Morning Musings:

“Sweet and faraway voice flowing for me.

Sweet and faraway voice tasted by me.

Faraway and sweet voice, muffled softly.”

–Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) excerpt from “The Poet Speaks to His Beloved on the Telephone,” translated by Francisco Aragón    Full poem here.

 

We entered the installation area as the sun was setting

screens at one end of the room,

in the middle—more screens, projectors, tables,

words on the wall

Gypsy music played from the speakers—

and the telephone rang

I answered it.

the poet recited a poem in English, then in Spanish.

and then it rang again.

we wandered, looked through drawers of the nightstands,

a grasshopper,

poems,

flowers,

a butterfly

tangible traces of the poet’s words, his existence.

The performance still an hour away,

we went into the exhibition—

Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change

We saw cubist works and neoclassical,

side-by-side, as the artist

produced both styles within the same years

contradictory, bemusing critics and friends.

French nationalists condemned cubism

calling it degenerate, associating it with Germany,

spelling it “Kubism,”

though clearly French in origin.

Picasso never commented on the Great War,

though cubism, he acknowledged,

influenced

the camouflage on trucks and ships,

a strange marriage of art and war.

Denouncing art, artists, of all sorts

nations, politicians, war-mongers do this

in every war

repress freedom of speech and expression

slap on the label of nationalism

and suppress, censor

lay waste to all that does not fit

the narrow parameters and forms

of those

who are in control.

Germany destroys the work of degenerative artists

in the the next war,

destroys the artists, too.

Tyrants know the power of words, the power of art,

and music–

music is played at the concentration camps, you know,

dance me to the end of love

 

We slowly stroll back to the installation

the performance begins,

a ringing telephone

the poet runs to answer it,

then disappears,

shadow puppets blend with figures

on a screen

words

spoken

seen

a fish travels across the white surface

taking us on a journey,

Spain, New York

water, a boat, an iguana with a pipe

writing

surreal images

words of love

lush, sensual

space and time

have no boundaries,

the telephone rings

the poet imprisoned

he speaks no more

shot, silenced

but not forever

because art lives on,

art shadows our world

or perhaps it is our shadow world,

the dreams we live inside.

 

After the performance, we’re invited to look at and play with the puppets and talk to the actors, puppeteers, and musicians.

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We were at the Barnes Museum

We saw My Soul’s Shadow created and performed by Manual Cinema,

a Chicago-based company.  The performance was part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts 2016 (PIFA), and sponsored by the Kimmel Center.

 

 

 

Ghosts

Monday Morning Musings:

“Do you remember when I was in your belly,

And I hiccupped,

And that made you laugh?”

My daughter was about three at the time

When she asked me this.

She was in the backseat of the car.

We were listening to The Sound of Music,

“Sixteen Going on Seventeen”

I think,

Because she thought Rolf was funny

In the movie—

That’s before he becomes a Nazi,

If you’re keeping track.

I was startled by the question

She so casually threw out to me

And soon forgot.

Could she have actually remembered

A time before she was born?

Another day

My older daughter and I sat at the breakfast table

And discovered we had had the same dream

The night before.

How is this possible?

I don’t have a clue.

And the dream itself is long gone,

Vanished into that gray mist

Of long lost thoughts.

I think it involved a flute,

But I could be wrong.

I should have written it down,

But I was not in the habit of recording things then.

I think of a young girl who

Decades ago now,

Recorded the her daily life

Living in a Secret Annex

With eight other people

For two years

Until they were discovered.

Despite the world crashing

Around her

She believed people were

Basically kind.

Only her father lived

Through the horror though.

But her words remain.

Ghosts of a sort,

They conjure up the past

And people who exist now

Only in black and white images

And in her vivid descriptions.

I think about an episode of The Twilight Zone*—

A former S.S. Captain revisits

Dachau

He is driven insane by the ghosts of the inmates

He tormented.

They try him for crimes against humanity.

I think of horrors and war crimes that still go on.

I wonder if the tormentors are ever tormented

By ghosts

And if they live in their own Twilight Zone hell.

I hope they do.

Is that wrong?

I read in the newspaper that Philadelphia

Is planning to celebrate a day of kindness.

Surely, that should be every day,

But still

It is something.

Perhaps a truce for a day is better

Than nothing

Like the Christmas peace in the trenches

During WWI.

Ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.

Did you know there was a spiritualism craze

In the nineteenth-century?

And séances in the White House?

Humans trying to make sense

Of the unknown.

I sometimes enjoy the tingle

Of reading fictional tales of haunted houses

And spectral beings who bump and thump

In the night.

But real life horror is different.

And scarier.

There are ghosts that I feel duty-bound

To remember.

To honor.

To try to make sense of.

There are many types of ghosts though.

Not only the tormented souls

Stuck in time and space

Unable to move

Forward

Or to find peace.

There are ghosts of our own pasts, too.

Happy ghosts.

Some live as memories

In our hearts and minds

They bring us comfort,

Make us smile,

And they make me wonder.

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*”Deaths-Head Revisited”(Season 3, Episode 9, written by Rod Serling, originally aired, November 10, 1961.)

