Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Alexander Hamilton's Boyhood in St. Croix: A Smuggler’s Paradise

The world that shaped Alexander Hamilton: Christiansted harbor in the late 18th century.
In researching my latest novel, The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton, I knew I had to master the art of smuggling. In the 18th century, smuggling was big business. It kept the thirteen colonies afloat, since, without their illicit trade with the West Indies, they would have been eternally indebted to London bankers. Indeed, as Peter Andreas points out in "Smuggler Nation", America was born a smuggler nation.

It is interesting but not ironic that America’s first Treasury Secretary and architect of our nation's financial system came from the West Indies. As a child growing up on St. Croix, Hamilton was at the very center of commerce. In those days, St. Croix was considered an “entrepôt”, an important transshipment center in the colonial trading system. And smuggling was a big part of that system. Sugar may have put the West Indies on the map, but it was smuggling that linked it to the rest of the world. And without it, the American Revolution would not have been possible.

In neutral Danish and Dutch islands like St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. Eustatius, and Curaçao, huge quantities of goods were imported, stored, traded, and often re-exported. These entrepôts played a vital role during the days of wind-powered shipping, and as a chief clerk for Beekman & Cruger, Alexander Hamilton would have been at the heart of this illicit trade. 

The weighing house in Christiansted (upper left) with its enormous scale, and the characters that comprised mid-18th century St. Croix society: wealthy planters, Danish soldiers and officials, enslaved Africans, and free colored women of property. While the picture shows strictly Danish ships in the harbor, most likely French, American, British, and Dutch ships were just out of view.
As Nicholas Cruger’s right hand man, Hamilton was in charge of organizing, managing, and shipping huge quantities of goods and currency. He would have had an intricate knowledge of the exchange rates between the various currencies: English pounds guineas, Danish rigsdalers and skillings, Dutch guilders, Spanish pieces of eight (pesos) and Portuguese Joes. He would have been responsible for keeping the books and managing the finances of the firm. A grasp of bookkeeping and the various journals would have been essential tools of his trade.

6 Skilling silver coin from the Danish West Indies, 1767, a coin Alexander Hamilton would have used and traded.
18th century rulers did not have an appreciation for free trade. They wanted to ensure a ready market for their goods, and would impose high taxes on outside competitors to keep them out. Laws like the Acts of Trade and Navigation and the Molasses Act were designed to protect the interests of British planters in the West Indies, to keep them safe from competition. These laws made it legally impossible for French, Spanish, Dutch, and Danish sugar, rum, and molasses to find a market in Great Britain or in any British territory, including the thirteen colonies. Instead, these products were smuggled by American vessels into the thirteen colonies, usually with a wink and a nod from the Customs Officials, and often a bribe.

So it is precisely because of Britain's protective mercantile laws that islands like St. Croix flourished. Why all this need for surreptitious shipping?

In the 18th century, almost all manufactured goods (paper, fabrics, household items, tools, glass, tiles, etc.) came from Europe, while meat, fish, grain, and animal hides came from North America, and sugar, rum, and molasses came from the West Indies. The balance of trade always favored Great Britain. Meaning, the value of British goods imported by the thirteen colonies vastly surpassed the value of American goods shipped to Great Britain. This left the thirteen colonies with a huge trade deficit. This also meant that Great Britain reaped a huge surplus in gold compared to the colonies. In other words, the purchasing power of North America was greatly hampered by their forced dealings with Great Britain on an exclusive basis. They longed for British goods, but they could not earn enough specie to pay for them by selling their own products to Great Britain. They needed a third source of revenue. This could only come about by smuggling to foreign ports. This lack of free trade proved to be an intolerable shackle for the Americans. They longed to purchase more European luxury goods, but they needed a ready supply of cash. So how could they accomplish this?

Through smuggling.

