Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Poem

Edvard Munch "Lonely Woman"

I held you close all through the night
While you whispered words of love
I never thought to leave your side
So help me, God Above!
The words you spoke I carry still
Inside my lonesome heart
A burden that grows bit by bit
And from which I’ll never part

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Read a Sample of Island on Fire on the Anniversary of the Eruption of Mount Pelee

Wednesday, May 7, 1902

Just before dawn, a violent scene erupted on Mount Pelée. Clouds of ash and bolts of lightning with reddish flames lit up the early-morning sky. Huge projectiles shot out of the crater with terrifying booms, rocking the town with explosions like cannon fire. Black smoke billowed out of the crater, creating a sense of impending doom. Glasses fell off tables, windows shattered, and barometers plummeted. The explosions knocked Rémy out of bed. Stumbling to his feet, he made his way to his desk, feeling the floor shaking beneath his feet. He grabbed his binoculars and made his way to the window to study the scene up close.
“Good Lord, it looks like the end of the world,” he said, feeling a profound sense of doom. The summit of Mount Pelée was alight with orange-red flames. Ash was spurting everywhere. The harbor looked like a scene from the last days of Pompeii. The once-sparkling blue water was dull and gray, littered with the corpses of farm animals, tree trunks, and deposits of ash and pumice stones that seemed to stretch on for miles.
He threw on his uniform and boots, refilled his cartridge with bullets, and went to receive his orders. Then he headed down to the courtyard, where his men were already assembled. Dividing them up into two groups, he sent the first group to patrol the town and keep order, and he sent the second group to guard the southern road to make sure people stayed safely in their homes.
More refugees flooded into Saint-Pierre. Some of them were survivors of the Guérin sugar factory disaster or had lost family members in the tragedy and were in a state of shock. Sisters from the convent brought them inside and gave them food and drink; the rest just wandered aimlessly through the throng or crowded into the marketplace, but food was scarce and money even scarcer. A shipment of food brought in by steamer went quickly. Bags of rice and beans and loaves of bread were handed out to famished residents, who grabbed them and fled back to their homes. Some people were too mesmerized by the pyrotechnic display on Mount Pelée to do anything but gape and stare. As the morning dragged on, more people flooded into Saint-Pierre since, by everybody’s estimation, it was the safest place for the displaced residents from the northern half of the island. Placards all over town announced that the volcano was on the wane and the people should sit tight and wait out the end of the eruption, but by the looks on their faces, few believed it anymore.
Rémy was exhausted from pursuing looters and squatters, yet more people arrived by steamers and small ferries or in simple donkey carts and horse wagons. The stream of refugees continued unabated. He reckoned the population had swelled by several thousand. But the volcano seemed no closer to quieting down. A thick layer of ash now covered every surface. Everyone’s clothes were covered in soot and ash. Children sat on the ground and played with the volcanic dust as if it were sand. The women were noticeably distressed. Their normally vibrant faces reflected fear and distress. For Rémy, the work was endless. He broke up countless fights, arrested dozens of disorderly civilians, and emptied houses of illegal squatters, but there was nowhere for them to go. They had taken up every inch of available space in the barracks, the inns, and the guesthouses. Some refugees were reduced to sleeping in the alleyways. Others crowded into the cathedral to hear mass or to baptize their children. Later, news began to spread like wildfire that the Soufrière volcano on Saint Vincent had erupted. This caused a wave of panic to spread throughout the crowd. They now began to collect outside the mayor’s office, demanding answers. As Rémy watched the faces of the angry citizens, he sensed a rising tension in the air, a sense of impending doom.
The latest issue of Les Colonies did little to calm everyone’s nerves. At his post guarding the southern road, Rémy scanned the headlines, disturbed by Marius Hurard’s carefully crafted front-page interview with Gaston Landes that looked to be no more than political showmanship:

According to observations made by M. Landes, in the early morning hours of yesterday, the central crater of the volcano vomited out a yellow and black powdery substance at various intervals. The bottom of the neighboring valleys should be evacuated and those remaining should keep to a certain height to avoid being overwhelmed by the muddy lava, as were Herculaneum and Pompeii. Vesuvius, added M. Landes, claimed only a few victims. Pompeii was evacuated in time and few corpses were found in the buried cities. In conclusion, Mount Pelée presents no more danger to Saint-Pierre than Vesuvius poses to Naples.

The article ended with the coup de grâce—a statement by Governor Mouttet himself:

The security of Saint-Pierre remains uncompromised.

