Friday, March 27, 2015

JUST A TRACE OF MOON

After reading poems in Ken Fontenot's book, In A Kingdom of Birds, a young poet decided to use some lines from his poetry that inspired her to create a "found poem"—one in which she repeated words from lines of Fontenot's work that had carried a certain charge for her, then added her own lines to create a new poem.  However, when I finished reading Fontenot's In A Kingdom of Birds and Just A Trace of Moon, Selected Poems 2006-2013, I felt that I couldn't possibly be among those who wrote "found poetry." I'd be unable to incise any of his wonderful poems and create a new poem for fear that I'd lose some of the wisdom and delight Robert Frost says is inherent in a complete poem.

In Just A Trace of Moon, Fontenot deftly shows readers a wide range of subjects from a poem capturing the energy and capers of young boys in "Friends, 1956" to a profound piece entitled "Things Both Practical and Sublime." Through his investigations into memory and speculations about a "good life"—sometimes cryptic, other times, philosophical—readers experience "just a trace of moon" that provides new and translucent approaches to the real world.

I loved the opening lines of "Friends, 1956," which aptly characterizes young boys about to enter puberty who're filled with "...pure energy without wisdom." Although the time is set in 1956, the poem elicited investigations into my own memory of boys in the mid-forties—"the embarrassment of short pants/and short hair./ We were dust creased in the neck,/fingers around a baseball bat..." and a line not confined to boys of that time (every young person had dirty knees!): "We had green knees forever..." In his relaxed style, Fontenot captures the tone of past time in this piece about a halcyon period in American history, taking his readers back as "lovers of lost time."

Fontenot inserts classical musicians and writers into his work, giving readers a taste of Beethoven and Mahler and quoting lines from Goethe in "That Is the Way" to achieve the idea of the sense of balance needed for old age: "When Goethe said, 'Two souls live in me,' he must have/meant the angelic and the demoniac And he/lived the balance: he could take both into old age. /But the snake sheds its skin. That is the way/There is/no other."

My favorite in this new volume of selected poems is a nostalgic piece entitled "Back Then," in which Fontenot reveals his family's Cajun background and describes his mother's occupation as a "housewife" or "homemaker," relating how she crisscrossed the country with Western Union and "teletyped her way into marriage and 1946." The poem culminates in a touching picture of Fontenot's father ministering to his wife, getting her drunk for a toothache and later making iced tea because she felt "too bad to make it herself." Fontenot closes with the poignant end lines: "I know it was my father. /I know he would/have fought the whole terrible War (WWII) just for her." Some readers might consider this condensed sentimentality, but I read it as a tender portrait of married love.

In "Winter," Fontenot moves from the concrete to a larger, transformative context, describing the need for warmth on a winter night where he invites his mate to "relearn the tenderness of clouds, /how once long ago only the angels/could see whatever it is we see now."

Here is a poet who has come to terms with life as revealed in "Things Both Practical and Sublime," showing his deep philosophical bent when he combines poetry and enlightenment in a concluding verse: "The best we can bargain for is authenticity/and gratitude (even more than love?), /for the cow is grateful to the grass, each/showing its true self. So remind me to serve up/a meal of life, the main course of which is grace."

Fontenot reminds me of William Blake's wife's description of her husband as having one foot in this world and one foot in the next!

Although Fontenot's finest contribution to literature is his poetry, he donated his personal collection of hundreds of volumes of poetry by renowned writers to the Ruth Stephan Poetry Collection at the University of Texas. Fontenot, a native New Orleanian, now lives and works in Austin, Texas. His third book of poetry, In A Kingdom of Birds, won the 2013 Texas Institute of Letters award for best poetry book of Texas. Both In A Kingdom of Birds and Just A Trace of Moon were published by Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado, an independent press on the rise in the "world of letters."


Available from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, Colorado 81403.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

INDWELLING

"Indwelling," glass art by Karen Bourque
The latest acquisition in my collection of Karen Bourque's stained glass art is a piece showing Karen's concept of a cupola and flowers in my Grandmother Nell's yard, shown above. The rendering of amethyst, green jade, Carnelian, pearls, recycled silver jewelry, and stained glass will be photographed and used for the cover of my latest book of poetry, The Lonely Grandmother.

The gems in this piece of art symbolize calm and protection against fear, envy, and anger, as well as spiritual characteristics such as faith, charity, healing, and inspiration. I love the purple hues in Karen's interpretation of wisteria (plant of steadfastness) and in the cupola itself. Karen named the work "Indwelling" to denote indwelling goodness characteristic of Grandmother Nell.

We received "Indwelling" at Cafe Creola in Grand Coteau where Darrell Bourque (Karen's husband and former poet laureate of Louisiana), Vickie Sullivan, and I enjoyed a shrimp eggplant casserole (excepting me as I'm allergic to shellfish), spa salad, stuffed potato, and French bread, then went out on the front patio to sit in the sunshine and talk about our respective writing/art projects.

