Monday, February 11, 2019

A CUP OF JAVA


Imagine giving up your morning coffee because you blamed the fragrant, energizing beverage for causing digestive and other health problems on the one cup you consumed daily. Imagine the loss of morning joy and energy from coffee withdrawal. Then read about all the benefits of coffee, and you can envision how two months of being without my morning coffee affected energy levels for me — not to mention the awful headaches brought on by withdrawal from this beverage. But what a delicious return to this commodity; in fact, after crude oil, I’m told that coffee is the most sought after commodity in the world, and I’ll drink to that.

I returned to coffee after reading the latest health benefits attributed to coffee: improved energy (#1), lowered risk of Type 2 diabetes, protection against Alzheimer’s, dementia, and cirrhosis of the liver, helps burn fat…

Both sets of my grandparents advised me as a child against drinking even diluted coffee milk because it would stunt my growth and impair my thinking abilities. However, the scent of coffee brewing in their households was a delicious smell on mornings when I spent time with them for a week or more during summer vacations. Although my paternal grandfather, Emerson Lavergne Marquart, was of German descent, he had adopted the Cajun way of brewing good coffee after his marriage to my Cajun grandmother. He used a battered white enamel drip pot to make the dark French roast coffee that I yearned to taste as a child, but he forbade me to have even a demitasse cupful that he used to serve adults just waking up from an afternoon nap.

In my maternal grandmother’s kitchen, coffee was brewed only in the early morning, and she was the guardian of a pot that produced a wimpy, light brown liquid she claimed would keep me forever short (which I achieved without partaking of the coffee milk for which I craved just one taste). But, then, she issued health and safety bulletins at every turn to the extent that I'm still afraid to be in an indoor tub of water during lightning storms, feel that I must have my feet covered no matter the weather or locale, and, she emphasized, I must never mention that I had a bathroom call. In addition to the ban on coffee, she advised us to never drink wine as it would cause us to go crazy. It took me awhile to get over the latter admonitions, but I finally gave in to the idea that a cup of coffee and four ounces of wine daily wasn’t going to kill me or make me crazy.

Coffee consumption can be traced back to Ethiopia and a goat herder named Kaldi who noticed that his goats didn’t want to sleep after they had consumed berries from a particular tree. He’s said to have reported this to the abbot of a monastery who decided to brew a drink using the berries and discovered that the concoction would keep his monks awake to do their prayers throughout the night after partaking of this beverage. During the 18th century, coffee seedlings were planted in the Royal Botanical gardens in Paris, and a seedling was transferred to Martinique where it became the parent of coffee throughout South and Central America. And so it began…and so the coffee industry is now a billion dollar industry!

During the 1940’s, the musical group, The Ink Spots, gave coffee a new name through their song, “Java Jive,” a song so compelling that my father-in-law decided to use the term “java” on a trip to New York City — a famous trip in which my sister-in-law transported every pair of shoes she owned in a washtub and forced my husband to carry this shoe holder through the lobby of a hotel. As if that wasn’t enough embarrassment for my husband, my father-in-law took him to a dime store restaurant, climbed on one of those red, plastic covered stools popular in the 1940’s, and ordered “a cup of java and some flapjacks” in a loud voice. The Clampetts of the "Beverly Hillbillies” couldn’t have played hillbilly better, but my husband never visited New York City again. We only passed through the Big Apple (got lost and bought a cup of coffee at a gas station) on the way to a military assignment in Maine.

And for all of us who call ourselves poets, what would we have done during the Hippy or Beatnik eras had it not been for poetry readings at coffee houses? Even the Brits had their coffee houses, 300 of which existed in London as early as the 17th century.

Thomas Jefferson once acknowledged that coffee was the favorite drink of the civilized world, and I heartily agree. I’m feeling much more civilized since I resumed my one cup in the mornings. Viva Java!


Thursday, February 7, 2019

TREE TALES


“Look at the trees,” my father always said when an argument (usually precipitated by him) became loud and quarrelsome at mealtime. So we would pause and look out at the grove of pine trees in the backyard. Sometimes the sight of the tall, cheerful pines had a calming effect, and, more than likely, the harsh tenor of my father’s voice caused us to cease fire. As I grew older, I discovered that my father’s command carried a note of wisdom, and trees/forests became retreat places for me where I could “perceive tongues in trees…”* 

Yesterday, at lunch, a good friend brought us a copy of an article about trees in the March issue of The Smithsonian magazine that became last night’s reading. It’s an amazing article about the tree whisperer Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, and while I’m not convinced that trees really do talk to one another, I can imagine them sharing conversations. I believe the explication about their connecting by way of underground fungal networks through which they share water and nutrients, and send distress signals about drought and disease — mycorrhizal networks, the tree experts call them. According to Wohlleben, they also communicate in the air through pheromones and other scent signals, including scents through their leaves. 

Through further studies of trees in Hummel, Germany, Wohlleben was convinced that when a tree is cut, it sends out electrical signals like humans enduring wounds to their bodies! Although scientists aren’t willing to concede that trees possess a form of consciousness, writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, have attributed emotions and consciousness to trees, and I love all mythological stories about them talking to each other.