Incensed, Rémy threw the newspaper on the ground, where it was trampled by the feet of the crowd.
He looked up suddenly and saw a cloud of black ash billowing out of Mount Pelée like a giant cauliflower, filling the skies with swirling black ash and volcanic dust that blocked out the sun and cast a gloomy shadow over the town. There was an audible hush among the crowd. Everyone stared at it in horror. The ominous nature of the cloud told Rémy one thing: the end was near.

Monday, April 8, 2019

An Ode to Franz Liszt’s Rhapsody No. 2

I heard a Rhapsody by Liszt
A strange and exotic, fiery tune
It was in Hungarian—no less!
Beneath a sultry Gypsy moon
The music took me in her arms
And whispered words that made me gasp
We danced until the night was done
The rhythm held me in her grasp
This Gypsy girl with all her charms
Until she, the song, and I were one

The music swept me off my feet
With graceful rhythms of perfection
The cadence rose with every beat
Like a youthful indiscretion
Beneath the stars the song did rise
With rhythmic virtuosity
This Gypsy girl with eyes like coal
Filled me with curiosity
And mingled with the fireflies
How I loved her heart and soul

I heard a Rhapsody by Liszt
A fiery tune without a name
The music filled me with such bliss
Like a Gypsy girl I could not tame
With just one kiss she stole my heart
We danced beneath the glowing moon
The music rose with every beat
And fused our passion with its tune
And when the time came for us to part
Our farewell was so sad and sweet!