It is estimated that the value of British goods exported to North America was worth double the value of American goods exported to Great Britain. This left a huge trade deficit that could only be made up through smuggling. By definition, the American colonists needed a ready supply of gold and silver so they could continue to buy British manufactured goods. This could only be achieved through illicit trade with the French, Spanish, Dutch and Danish West Indies. In other words, the North American colonists were forced to smuggle their own goods to the non-British West Indies out of economic necessity. They needed a ready market for items such as bread, flour, rice, dried and pickled fish, barrel staves and hoops, and cured meat. In turn, the gold the islanders paid the North Americans for these products fueled their trade with England. In one year alone, 1770, New England sent to the islands three times as many staves and hoops for barrels and hogsheads as was sent to England. Philadelphia exported 23,500 tons of bread and flour to the islands, as compared to 264 tons to England. All of this was basically in exchange for sugar, molasses, rum, and cotton.

Benedict Arnold was a New England ship captain who grew wealthy smuggling goods to the West Indies, including St. Croix.

What was Alexander Hamilton's part in all of this? As chief clerk for Beekman & Cruger in Christiansted, he was responsible for keeping the system in motion. He would receive the North American goods, find buyers on St. Croix for them, as well as receive Dutch, Spanish, and French goods (sugar, rum, molasses, cotton, coffee, cacao, etc.) for use by the North Americans. Some of these goods were African slaves, which no doubt fueled his strong anti-slavery stance during the course of his life.

Some of the activities he would have engaged in his day-to-day life would have entailed creating false clearance papers, partial entries, or mislabeled packages. For instance, later in the Revolution, we know that  Dutch merchants in St. Eustatius were shipping gunpowder to North America in tea chests and rice barrels by means of false labeling. In other cases, they were shipping the gunpowder in glass bottles labeled "spirits". Many of these shipments may have passed through St. Croix on their way to the American colonies.

How do I know this?

Charles Reade, a resident of St. Croix, wrote to James Pemberton in Philadelphia in 1774 that much of the trade occurring on the island was being conducted by smuggling. A Captain Bryne from Antigua reported that he had learned of a schooner which arrived in St. Croix in 1775 to procure gunpowder for America, and "offering any money" for the purchasing. In addition, there is a letter in which Nicholas Cruger writes that he will be paying  a tax on brown sugar, when it is really "clayed sugar", and paying the customs agent a "fee." 

To give you an example of the cost of smuggling: In 1763, a shipment of 15,000 hogsheads of molasses was imported into Massachusetts, “all of which, except for less than 500, came from foreign (non-British) ports.” It was estimated that the value of the duty on molasses alone, if collected, would amount to $25,000 per year. Money that would have gone into the King’s treasury.

How did the Danish authorities react to smuggling? In my research, I’ve discovered that the Danish West Indies were a virtual smuggler’s haven. Charles Reade, a resident of St. Croix, wrote to James Pemberton in Philadelphia on March 8th, 1774 that much of the trade occurring on the island was being conducted by “smuggling.” Sir Joseph Yorke, British Ambassador at the Hague, had built up one of the better spy systems in Europe. On August 5th, 1774 he wrote his superior in London: “…Holland is shipping contraband directly to America, or trading with her in the Dutch and Danish islands of the Caribbean.”

Smuggling is a crime entirely created by governments. Broadly speaking, smuggling entailed any trade that circumvented the Acts of Trade and Navigation. In the mid-18th century, there was also a steady flow into the colonies of “foreign” (code for French) sugar and sugar products obtained through Dutch, Danish, and Spanish intermediaries in the West Indies or directly from the French themselves. Of all smuggling activities, the Dutch trade was the most sophisticated and best integrated into the consumer culture of New England and the Middle Colonies. The Dutch trade was, at its core, the shipping of goods from the European mainland to North America without fulfilling the Crown’s requirement that the merchant vessel stop at a port in Great Britain and enter its goods. By shipping directly, a merchant stood to save the cost of off-loading and reloading his goods and to avoid import and export taxes. He was then able to undercut his competition by selling his smuggled goods at a lower price.

In the 18th century, the British government collected a great deal of its income from customs duties - taxes paid on the import of goods such as tea, cloth, wine and spirits. The tax was as high as 30% in some cases, so these items became quite expensive. Smuggled goods were a lot cheaper since no duty was paid. People were ready and willing to buy smuggled goods, and it became big business.

Working in the trading firm of Kortright & Cruger (formerly Beekman & Cruger), exposed Alexander to all types of trade, including the African slave trade, which no doubt fueled his strong anti-slavery stance during the course of his life. 