This is only a mention of the Smithsonian article, but it’s worth a good read — as is the book Wohlleben wrote about trees in which he features them talking, crying, panicking, mourning — all these human characteristics that he creates for them to illustrate the rights of trees to grow old with dignity and die a natural death, rather than a death imposed upon them by tree cutting.

I can identify with his sentiments, perhaps harking back to my father’s command to “look at the trees” which, as far as he imagined, preferred to provide us with an example of dignified silence in times of stress.

Last year in my book of poetry, Let the Trees Answer, accompanied by photographs of trees beloved by me, I attributed consciousness to many of the trees Dr. Victoria Sullivan, Karen Bourque, and Joel Fontenette photographed. One of my favorites is the Joshua tree, which I have written about many times after visits to my daughter’s home in Palmdale, California.


The poem ends with:

A few years ago I saw scarred arms
after a spring without rain
and a winter without frost,
deserted by orioles and wood rats
and their kind that lived
thousands of years ago
threatened by climate change…
spaces in the West no longer sacred,

the Mohave gaunt from too much light,
wind blowing through skeletal trees
and fading indigo in the sky,
white-capped Joshua trees
once thriving in seasons of health —
the golden air of California — 
destroyed.
After a long sunset, appearing again
with wider horizons, taller stalks,
higher manifestations of life…
angular and mysterious. 

Photograph by Joel Fontenette, Palmdale, California


*As You Like It, William Shakespeare


Thursday, January 31, 2019

CABIN FEVER AND POETRY AT CHICORY’S

Elizabeth Burk

You’d think that sensible people would stay at home on a freezing night and watch television or make a pot of soup or gumbo — they certainly wouldn’t drive for an hour from New Iberia to Grand Coteau, Louisiana to hang out at Chicory’s Coffee and Cafe where they could hear poets read. However, a good case of cabin fever was easily taken care of when we took that ride, ordered our gumbo at Chicory’s, and sat down to listen to the writers Elizabeth Burk and Sally O. Donlon. The event, sponsored by Festival of Words, also offered Open Mic, and Patrice Melnick, director of the Festival, asked me to read, but I hadn’t brought along any of my books, and I was happy to sit and listen to other poets perform. 



St. Landry and St. Martin parishes seem to be on the leading edge of music, literary, theater, and art events in south Louisiana, and I’m amazed at the proliferation of the Arts by gifted home-grown and migrant artists who perform in these parishes.

Elizabeth Burk, a psychologist who practices in New York, has tasted bayou water, returned to taste it again, and taken up residence in Breaux Bridge part of the year. Her latest book, Duet—Poet and Photographer, a collaboration with her photographer husband Leo Touchet, features a lead poem entitled “God Visits Louisiana, 1860,” followed by “Hush Over Atchafalaya,” and “Road Widow,” poems that reflect her fascination with the landscape and culture of south Louisiana.

She writes: “I am surrounded /by weepy trees,/ gnarled arms reaching out/over sultry swamps/where the murky deep rises/to meet the sky.” The accompanying photographs by her husband carry out the objective Touchet voices: “that each photograph and poem in the book have equal value.” Onstage, Burk introduced ekphrastic poems with blow-ups of Touchet’s photographs he placed on an easel as she read from Duet — an artistic device that enhanced her dramatic reading. Scenes and poems featuring New York, Venezuela, Mexico, Paris and other states in the U.S. provided international flavor for this volume of people and places featured in the Duet. Imagery in poems and photographs is doubly impressive.

Sally O. Donlon

The second writer, Sally O. Donlon, is in the process of creating a book and read three stories of the genre which I refer to as fiction/non-fiction/memoir, alternately provoking terror and laughter from the audience. O. Donlon refers to a “checkered educational past and holds an MS in Urban Studies, is ABD in Cognitive Science,” and is working on a doctoral degree in creative writing/non-fiction. A descriptive car ride, narrated by a passenger driven by an unknown driver who dumps her on a levee road in nighttime wilderness, mesmerized the audience, but the author quickly offered comic relief in a story about her experiences growing up next to a Baptist church in midtown Lafayette and her brother’s terrified bathtub exit when he sees, through an open window, a baptismal immersion at the church. 

Carol Rice

I’d heard Carol Rice read several years ago, but when she approached the Open Mic, I knew that we were going to top off the evening with laughter. Rice, who produced a slim volume of poetry several years ago entitled Fishing in Louisiana (“written, published, and illustrated by Carol Rice,” she announces on the title page) says she likes to “make jokes about things people take too seriously,” and “has three grown children, no more husbands or pets. Hasn’t had a smoke or alcohol today. [This is]my first chapbook, just in case I don’t get a chance to do another.” However, the little book is in its third printing and is delightful reading. The room was filled with something I call “lightness of being,” when she read. She’s a master last-liner as is evidenced in a brief poem about crows flying: “If walking to the mailbox, I disturb them,/they take off. There comes the soft fluff and fluttering sound of their flying close to my shoulder./If I had a dead chicken, I am thinking,/I would just throw it by the ditch for them.”

What a heartwarming way to spend a winter evening! Festival of Words frequently schedules these readings at Chicory’s, and this last one was videotaped to appear on Acadiana Open Channel. You can find out more by writing festivalwords@gmail.com.