Friday, February 27, 2015


I think I was prepared to receive a new book of poetry that deals with mythological and heavenly creatures through a visit to my friend, Betty Leblanc, yesterday. When we visit, we often sit on a sun porch filled with objects of art that include gnomes, fairies, and otherworld creatures, and I always feel as though I'm entering a cosmic realm that lifts me out of any doldrums I might have experienced before I crossed Betty's threshold.

So I wasn't surprised when I came home yesterday and found a form of "cosmic writing" contained in a new book of poetry published by my friends and editors Gary Entsminger and Susan Elliott of Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado. In the dedication to Wingmakers, poet Britny Cordera salutes Euterpe, the muse of lyrical poetry, and her imaginative poems will fascinate readers who enjoy Greek mythology, particularly myths symbolized by Urania, the muse of astronomy whom Christian followers often associate with the Holy Spirit. Greek mythological creatures are also illuminated by the illustrations of David H. L.Burton, a student of graphic arts and digital illustration who works in New York City.

The lead poem in Wingmakers, "Urania The Stargazer," sets the tone for this cosmic writing with the opening lines:"With dewish wand, I point/to the unborn words of wind-/driven ballerinas./I knew their stories before/my star-dotted lyre gave flight/to the fledged songbirds and carrions..." Readers feel that they're about to enter a world of heavenly heights typified by such poets as John Milton, who is said to have invoked the muse Urania for the writing of Paradise Lost, although he adds the caveat that it is the meaning and not the name he called upon to inspire him.

I was drawn to the poem about one of the creatures of the air—the butterfly—in which Cordera captures a "Butterfly's Nightmare." She alludes to the frailty of human existence through the butterfly's eyes, cautioning "...The dew/should/have told/you to tend/your weak laurels,/but now your satin arms cannot/carry you through salt-/less sky...You/learned/that M-/shaped insects,/buzzing in the brain,/live two moons before they live on/in memories."

Cordera's descriptions of plants and creatures combine earthbound lines with lofty lyrics that raise thought to the heights attained by Greek poets—even the lowly tumbleweed gets graceful press in "Tumbleweed," a poem in the section entitled "Southern Skies." As I once lived in Electra, Texas and viewed the action of many of these dismal-looking plants tumbling about, these lines by Cordera evoked strong memories of the west Texas plains: "Wind feeds your fate—/you cling to unclipped/wings and hurried feet/who claim home/to the many-faced moon,/for she knows/no winter--knows no/solitary among vocal stars..."

In the final section of Wingmakers, Cordera narrates the voice of owls, doves, dragons, birds that "in the seraphic forests guarding spoken word—/[are]written only on palms,/planets, and pupils of your ancient,/doubled ladders. They rest/upon shoulders of old cosmogony./This is your peephole/to the map/of constellations." She connects birds with varying cultures—those of Ancient Greece, the North American Indian, Aztec, and others, attributing their characteristics to the religion and culture; e.g., "Pavo the Peacock" who is described as having a "cape of blue eyes to see greater knowledge" and who, in Christianity, symbolizes all-seeing and rebirth. "As a mirror of Phoenix, you also represented resurrection, renewal, and immortality, for you gained new and more beautiful feathers every year. You guard divine secrets as heaven's vault."

I was also pleased to see that one of my favorite birds, the crow, or "Corvus the Raven," was praised as being "wiser than the old owl, you, Raven, hold the heaviest burdens and laurels upon your fragile wing, of any creature with beak and feathers." Cordera also refers to this bird as "the thief of light" who dropped the fragile box given to him by his grandfather and made the light break into fragments, which gave rise to an era of stars, moon, and the sun.

This volume of poetry, a lyrical recreation of the cosmos in celestial and earthly form, will delight those who appreciate the heights to which Urania can lift human thought and spirit when invoked by an author who understands the mythology of ancient times and the constellations of the heavens. Fantastical poetry and art in eighty-seven pages of "wingmaking."

Britny Cordera is a student of creative writing and religion at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. She has published in 13th Floor literary magazine and the international publication Forget Me Not. She also writes impromptu poems on a typewriter while sitting in Omaha's Old Market district and is known as the "Old Market Poet."

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

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Camellia along the coulee
In the middle of the coldest winter I've experienced in New Iberia, Louisiana in many years, I'm heartened at the sight of the lone camellia tree growing in my backyard. My godfather planted the infant shrub at least twenty years ago, and regardless of sleet, snow, hard rains, and benign (?) neglect on my part, this beautiful plant has flourished. At Sewanee, Tennessee in my second home, we know spring is on its way when we see yellow daffodils breaking through the snow, but here in Louisiana the camellias and lovely Japanese magnolia trees announce that we're on the brink of a season of color and light.

While I admire the flowering camellia for its beauty, I discovered only this year that the Camellia sinensis, or tea plant, is important because tea is made from its leaves. Also, in Japan, tea drinkers sip tea made from C. sasanqua leaves, while in southern China people use camellia tea oil for cooking.

Here in south Louisiana, one of the most notable growers of delicate camellias was J. Lyle Bayless, Jr. (now deceased), an entrepreneur from Kentucky who, as a child staying at a plantation home in Natchez, Mississippi, saw a red camellia growing in the yard of the old home and became enchanted with the flower. Later, when he accompanied his father on a trip to Avery Island, he watched E.A. McIlhenny (of Tabasco fame) demonstrate the art of grafting camellias. Bayless also became fascinated with the "Jeanerette Pink" camellia growing in the yard of the Joseph Jefferson mansion on Jefferson Island. In the middle of a winter similar to the one we're experiencing, he saw the pink blossom of this tree die, then return to life two weeks later. This "resurrection" convinced him that he should plant a garden filled with camellias.