According to the Danish historian, Waldemar Westergaard, smuggling in the Danish West Indies became a “fine art” and was one of the “approved ways to wealth and affluence and even to titles of nobility.” The results of this liberal policy toward smuggling were reflected in the increased trade with the Dutch and the English colonists in North America, who were adept at “wriggling through the meshes of eighteenth century commercial regulations.” The visiting Dutch traders, always willing to sell their wares on credit, were highly successful among the planters in the Danish West Indies. No doubt, Beekman & Cruger were the agents of many of these sales.
Alexander Hamilton always maintained that he received "the most useful part of his education" while working for Beekman & Cruger in Christiansted.
While it is recognized that John Hancock was a smuggler of products like Dutch tea, glass, lead, paper, and French molasses, what’s not commonly recognized is that Alexander Hamilton, as chief clerk for Beekman and Cruger, was right in the thick of things. As Boatner wrote in his Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, “Amid the British, French, and Spanish islands were the Danish island of St. Croix and the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. These two were important supply points and neutral havens for American privateers and smugglers from the start of the Revolution.” Indeed, while working for Beekman & Cruger on St. Croix, Alexander Hamilton did receive the “most useful part of his education”.

You can read about Alexander Hamilton's lost boyhood on St. Croix in my forthcoming novel, "The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton" due out in 2020. 

***Special thanks to Michael Newton for his help in writing this blog post. 

THE LOST DIARY OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON, the story of Hamilton's forgotten boyhood in the Caribbean is now available for pre-order from Amazon. Special introductory price only $2.99. Click here.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Papillon and 1984, Two Sides of the Same Coin

When a man betrays his friend what does he have left?

Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman as Henri Charrière and Louis Degas, two ordinary men who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

Papillon is about a man who refuses to give up all he has (friendship) to appease an authoritarian government, while 1984 is the reverse. In this manner they are two sides of the same coin.

Papillon is the story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière, who has been wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in the penal colony of French Guiana. During the voyage, he strikes up a friendship with Louis Dega, a forger who is known to have money. Charrière offers Dega protection in return for some of the money. But when Dega sees the brutality of life in the penal colony, and his almost certain demise under horrid conditions, he decides to join Charrière in his escape. What started out as a business transaction becomes a friendship that neither of them expected. For indeed, when one has nothing to his name, when everything has been taken away from you, friendship may be the only thing a person has left. Indeed, that is when he must decide if that friendship is worth fighting for and possibly dying for. This is the theme of both movies.

Papillon takes a dreadful turn when Papillon defends Dega’s life and is thrown into solitary confinement. The brutal scenes that follow show the strength of Papillon’s character, his will to live, and his refusal to reveal who has been sending him extra nourishment, which would have been a death sentence for Dega. The theme here is friendship and honor, and the extraordinary degrees to which men of character will go to protect and defend their friend. Ironically, it is only through the horrible ordeal of solitary confinement that Charrière’s greatness of character is revealed. Horrible conditions can make or break a person. And the first thing that usually goes is character, but Papillon shows that loyalty can survive even under the worst conditions.

Dream sequence:
Heavenly Court:  “You know the charge.”
Papillon: “I’m innocent. I didn’t kill that pimp. You didn’t have anything on me so you framed me.”
Heavenly Court: “That is quite true, but your real crime has nothing to do with a pimp’s death.”
Papillon: “Well then, what is it?”
Heavenly Court: “Yours is the most terrible crime a human being can commit. I accuse you of a wasted life.”
Papillon: “Guilty.”
Heavenly Court: “The penalty for that is death.”
Papillon: “Guilty.”

1984, on the other hand, shows the opposite side of the coin. In the novel, Winston Smith finds a true companion and friend in Julia. But the authoritarian regime under which they live cannot abide dual loyalties. They expect total and uncompromising loyalty to the State. When the State finds out about their affair, Big Brother captures and brutalizes Smith until he finally breaks and betrays Julia. In so doing he turns into the perfect, subjugated citizen, no better than a worker bee. The friendship and love that gave his life meaning is destroyed in the name of totalitarianism. In the end, Winston Smith is turned into a grotesque human being. Not grotesque in his physical features, but grotesque because his character has become distorted and corrupted. Grotesque because he has betrayed the one thing that had given his life meaning, while at the same time freeing him from a life of servility to the State:  his friendship with Julia.

