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.”

Sunday, July 8, 2018

La Rose de Porcelain - Poem in French

Sur une petite île dans les Caraïbes
Vit une rose de porcelain
Dans son royaume vert et archaïque
Règne cette merveilleuse dame!

Sans courtisans ni serviteurs
Pour garder sa compagnie
Mais des milliers de progénitures
Garderont la mémoire de sa vie

Cette reine de la beauté et de la grâce
Garde son coeur si triste et si calme
Quand il pleut elle ne montre pas sa disgrâce
Elle est une femme pas plus ou moins!

Dans les tempêtes ou les ouragans
Elle garde sa foi si forte
Et dans ses bras si élégants
Elle offre toujours du réconfort.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Saint-Pierre, Martinique: The Sleeping Beauty

By Pierre-Olivier Jay

A century after the eruption of Mt. Pelee, the former "Little Paris of the West Indies" has not regained its former glory. It is still only marginally developed. This is perhaps what makes this pretty little sleepy town so charming.


The month of May in St-Pierre is punctuated by celebrations, commemorations, and festivities. And for good reason, on May 22, 1848, the Martinican slaves took their liberty even before slavery was officially abolished, and half a century later, on May 8, 1902, the city was entirely destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Pelee. These days of celebrations are all the more important in a city where, apart from a modest museum, few things allow the visitor to imagine the size of St-Pierre before the disaster. Here, it is not like in Herculaneum or Pompeii, where the bodies are frozen in time from the moment of their death. If the memory of the 30,000 inhabitants who disappeared in 1902 has not been lost, the visitor must reconstruct it from clues scattered throughout the city.


St-Pierre is only the shadow of its past. It takes a good dose of imagination to plunge back into it. The city was a beacon and a cultural and economic capital of the 19th century West Indies. Its streetlights illuminated the streets with electricity, a line of horse-drawn streetcars circulated its elevated streets and, from 1879, they boasted a "vitascope," the first cinema of the French colonies. While today the heat is often overwhelming, in those days, this spa town was crossed by multiple channels of fresh-flowing mountain spring water that refreshed the atmosphere. On the industrial front, rum and sugar were the treasures of the city. Today there are 16 distilleries and their know-how is legendary throughout the Caribbean. Through this port, valuable commodities were shipped between South America and North America, including cocoa, orange wine (vin d'orange), indigo, cassava, and pineapple.

The city was a mythical stop for sailors, attracted by its festive and frivolous nightlife. At dusk, more than a hundred cabarets and pubs come to life. They became the cradle of a new kind of music known as "biguine." The libertine atmosphere was described in one of the only novels from that time, "Nuit d’Orgie à St-Pierre" (Night of Orgy in St. Pierre). The opera house was the pride of the bekes, the white Antillean aristocracy, of which St-Pierre is the capital. The city is also the seat of 11 of the 15 Martinique newspapers of the time. They dealt mainly with politics, one of the West Indian people's burning passions.


On April 27, 1902, the first round of elections was tight between the two candidates. Industrialist Fernand Clerc, a progressive candidate of the Democratic Republican Alliance, obtained 4,496 votes and his opponent, Louis Percin, Radical-Socialist candidate, 4,167 votes. Overlooking the city, the volcano known as Mount Pelee awakened for a bit and then erupted on April 20. First a lake appeared in the dry crater lake, and then the White River showed unusual flow variations. On April 30, earthquakes shook the city. They were accompanied by phreatic explosions, steam-blast eruptions caused by the sudden increase of temperature of the superficial waters surrounding the volcano and the extremely hot magma reservoir. From May 2, ashes began to fall on the city, then a mudslide overtook the Guérin distillery, taking Pelée's first victims.
For the elite of the city, despite these signs and a panic among the residents, it was vital to mobilize voters for the second round of voting on May 11. It would never happen. Due north of St-Pierre the island has little to no access to the rest of the island. The only way to escape by sea, but by then it was impossible. But the authorities continued to reassure the public and a pseudo-scientific commission published a report that concluded, "St-Pierre is no more in danger at the foot of the volcano than Naples is at the foot of Vesuvius." The governor of Martinique, Louis Mouttet, previously stationed in Cayenne, arrived in the city with his wife, hoping to calm the agitated crowd.