Bayless owned the site now known as Rip Van Winkle Gardens and in 1952 cleared the land around the old Jefferson House and planted a garden with numerous camellia plants. In 1965, many of his prize camellias, along with azaleas and other plantings, were killed due to salt dust from the mines on the island stirred up by a hurricane. In 1966, Bayless employed Geoffrey Wakefield, an English horticulturist, to design Rip Van Winkle Gardens and for three years, Wakefield put in large numbers of camellia plants.

Clusters of camellia flowers
During Bayless's lifetime, he exhibited his camellias and won more than 1,000 prize ribbons at shows held in the southern states. He also hybridized many camellias, one of which he named "Elizabeth" after a relative. Although the Lake Peigneur salt mine disaster destroyed much of Bayless's gardens in 1980, horticulturist Mike Richard (and now owner of Rip Van Winkle Gardens) orchestrated the replanting of the gardens. Today, magnolias, azaleas, and Bayless's beloved camellias can be found along garden trails in Rip Van Winkle Gardens.

Avery Island, another one of the five islands near New Iberia, also has a plethora of camellias in its Jungle Gardens, and numerous yards throughout New Iberia are filled with the flowers of these early blooming trees. I enjoy filling bowls with the pink blossoms that my struggling tree (whose variety name I don't know) produces, and I've named it "Spring Festival" after x williamsii, cuspidata, a hybrid that gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit. Although this isn't the plant's real name, it should be because it has survived the neglect of its owner and continues to remind us that the festival of spring is just around the corner.

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan

Thursday, February 12, 2015


"No, serendipity is not an exotic dancer from Egypt...or a new kind of turnip greens either," Charlie Price told students in an Agricultural Journalism course I once scheduled. He explained that in their travels, the three Princes of Serendip possessed a great facility for discovering, by chance, or sagacity, valuable things for which they weren't looking. When they stumbled across something worthwhile, they always recognized it and wrote about it.

When we made a second trip to Lake Arthur, Louisiana this week, we discovered two notable "serendips" worthy of blogging. The first serendip, L'Banca Albergo, (The Bank Hotel), is actually a restored bank building within walking distance of the lake and park. An eight-suite hotel patterned after Old New Orleans architecture, The Bank Hotel stands in sharp contrast to other buildings on the avenue, many of which have been boarded up or windows blackened. The hotel boasts a wine cellar in its vault and a second-story balcony reminiscent of the French Quarter. The eight suites are spacious and well appointed, and the entire building is often rented to families that enjoy reunions with their relatives that they call "Love-Ins."

Lake Arthur, now a depressed village, was once a charming lakeside resort in the late 19th and early 20th century. Another hotel, The Live Oak Hotel, thrived and welcomed notable U.S. visitors until 1922 when it became the famous Lake Arthur Hunting Club, which no longer exists. Before Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with polio, he visited Lake Arthur during hunting season, and Dorothy Dix was another famous visitor to the lakeside town.

Actually, early residents in the area settled at Lakeside, across the lake to the south, but when freezes killed the settlers' small crops and orchards, they moved to the north side of the lake, and the village of Lake Arthur began to develop, according to Kathy Lacombe-Tell. By the time, my great-grandfather Marquart moved to the area, railroads and other commercial projects had come to Lake Arthur, and his land company prospered until the onset of the Great Depression.

In addition to The Bank Hotel, the town boasts The Regatta, a restaurant touted for its seafood dishes and lakeside ambience. It was built on the site of the old Wave Restaurant that was destroyed by Hurricane Audrey in 1957. As a teen-ager, I remember dining at the  Wave before its demise, and I've included a photograph taken of a painting of the old restaurant now hanging in The Regatta.

I've also included a photo of my brother and me on the wharf leading from my grandfather's home out to the lake where we're showing off a small catch of fish (and I emphasize the word "small"). Bass,
crappie, and catfish abound in Lake Arthur, and it's still a fisherman's paradise. Although I was only five at the time of the Flood of 1940, I remember visiting my grandparents and seeing houseboats submerged in lake waters. In later years, I read that during the storm of 1940, within twenty-four hours, sixteen inches of rain had fallen in Lake Arthur and thirteen oil derricks were blown down in Cameron. I have no idea why we were visiting the area during such a storm. As a postscript to floods that often inundate the Gulf Coast area, Bobby Palermo, owner of The Bank Hotel, says the old bank building has never flooded.

We found the second serendip near Lacassine where a large rum distilling operation, Bayou Rum Company, has been built on twenty-two acres. I'm not a tippler of rum, but I was amazed to see this operation that has utilized sugar and molasses from M.A. Patout and Sons Sugar Mill of New Iberia. Trey Litel, his brother Tim, and business partner Skip Cortese opened the distillery in 2013, and the $12 million investment has burgeoned into an industry that serves Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Texas and Canada. The state-of-the-art facility also utilizes another Louisiana product—satsumas—in the production of a liqueur.

Although the two sites I've mentioned weren't the objectives of my mission to Lake Arthur, they are landmarks that reflect some courageous entrepeneurship taking place in Jeff Davis parish and offer interesting serendips for travelers to the area.