Winston Smith and Julia.

Friendship is the theme of both Papillon and 1984, except that in the case of Papillon, the characters are exalted, while in 1984 the characters are debased. Both are timeless classics, but the only one I can watch over and over is Papillon because I believe in the greatness of mankind even under the worst conditions. But I am aware that the opposite can be true, that mankind can be debased and corrupted even under the best conditions. In the end Papillon chose to eat cockroaches rather than betray his friend. His sacrifice redeems his soul from Heavenly punishment, and he merits a second chance at life. Which goes to show you that friends are not just there to pass the time with, sometimes they are sent to us by God to redeem ourselves. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

COVER REVEAL and excerpt: "The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton"

Edward “Neddy” Stevens had one goal in life, and that was to be a doctor of physic. His father, Thomas Stevens was a prominent merchant in Christiansted, and they lived in a beautiful house on King Street. When he wasn’t studying his school books he was assisting the cows and horses from the neighboring plantations in their labors. He had no fear of blood or mucus, and the ordeal of giving birth caused him no queasiness. He also studied the smaller creatures on the island: the lizards, the crickets, the beetles, and the occasional scorpion or tarantula. The latter almost causing his expulsion from school when he placed it in Master Fraser’s desk. Neddy had an almost innate understanding of how their tiny bodies were perfectly adapted to their environment. The marvelous compound eyes of bees, the delicate, gauze-like wings of dragon flies, and the slender proboscis of butterflies designed to sip the sweet nectar of the flowers like a sailor who drinks his grog from a slender bottle. It was all perfect by Nature's design. And it brought him no end of delight. By far his greatest possession was a book on medicine called A New Practice of Physic, which his father had purchased from the estate of an elderly doctor who passed away from too much spirits. That book was like the Holy Grail to Neddy, and he was always diagnosing his classmates as having dropsy or scurvy or myopia, with the occasional case of chicken pox or the ague. His mind was never at rest and in this regard we were perfect companions.

(From The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton, due out in 2020.)

Monday, September 16, 2019

Why We Need Universal Truths in Literature

An Accidental Discovery

While I was growing up I never had a chance to see “My Fair Lady.” Actually, I probably had a thousand chances to see it but never bothered because I was always too busy, or I considered it irrelevant or boring. My mother used to watch it constantly, which probably contributed to my dismissing it as irrelevant. Finally after many years I saw it and was amazed that it portrayed a profound universal truth.

The universal truth was MARRIAGE. 

In the movie, Professor Higgins brings Eliza Doolittle to live in his house, but before she can stay there, her father demands “payment” from Higgins. This “payment,” I realized, was the payment the Bible refers to in Exodus (21:7-9) when a father sells his daughter to be a maid-servant in the home of a rich man. A payment which can be later converted to a bride-price if the man decides to marry her.

I was stunned. “My Fair Lady” is pure Hollywood, a version of the stage play “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw. The basic story-line follows an arrogant professor named Henry Higgins who attempts to make a lady out of a cockney flower girl. Yet embedded in the story is a universal truth so profound, it exists in the conscience of mankind on a level so deep it can only be recognized by the subconscious. It is as if these universal truths that comprise our universe have been downloaded into our souls, to exist forever, even if only in a dormant state, so that they can only be eradicated if the files are corrupted or the neuro-pathways are blocked.

That is the power of a universal truth; we recognize it even when we can’t quite understand it. It hits us at the gut level and reveals something about our collective human psyche. It allows us to live through these characters, albeit vicariously. It allows us to see ourselves through their mirror. And when we look closely, we learn something more about ourselves.

By definition, a universal truth is a truth that applies to all mankind regardless of time and place. It is an intrinsic part of our collective human soul. Without the existence of universal truths, we lose an essential part of our humanity. Without these truths, life begins to lose meaning. We enter into a state of anarchy. Chaos ensues, and our endeavors become futile, like Atlas who was condemned to hold up the celestial spheres for eternity. Atlas represents anyone who is burdened by a responsibility that has no meaning. Universal Truths supply the meaning. And what is life without meaning?