From May 5, the situation escalated at the crater. The magma reached the surface, glowing rocks are thrown from the crater, a mudslide engulfed part of Precheur, taking 400 victims during the night of May 7 to 8. The inhabitants were never informed.

On the morning of May 8, the city of St-Pierre was calm. The clouds around the mountain obscure the town. A ship, le Diament, leaves curiously a few minutes before the tragedy. Some also speak of a ship, the Grappler, which was loaded shortly before the disappearance of the city, with all the fortune of the Martinique aristocracy. But until this day it is still a mystery. 

At 8:02 am, as the mass ends in town, a pyroclastic flow, a cloud of hot gas carrying debris of all sizes, reaches St. Pierre in less than a minute. In addition to the heat of the cloud, which reached 500 ° F, the shock wave and the inhalation of gases and ashes caused instant death for the town's 30,000 inhabitants. The passage of this deadly cloud triggered a fire in rum stocks. For three days, the city burned. But the apocalyptic vision of the rubble photographed is in fact the result of the seven fiery clouds that fell on the city until August 30, 1902.


If many people saw this cataclysm as divine punishment for the dissolute lifestyle and the mores of the time and a particularly libertine carnival season, for the scientific community it was the beginning of contemporary volcanology. An observatory was set up by volcanologist Alfred Lacroix, who investigated the eruption. He analyzed the phenomenon of the pyroclastic flows, whose process of volcanic eruption took the name "Pelean". This eruption remains in volcanology a reference  to explosive eruptions accompanied by viscous flows. Since the last eruption of the volcano in 1929, underground activity has been continuously monitored by the Morne des Cadets Observatory, which houses one of the largest seismographs in the world.

The city of St. Pierre was never fully rebuilt. At the time, it was losing its dominance to Fort-de-France, favored by its central location and better port facilities. In the 20th century, Martinique no longer wishes to look north; the trauma and tragedy are still palpable. The ruins of the old city are everywhere, but they are left to crumble.


St-Pierre is now rich in its underwater heritage. The discovery of the wrecks of the many ships that were in the bay on May 8, 1902 is an unexpected treasure trove for the city.
Jacques-Yves Imbert arrived in 1981. He lives with his family in a small white house several feet from the bay. A pioneer of scuba diving, he founded a diving club. He relates, "In May 1977, Mayor Jean Bally and Michel Metery declared themselves" "inventors" of all the wrecks, but they were already known to fishermen. Since then, diving, especially in wrecks like the mythical Roraïma, one of the first big steamers, is one of the main assets of the city."


After acquiring the prestigious label "City of Art and History" in 1990, cultural projects are waiting to emerge. Archaeologists are also working on excavating sites, bringing with them their share of new discoveries. In September 2015, David Earle, an American screenwriter, received the Best Screenplay for "Pelee" at the Monrovia International Film Festival in California. It tells the story of the tragedy of 1902. Will the exceptional destiny of St-Pierre be rediscovered on the screens of cinemas through an American super-production? That remains to be seen.

Guagin's interpretation of St. Pierre bay.

Hello Young Soldier of the Vietnam War - A Poem

Hello young soldier of the Vietnam War
What guides your noble swagger
In these dreadful foreign shores?
The courage of your mocking stance
Is not mere vanity

It shows your pride, your bravery
Your pure humanity!
Hello young Marine of the Vietnam War
What guides your fearsome prowess
In the jungles you explore?
Your boots, your rifle, are all you possess
In these tumultuous of days
They cannot hide your burning soul
A fire that’s set ablaze!
And in your sweat-drenched chest
There beats a heart of finest gold
Forged in the battles of Bunker Hill
Of Lexington and Concord
The breath of Freedom guides you now
And will until the end
I pray it guides you ever more
For on your courage we depend!