Friday, March 1, 2019

Short Story: Man Overboard

 There was a sharp pain in his shoulder as he hit the water. It was a violent crash, like falling through glass. Shock waves coursed through his body, freezing his muscles. Then the cold water enveloped him like a glove, pulling him into its icy embrace. He clawed at the unseen enemy without mercy until it spat him out. Then he heaved himself to the surface and gasped for air.
The ship was already too far ahead. He was treading water in the ship’s wake, slapped around like a useless piece of flotsam in a black, endless ocean. And he was freezing to death.
“Help!” he screamed. He swung his arms and kicked his legs with all the force as he could muster. But it was all for naught. He would do this dance of death as long as he wished to remain alive. And then he would die. Waves broke over his head and choked him. He spit out a mouthful of sea water and coughed in disgust. His mind raced but it always came back to the grim conclusion. There was nobody to help him for miles and miles. He was more alone now than he had ever been in his life. He was entirely alone, like a baby in the womb. Nobody could hear him or see him. And soon the ship would soon disappear from view.
“Help me!” he screamed again. But it was in vain. He knew no one could hear him.
It wouldn’t be long now, he thought. The knife wound on his shoulder was bleeding profusely and it was only a question of time before sharks would come circling for a night of feasting. The thought sent a chill through his body.
The light from the ship was fading fast. Soon it would be gone. A sorrowful full moon hung low on the horizon, the only light that would escort him to the hereafter. The only friend he had in the world. The only witness to his demise.
He remembered his mother. He could see her kneading soda bread back in Belfast. There would be a pot of stew on the stove; its fragrance would be wafting through the house. His sister Jenny would be lounging on the sofa, reading a letter from her boyfriend in the trenches. How she lived for those letters! The smells of home gave him a warm and cozy feeling. It softened his pain.
Then, without warning, he saw his mother punch the dough with barely contained anger. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Her face was red and bruised, as if she’d been hit. A jolt of fear coursed through him. Suddenly she looked down at him and said, “Ian, can you ever forgive me for marrying that man? I know he made your life a living hell. He never should have done that to you. And now you’ve run off to sea… Can you ever forgive me?”
“Of course I forgive you, Ma,” he said. “Don’t cry about it now. It’s all been forgotten.”
She sat down and rubbed her temples. “I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since you ran away. It was all my fault, I know. I was such a terrible mother. I cannot forgive myself.”
“It’s not your fault, Ma,” he said to the starry sky. “I always dreamed of running away to sea. You married Stepfather because I needed someone to kick me out of the house. Otherwise I would have ended up just like Dad and you know it.”
“Oh, no, Ian,” she said. “You had so much promise. You were the smartest of all my children. I had big dreams for you. And now look what happened!”
“It was my destiny to go to sea,” he said. “Please don’t cry.”
“Are you certain?” she said, with a glimmer of hope.
“Yes, Ma. You did the best you could. I don’t blame you for anything. Don’t worry; I’ll be fine. I love you, Ma.”
His mother’s smiling image faded from view, leaving just the starry sky and the mournful moon to share his plight. He figured he was somewhere near latitude seventeen degrees north, seventy-two degrees west, just south of Hispaniola. No man’s land. In that shark-infested stretch of Caribbean Sea that ships rarely traversed. He reckoned another steamer wouldn’t pass this way for another day or two. Or maybe a week. Maybe two weeks. At most he could expect a native fishing boat to pass by within a few miles, but not until daybreak. And that was five hours away. And they would never hear him anyway. And by that time it would be too late. He had too much rum in his veins and too little adrenaline to keep his muscles pumping. He would simply sink beneath the waves and vanish from the face of the earth.
It saddened Ian to think they would write him off as a suicide—or worse, that he’d been drinking and fell overboard. A hopeless drunk. No one would ever know that he’d been in a fight; that he’d caught a German spy and was pushed over the side deliberately. That would be the secret he would take to his grave.
The thought sent waves of sadness through him. Then he began to shiver. Hypothermia, he thought. Soon he would lose feeling in his limbs. Soon he would be lulled into a sleep from which he would never awaken. He would go numb and simply sink beneath the waves.
The faces of his brothers and sisters passed before his eyes. He could see little Aidan’s excited face when he learned his older brother was going to sea. He could see Jenny’s surprise and delight. And Colleen. Beautiful, sweet, gentle Colleen, the woman he had promised to marry. Would she shed a tear for him? Memories of his First Communion mingled with scenes of him fishing with his brothers, followed by images of Sister Mary Catherine’s admonishing face and the smell of Ma’s Christmas pudding. His life passed by in a flash.
Then an older memory came to him. It was a man whose face he barely recognized. A tired, sad-faced man hunched over his desk, his eyes sunken. He knew at once it was his father.
“Dad,” he said as he furiously treaded water. “Where are you? Why did you leave us?”
“I never really left you,” said his father. “I was always watching over you. You were always a good boy and I knew you’d turn out alright.”
“But …look what’s happened to me,” he said. “I-I-I’m drowning…”
A wave broke over Ian and he swallowed a mouthful of seawater. He spat it out and coughed as the wind whipped his hair and stung his eyes. It was so dark he could barely see the hand in front of his face. The image of his father’s sorrowful eyes pained him.
“Dad, can you save me please? I’m dying…” he cried, but his voice broke in agony. His father didn’t answer. He looked at him with sad eyes and then disappeared, leaving only the twinkling stars. Tears streamed down his face. He knew it wouldn’t be long now. He had lost all hope and he would have to prepare for the inevitable. His time was short and already he sensed sharks in the vicinity. Their fins broke the surface intermittently, like silent marauding predators. But he wasn’t ready to die.
“Help me!” he screamed from the depths of his soul. He felt lost, alone, helpless. A hapless victim of the elements, the predators, and fate. He closed his eyes and prayed. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death…
Then he remembered an old Irish legend his grandfather had told him about King Lir and his four children. When King Lir’s wife passed away, he decided to marry his sister-in-law Aoife to help him get over the loss of his wife. Overcome with jealousy, Aoife used her magical powers to transform his children into swans. But by a miracle the children retained their beautiful voices and sang like angels. Ian closed his eyes and tried to remember his grandfather’s soothing voice, his soft white whiskers, his gentle demeanor.
Ian’s arms ached and his mouth was burning from salt. His legs were going numb and the waves tossed him about like a rag doll. Exhaustion was setting in. The strength of his limbs was dissipating and his mind was growing tired. Then he saw a flickering light in the distance. Could it be? The ship! They’ve come back for me! His heart soared.
With a surge of strength he began swimming toward the light. His arms pounded the surface like the propeller blades of a plane, his feet kicking with every last ounce of strength.
“Help me!” he cried. “Save me!”
He continued swimming toward the boat, certain that salvation was near. Focusing on the light, he strained to hear the sounds of the engine. By God they hadn’t forgotten him!
Soon the steamer was in his sights. Through the fog he could make out the bow, the bridge, and a search party on the deck with flashlights, scanning the water. There had to be at least twenty of them. His mates hadn’t forgotten him! His heart soared. Like a madman he swam toward the ship, certain that salvation was close at hand.
When the ship came into view he could see the faces of the men. There was his father, his grandfather, his uncles, the parish priest … He wrinkled his brow. Father McGinley? Wasn't he...dead? He realized all at once that all the men were dead.
He stopped swimming, paralyzed with fright. The ship pulled up alongside him and the men smiled and waved. They shined their flashlights on his face, blinding him. He could hear their voices, but when they reached out their hands, he refused to grasp them. But the men only smiled at him and encouraged him. He felt their love and it filled him with a feeling of tranquility. Soon, a feeling of peace came over him. With a sigh of resignation, he reached out his hand and they lifted him into their warm embrace.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

5 Things I Learned Writing a Poetry Book

I began writing poetry in 2011 after reading a beautiful book called "Galileo's Daughter" by Dava Sobel. The book was about the life of Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun who maintained a special relationship with her father, Galileo. The story so moved me that I wrote my first poem as a result, “Galileo’s Moons.” Not sure where it came from but it popped in my head and I wrote it down. The poem stayed hidden in my computer for about two years until I finally published it on my blog. I shared it with a few friends on Facebook and didn’t think much of it. End of story.