Good literature at its heart is about conveying universal truths through story. We perceive these truths in the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. Whether the character is good or evil, we see a bit of truth in his behavior. We learn about the world through his actions. We learn about human nature. We learn about ourselves. And by connecting to this character, we feel less alone. Ultimately, we experience his struggle vicariously, which allows us to release pent up frustrations, anxieties, and fears through his journey on the page. That is the purpose of fiction.

In a sense, this is what good literature does: it connects us to these universal truths even if only on a subconscious level. We know it when we read it, and that’s why classic literature continues to sell millions of copies every year. Truth will never go out of style.

Humans have an insatiable desire for truth

Humans have an insatiable desire for truth. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was customary for writers to place a Universal Truth, or a general statement of principle, at the beginning of the narrative. Think of the opening statement of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austin: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Or the opening statement from “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Nowadays, universal truths are embedded inside the text, in the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is shown, not told.

Just to give you an example, I will give you a universal truth from “Johnny Tremain” by Esther Forbes:

“Johnny felt he had learned a lot in his first lesson. A few more and he would have had no fear of Goblin (a horse). But there were no more lessons. Rab was too busy. He was teaching Johnny to ride as he did everything else—with a minimum expenditure of his own energy. Every day Johnny led Goblin to the Common, for it was quite a long time before he dared ride him through the narrow, crowded streets. And he sat in his manger and talked to him.
The idea that Goblin was more scared than he gave him great confidence and so did Rab’s belief in him and his powers to learn. He had always been quick on his feet, rhythmic and easy in his motions. He had no idea that learning to ride by himself, with a notoriously bad horse for one instructor, and a boy who never left his printing press for the other, he was doing an almost impossible thing. But one day he overheard Uncle Lorne say to Rab, “I don’t see how Johnny has done it, but he is riding real good now.”

UNIVERSAL TRUTH:  A hero is made by overcoming a succession of tests and challenges.

There is no doubt that adding universal truths to fiction give it timeless appeal. There are many more universal truths in “Johnny Tremain” and in many other young adult books, especially those by Ann Rinaldi. That explains the near universal appeal of young adult literature. In short, good literature connects us to these universal truths, we recognize them on a conscious and subconscious level no matter where we come from in the world. 

What are some Universal Truths in literature or film that you have discovered?

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Poetry Book Cover Reveal and Review

So pleased to reveal a new cover for my poetry collection as well as this wonderful review from the International Review of Books.

For the new cover I wanted a more evocative image that highlighted the flora of the region. Poetry book covers can be more abstract than fiction to allow the reader’s imagination to take over. Love this new design by Angie at Pro-ebook-covers which incorporates tropical flowers in an abstract design that is colorful, symmetrical, and truly evocative: 

Here is the review:
“Schiller presents her love story to the three islands of the former Danish West Indies in this collection of verse and art. The poetry is unintimidating and very well supported by the watercolor art of Skaidra Zayas. Ships and slavery, sugar and starlit skies pepper this collection of history and natural beauty.  The poems range from simple odes to native creatures to the deeper and more complex "Galileo’s Moons." For the reader unfamiliar with the islands,  Schiller presents a brief history as well as a brief autobiography.  It's rare to find a themed collection of poetry that flows this smoothly and naturally without the hint of stiffness or forced wording.”

Glad to have won their Gold Badge!
You can purchase "On a Moonlit Night in the Antilles" HERE. 

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
With me firmly 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 subtle tempos of perfection
The cadence rising with each beat
Like a youthful indiscretion
Beneath a starry night the song did rise
With rhythmic virtuosity
This Gypsy girl with eyes like coal
Filling me with curiosity
As we 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
This Gypsy girl I could not tame
With just one kiss she stole my heart
As we danced beneath the glowing moon
The music rising with each beat
It fused our passion with its tune
And when the time came for us to part
Our parting was so bittersweet

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 perhaps?) 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 page and was surprised when it caught 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 I 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.