Darrell and Diane
Darrell is still performing readings as far afield as Ada, Oklahoma and closer at home in the Jesuit Center across the road from the Creola Cafe, touting the art of poetry. He says his work with the retired Jesuit priests is as satisfying as any work he has done in his career as a poet. He's presently working on another book of poetry that will include his work on Amédé Ardoin and outstanding Cajun musicians who have emerged from the south Louisiana culture. He's also a board member of an organization that is raising money to provide for a statue of Ardoin—a drive headquartered at NUNU Arts and Culture Collective in Arnaudville, Louisiana.

Karen showed us two volumes containing photographs of nearly 200 stained glass pieces she has created, sold, and distributed throughout Louisiana and farther West—pieces ranging from depictions of Madonnas to Grand Canyon scenes. The volumes include some of the most original and stunning stained glass art I've seen, and the accompanying legends about the works are as inspiring as the art.

Karen, Vickie, Darrell
Vickie Sullivan and I are co-authoring a mystery based in south Louisiana, and while leafing through the photographs of glass art, we found one, only one, piece that Karen hasn't sold. We enjoyed an "aha" moment as the piece will be perfect for the cover of the mystery.


A certain synchronicity of spirit is always present when we get together with the Bourques, and we're blessed with mutual moments of inspiration for the crafts we pursue. You can see from the happy faces of Karen, Darrell and Vickie, and in the photograph of Darrell and me (both always in black), sunning side by side, that Life is good and Art is binding.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

THE RAPHAEL PAPERS


Helen and Rose Anne Raphael, wife and daughter of Morris Raphael, New Iberia author and historian (now deceased), deserve signal kudos for spending the last three years since Morris's death sorting and organizing news stories, magazine articles, and the original writings of this chronicler of Acadiana and Louisiana. Helen and Rose Anne recently donated the Raphael papers to the Archives of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and the collection, along with Morris's 14 books, is now on exhibit in the Main Hall of the University library. The exhibit is sponsored by the Dupré Library Special Collections Division and covers the lifetime of a dedicated writer, project engineer, and artist.

During his lifetime, Morris and I teased each other about being members of a mutual admiration society, and every once in a while, he'd invite me into his crowded study to view some of the articles and memorabilia he had collected for over sixty years. He was a tireless researcher and historian and loved writing about Teche country—its people, culture, and history. He wrote fiction and non-fiction books, children's books, newspaper articles, plays, and did the artwork for some of his books, as well as for a unique collection of postcards. I know that organizing the mass of papers in his office was a task of love for Rose Anne and Helen, and valuable history would have been lost had they not been so diligent in making sure Morris's work was housed in a place that would appreciate this collection.

Morris and I shared equal time reviewing each other's books. Morris credited me with spurring him to complete his last book, a commemorative volume about the Civil War in bayou country entitled Civil War Vignettes of Acadiana. He died shortly after its publication during the sesquicentennial commemoration of the War Between the States.  

The exhibit at ULL includes seven glass cases of articles by and about Morris that appeared in the Daily Iberian, The Morning Advocate, Times Picayune, Times of Acadiana, the Franklin Banner Tribune, and other Louisiana periodicals. Copies of his "Bayou Browsing" column in the Daily Iberian are also showcased.

One of the glass cases is devoted to biographical articles and Morris's autobiographical books, My Natchez Years and My Brazilian Years. In this case, a handwritten copy of "Morris's Soup" and a copy of the naturalization certification letter for Khalil Monsour Rafoul, Morris's Lebanese father, are included.

Another showcase touting Morris's passion for the Shadows-on-the-Teche, a National Trust Property in New Iberia, contains articles about the Shadows, as well as the two books that are among my favorites of the books Morris authored: Weeks Hall, Master of the Shadows and The Weeks Hall Tapes. I think that Morris wrote the definitive biography of Weeks Hall, and I hope the National Trust for Historic Preservation will honor him posthumously for this work. 

My favorite fiction book written by Morris, also showcased at the ULL Library, is Mystic Bayou, which relates a story about German U-boats that operated in the Gulf of Mexico during WWII. Three of Morris's book covers are enhanced by paintings rendered by world-famous artist George Rodrigues, a native of New Iberia, Louisiana.

Morris received the Jefferson Davis award from the United Daughters of the Confederacy in recognition of his historical contributions, was inducted into the Iberia Parish Second Wind Hall of Fame, and received the Cajun Culture Award for his work in advancing Cajun culture. He was a member of the Louisiana Writers Guild, the Louisiana Historical Association, and served on the Council of the Shadows-on-the-Teche, to name a few of his civic associations.

On Sunday afternoon, Helen, Rose Anne, Vickie Sullivan (owner of Border Press Books, which published Morris's last book), and I will lift a glass to toast Morris Raphael, Master Chronicler of Teche Country, whose papers and books are now on exhibit at ULL. I only wish he could have seen the exhibit and joined in the congratulatory toast. But maybe he will.