In Memoriam: Monuments, Cookies, and Tea

 

In the United States, this past weekend marked the celebration of Memorial Day (on Monday), and the Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day is a day for remembering the men and women who died serving in the US armed forces. It is observed with parades, visits to cemeteries, and other solemn events at monuments, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The weekend is also celebrated as the unofficial start of summer with people traveling to the beach and attending other outdoor events, such as picnics and barbecues. Over the past few days, I’ve pondered this dichotomy. On NPR I heard the father of a son killed in Afghanistan say that he never faults people for having a good time on Memorial Day because it never meant anything to him until his own son was killed—and this man was on active duty at the time. (Link to the story here.)

I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a child, parent, spouse, or friend in war. I don’t know how I would react, or how I would grieve. Yet to those who are not grieving, the mixture of solemnity, remembrance, and frivolous fun that takes place over the Memorial Day weekend seem fitting to me because that is what life is about, isn’t it? It’s solemn moments of remembrance, honoring and sharing memories of those gone but not forgotten, and then going on with life and creating new memories.

I’ve also pondered another aspect of Memorial Day—how do we honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country without condoning war itself? As far as I know, there is only one veteran in my family, my mother’s father. His duty to his adopted country is ironic because he fled the country of his birth to escape being drafted into the Tsar’s army—or at least that’s the story I’ve been told. Whether that story is true or not, it is true that Russia was going through a turbulent time, and such times are often even worse for Jews. My grandfather must have left Russia just before the war and revolution. In any case, he did not serve in the country of his birth. He had only lived in the US, his adopted country, for a brief time before the nation entered WWI, and he was drafted. I never spoke to him about his early life, or about his service in the US navy. I imagine it was not something he particularly wanted or chose to do. If someone were to ask me if I was proud of him for his military service, I would say yes, but since I know nothing about his service, I am more proud of him for having the courage to leave his homeland and travel across the ocean (the recent movie, The Immigrant is a vivid portrayal of the perils of immigration in the early 1920s just after WWI), of learning to speak, read, and write English, of making a living during the Depression, of raising two wonderful children, my mother and my uncle, and of living a full and rewarding life after the tragic death of my grandmother in a car accident. He was the driver.

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My Grandfather Jack, taken during WWI. He looks so young. I wonder if he had this photograph taken for his family or for my grandmother?

He was a fun grandfather. He took my little sister and me for long walks when he visited us and played games with us—the type of activities he did not have time for when his own children were young.

I’ve been thinking about war recently. There has been a recent bounty of material on WWI, which began one hundred years ago with the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 in Sarajevo. It was the war that brought soldiers to the hell of trench warfare. It was the first war to use particular forms of machinery, such as machine guns and flamethrowers, as well as poisonous gas. The war decimated the young male population of countries throughout Europe, and left thousands of men physically or mentally damaged—“shell shocked,” as it was called then.

For my current book project I’ve been reading and writing about the American Revolution. It was a different type of warfare from WWI, with different causes and different aims. Similarly, WWII was different from WWI. Each generation fights over different territory; each invents new ways to fight, but the result is still death. I’m an idealist, but not totally naïve. I understand that there have always been wars, and that people will always argue whether they are “justified” or not. I honor those who have served in both war and peace, but I don’t think war should be glorified, even if necessary to fight evil. There is nothing glorious about war and killing people.

The British war poet, Wilfred Owen, who fought during WWI, and who ultimately died in combat, expressed these sentiments better than I ever could; he also captured the absolute horror of war in his poetry. His poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” ends with these words:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 (You can access the full poem here. )

We memorialize wars publicly with monuments and parades, but we build private memorials in our hearts and minds. We remember what our loved ones enjoyed or disliked, what they wore, said, and did. So perhaps moving from war to memories of food here is not such a stretch. After all, people often bring food to those who are grieving. The preparing of food brings comfort to those who wonder how to help or what to do, while eating and sharing meals brings its own comfort.

Thinking about my grandfather, reminded me of these cookies pictured below, which I have probably not made in twenty years. They are labeled “Aunt Rae Cookies” on my recipe card, named for my grandfather’s second wife. My mom told me though that all of her aunts made similar cookies. They are dry, rather bland cookies. My grandparents and their relatives did not like sweet, gooey treats. Their cakes and cookies tended to be dry and only slightly sweet—something to have with tea. Memories have compelled me to try them again. So in memory of those long gone, and with the memory of my own teenage self learning to bake and collecting recipes, here are the slightly updated version of Aunt Rae Cookies. Although they are not “Wow” cookies, they are strangely addictive. I “tasted” one, and then ate three more. The recipe has ingredients, but no real directions. Also, I’m not certain if I didn’t count correctly, or if the cookies simply needed an extra cup of flour, so it might be 3 cups or 4 cups. OK. I’m not a professional. I’ve added some flavoring—vanilla and almond extract—to the recipe, along with some finely ground walnuts, and a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon. I think I would add more nuts next time. Enjoy with a cup of tea, coffee, or a glass of wine—and your own memories, of course.

 

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Aunt Rae Cookies

3 (or 4) Cups Flour

1 Cup Sugar

3 Eggs

2 Tsp. Baking Powder

¼ tsp. Salt

¾ cup Vegetable oil

Optional: Flavoring, Ground nuts, cinnamon and sugar

Whisk eggs until light, whisk in sugar, oil, and flavoring, if desired. (I used about 1 tsp vanilla extract and ½ tsp. almond extract). Stir in flour, baking powder, salt, and nuts. I used about ¼ cup finely ground walnuts and almonds. Drop spoonfuls of dough onto parchment paper lined cookie sheets. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake at 350° for about 10 minutes.