Not exactly. 

Fast forward to April 2016. While on a trip down to Miami with my two daughters, I became obsessed with the line: “I soar on wings of silver light.” (A potential new marketing slogan for American Airlines?)  By the time we landed I had written the first four lines and thought they were so good they deserved an entire poem. During the next seven days I sat up nights trying to work it into a poem, mostly as an intellectual exercise. I would dutifully sketch it out on a piece of scrap paper until it started to take life. It was not something I could file away under “mental aberrations” or “what I did on my vacation.” For me it was serious and I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.

This time I published it on my Facebook wall and was surprised when I got the attention of a famous Danish writer, who quipped, “Hey, you wrote that? Great!” Over the next two years I wrote many more poems. Usually I would find a nice photo on Facebook, like a bird or a flower, and I would think of a first line. Then I would spend the next several days working out the meters and rhymes and the general theme, until created a poem that conveyed a complete thought or idea. The interesting thing is, the more I wrote poetry, the better I got at it. I also got a lot faster. Whereas it used to take me weeks to write a complete poem, after a couple of years I could write one in an hour or two, even on complex subjects. I also learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way. Here are five:

1) People still love poetry.

Though we live in the digital age, there is still a thriving market for poetry. People still love poetry. This is something that stunned me as it shows we all connect on a deeper level than we realize through our shared humanity and our shared feelings of love, longing, wonder, hurt, pain, angst, and joy. When you strip away all the layers we surround ourselves with, we are all still human. We are not cyborgs as the robotics industry would have us believe, with interchangeable parts. We have souls and psyches, and these intangible aspects of our humanity need proper feeding too. Poetry does that.

2) The poems of the past are still relevant today.

“If” by Kipling is the eternal parent’s guide to living a decent, honorable life. “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley reminds us that no matter what challenges or painful situations we face, our spirit can rise to meet them.  And “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley reminds us that in our era of creeping Totalitarianism, dictators have come and gone through the ages and the only thing that remains are eternal truths, which will still be here long after the dictators are buried in the sands of time.

3) Poems can teach a moral lesson.

A good poem can teach a moral lesson more effectively than a book or a lecture. A poem that touches you on a gut level can have a greater impact than even a great speech. It reaches a part of our brain that affects us on a spiritual level. Think of “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, a protest song about peace, war, and freedom. Or “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2 about the effects of government oppression, or “You’ve Got a Friend,” by Carole King, about the qualities that make a true friend. The concepts could not be better explained than through these powerful verses.

4) If you want to write poetry, don’t force it.

The best way to write poetry is to read a book on any subject that you want to write about. Or look at a picture that conveys a feeling you would like to express. Let the information sink in for several days, then come up with a concept or an opening line that introduces the idea you wish to convey. Next, work out the meter and rhyme that will work for the subject matter. For every problem there is always a solution.

5) Poetry is not going away anytime soon.

Humans are almost hard-wired to love verse. It is built into our DNA and is not going away anytime soon. The success of “Hamilton: the Musical” proves that. The fact that in this day and age theaters can fill up with an eager public raring to see a play about a Founding Father told entirely in verse speaks volumes about the public’s fascination with poetry and story-telling. It taps into our shared human conscience. It connects us to something much bigger than ourselves.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

L'Aristote de la Mer

L'Aristote de la Mer

Il y a un homme sage dans la mer-
Un homme brillant et extraordinaire-
Un maître de la philosophie d'Aristote-
Une tortue tropique, mon brave compatriot!

Il avait au moins trois pieds de long-
Et nageait comme un petit Poséidon-
Il m'a tout appris sur ce sujet-
“La nature ne fait rien sans objet.”

Oh, comme j'ai aimé sa brillante philosophie!
“Qu’il n’y a point de génie sans un grain de folie.”
Bien plus qu’une leçon de zoologie-
J’ai appris que “L’ignorant affirme, le savant doute, le sage réfléchit.”

Au-dessus de toutes les créatures cet Aristote brillait-
En entendant sa sagesse, j'ai ri et pleuré!
Chaque mot était comme une douce caresse-
"Le doute est le commencement de la sagesse."

Oh, comme je voulais être son ami-
Un étudiant de cette merveilleuse académie-
Mais dit mon ami sage et profonde-
“Ce n'est pas un ami que l'ami de tout le monde.”